When Olamide Olowe hit puberty, her once-baby soft, virtually blemish-free skin became prone to acne, hyperpigmentation, and ingrown hairs. "I've dealt with it all when it came to my skin growing up," she says. "My skin has gone through the whole nine."
Olowe, like many Black women, spent years struggling with her skin while feeling left out of the beauty aisle. "As I got older, as a dark-skinned Black woman, I felt like I never saw brands that truly represented me," she says. So, Olowe decided to make the change herself and pursued an education in dermatology at UCLA to better educate Black women about their skin.
In her sophomore year of college, Olowe joined an on-campus program hosted by Shea Moisture to help develop a skin-care line called Shea Girl. Through the process, she learned how to build a brand from scratch and soon discovered her entrepreneurial side. She decided not to pursue medical school and poured her energy into developing skin care instead. "I wanted to bring science to the masses," Olowe explains. "I wanted to create something that would be accessible, especially for people of color, and I wanted to do it in a way that was cool and fun."
A mutual friend soon introduced Olowe to Claudia Teng, who is now the brand's co-founder and chief product officer, and the pair bonded over their similar skin-care experiences. "I grew up with severe eczema," Teng says. "I was in the doctor's office all of the time, missed a lot of school, and skipped out on many sleepovers because I was embarrassed."
Teng, who also pursued dermatological programs during college, already had experience as a research assistant at the Stanford Department Of Dermatology. Together, they decided to make their dreams of an inclusive skin-care brand a reality. "When I met Claudia, we really started to drill down details of what the brand would look like, what the voice would be," Olowe says.
Before they worked on product design or cute packaging, the duo made sure well-researched, trusted ingredients were their top priority. "We knew we wanted to create a product for hyperpigmentation, but we knew we wanted to avoid hydroquinone," Olowe says. The ingredient, which is largely considered to be the gold standard in treating hyperpigmentation, has long been wrongly used as a bleaching agent, which is something many brands ignore, Olowe says. "Claudia is Asian, and I am African, and we've seen how these things can be dangerous, so we wanted to develop our products with extra caution," Olowe explains.
Teng and Olowe went through various formulating and testing stages until they landed on two hero items: Faded, a brightening gel with tranexamic acid and niacinamide to brighten, and Like Butter, a hydrating mask with ginseng root and colloidal oatmeal to soothe dry, eczema-prone skin. Each item is dressed in colorful, animated packaging that feels cool and inviting, compared to other science-based lines that can look very clinical.
Both women say that developing products that work on various complexions, including dark skin, was a huge priority for them. "As a CEO of this company, I would look like a clown if my products weren't safe and effective for dark skin," Olowe says. She and Teng partnered with a team of dermatologists, chemists, and a beta-test group to make sure Topicals lived up to its standards. "We formed a group of testers of different backgrounds and skin tones to test our formula," Teng explains. "Beyond efficacy, we were able to learn what our community wanted in their products."
Olowe says that testing on a diverse group of people is an often-forgotten part of the inclusivity process that many brands tout. "It's one thing to feature a diverse set of models in your campaign, and it's another thing to be inclusive in every step of the process from formulation, testing, and developing," she explains.
Topicals officially launched in August after experiencing COVID-19 production delays, an unexpected challenge on the brand's long list of roadblocks. Before even hitting online shelves, Olowe and Teng spent two years grinding away and pitching Topicals to potential investors. "It took a long time before we were able to secure the cash we needed to build this brand," says Olowe. "We were able to build what we had on such a small budget, and I am proud of that."
Their experience in securing funding isn't unusual. According to a 2016 study, Black female business founders receive just 0.2% of venture capital funding. "We've heard 'Oh you guys are so small' so many times," Olowe says, adding that the pair, who are both 23, encountered ageism and racism when talking to venture capitalists. "I've gotten comments about my name being hard to pronounce and many other microaggressions."
But ultimately, Olowe says that those challenges and trials only made Topicals stronger. "I am grateful for those who said 'no' because now we have the absolute best people on our team who are not only influential people in the industry but are also Black women," she says.
"We must shift the conversation and emphasize that skin is fluid, just like we are."
Claudia Teng, Co-Founder of Topicals
Topicals has since gone on to secure high-profile investors like Hannah Bronfman, Netflix CMO Bozoma Saint John, and Emmy-nominated Insecure stars Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji. The organization's cap table, which details its ownership and investor equity, is also made up of mostly women. "If I am going to make anyone wealthy from my company, it's going to be women in my community, especially women who look like me," Olowe says. "It's important that the people who are making money from your company are invested in your success. It's a crucial component to making sure we all succeed."
Olowe and Teng are equally committed to creating positive, authentic discussions about skin conditions and how they impact mental health. The brand has pledged to donate 1% of its profits to mental health organizations and has donated over $10,000 to date. "When you have a skin condition, there's a lot of embarrassment and shame that can come with it," Teng says. "The way that society views beauty and appearance can make dealing with a skin condition much more emotionally taxing for many people."
It's why Teng says that Topicals isn't in the business of changing skin, but instead changing the way the world feels about skin. "We must shift the conversation and emphasize that skin is fluid, just like we are," she says."It's not about being perfect, but understanding that you'll have this skin for the rest of your life, and you should embrace it in all stages."
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