olamide olowe
Skin

This Beauty Entrepreneur Raised $2.6 Million Before Her 24th Birthday

Meet Topicals co-founder Olamide Olowe.

It is not an inconsequential thing to catch the eye of venture capitalists, especially as a woman. Olamide Olowe knows this. But the Topicals co-founder also happens to be the youngest Black woman to ever raise over $2 million in funding ($2.6 million, to be exact), which is precisely the type of thing that makes people in the beauty space—and beyond—sit up and take notice.

“I’m extremely humbled, to say the least, because it took a long time to get here,” she says of her ascent in the beauty world in the last few years, starting with SheaGIRL, a brand she co-founded and sold to Unilever after they acquired Sundial Brands. “So many people told me that this was a bad idea. That nobody would want it and there were too many beauty brands. So it’s really great to see how it is resonating with our community.”

Since launching the skin-care brand in August of last year with co-founder Claudia Teng, Topicals has resonated not only with retailers like Nordstrom and Sephora (which just accepted the brand into its Accelerate incubation program), but also with customers, who have helped their products sell out within hours. The dark-spot-eliminating Faded gel and hydration-boosting Like Butter mask are Topicals’ star products (and the only beauty SKUs to date), along with its new velour logo jacket which channels the aughts in the best way possible and a tube key to squeeze out every last drop of product.

Efficacy is the name of the game for Olowe and Teng, who are taking the less-is-more approach to deliver products that work hard so their users won’t have to. “Targeted solutions are replacing the multiple steps and multiple products that people have to buy to get the buzzy ingredients,” Olowe says. “All of our products have eight-plus active ingredients in them because I’m a utility person and I’m all about functionality.” It’s a contrast to the multi-step routines that have long pervaded the beauty industry, and customers are eating it up, eager to embrace a more simplified approach to skin care.

Olowe is not new to this, but true to this—to beauty and entrepreneurship, that is. As a true groundbreaker in both spaces, she doesn’t take her position as a trailblazer lightly and is working hard to ensure that she isn’t a rarity. “I’m working with other entrepreneurs who are trying to get funding to continue to push this narrative forward,” she says. “For me, it was a very difficult journey. So many people see me now and think, ‘This woman just burst on the scene and she’s an overnight success.’ But it’s been a lot of time coming to get to the point that I am at now.”

We talked to Olowe about what 2021 will mean for Black women in business, how she and Teng have built the Topicals community, how the brand is planning to show up and support the Asian-American community amidst the rise in hate crimes, and more.


olamide olowePhoto: Courtesy of Topicals
On how she’s feeling about beauty right now:

“I think it’s really exciting because a lot of women like myself have worked really, really hard for a long time without any recognition. I say it all the time—we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and giants who have paved the way for us to have the opportunities we have. One thing about me is I never take them for granted because I celebrate, but I never fully bask in it. I know at any point you can lose the opportunity by people going back to the same old ways of doing things or if you mismanage the opportunity and fail to really take advantage of the spotlight.

“I really love to keep my head down and work and really be keyed into our community. The thing is it’s not about me, and it’s not even about being a Black-owned brand that gets notoriety. It’s about using that notoriety to serve my community. Right now that’s Black women, Black people, people of color, and people who have skin conditions that typically haven’t been seen in the beauty industry. I focus a lot more on what things I can do to elevate them versus ‘Yay me, look at what I’ve done.’”

On the overwhelming reception to Topicals:

“It’s really great to see how it is resonating with our community. When you serve underserved consumers, they support you and vote with their dollar. I’m so excited to be leading a brand like Topicals since it’s a brand that I wish existed when I was younger. I’m honored, and honestly, I’m having all the feels.”

olamide olowePhoto: Courtesy of Topicals
On the formulas that are making her brand a hit:

“Our product philosophy is about having targeted solutions. I don’t like super-complicated routines because I don’t have the time and don’t have the patience. I was really excited when we created Faded and Like Butter because they replaced all the steps that you would need to get those same results with many more products. [For Faded] we include ingredients like tranexamic acid, licorice root, azelaic acid, and melatonin. And for Like Butter, we’re incorporating centella asiatica, green tea, and oatmeal.

“We’ve seen that in order to help with these skin conditions, you need a multi-step approach where you’re targeting the reason why these skin conditions happen. For example, with hyperpigmentation, you need to stop hyperpigmentation in its tracks as it’s forming. You need to also help to remove the extra deposited pigment, and then you need to prevent any new formation of hyperpigmentation. So you have to come at these things with multiple ingredients, and that’s what we’re becoming popular for.”

Her advice for young women looking to step into entrepreneurship:

“The number one thing to remember is that no one can deny you if you have a community that’s backing you. I tell everyone to work on true community building and not just from the point of view of followers or your personal brand. But do you really know your customers? Do you know what makes them tick, what they want, and what they don’t like? That’s super important, and I don’t think enough people spend time having empathy for their customer and really understanding who their customer is. I’m obsessed with consumer behavior, and I study our customers to make sure that we can build a brand that really, truly represents them and fulfills their needs.

“The other thing is believing in your unique insight. I spoke recently on a panel with KNC beauty and made sure to mention that Black women have unique insight—particularly in beauty, where we’ve been pioneers and we’ve never gotten the credit for it. I think sometimes that allows us to even discredit ourselves and say, ‘Oh, it’s not for me’ instead of realizing we’re the originators. Standing in your power, standing in your truth, and surrounding yourself with other smart women, men, and people who can really support you is my best piece of advice.”

olamide olowePhoto: Courtesy of Topicals
How other Black women entrepreneurs can follow her lead:

“I do not want to be the only one or one of the few for long. My advice is to be able to tell investors why you’re the absolute perfect person to build your business. That points back to Black women really standing in their truth and their power.

“There is data around why this market matters, and people are starting to understand that the Black dollar, women, and underserved communities are niche demographics that actually hold a really large spending power, and they don’t want to miss out on that. You should also be very prepared. I read a ton of books to make sure that I understand and know what investors are talking about and how to speak their lingo. My mother always says, ‘Stay so you don’t have to get ready.’”

On scaling Topicals and how other Black business owners can approach expansion after a year of groundbreaking sales:

“At the end of the day, your customers are who you should be serving. As brands grow, sometimes the stakeholders change, whether those are investors or retailers. For us, it’s about doing our best to continue to serve our customers because they got us here and will get us where we’re going in the future. We’ve been really intentional about supporting the customer, not only on a transactional basis around product, but also in other ways. So many brands only interact with their customers on a sales basis, but we are trying hard to build other points of connections to our customer. That’s how you truly scale a brand that’s going to stand the test of time—by building a real relationship. We built a community before we even launched because you need to get to know your customers and they need to get to know you and what you stand for.”

How Topicals is showing up for the Asian-American community:

“When you’re a Black woman, as the leader of the company, your existence is political. So it’s impossible for me to then look at another community, like the Asian community, that’s dealing with this kind of xenophobia, and ignore it. Our brand mission has always been somewhat political because I think access to care for dermatology has been political and so has access to clinical trials that represent people of color, as 75 percent of them do not represent us.

“It’s important for us to share our feelings on that because we actually delayed our launch when the Black Lives Matter protest was happening last summer. There are Asian-Americans working at Topicals, so it’s even more important for us to lend our voice to this. Where we always take caution is making sure that what we’re saying is not performative, so that it is actually going to impact the community [like donating to the Asian Mental Health Collective] or really shed light in a new way. We are not always going to be the first to say something because we really do take time internally to group on our message. But as our company is made up of between 80 percent and 90 percent people of color, it’s imperative for us.”
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