For years, Diarrha N’Diaye-Mbaye mixed and matched foundations and concealers to create a shade that matched her rich complexion. As much as she experimented, she mostly left beauty counters disappointed.
She was not alone in her struggle. Although brands like Fashion Fair and Iman Cosmetics have long catered to people with darker skin tones, Black and brown consumers are still limited in their options. Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty disrupted the current market when it started in 2017.
In 2018, Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye, 32, decided to create the product that she so desperately searched for: a light, breathable skin tint that would look like skin, but better. Last year, amid the pandemic, Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye debuted Ami Colé, a line of makeup specifically for deeply melanated skin, named after her mother.
By the end of the year, Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye was awarded the newcomer-of-the-year award by Women’s Wear Daily, the disrupter-of-the-year award from the fashion and beauty magazine Glossy, and the beauty innovator award from Refinery29. The brand’s mascara was designated as a “beauty editor’s pick” by Allure.
“I learned from self-exploration. The less makeup I wore, the more confident I felt,” Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye said in an interview at her mother’s hair braiding salon in Harlem. “Looking at yourself in the mirror and being able to have that confidence, I knew that we needed that for us and I knew it didn’t exist.”
She felt that she understood the importance of catering to Black women, because she grew up watching the effects of that care.
Growing up in Little Senegal, an enclave of West African immigrants in Harlem, Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye spent most of her afternoons at Aminata Hair Braiding, the salon her mother opened in 1989.
“For as long as I can remember I have been here,” Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye said as she gestured in the hair braiding salon that was slowly filling up with customers.
She usually finished her homework sitting close to a window next to a sink, often wearing a white blouse, a navy blue jumper with opaque white tights, her school uniform. A small radio, tuned to Hot 97, kept Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye company. Photos of women in different hair braiding styles — cornrows, box braids, flat twists, micro braids — covered the walls.
She watched Black women walk out of the salon a bit healed, if not armed with a veneer of self-esteem and several bags of Kanekalon braided into their hair. Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye wanted to replicate that experience for those who were not content with what cosmetics companies offered them.
In 2011, after earning a degree in English from Syracuse University, she moved back to Harlem. After several internships and a job at Temptu, a company that makes makeup applied with an airbrush, she found work as a social media strategist at L’Oréal Paris in 2016.
“As you can imagine it was very monolithic, like what they thought about beauty,” Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye said.
In 2018, Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye was recruited by Emily Weiss, who founded the makeup company Glossier, to work with the product development team. Ms. Weiss was interested in Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye’s approach to community and invested in helping her grow her own ideas.
“I remember thinking, ‘Let’s see if she’s interested in doing product development,’” Ms. Weiss said in an email.
Glossier served as an incubator of sorts for Ami Colé, because the company develops its products based on the needs of the customer, which they learn about through consumer research.
“The beauty industry, as with any 100-plus-year-old industry, has a lot of ‘No, that’s not how it’s done. You have to do it like this to win,’” Ms. Weiss said. “To go against that and do something differently is immensely challenging and doesn’t necessarily make you a lot of friends. But the industry is not your friend: the customer is your friend. You’re not here to impress the industry; you’re here to inspire people, create new ways, learn a lot and pass that knowledge along.”
Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye described her time at Glossier as a boot camp where she learned as much as she could about the product development process.
“There was a really steep learning curve,” Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye said, as she moved her long, jet black box braids behind her shoulder. “That was great experience, but there was still some type of soul missing. I’m missing the connection where I feel like I literally see myself.”
She resigned from Glossier in 2019 and began to dedicate herself entirely to the creation of Ami Colé. She attended the Cosmoprof convention, a trade show that brings producers, distributors and manufacturers in the beauty industry together. There, she searched for vendors that could create the formula she was hoping to bring to reality, based on surveys of more than 400 women. Most vendors were not receptive.
“Some people were like, ‘Fenty is our next appointment, don’t waste our time,’” Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye said.
She eventually connected with a formulator based in Italy and in eight months, she finally received samples, which she used as she searched for funding. Then, in 2020, the pandemic halted her plans.
“I thought, ‘No one is going to give you money now because obviously the world is shut down,’” she said. “I just didn’t know what to do.”
Months later, when George Floyd was killed in May 2020, and protests erupted across the country, she found investors were galvanized as well.
“Suddenly, people were answering their emails,” Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye said. “People that said no to me in 2019 were getting back to me.”
She was ready for the calls. Ultimately she raised $1.69 million in funding from angel investors. Most of the institutional capital came from Imaginary Ventures and Debut Capital, a fund that works specifically with Black, Latino and Indigenous founders.
Today, Ami Colé offers a breathable skin tint, a highlighter, meant to help achieve a dewy look, and a lip oil. Products are priced between $19 and $32.
“All I needed was the access,” Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye said. “I’ve been asking for the access for years now, which was never granted to me or people made you feel delusional or crazy that you had more to offer.”
It is a frustration that Olamide Olowe, the founder of the skin care company, Topicals, shares. In 2015, while attending U.C.L.A., Ms. Olowe, 25, co-founded the beauty brand SheaGIRL, in partnership with SheaMoisture. SheaGIRL was an experiment for the brand to learn how to speak to Gen Z, Ms. Olowe said.
“After that, I knew I didn’t want to go get a job,” Ms. Olowe said.
Like Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye, Ms. Olowe wanted to fill voids in the beauty industry by creating the products that she wanted to buy. But when she began fund-raising and pitching her product to retailers, influencers and investors, she was met with resistance.
“A lot of people pushed back on why this emphasis on making sure the products work for darker skin tones was so important,” Ms. Olowe said. “They just couldn’t see that.”
Ms. Olowe ultimately raised $2.6 million in funding to start Topicals.
“People used to always ask me, ‘How did you, this young Black girl, figure this out and these huge incumbents with cutting-edge research couldn’t figure this out?’” Ms. Olowe said, adding that it was a backhanded compliment.
Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye also had to justify the need for her product line to possible investors who could not grasp a beauty line that centered around the needs of dark skin. She often vets new investors to ensure that they are a fit for the brand.
“I hate tokenism,” she said. “I even have to ask myself, ‘Is this authentic?’”
Ms. N’Diaye-Mbaye is still pinching herself every once in a while. And she is learning to figure things out on the fly.
“I’m so overwhelmed,” she said, as her mother looked over at her in the salon, her head wrapped in a black silk scarf. “I wanted it to happen so badly and for so long,” she added wistfully.
“It’s crazy to me to be mentioned in the same sentence as Rihanna or Fenty!”