'As Black women, we've been doing a lot. It's time that people honor us': 241 Cosmetics co-founders Feven and Helena on shaping the beauty industry

·5 min read

My Beauty, My Way is a video series hosted by Yahoo Life beauty director Dana Oliver, where women of different ages and backgrounds break down their beauty routines to explain what beauty truly means to them and how it represents their cultural identity.

The global beauty industry is worth $532 billion dollars and is projected to reach $800 billion by 2025 — that’s a lot of money spent on cosmetics!

When it comes to Black buying power alone, this demographic has the U.S. ethnic hair and beauty market on lock — purchasing $54 million of the $63 million total industry spend in 2017. And according to a Nielsen report, Black consumers outspend other groups when it comes to general beauty with $473 million in total hair care (a $4.2 billion industry), $127 million out of $889 million on grooming aids and $465 million on skincare ($3 billion total).

These numbers clearly illustrate the vast amount of money Black shoppers pour into the beauty industry. Yet, entrepreneurs like Sharon Chuter (Pull Up for Change initiative) and Aurora James (15 Percent Pledge) are hard at work dismantling systemic racism that results in an overwhelming lack of Black representation within corporate beauty and substantial underfunding of Black-owned businesses.

A 2016 digitalundivided study uncovered that Black women founders account for 0.2 percent of venture capital funding. While that number is grim, Feven and Helena Yohannes are proof that it is possible to fully fund your own company and be successful.

The twin sisters are the co-founders of 241 Cosmetics, a collection of cruelty-free and hypoallergenic lipsticks, lip glosses, eyeliners, eyeshadow and mascara inspired by the “beautiful, resilient women” of their native country Eritrea.

Resiliency is definitely embedded within us ... it's in our DNA. And that's why we always say that our story really began before we were ever born. Feven Yohannes

As political refugees who were born in Sudan in the 1980s and immigrated to the U.S. when they were just 4 years old, Feven and Helena held strong to their East African roots — and their beauty brand is one way they choose to honor their ancestors.

When the duo decided to lay the groundwork for 241 Cosmetics back in 2016, they took their own cash, no loans and started the business. This meant putting “vacations on layaway,” temporarily operating out of late rapper Nipsey Hussle’s co-working space and taking on full-time jobs. The payoff? Not having to answer to investors who don’t align with their core values.

“Fully funding our business took quite some time, but we did it our way,” says Helena. “We inherently know that being Black women, we’re so resilient — it's in our bloodline. The obstacle became an opportunity to grow ... to prove it to ourselves and to inspire a community of incredible women who have inspired us.”

Spending or investing in us is not charity, it's just good business. That's the bottom line. Helena Yohannes

241 Cosmetics’ makeup shades are classic like the lipstick Red Sea (a nod to the body of water along their motherland’s coastline and the lip color their mother wore as a nurse) and chic like the lipgloss Asmara, which is named after Eritrea’s capital city. They’ve also created a deep black liquid eyeliner called Wing It! to acknowledge makeup’s history in ancient Egypt.

Helena and I love being Black and we love being African. I love being able to point to a map and know where I'm from. That is a privilege and we’re aware of that. Feven Yohannes

Helena tells Yahoo Life that she and her sister “were very intentional about pulling colors that represented the effortless beauty of that region of the world that is largely ignored.” Their goal is to use beauty as a vessel to connect and shine a spotlight on a country that is overshadowed. She explains, “That's something that we can identify with as women of color. We've been marginalized, we've been overlooked.”

Doing it their way and together has paid off, especially during the pandemic when many businesses are struggling. Processing orders direct-to-consumer out of their downtown Los Angeles loft, Feven says, “We actually saw an increase in sales. Our store actually sold out twice since coronavirus.”

Beauty icon Bobbi Brown, who is a fan of 241 Cosmetics, revealed on Instagram in July that she would be mentoring the sisters. This is an example of what Helena believes “banding together and mobilizing” as a collective to recognize that “spending or investing in us is not charity, it's just good business. That's the bottom line.”

For the CEOs, brands and retailers that really want to implement good business and support Black-owned businesses, Helena has this message: “As Black women, we've been doing a lot. It's time that people honor us.”

Follow 241 Cosmetics on Instagram and keep up with Feven and Helena’s journey on social media.

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