Nyakio Grieco is the founder of nyakio Beauty (pronounced Neh-Kay-Oh), an award-winning skin-care brand that has been leading the clean beauty movement since 2002. This past month, Grieco fulfilled her lifelong dream of launching online at Target, only to face a profoundly challenging three months. This story was edited for length and clarity.
Friday the 13th has a significant undertone to me. It was on that day that my husband and I were both working from home — he’s a bronze sculptor and also consults for restaurants and bars, and I work at home when I’m not in my office in New York. We were running errands and got an urgent call from our 14-year-old daughter letting us know that everyone was being dismissed from school. We picked up both of our children and stopped at the grocery store to stock up on supplies, as we didn’t know what we were facing. We committed to keep a positive attitude for our kids. We thought, We’ll hunker down, make dinner at home, and keep fear at bay while we deal with facts and not speculation.
Over the weekend, my husband, David, needed to be onsite at the club he runs in L.A. On Sunday, he said, “I don’t feel great.” We just assumed that he was overly tired. He decided to rest and when he woke up later that night, he had a fever. We figured he was run-down with the stress of everything going on and his concern for his staff.
Over the course of the next few days, his fever never broke. It was always around 100 to 102 degrees, and nothing we gave him helped bring it down. He decided to stay in my son’s room in his twin bed and the kids slept with me in our room. After three days, I suggested we go to an urgent care in our neighborhood. I drove him and was advised to wait in the car to mitigate risk of infection. More than anything, I hoped he only had a bad cold, but naively I thought to myself, Even if it’s the flu, then at least it’s not COVID. At that time, we thought if he had the flu it meant he didn’t have COVID. He wasn’t in there for long, and when he returned to the car, he told me that he had tested positive for Flu A.
I’m grateful that the doctor mentioned they had just received COVID tests and went ahead and tested him. Even though he tested positive for the flu, it was unclear at that time if you could have both. Of course, as a Black woman, I immediately wondered how many of these limited tests would make their way to communities of color.
The doctor prescribed a flu medication, but his symptoms were getting worse. His fever was not breaking, he felt like there was an elephant on his chest, and it was hard for him to catch his breath. Without my knowing, he even got up in the middle of the night to make sure our life insurance was intact because he was so concerned.
At that point, we still didn’t have the COVID test results back, and by day 10 of the fever and chest tightness, the doctor prescribed an antibiotic. On day 12, the day after David’s 49th birthday, the fever broke, which is also when we got the call from the doctor that he had tested positive for COVID. Our family went into immediate panic. I was worried for myself and my children; my son was a preemie and has asthma. Luckily, I was able to get an appointment for us all at a drive-through testing center. By the grace of God, the kids and I all tested negative for COVID-19. I had a follow-up blood test two weeks later — and, once again, tested negative.
My husband was fortunate to be able to recover at home surrounded by those he loves at a safe distance. I count my lucky stars every night. It was terrifying watching him struggle to breath. My husband is 49 years old, very healthy, and had no pre-existing conditions that would cause him to have a severe case. We are so grateful that he has recovered.
All of this happened in my kids’ first week of homeschool. So between taking care of my husband and trying to figure out how my kids were going to be educated online — all while running a business that I had just launched on Target.com — I was exhausted. There were lots of nights I spent quietly crying in the bathroom by myself and feeling overwhelmed. I really missed my mom in Chicago, who is usually a plane flight away. Due to the state of the world, we decided it was best for her not to travel. Reaching out to friends to say, “Hey, can you help me out with dinner tonight?” was not an option as I also did not want to risk exposing them.
It is a sad and true reality that systemic racism is a virus, too.
As my husband recovered, and we moved into another month of shelter-at-home, I was shocked to see the effects that COVID-19 was taking on our Black population. We went from not many cases in the early weeks to surpassing every other group by the thousands. Once again, the outcome was a direct reflection of the socio-economic implications of the virus. This compounded with the senseless deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd has been heartbreaking. I can’t put into words the grief that I and so many others are feeling. I find myself saying over and over, “Is it not enough that we’re dealing with a global pandemic with such disproportionate resources for people of color? That we then are also reeling from the tragic loss of life due to racism and brutality?
It is a sad and true reality that systemic racism is a virus, too. Watching George Floyd call out to his mother as he was taking his last breath shook me to my core. As a mother, it is my job to protect my children, but as a mother of Black children, I felt completely helpless at that moment. It’s so hard to look into your children’s eyes knowing that it’s still crucial to have “the talk” that my parents had with my brother and me. The talk about what it truly means to be Black in America and stay safe.
In school, I learned all about Martin Luther King, Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and the many change-makers who fought so hard for us. My father was an African studies professor, and studying Black history was a priority in our home. I live my life in deep gratitude for all the work these people had done so that me and my people would have freedom and equal rights. The compounding of all this violence has felt as if we are moving backwards. I truly hoped for the sake of our children that this would not be the case by 2020.
I recently used this analogy with my kids while we were discussing these terrible events: Racism is like a cockroach. There are cowardly racists hiding in the corners, hiding in their nasty existence. If it’s dark, you can’t find them — it’s miserable and ugly. When you shine a light, yes, you might be in fear, but it’s the only way to expose them. As painful as it is to experience this anguish, my only hope is that we all wake up. What we are witnessing is the dying of an old paradigm, of an old story. This is a virus we’ve been dealing with for 400 years. It’s time for it to end.
I’ve had a lot of conversations and I’ve been so moved by our friends, even those who are not brown and Black, who have stepped up and asked, “What can we do?” The most important thing is for people to understand the connectivity in it all. First and foremost, we all HAVE TO VOTE — not just at the federal level, but at the local level, which is where we actually have a voice when it comes to police chiefs, district attorneys, and judges. That is where we can make the most significant difference for ourselves in our own communities. If you want to help, vote for leaders that prioritize our civil rights and have a solid agenda to protect Black people.
From there, it is so important that we all work together to end generational poverty. If we were to do a better job as a society at providing resources and funding for schools in our Black and brown communities, imagine what could happen. Children deserve the best possible chance of success. By empowering them with a stellar education and the tools they need to navigate life, we are helping to level the playing field.
Some of these kids, given the opportunity, will be the ones to come back and create successful businesses, become elected officials, donate to programs to keep our youth safe, and be a voice to exercise change. It is all connected, and we have to do better. That has to start at the beginning with nurturing our children to become empowered adults. All kids deserve more than the generations that came before them and these young voters will be the ones to impact this change.
We also need to see more Black people as executives and in leadership roles. There is an enormous lack of funding for Black business owners and way too few Black executives and leaders within the C-Suite. By investing in us and empowering us in large corporations, we are then able to bring those resources to our communities and create jobs and opportunities for generations to come. If you want to help, hire more young people and invest in them to become future leaders. If you want to help, elevate us so that we can go back into our communities and do better for our people.
When we level the playing field, the power is evenly distributed. I used to work in entertainment and I left to start my brand in 2002 when not many were talking about natural skin-care or celebrating the sophistication of Africa in beauty. It was difficult seeing myself get passed up for promotions by my white male counterparts. By choosing to become an entrepreneur, I gave myself my own promotion.
By investing in Black and brown people with your dollars, you are helping to eliminate generational poverty in our communities.
I did not grow up independently wealthy. I had to take on investors in order to start a business. I didn’t know when I started that fewer than 0.2 percent of Black female founders receive funding. I’m glad I didn’t know that because I think it might have deterred me. I am hoping this awakening and this time of so many people talking about these issues creates change and gives Black women an opportunity to be seen, to be heard, to be funded. If you want to help, invest in us.
By supporting businesses owned by Black people, you empower our success. You’re helping us to impart impactful change. By investing in Black and brown people with your dollars, you are helping to eliminate generational poverty. It’s not just about buying products once and checking that off the list. That investment, that support, goes far beyond shopping. Share the brands’ stories, write reviews, post on your social media, do anything that you can do to let your circle know your commitment to building wealth in our communities.
Giving of your time is also extremely impactful. I decided to partner with Girls, Inc. through nyakio Beauty because I experienced first-hand the power of mentorship. I am so grateful for the women who have encouraged me, challenged me, and been my greatest cheerleaders. My job is to pay it forward. Mentoring young girls, especially young brown and Black girls, brings me great joy and allows me to dive into what I believe I’ve been called to do. If you want to help, donate to organizations like Girls Inc., which empowers young girls to be strong, smart, and bold through research-based after-school programming.
I cried last night looking through Instagram and seeing all these strangers posting about nyakio Beauty and other Black, female-owned and founded brands. I have never received as much support from perfect strangers in 18 years of being a beauty founder than I have in the last 24 hours. We need to do more of that and help to give brands and Black female founders the visibility and opportunities we deserve.
Being a Black woman in beauty, I was intentional in creating this skin-care brand based on my family beauty secrets from Africa, and also sourcing from other places like South America and Asia. I want to celebrate all women who are underrepresented in the beauty space. Anybody can use my products because skin is skin. But this is so much bigger than skin for me — and these recent events have reminded me of that. I am deeply committed to the success of nyakio Beauty so that I can support future generations. It’s all connected.
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