Tracee Ellis Ross prepared for the worst when COVID-19 hit.
“We thought it could knock out the majority of our business,” said the actress, activist, founder and chief executive officer of Pattern, her hair-care line for the curly, coily and tight-textured masses. Still in its first year, the brand had an exclusive distribution deal at Ulta stores representing 75 percent of sales, all frozen during lockdown.
Then in May, George Floyd was killed. “We were all in a state of grief and shock,” Ross said of the excessive police force that has also touched so many. She paused the brand’s social media out of respect for the moment, “to connect to the community I serve and celebrate—my community—and not be trying to sell something.”
She tightened the budget, shifted her marketing strategy, and delayed her Phase 2 styling product launch from early June until Juneteenth. The pivoting and pausing, “It reinvigorated the mission—that we were a brand centered around Black beauty, that’s a celebration of Blackness, and that we were not only offering product that really supports our hair in its authentic beauty, but an active space where we celebrate Black beauty,” she explained. “And that’s an aspect of the resistance, and the joy and fullness and wholeness of how we get to face racism.”
Even with the challenges, in its first year Pattern more than doubled sales targets, while also donating to organizations that empower women and people of color. In the last six months the brand has been tracking 300 percent ahead of financial projections. Not bad considering Ross has also been juggling work on her hit sitcom “Black-ish,” prequel series “Mixed-ish,” emceeing the second night of the Democratic National Convention, and negotiating a multiyear deal with ABC Signature for her production company Joy Mill Entertainment. Oh yeah, she was also nominated for an Emmy.
Beauty Inc caught up with Ross during a break on set to reflect on successes, pain points and lessons from her first year in business, and how the racial reckoning in America could at last upend the industry’s historic segregation of Black beauty and hair care.
You looked so fab at the Emmys the other night, that Alexandre Vauthier dress was amazing.
Tracy Ellis Ross: It was so much fun to get dressed and go somewhere.
I bet, I’m jealous! And you got to get your hair done with Pattern products!
T.E.R.: Well, I did my own hair, which is what I’ve been doing with my Pattern products all along. Truth be told, I’ve been using our styling products longer than the world has because I had the samples.
You are a year in, and what a year it’s been. How did you feel being a celebrity out front in these very difficult times?
T.E.R.: I’m a human being and an American citizen before I’m a celebrity or anything else. That holds the space for me. As an individual, I’m incredibly civically engaged and socially active. And already built into the foundation of Pattern as a company, we are not a political organization or social justice organization, but inherently, because we are about the celebration of Black beauty, we are political. So I did not feel pressured or weird or uncomfortable. I learned a long time ago by watching and following those who use their voices in ways I consider important that when you are a public figure o you have an opportunity to take the attention that might come to you, and shift it to places that are not necessarily getting that attention that need it. My only thing around that is to be informed, and to be honest about what I’m feeling and the discomfort and fear and allow the whole thing to be part of my expression.
How do you do it all…and remember your lines for “Black-ish?”
T.E.R.: I’ve always been incredibly organized. I like to work hard and I’m very scheduled; I have been joking since I was a teenager, if there is not a Ziploc bag or a file for it, I’m not sure I want it. I like to label things and know where they go. So my schedule is important, so is my sleep, but the thing that makes it feel seamless and exciting is the fact I’m guided by the same vision and principles through all of my things. It’s not like I have to become a different person everywhere I turn. I’m also not a micromanager. I work with an incredible team. I also have operational partners. I’m the majority owner, but I have partners at Beach House Group that support me. I get to benefit from knowledge of those who have done it before, but guide my own ship. And it’s a nice hybrid way to work.
Any skill sets that translate between acting, directing and managing your business?
T.E.R.: There is a seamless bounce back and forth. When I direct, it’s really confusing if I’m directing myself, because I act from my stomach, my gut and my heart and I direct from my eyes and my mind. But with Pattern, it’s a little more of this seamless shift between gut and heart and mind and eye. But when I start having an idea, it could be in a creative or product meeting, I get really quiet and stop talking and I always look off to the right. I just go somewhere! That’s how the shower idea for the launch came, and the launch photo that said, “Sometimes it’s all about the hair”—it just popped out.
Have you been hiring?
T.E.R.: We’ve been looking for certain people since the start and still haven’t found them. But we have made it work. What it means is a lot falls on my shoulders. The pipeline of the beauty industry, like in Hollywood where I have a strong foothold, is challenged. It’s not that the talent doesn’t exist, it’s that the way the industry is set up, people are looking in all the same places. What we have to do is open our minds. Maybe someone doesn’t have the experience, so you take a chance. It might mean you have to do more. So what? You might have to fill in the gaps as someone grows, the same way someone did for you.
What’s some of the detail work you’ve been involved in?
T.E.R.: I’ve discovered it’s all important—the touch of the packaging, how it feels in your hands, if the top doesn’t click closed, the fact the pump can’t get everything out of the tub. All of these things you pivot and learn on. When I was making clothes for J.C. Penney, I discovered pockets are expensive. That’s part of what comes up. That’s one of the reasons Ulta is such a wonderful retail partner. Everyone has access, because they have so many stores and doors, and it allows the price point to remain competitive and available to people. If it’s so expensive no one can buy it, what’s the point?
Did selling direct-to-consumer become more of a priority because of lockdown?
T.E.R.: There was a bit of a shift in terms of people shopping at PatternBeauty.com, but that was always important to me, that the site was easy to navigate and offered a lot of info and helped to redefine and change the paradigm to how we as a community are marketed to. The glossary of hair terms is something I wanted to do for so long, because words like porosity can be so confusing. Not only did we define them, but we gave them the poetry they deserve that matches the beauty and artistry of our hair.
What are some lessons you’ve learned?
T.E.R.: The biggest one, which is one of the things that happens when you are a celebrity brand is that people assume the products are simply for you, and are not going to work for other people. There’s been feedback people don’t think the products are for tighter hair textures than mine. So figuring out how to translate that has been hard and we continue to strive to make space for everyone to feel welcome. As a start-up, I want to be there and represent the brand but it doesn’t mean it’s just for me.
Also, timing. I pushed our original Phase One launch from May 2019 to September 2019 because I did not feel two of the products were there yet. I knew that was going to push the whole brand launch. And it was scary, there’s so many moving parts in the process, it’s like stopping an ocean liner. But for me, the effectiveness of the product was at the core of the brand and if those weren’t correct, we weren’t there. It was my call, just like when George Floyd’s killing happened, I woke up and said, “Stop posting!” Those are decisions I get to make. Sometimes they feel scary but they are important lessons in trusting my gut and instincts, and also taking counsel from people I trust.
That’s why you want to be ceo, so you can have that final call.
T.E.R.: Yeah, and it sounds so good, doesn’t it? Ceo and founder!
Since the subject of being a good boss has been in the news a lot lately, do you have any tips for making people feel heard and valued?
T.E.R.: I haven’t been a product developer, but I have been an assistant, and an organizer. At the bottom of it all is treating people as glorious human beings and having a sense of compassion for what’s happening in their lives. I like people to bring their whole selves to work, I believe in shared power and transparent communication. That means if someone comes to work and they are having a tough time at home, how can we support you, or is it better for you to go home today? It’s about making sure people are compensated for their work, and able to keep growing and expanding and walking toward what they want to do. And creating space where communication is open. I had a conversation with my assistant who is moving up because she’s so fabulous, and at the end, I asked, “How was that for you?” She said she was nervous. And I asked if there was something I could have done to make it better for her. Feedback is important, learning how to give constructive and helpful feedback on both sides because that’s how you grow.
Is the movement for racial equality making more space for brands geared to people of color?
T.E.R.: I hope so. Part of the reason it took me 10 years to get this off the ground is that there has been this historic misunderstanding and lack of metrics. It’s the same way it’s been such a surprise that people want to watch a Black television show or a film that tells stories about the Asian community! It’s absurd to me. But obviously structures exist and that’s part of what the Black Lives Matter movement is working toward dismantling. Racism is at the forefront of public dialogue now, but it has been here forever. Ten years ago when I was trying to get Pattern off the ground, I was speaking on panels about how Black hair care, which they called multicultural, was put in back of the store with no lighting. These are conversations that have been had forever. I’m grateful to be a part of them, and the dialogue around the Crown Act to end discrimination based on hair style. Part of the reason I created Pattern was to say, you don’t want to give me a seat at the table, I’m making my own table. Now all of a sudden, someone is saying I want some of what’s on your table. So how do we do that, and not get put at the back of the store?
What’s been most rewarding?
T.E.R.: I learned you can literally track a purchase and return customer and you get numbers on those things. So finding out we have a loyal customer is one of the things that has tickled me pink. It’s not just that people try it, they like it and come back and keep on getting it. That’s one of the things I have been saying from the beginning is there are so few metrics that support curly hair products and Black hair-care companies. It turns out, you don’t have to make people feel bad to get them to shop! You might not buy a brush seven times a year but you need conditioner and shampoo. The pandemic didn’t change that, and I was grateful to see that reflected in how our products are moving.
What do you want to do in the next year?
T.E.R.: Launch internationally. We are in process on that and have been looking for an appropriate retail partner. We have a Phase 3 of products in process that I’m excited about. I also have dreams of skin care, not necessarily starting with the face, but the body, which is a natural progression from the chemistry and formulas we’re already doing, because nourishing hair is similar to nourishing the skin.