A Kenyan safari guide. A Hollywood costume designer. A world-traveling sommelier. In this series, we learn about the journeys people take to land the ultimate Dream Jobs.
For women of color, makeup shopping often involves searching high and low for products and devising DIY solutions to compensate for gaps in a market that’s not built with them in mind. It’s a problem Mented Cosmetics co-founders Amanda E. Johnson and KJ Miller know all too well—and it’s the catalyst behind their hit company.
Close friends since they met as Harvard Business School students, Johnson and Miller trace their entrepreneurial origin story back to an evening hangout in early 2017. Chatting over glasses of pinot noir in Miller’s Harlem apartment, they soon turned their attention to makeup—specifically, a mutual makeup gripe. As Black women, they both struggled to find a nude lipstick that complemented their skin tones. It was a practical concern as well as an aesthetic one: Both Johnson (who’d worked in investment banking and in business development for Barney’s) and Miller (a buyer for major apparel companies), worked in corporate environments and needed office-friendly makeup that was subtler than the bold and bright shades often recommended to Black women in the existing beauty landscape. “I had been looking for a nude lipstick for three years,” says Johnson. It was a light bulb moment for both women, adds Miller. “We said, ‘how crazy it is that we’re two women with disposable income we want to spend on beauty, but we feel like we can’t find brands that want to celebrate and prioritize us?’”
A business plan was born. Thanks to their professional experience in the retail world, they had an idea of where to start. They approached manufacturers and explained that they were looking to create nude lipsticks for women of color—but time and time again, the response would be that the manufacturer already offered pinks and beiges. “That is not a nude lipstick for a brown girl,” says Johnson.
So the pair rolled up their sleeves and learned how to make lipstick from scratch, stocking up on essentials like dyes, pigments, and molds, studying online video tutorials, and testing out formulas in their kitchens until they’d developed a range of shades they were ready to take out for a test run.
Next, Johnson and Miller turned to social media for feedback. They reached out to a handpicked group of Black influencers and vloggers—often times, the same people whose content they’d consulted when they needed product recommendations tailored to darker skin tones—and sent them their homemade samples. Their efforts paid off more handsomely than expected when those influencers started wearing and raving about the lipsticks in their videos and posts, garnering organic pre-launch buzz for the venture. After several more months of meticulous preparation, Mented Cosmetics (a riff on “pigmented,” to reference their mission to make fully pigmented products for women of color), officially hit the market in spring 2017.
At the outset, the founders focused their energies and inventory on the nude and neutral lipsticks they’d had so much trouble finding (along with natural companions like lip liners, glosses, and balms). They’ve since expanded their lineup to include a full spectrum of makeup, from foundation and eye shadows to blush, bronzer, and nail polishes.
In the nearly four years since they launched, they’ve made quick work of breaking barriers in the beauty and retail spheres: Miller (who is Mented's CEO) and Johnson (who is chief operations officer) are the fifteenth and sixteenth African American women to raise $1 million in venture capital (Black women receive less than 1 percent of venture capital funding overall), and this year, they reached an even wider base after brokering a major deal to sell their products at Target.
As they’ve expanded their entrepreneurial horizons, they’ve remained focused on their central ethos of inclusivity and visibility for women of color, and they’re also committed to producing premium, cruelty-free products. All of the items available from Mented Cosmetics are vegan, non-toxic, and free of parabens. Johnson and Miller see their emphasis on quality as an extension of their mission to cater to women who are underserved in the cosmetics market. “One of the things that was important for us was making sure that our customer knew she was deserving of high-quality products,” says Miller.
There’s another element of Mented Cosmetics that both founders consider fundamental to their success: their dynamite partnership. “There is no world in which I would be living this life without KJ,” says Johnson. “I feel so privileged to go to work every day with her.” It’s the difference, the women agree, that’s made this venture click in a way no professional endeavor quite had for either of them before. “I tried my hand at several businesses before starting Mented with Amanda,” says Miller. “They weren’t successful, but along the way I learned that I loved the journey, and the challenge of building something that other people could benefit from. In so many ways, I’m living out my dream.”
You Might Also Like