Oui the People chief executive officer and founder Karen Young just completed her largest fundraising round to date, but she’s just getting started.
When the Esteé Lauder alum conceived of the premium direct-to-consumer shaving and body care brand in 2015, Young, who also has a fashion background and had previously founded her own home and lifestyle goods company, was coming from a personal place, having experienced razor burn and ingrown hairs from shaving for years — something many people who shave have just accepted as part of the hair removal process, discomfiting though it may feel.
Having worked at large companies, Young had seen firsthand their struggles to connect with a consumer directly, which informed her research. “I certainly felt excluded from the conversations that were happening at the time. Shaving wasn’t a price point conversation for me — it was a ‘How do I actually help my skin’…I just felt really overlooked,” she said in an interview with Beauty Inc. “And so initially, the idea really started as a beta project. I went out there before we even made a thing and I just started talking about the problem. I started talking about the experience I was having in my skin and I wanted to see if others were as well.”
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Young understood from the onset that building an inclusive community would not only be core to the mission, which the brand refers to as the reconstitution of beauty, but also key to developing an optimized product that encompassed a range of concerns. “I listened to see if it was a problem that just affected me because of my skin tone. Because I’m Black, I was, like, ‘Is this a thing that’s just for me?’ Am I experiencing irritation and ingrown hairs as a result of the fact that my hair is curlier?”
It turned out she wasn’t alone, and conversations she thought would focus primarily on product efficacy actually segued into discussions around the politics of body and of choice.
“Early on, I started talking to women of Jewish, Russian, Polish, all different sorts of backgrounds and cultures. And they started telling me about how they were feeling in their own skin. So it sort of transcended shaving very quickly, but I wanted to start with this one product because I knew that I could make a mark on the industry. I knew I could create something that fit into a conversation and help to drive it forward.”
And thus, the cult rose gold safety razor was born.
Well, that might be a little reductive. In reality, Young then spent close to two years in R&D to create the optimal product, she said. “I actually sourced a razor in Germany and I tried it out in a few different lengths and weights, and I got feedback from our customers….I polled people to understand what was working for them. What was the handle length that was right? What was the weight of the razor that was the right one? What exposure on the blade was better?”
The next challenge was finding the funding and a manufacturer that would allow Young, who was running Oui from her kitchen table and fulfilling orders in the evenings and on weekends, to amplify scale. “It was not easy,” she said. “When it comes to fundraising, there’s a lot that has to do with the market conditions, there’s a lot that has to do with your competitors. You take all of those things, which are the ceiling, and then underneath that you add the fact that I am a Black woman and it just makes it very, very hard to break through that ceiling.”
WeWork’s NYC Creator Awards in 2017 proved to be a major turning point.
At the awards, which provided funding to innovative, social-first companies, Young pitched the brand on stage to a panel of judges and went home a victor to the tune of $180,000. “We walked away being funded. It was amazing. I pitched with literally a sample and I was, like, “This is what I’m gonna make. It is amazing and I just really want to take it to the world because I think women deserve more.’ And we ended up winning that night and I used that to propel our first bit of production run for [the razor].”
Oui’s razor has gone on to win more than 10 major beauty awards. The brand now also offers a shave gel-to-milk, an ingrown hair relief toner and a resurfacing body serum, among other items.
The Creator Awards’ purse was enough for the brand to go out and test Young’s theory that women were looking for more from their shaving tools and that Oui had a product to which people would respond.
This proof of concept approach became the brand’s blueprint for raising capital. “From there, I started turning the dial up a notch every time. We basically raised funds and then went out and proved certain things. And then you go back to the market with what you’ve proven and try to raise even more.”
Young took the funding from WeWork and leveraged it into a $750,000 round that included investors like the Comcast Catalyst Fund, which invests in underrecognized and diverse founders. She raised a few smaller tranches between 2018 and 2019, and at the end of 2021, the brand closed its largest round yet.
Raising $3 million in an oversubscribed seed round, the capital investment was led by New Age Capital with additional investment from Fearless Fund, Sixty8 Capital, Asia VC, Debut Capital and angel investors Julia Austin and Geoff Isenman.
According to Project Diane’s 2020 stats, Young is one of under 100 Black women to raise more than $1 million in venture funding. “We are so thrilled and absolutely excited,” she said. “The numbers are abysmal, but it also gives us an opportunity to go out and pave the way for any woman who wants to become [an entrepreneur]. It will give us an opportunity to really bring a sense of culture and inclusivity that has been missing from the category.”
Speaking of the future, Young doesn’t wax poetic about what she might do with the influx of cash. (Although she does hint that fans can expect to see more in the body care space from Oui upcoming.) Rather, she is eager to continue focusing on the key to her brand’s success thus far: her team and its mission. “One of the things that’s top of mind for me is being really frank about the emotional difficulty that I’ve been having and experiencing over the last couple of years. It’s been hard for everyone, and it is a shared human experience. And I’m just thinking about how we scale as a company, but with a lot of dignity and with a lot of thought to really caring for the people who are a part of the company and all of our emotional health.”