Back in the day, with a click of her fingers Olamide Olowe headed to her happy place: YouTube. There, her favorite Black vloggers, like Beauty by JJ and Patricia Bright, offered tips and tricks for hyperpigmentation, acne and ingrown hairs, issues she was dealing with at the time.
Fast-forward a decade, the Texas native attended UCLA as a pre-med student with the hopes of one day becoming a doctor. But when Olowe realized her entrepreneurial spirit and passion for skin care, founding her own brand materialized as the clear goal. And Olowe did it — she cofounded SheaGirl while she was in college. After Unilever acquired SheaGirl’s parent company Sundial Brands, Olowe was ready to get started on her next project.
With her own skin concerns in mind, Olowe founded Topicals, a brand with products that feature clinical grade and herbal ingredients geared toward those with chronic conditions like eczema and hyperpigmentation. Olowe is the youngest Black woman to raise over $2 million in funding, raising $2.6 million total, and is backed by celebs including Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji, and brands, including Warby Parker and Casper. With only two products: $36 Faded (a brightening, clearing gel) and $32 Like Butter (a hydrating mask), the brand sold out at Nordstrom in just two hours for its limited release back in August.
“Topicals is built around creating authentic and positive conversations and a community around living with a skin condition,” Olowe said in an interview. “In our effort to transform the way people feel about skin, we believe building community creates a movement against unrealistic beauty standards.”
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Here, the founder discusses voids in the beauty market, the importance of community building and what’s next for her Gen Z beauty brand, Topicals.
What led you to start Topicals? What was the process like?
When I was at Shea Moisture, we did a beauty brand that was for young women of color and I really loved doing it. Then during my senior year of college, our parent company was acquired by Unilever. When that happened, I got to see what it’s like when a brand is acquired and how they use the money to help the black community. And I thought that is so cool. I love skin care. I love beauty. And I love helping my community. I wanted to do something similar.
I leaned into my love for dermatology and decided that it would be good to build a brand in a category where people were really underserved. I felt like people had been looking, like myself, I never felt represented in beauty. After graduation from college in 2018, instead of going to a job I had accepted, I was like, ‘I’m going to do nothing but focus on trying to build this brand.’
I pitched for two years to different investors, to different manufacturers and suppliers trying to get the brand up and running. Then I met my cofounder Claudia Teng through the process and her background is in clinical research. Then Topicals launched in August of 2020. We had to delay our launch twice. The first delay was due to COVID hitting in March and the second was during the Black Lives Matter protest when we shifted our marketing focus and our plans to donate to mental health organizations. But yeah, it’s been a whirlwind since then.
Both products are between $32 and $36 and are meant to replace several steps in a consumer’s routine. Why did you develop the brand this way?
As a person of color understanding socioeconomic classes and that not everyone has a ton of cash to drop on skin care, I wanted to make sure it was accessible to as many people as possible. They’re more expensive than drugstore products but they actually function as all-in-one products. Typically people are wearing five single ingredients on their skin to get the same effect that they would get from Faded. Let’s see each of those products was $10, then they’d really be spending about $50 or $60 on product versus with Faded, you spend $36 and you get all those ingredients in one. I wanted it to be super functional.
You recently launched early aughts inspired tracksuits in honor of Black History Month. Can you share more about that project?
We wanted to show that Topicals isn’t just a skin care brand but a lifestyle. For people with chronic skin conditions, we’ve never been celebrated by the brands we grew up using. The Bling Velour Zip Up is one of the ways Topicals celebrates funner flare-ups. In honor of Black History Month, we pledged to donate a portion of the sales to mental health organizations like Sad Girls Club and Fearless Femme 100.
When you first announced the brand, you created the Skin, Sun & Stars game and didn’t initially talk about what your products would be. Why is this sort of community building important to Topicals?
Aside from our Skin, Sun & Stars game, we also like to be active on social media by constantly being engaged with our audience. For instance, on Oct. 3 we launched our take on the “Mean Girls” Burn Book, where people shared beauty standards they wish never existed. Topicals is built around creating authentic and positive conversations and a community around living with a skin condition. In our effort to transform the way people feel about skin, we believe building community creates a movement against unrealistic beauty standards.
What does your everyday skin care routine look like?
I love products that multitask so I use the least amount of products possible. I use Fresh Soy Cleanser, Faded Brightening and Clearing Gel and SuperGoop Sunscreen. At night, I use Drunk Elephant’s Melting Butter cleanser and Like Butter as an overnight hydrating mask.
What’s next? Are there any new products coming soon?
At Topicals, we get excited about skin conditions and categories that the beauty industry has ignored. You’ll continue to see us create products and experiences for our community that innovate in taboo categories.
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