Sephora Adds Accelerate Participants to Brand Matrix

Sephora will soon add eight brands founded by women of color to its roster.

The retailer has just wrapped the fifth iteration of its Accelerate Program, a beauty founder bootcamp formed in 2016 with the mission of connecting emerging women founders with influential industry leaders.

In light of last year’s renewed social justice movement, Sephora shifted the focus of its Accelerate Program to female founders of color. And, for the first time since the program’s inception, Sephora promised to add all eight participants — Glory Skincare, 54 Thrones, Kulfi Beauty, Eadem, Ries, Imania Beauty, Hyper Skin and Topicals — to its brand matrix. Already, Topicals launched with the retailer in March.

Sephora’s commitment to the Accelerate participants stems from the retailer’s responsibility to Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge. Last June, Sephora’s offering included only seven Black-owned brands. It now has 14, counting Fenty Beauty and Fenty Skin as separate companies.

The retailer believes the eight Accelerate brands will “be successful” at Sephora, said Priya Venkatesh, senior vice president of merchandising, skin care and hair.

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“We pre-selected that,” she said. “We were able to adjust the curriculum to what is specific to prestige in Sephora because, honestly, that’s where we found the big gap. When [we] measured our diversity of Black-owned, or even people of color-owned, brands in Sephora and in prestige, we came up pretty short. We wanted to create a pipe[line] for increasing the supply of BIPOC-owned and founded brands. We pivoted Accelerate to focus on that and on brands at Sephora and prestige beauty at large.”

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Accelerate’s weeklong bootcamp program, which took place in late March, covered topics such as product assortment and strategy, branding, public chemical policy, media training, digital marketing, navigating leadership as a person of color, fundraising strategy, diversity and inclusion public relations, operations and supply chain and marketing best practices. Nancy Twine of Briogeo, Vicky Tsai of Tatcha, Janet Gurwitch of Advent International and Alissa Williams of VMG were advisers for this year’s cohort.

Having two women investors — namely, Gurwitch and Williams — as advisers was “a big ask,” but a necessary one as “finance is the part where a lot of brand founders struggle,” Venkatesh said.

“I was excited to have two female VCs on the advisory board,” she added.

Priyanka Ganjoo, founder of Kulfi Beauty, and Alice Lin Glover and Marie Kouadio Amouzame, cofounders of Eadem, all pointed to Twine’s talk on finance and budgeting as a standout session during the bootcamp.

“To be able to [hear Twine] speak to how she thought about finance, how she thought about her first finance hire, how she structures her team, brought this new level of insight to advice you could probably find other places,” Ganjoo said.

For Amouzame, Twine’s insights on setting up an economically stable business were priceless.

“When you speak about beauty and beauty founders, you always hear very glamorous stories about product development, shades and all the shiny things that we do, but finance is something that we all need to at least understand or master,”  she said. “Building a financially healthy business from the start is something that’s highly valuable. I don’t think any other accelerator teaches that.”

Alice Lin Glover and Marie Kouadio Amouzame, cofounders of Eadem. Courtesy of Sephora

Glover added, “You don’t need to know everything and have millions of dollars and have it all figured out.”

After the bootcamp came an Investor Forum Day, in which brand founders were asked to prepare an investor deck for feedback from Gurwitch, Williams, Hadley Mullin, partner at TSG Consumer, and Josh McDowell, partner at Main Post Partners.

And now, as Sephora prepares to launch the seven remaining brands, come the discussions of merchandising — a timely topic that has sparked debate following greater awareness of beauty retailers’ history of segregating Black-owned brands in stores.

Sephora has a Black-owned Beauty Brands tab on its web site. The retailer indicated a deeper consideration of its in-store merchandising practices when it released its “Racial Bias in Retail” study at the top of this year. Sephora seems to be taking merchandising cues from brand founders directly, according to Venkatesh.

“It is an area that is rife with lively debate,” Venkatesh said. “Some feel you should put [all brands] together so people can find [them], and it shows commitment. Some people — including brands, by the way — don’t agree with that approach. They think it should be customer-driven. And some brand founders are sensitive of being grouped based on their race.

“In prestige, it’s hard to group brands,” she continued. “A Danessa Myricks is very different from a Rose Ingleton. Our in-store merchandising approach is, we’re not grouping them together. We are putting them in a way we think is right for the consumer and for the brand story.”

Topicals, she noted, is in a Next Big Thing in Skin Care wall.

“Honestly, we didn’t think they’d be ready for that this year,” Venkatesh said. “We were planning for it to be online, but it was so successful, we made the decision to put them on the wall.”

The retailer’s in-store merchandising approach seems to honor what Ganjoo described as a desire by founders of color not to be seen as a monolith in beauty — a topic that has come up frequently over the past year due to conversations about the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and more recently, the rise in anti-Asian violence.

Priyanka Ganjoo, founder of Kulfi Beauty. Courtesy of Sephora

There is, Ganjoo noted, great diversity within diversity.

“I love that this year, the [Accelerate] program has eight different founders [with] completely different brand stories, completely different brands,” she said. “It’s just scratching the surface, but it starts to show how diverse we are and how many different brands can coexist. There’s space for everyone. I would love for the entire beauty industry to move toward recognizing that diversity is not a checkbox, it’s recognizing that there are so many individual brands and stories that can exist together.”

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