Madam C.J. Walker is an unfamiliar name to most Americans, but she is often identified as the first black female millionaire in the United States. She amassed her fortune in the early-20th century by selling her own hair and beauty line after a scalp ailment that was likely related to the harsh chemicals in conventional products led Walker to formulate her own.
As the French would say: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Today, issues of race and gender are at the forefront of our national discourse, and two women of color in Boston—a place with a complex history on racial matters—have emerged as successful entrepreneurs and leaders in the city’s beauty industry. Gianne Doherty, who co-founded Organic Bath Co., and Charla Jones, who founded natural skin care line eu2be, both rely on natural botanical ingredients in their products—a tradition that’s deeply ingrained in black culture and one that just so happens to be taking off in mainstream beauty circles right now. It’s a coincidence they both hope to capitalize on, shedding the perception that skin color should be the overriding factor in how you choose your beauty products.
“Black women have always known how effective natural oils are,” Jones says. “We’ve been using them for generations.”
Doherty recalls her mother taking aloe from her garden to soothe her skin. “I grew up knowing the power of plants,” she says.
There’s a rich, centuries-old tradition among black women to carefully moisturize and protect their skin. As Jones puts it, “When dark skin is dry, it looks ashen, and black women have always sought to avoid that.” So what Jones and Doherty are doing is not much different than what their ancestors did—but now they’re bringing it into the retail space.
Jones was born and raised in Ohio, where her maternal grandmother ran a speakeasy that hosted jazz and blues greats like B.B. King. Her aunt Eugenia, for whom she named her company, was a seminal influence. A glamorous world traveler, she instilled in Jones the importance of looking after her skin. “My aunt loved the old Kiehl’s products. They had a scent that she adored,” she says. “So I used them, too, until Kiehl’s went mass market and they changed the formula.”
After a successful career in digital marketing, Jones established her brand in 2014, seeking the help of a chemist to formulate products that employ a combination of natural oils and a naturally derived preservative to prolong the products’ shelf life.
“Skin is a living, breathing organ,” she says. “It’s different every day. With my products, we start with a cleanser that doesn’t deplete skin of its natural moisture, and then we move on to lotion, which hydrates the skin, and oil, which protects it. I’m very particular about the types of oils I use, like sunflower seed and apricot, because no one wants to feel greasy.”
Many of Jones’ botanicals such as babassu, tamanu and nangai are sourced from Brazil with the hope that they can deliver long-lasting results. “Anything can make your skin look and feel good for 20 minutes. The goal is for it to last. There are up to 40 layers of flattened skin cells that make up your first layer of defense, and the goal is to penetrate them.”
As for her products’ fragrance, Jones once again pays homage to her aunt Eugenia, who arrived home from a trip to Paris with a bottle of Jean Patou 1000 and immediately declared it the “family scent.” For eu2be, Jones has formulated a subtle, unisex fragrance as a tribute to Patou, with top-notes of sandalwood, cedarwood and wild fig.
“My customers are very thoughtful and considered,” she says. “They read the label and see that it’s a much more substantial product. I see beauty as a creative force that we can tap into daily to empower a sense of wellbeing.”
Gianne Doherty was inspired to start Organic Bath Co. when her old standby product began irritating her skin. Growing up the daughter of a U.S. diplomat, she lived all over the world, but one constant was that her mother, a native of Belize, never failed to moisturize head to toe.
“My mom was always putting shea butter or oil directly onto her skin, and she used aloe for everything,” Doherty recalls. When she became an adult, Doherty began using the luxury line La Mer.
“I bought into the whole La Mer story, but then my skin started reacting to the fragrance and other ingredients. I started getting hives.”
After a successful career in staffing, she moved to Boston from New York in 2012 and with her partner, Jay Weeks, co-founded Organic Bath Co. to provide a cleaner, more natural alternative to the beauty products on the market.
“Women of color in general are marketed more toxic beauty products, from things like hair straighteners and skin-whitening cream,” she notes, citing a study by the Environmental Working Group. Echoing a sentiment expressed by Jones, Doherty suggests that black women also spend more than white women on beauty products and skin creams. “I want all women to be healthier, but I do feel a responsibility to communicate the toxic aspects of beauty products, especially to women of color.”
Following that edict, Organic Bath Co. sources many of its natural ingredients carefully. Its shea butter comes from Ghana, a country where Doherty lived for a time as a kid. “It’s one of the most emollient, healing ingredients. It turns out my mom was right!”
As for operating as minority women in a notoriously cutthroat and competitive industry, Doherty and Jones say that being an entrepreneur is difficult no matter what, making it impossible to separate out what challenges and difficulties they’ve faced because of their race or gender. Both also agree that they don’t see a lot of black women represented within the beauty industry.
“I’m operating on the Martin Luther King Jr. idea of judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, but it sometimes feels like this industry is still operating in the Jim Crow South,” Jones says. “The problem is that the moment you voice that, you get put in the ‘Angry Black Woman’ category.”
Major beauty giants risk alienating black women at their own peril, as two recent incidents illustrate. Last year, SheaMoisture, an international brand that’s nearly a century old and is supported primarily by black women, stirred up controversy by “whitewashing” an ad campaign. The company—which was formerly black-owned but is now part of Unilever—said that it was trying to grow its customer base regardless of skin color. Dove, meanwhile, was forced to publicly apologize last year for an ad that was widely considered offensively racist. While those instances show just how far the beauty industry has to go in terms of inclusiveness and diversity, Jones takes a more sanguine attitude.
“They may have messed up,” she says, “but at least they’re trying to address these issues.”
It’s the same issues Madam C.J. Walker tried to address after amassing her fortune a century ago. She became a noted philanthropist, donating large sums of money to causes that fought for racial and gender parity, and her estate, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington, New York, was frequented by luminaries such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, and is now protected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Jones and Doherty aren’t quite at Walker’s level yet, but they’re both doing their part to make sure the beauty industry broadens its horizons.
“If a brand or retailer is not showcasing diversity in their media images, in the staff they hire, their advisory boards—then they just aren’t making enough effort,” Doherty says. “Women of color need to be embraced and included in all areas of clean beauty. It’s something that we are trying to focus on and make a conscious effort to change.” ◆