February 25, 2024

Through their work on products created by and for people of colour, these scientists and brand founders are bringing much-needed diversity to the beauty aisle.

Through their work on products created by and for people of colour, these scientists and founders are bringing much-needed diversity to the beauty aisle. Here, they share what inspired their passion for beauty, the products they’re most proud of and the lasting impact they hope to have on the industry.

Abena Antwi, associate research director, product designer and chemist for Burt’s Bees

A portrait of Abena Antwi, cosmetic chemist at Burt's Bees and one of the Black women redefining the beauty industry.(Photo: Courtesy of Abena Antwi)

“Growing up in Ghana, I was always breaking open coconuts to create coconut oil and adding the scent of vanilla to shea butter to use as skincare. I didn’t know I was making cosmetics then—it was just the way we made our lotions, creams and soaps. I think that must have inspired me to become a cosmetic chemist. 

I always encourage kids—especially girls—to think about science and the cosmetic industry as a career. And I’ve always wanted to see more people of colour in the beauty industry. We use a lot of cosmetics and hair care products, and we need to have a say in the products that are made and marketed to us. 

For example, I spent several years developing a mineral sunscreen for Burt’s Bees. It was really important to me that it didn’t have a white cast like most formulas on the market do, so people with darker skin tones could use it. I even tested it on my sister. 

I started at Burt’s Bees almost 16 years ago, and I was the only chemist on staff for six months while a new lab team was being hired. Now I’m a product designer, a liaison between marketing and chemistry. In my role today, I’m talking to media and retailers, and learning about what’s trending, including ingredients. I get to have more influence on the company, and having people of colour sitting in higher positions has helped change the industry. 

The shea butter line—which is coming to Canada in 2024—is especially close to my heart because we source it from a women’s initiative in Ghana, where I grew up. Seeing the hard work that goes into farming the ingredient is incredible. Shea nuts are very seasonal, so once the crop is harvested the women don’t have many other sources of income for the rest of the year. We’re teaching them how to be beekeepers, so they can cultivate honey and beeswax to sell during the off-season. Empowering these women financially has helped them to put their children through school. My own father was able to get an education because of the cocoa butter collective in his community. It’s very moving to think that buying a lip balm can really influence somebody’s life.”

A portrait of Dr. Rolanda Wilkerson, cosmetic chemist Pantene and Olay and one of the Black women redefining the beauty industry.(Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Rolanda Wilkerson)

“As a kid growing up in Louisiana, I really loved science and I was always playing with my hair and makeup. But those worlds didn’t merge until I was an organic chemistry PhD student and recruited to attend a three-day program at the P&G headquarters in Cincinnati. That visit, which was nearly 20 years ago, opened my eyes to the research behind beauty products and I remember thinking immediately, I want to be here. I wanted to be an example to girls and women in STEM.

I started out running experiments in a basement lab and formulating hair-care products. It was what we call ‘upstream work’, and I wasn’t connected to the consumer. But I soon realized that there were downstream opportunities available. My peers were doing consumer home visits and talking to people about how and why they use beauty products. Eventually I started interacting more with consumers. I really love running studies and partnering with dermatologists to evaluate the efficacy of our products.

Over the years, I’ve been part of the Black scientist-led team that created Pantene Gold Series, a hair-care line made specifically for curly and coily hair. Today, I’m focused on developing Olay skincare products. One of the beautiful things about the work that we do—and have been doing for many years—is that we’ve been very intentional about ensuring that our research is multi-ethnic and multicultural. We’re tracking what’s happening in skin over time and looking to understand the unique biological differences. Melanin can cause different needs for skincare—for some people it could be hyperpigmentation and texture and not necessarily fine lines and wrinkles.

My experience as a Black woman and as a scientist helps drive the inclusive work that we do and products we bring to market. I want to be a part of the solution and contribute to making sure that Black women see themselves in the products they find in the drugstore.”

A portrait of Shirley Ibe, founder of Madeup Beauty and one of the Black women redefining the beauty industry.(Photo: Courtesy of Shirley Ibe)

“I was born and raised in Calgary in a Nigerian family where appearances were very important. As a young girl, I’d watch my mom get ready and I’d be so fascinated by her makeup—I’d even steal her palettes. 

When I started experimenting with my own makeup, I would get a lot of compliments. Then people started asking me to do their makeup. That’s when I realized I might have a knack for this. I took cosmetic courses and began working doing makeup for brides and creative photo shoots. 

I was always custom mixing lip colours for clients and models to suit their individual skin tones and undertones. I love doing it, there’s such beautiful artistry in that. I always felt bad when someone would ask what they could buy the shade I made, so I eventually launched my own brand. 

Madeup Beauty’s liquid lipstick formula was inspired by my sister, who told me she needed a colour to last all day—no time for touch-ups. I took that as a challenge, and created pigments that have staying power without being drying thanks to a blend of avocado and jojoba oils. That’s super important to me, especially living in Canada. I also created lip conditioners and scrubs with raw natural shea butter, an ingredient inspired by my Nigerian roots.

My line launched online in December 2019 and is now at Shoppers Drug Mart. My next goal is to get into more stores so people can see and try colours on in person. It’s a mission of mine to uplift women of colour through makeup, and I wanted to create a brand that they could easily access, find shades they relate to and feel confident wearing. When I think of my clientele, I’m always thinking of people of colour—we’re not always thought of first in the beauty industry. In this time of filters and everyone trying to look the same, I want people to be able to look at themselves and love themselves for who they are.”

Sade and Rachel Lambo, mother and daughter co-founders of Sade Baron

A portrait of Rachel and Sade Lambo, founders of Sade Baron and two of the Black women redefining the beauty industry.(Photo: Courtesy of Rachel and Sade Lambo)

“My beauty inspiration comes from my great-aunt Dali, a healer who made oils and soaps from local plants when I was growing up in Nigeria. When I was six years old, I was covered in eczema; my mom had tried many things to heal my skin but nothing worked. She asked my great-aunt for something that could help, and once I started using it my skin cleared up in a matter of weeks. 

When I became a mother, I saw the same thing happen to my children’s skin. I remembered a few of the ingredients my great-aunt had put together, such as shea and cocoa butters, and I started making products to help my kids. Then, while working as a midwife and nurse, I developed a passion for plants and began studying the science and benefits of formulating using natural ingredients. 

When I retire from nursing in a few years, Sade Baron is going to be my next career. I don’t want to slow down. It feels amazing to be able to connect with people, like the woman who told us she used our skincare after a mastectomy. To know we’re helping people feel better because their skin is healing faster is very encouraging.” —Sade

“For me, working in beauty happened by accident, because of my mom. As a kid, she would always tell me I could do anything I wanted to do; I had to remind her of that advice in her 50s when it was her turn to follow her dreams. One day, when I have a daughter of my own, I want to be able to tell her that you can really do anything you want at any age.

My mom was making skincare products for family and friends who had dry skin and eczema, including myself. In 2014, I encouraged her to start selling them as a side project. For a few years we sold at artisan markets across Toronto before the line really took off. In 2019, we officially launched our business and website, and now we’re in over 40 stores, including The Detox Market in both Canada and the US. 

Working with my mom can be challenging at times, but we’re having fun and learning from each other. And it has brought us closer together. I see my mother in a different light, I get to see her personality and ideas as if I were interacting with any other co-worker. That’s really nice; I don’t know many people who get to see their parents that way.

One of the early challenges of the business was getting enough support and funding and—especially as women of colour—getting taken seriously. Last fall, we were selected to be part of the Ulta Beauty Muse Accelerator program for early-stage BIPOC brands, and it was really amazing from both a scaling and mentorship perspective. Eczema, contact dermatitis and dry skin don’t sound very sexy, but everyone can relate. Getting recognition [for] was so rewarding.” —Rachel

With soothing skincare inspired by their roots, inclusive makeup and coil-centric haircare, these scientists and founders are bringing much-needed diversity to the beauty aisle.(Photo: Courtesy of Josiane Kotané)

“My first introduction to a full skincare routine happened when I arrived in Quebec from Burkina Faso in 2003. I went to a beauty boutique and met an advisor who helped determine my skin type and suggested a few products. Now I’m obsessed with skincare and constantly learning more about ingredients. My daily routine is a ritual for me—as a wife and mother of three young children, it’s part of taking care of myself. It’s me-time.

Creating Latane Skincare has been a dream of mine since 2015. I never thought it would happen as I didn’t know where to start. Then, I met a Black female cosmetic chemist at a beauty event. I shared my vision of a beauty brand that integrates my West African roots; she was impressed with the idea and wanted to embark on this journey with me. We launched in November 2022. 

I wanted to create an affordable luxury skincare line. Luxury to me is the whole experience, from the texture of a formula to the ingredients. Our products focus on hydration because it’s essential for everyone. I want people to be happy and content in their own skin. In our brand images, it’s important to me to show all skin types and skin colours. We showcase real skin too, no Photoshop—you can see pimples. We’ve got amazing feedback [on].

The products are very connected to my West African roots. The shea butter and moringa oil are supplied from a female-led co-op in my home country, and the workers can feed their families and send their children to school with the wages they earn. It was very important we take that route, for a full-circle moment.

Going out in Montreal, you see all kinds of people. But for years at beauty events, I would be the only Black woman, or among two or three. You wouldn’t see any diversity. There’s been progress but there’s so much more work to do. We’re now taking our place in this huge industry.”


Subscribe to our newsletters for our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers.