The small retailer that changed the makeup landscape for women of color

Marjani founder Kimberly Smith on running a small business and the power of Black consumers
Bruce Horovitz
NRF Contributor

When women of color purchase makeup, they often experience a problem that white women don’t: a lack of selection. No one knows this better than Kimberly Smith, founder and CEO of Marjani Beauty, who started the company in 2017 after repeatedly experiencing frustrations while trying to purchase makeup.

The Washington, D.C., resident was a practicing lawyer for 12 years before she founded Marjani with the aim of empowering women of color. NRF spoke with Smith, who recently joined NRF’s Board of Directors, about her experiences as a Black woman running a small business and why retailers should pay attention to her company and her consumer.

Kimberly Smith headshot
Kimberly Smith,
​​​​​​​founder and CEO of Marjani Beauty

What does someone’s makeup say about them?

Makeup is about personality. It’s about whether someone wants to be bold or more muted or neutral. But it can also be about your mood. We’re very versatile, which makes it so much fun. I wanted Black and Brown women to find makeup to be fun and not a frustrating experience.

What’s the frustration that Black and Brown women experience?

For Black and Brown women, it’s frustrating to walk into a store and find they do not carry your foundation shade, or be told that certain colors don’t work for darker skin tones. That message has permeated the industry for years. It’s still a thing.

Have you personally experienced this problem?

It’s my personal experience that sparked the idea of creating Marjani Beauty. In summer of 2016, I went shopping at a major retailer to stock up for a vacation I had planned. I was seeking a bronzer that is darker than my overall shade … and was told the shade I wanted was no longer carried by the store.

I was frustrated because I’m certainly not the deepest or darkest tone of Black woman. That means someone who is darker than me wouldn’t be able to find even a basic shade. Never mind that this was in Washington, D.C., which is a very diverse region. Seems to me there’s no reason why a Black or Brown woman should go into a store and not find the products that are suited for her. There has to be an alternative.

Six months later I started Marjani as an online beauty destination that would cater to women of color.

What does Marjani offer that mainstream retailers don’t?

The initial focus was on foundation. We wanted to offer women of color the perfect match. We launched our ecommerce in January 2017. I did pop-up locations across the country and called it “The Perfect Match.” We have 50 shades of brown foundation. We have eye shadow and blush shades deeply pigmented so they will show up on your skin tone. We have foundation shades and bold eye shadow for darker skin tones. And we have bold shades of lipstick that work for Black and Brown women.

We’re now growing into other categories like skincare. We offer beauty products created and owned by Black and Brown women. We respond to skin concerns that Black and Brown women experience more than white women. I wanted to curate products that speak to the everyday concerns we experience.

"I wanted to curate products that speak to the everyday concerns we experience."

Kimberly Smith, founder and CEO of Marjani Beauty

Why should major retailers pay attention to Marjani and the demographic you serve?

Black women actually outspend their counterparts in the beauty industry. While the dollars are there, the actual experience doesn’t match. You aren’t seeing Black and Brown women in the marketing of the products. Not until after the George Floyd incident did you see an outpouring of support.

That’s when Sephora did a study on Black and Brown women shopping. It found we are either ignored or we are followed around the store because people presume we are going to steal. A better shopping experience is something I wanted for myself, so I created it for others. It’s a very personal experience to walk into a store and feel like you’re not seen.

What has the Black Lives Matter movement meant for Marjani?

I think it was a wake-up call for white people. It forced the conversation to happen. While it was great to see the conversation happening, the movement wasn’t a surprise for people who look like me. It was a call for us to put everything out there. The conversation got louder, and people couldn’t ignore it. It’s no longer OK to be silent.

Why did you open a retail location in Washington, D.C.?

Beauty needs to be serviced in person. It’s an experiential thing. You want to see it and touch it. I knew there had to be a physical extension of Marjani. We were open one full year before the pandemic. 

How did COVID-19 impact Marjani?

We had so many plans. Then, suddenly, we had to close our doors for six months. Even if you tried to think of a worst-case business scenario, you couldn’t imagine a global pandemic. It was a setback, for sure. I had imagined going into multiple locations, but that put a stop to that. We had to focus on negating the pandemic. 

How did you respond?

I feel like this is hustle mode. Closing the store for good was not an option. The great thing is, we already had the ecommerce piece up and running, so a lot of customers shifted to buying online. It’s been about holding on long enough to get to the other side of this.

Hasn’t the pandemic turned many women away from wearing makeup?

Yes. So, we pivoted and focused on our skincare business. Women now have time at home to experience skincare treatments. We’re also doing virtual skincare consulting. And we’re selling facial cleansers, facial moisturizers and skin care treatment serums.

How do you help your minority peers?

First and foremost, my business speaks to ensuring that the Black dollar circulates longer in the community before it goes out. I carry about 45 brands that are all from small, minority-owned businesses. For some brands, I was their very first retailer.

Small retailers

Learn more about other small businesses and their journeys to success.

We use our retail space as a place to network. We allow other small businesses to do pop-ups in the store. We also sponsor events in the store. We’ve also worked with organizations that focus on combating domestic violence. And we offer space for nonprofit fundraisers.

What tips would you offer to other minority owners of small retail businesses?

It’s all about partnerships and collaborations and working with other small businesses. You can always find ways to help each other. Remember, there’s no better marketing than positive word of mouth — which is also free. By having other small brands in the store, I tap into their customers and they tap into mine.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?

I would advise anyone planning to open a business to be intimately involved in every aspect of the business — at least, initially. I’ve done every aspect of my business. At least I understand it all.

As a new NRF board member, do you have something you want to accomplish?

Giving a louder voice to smaller retailers is really important. The way I’ve approached retailing is pretty innovative. I’m putting diversity at the forefront and being unapologetic about it. That’s what I’m bringing to the conversation. I’m giving a voice to other small business owners who look like me.

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