Danielle Suazo was working at her food cart outside of New Mexico’s ancient Taos Pueblo community when her sister, a tour guide at the Pueblo, took a break to join her. Suazo took a moment to survey her stand — the soft flour patties submerged in oil, Fritos, deep red chile, diced tomato — and said to her sister, half joking, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if I made an eyeshadow palette with frybread names?” They laughed it off in the moment, but Suazo carried the idea with her.
When the pandemic hit the Indigenous community within the Taos Pueblo in early 2020, the tribe was quarantined and Suazo found herself home, bored, and away from her stand for a full week. “I was sitting in my living room and I couldn’t go anywhere,” she says. “So I started looking up, how did cosmetic brands make their makeup? How did they get distribution?”
The slowed pace of the pandemic gave Suazo the time to learn about private label companies and typical practices for manufacturing cosmetics. She found that the industry standard, producing cosmetics in bulk overseas, didn’t sit right with her. “I didn’t want to have a high expectation for my products and get them from another country to find they’re not what I expected,” Suazo admits. “If you buy from overseas, they make you buy in large quantities with no samples.”
After a few meetings over Zoom to discuss the vision for her ideal product formulations, Suazo settled with a company in Los Angeles to create her first eyeshadow palette for her Frybread Cosmetics line. The names of the eyeshadow shades will make the customer do a double-take. A light mauve is named Bluebird Flour, a deep sienna is Mutton, and a smooth orange hue is called Indian Tea. Suazo wanted her company’s first item to reflect cultural touchpoints of Southwestern Indigenous communities.
There is historic insidiousness when it comes to cosmetic companies’ marketing to women of color. Mainstream cosmetics companies have never spoken with purpose to women of color, unlike certain new independent makeup lines.
Mabel Frias, the co-founder of Luna Magic Beauty, felt similarly rejected by mainstream cosmetics. “We spend so much money, we’re category drivers of the industry,” Frias says. “What’s missing in the industry is people who look like myself, who are from the culture, authentic to the culture.” Consumers’ values are shifting — they care about where their makeup is made, who made it, and who it’s for — and the market is responding. Back in January, Luna Magic Beauty made a splash on Shark Tank by landing a deal with Barbara Corcoran as a cosmetics line made by and for Latinas.
Frias is still incredulous when she looks back on her Shark Tank pitch. “We didn’t realize we were innovating. We didn’t realize we were onto something.”
Frias was born to parents from the Dominican Republic and lived in Miami and the Carribean before settling in New York City with her family. Frias saw the missing hole in the cosmetics market early on in her career. Once she landed a role in Rihanna’s lingerie brand Savage x Fenty, it became clear that the tides were shifting. “It was a fascinating corporate job because it was born before inclusivity and diversity became a thing,” Frias says. “They embraced all different body types. Beauty meant different things. What Savage gave me was the confidence to know that inclusivity and diversity were needed [in the cosmetics industry].”
Frias was still working full-time with Savage x Fenty when Luna Magic Beauty’s website launched in February 2019. By April 2019, Walmart had reached out with interest in carrying their products online and in over 1,500 retail stores. “In 12 years of Shark Tank, I have never, ever seen a company as early stage as yours that has both an end cap order and a 50% regional rollout in Walmart,” Kevin O’Leary told Frias on-air. “You’re fishing in a little boat and you caught a whale. It’s just dragging you right down to the bottom of the ocean.”
O’Leary’s comment speaks to the shift that big-box retailers are taking to incorporate independent cosmetics companies founded by and for women of color. “I think [Kevin] was right. Walmart’s percentage of new brands that enter annually is 2%. That’s far more selective than Harvard,” says Frias. “It’s not just getting in the door. It’s being ready to produce that much product upfront.” Since then, Luna Magic Beauty has rolled out into more than 400 additional Walmart locations and is currently exceeding category targets by 35%. But even now, Frias is still incredulous when she looks back on her Shark Tank pitch. “We didn’t realize we were innovating. We didn’t realize we were onto something.”
Regina Merson, the founder of Reina Rebelde, was a beauty junkie before starting her own line of cosmetics for Mexican-American women and Latinas at large. “Cosmetics lines targeted Latinas, but they were not made by Latinas,” Merson says. “It was frustrating, the implied messaging for my community was that our intrinsic value wasn’t high enough to sell us something high quality at a fair price. There was a common perception that the Latina community was cheap, cheesy, or bargain hunters. But we want the best quality available. Don’t market to us if you don’t know what we want.”
Merson heads Reina Rebelde from Dallas, Texas by way of Guadalajara, Mexico. She started building the brand after years of working at one of the largest law firms in the world. “It was a big deal to get that opportunity and it was the manifestation of the American dream, but I didn’t love it,” Merson says. With Reina Rebelde, she wanted to reach Mexican-American women and Latinas with a respect for their culture, heritage, and history with cosmetics and beauty. After just a year, she was getting calls from Target. “We launched at Target and got new customers. It was great exposure, but as a small business, it’s expensive to do business with a big retailer,” says Merson. “Sales between the first and second year had 10x growth and they have grown every year, but it’s a constant customer acquisition grind. We’re a small business--we don’t have our own facility to crank out products.”
Frias, Merson, and Suazo all have their own personal visions for what their entrepreneurship means for members of the communities that they are working to represent. “To me, sometimes you have to see it to believe it,” says Frias. “My sister and I come from humble means. We come from an immigrant family. I know what it took for me to navigate the world when my parents couldn’t help me. Usually you don’t start a business because you don’t think you have the resources or know people, but just start. People think we showed up on Shark Tank and our lives changed, but a lot of work brought us there. We pushed through because I truly believe in what we’re doing.”
“I run the business in a way where I have to say no to things that are financially beneficial, but do not empower the community,” says Merson. “The real power within the female and Latinx community comes from very regular people--it’s about elevating everyday, normal women who are doing extraordinary things.”
For Suazo, starting her own business that speaks to Indigenous culture through beauty has larger ramifications for the Taos Pueblo. “My goal is to show kids entrepreneurship. Kids don’t have inspiration around here--it’s either go to high school or drop out and work at Walmart or Wendy’s. They don’t realize they can push themselves,” Suazo says. “I want to let future generations know that if you’re passionate about something, you don’t have to work a 9-5 job.”