Growing up in Harlem, Diarrha N'Diaye spent much of her childhood in her mother's hair salon, where she was "surrounded by culture," as she puts it.
"Black women from all over the United States and of all ages would come and get their hair braided," she says. "I spent most of my after school days and weekends there, watching all these women come in to talk beauty and transform with intricate hairstyles." This instilled in her an appreciation and respect for beauty's place in Black culture — and vice versa.
"I learned very early on how important beauty was to every woman, and how it also differed for every woman," says N'Diaye. "I became obsessed with this idea of beauty as 'soft armor.'"
Her passion for beauty — and curiosity for the significance it can have in the lives of Black women — drove her to pursue a career at some of the top cosmetics companies in the world, first at L'Oréal Paris as a beauty marketer and then at Glossier. Eventually, she decided to go out on her own and build her own beauty company, Ami Colé (pronounced ahh-mee, kOhl-Lay).
"Ami Colé was a dream of mine since 2014, well before Fenty Beauty and the recent surge in Black beauty brands," N'Diaye, who serves as the company's CEO as well as its founder, says. "Quite frankly, there wasn't even adequate data to show and tell why this specific beauty cohort was a huge opportunity in the market."
Armed with her own experiences as a consumer — as well as those of her friends and family, along with formative memories of her mother's salon clientele – N'Diaye knew there was a huge missed opportunity to better serve Black beauty consumers and give them a joyful, intentional, well-thought-out brand experience.
Ami Colé launched mid-May with three products: a Skin Enhancing Tint (available in six sheer, buildable shades, each meant to "adapt" and serve a range of skin tones), a Lip Treatment Oil and a Light-Catching Highlighter. All retail for between $20 and $32 and are currently sold via the brand's website and Thirteen Lune. Since the brand's debut, the Skin Enhancing Tint has already proven to be especially popular, selling out in multiple shades. In fact, according to Ami Colé, in its first 45 days after launch, it sold more product than it was forecasted to sell in the first three-and-a-half months. So, though the brand is still very much in its infancy, it's already clear that N'Diaye is onto something.
It's true that Ami Colé incorporates so many of the buzzwords that have dominated the beauty industry over the better part of the last decade — direct-to-consumer, crowd-sourced, clean, consumer-driven, minimalist — and yet, it does so in a way that feels genuinely new. Its branding doesn't have that tired, looks-like-your-entire-Instagram-feed patina that happens when brands spend too much time obsessing over what everyone else is doing. Its less-is-more approach to product development feels carefully considered and purposeful, not trendy or bandwagon-y. Even its use of the word "clean" to describe the safety of its formulas is refreshing — not to mention wholly necessary, considering the industry's long history of disproportionately marketing products with potentially harmful ingredients to Black women.
Crowded though beauty may be, rife with brands that seem barely distinguishable from one another, Ami Colé is proof that listening to consumers — particularly ones who have been historically neglected or overshadowed — can shine a light on the opportunities and gaps that still remain. Ahead, N'Diaye shares what she learned from her stints at L'Oréal and Glossier, how she tapped into big-name investors and what she thinks the industry is missing when it comes to the narrative of Black beauty.
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How did your personal experience growing up, spending so much time at your mom's salon, impact your view of beauty and how you experienced the greater beauty industry as a whole later on in life?
Pan-African beauty was my only perspective of beauty for a very long time. We didn't have a TV in my earliest home — I just had books and Harlem world. I went to school on 122nd Street, lived on 120th Street and the shop was on 125th Street. But even in those few blocks, I got to witness and experience the many forms of Black beauty. You had my aunties straight from Senegal with those tiny 'invisible' Senegalese twists with dark complexions, and Puerto Rican beauties with the flat twists in the front and Lottabody curls in the back. It was a brown melting pot and beautiful to witness.
As you can imagine, I was shell-shocked when I left that bubble. In middle school, when I finally got a TV and started to tune into Disney specials, the closest thing to what I had experienced growing up in Harlem were Brandy from "Moesha," Tia and Tamera from "Sister, Sister" and Raven Symoné from one of my favorite movies, "Zenon." I learned quickly that the world was way more diverse, but more importantly, that the world was missing a huge narrative of Black beauty.
At what point did you decide to launch your own company in the beauty space? Was there any specific moment (or moments) of inspiration that motivated you to really make it happen?
I don't think there was one specific 'aha' moment when concepting and developing Ami Colé. When it came to makeup, specifically, I was never able to find a brand for women of color that represented the 'my skin, but better' and 'is that makeup or is that just her skin?' makeup style that so many of these women in my neighborhood ascribed to.
On top of that, the brands that did exist didn't give me the full brand experience, enough for me to want to engage past my product purchase. There wasn't any soul. For a long time, the makeup offerings on the market were about achieving a full transformation, from legacy brands like Fashion Fair to more recent lines like Il Makiage. I wanted to create a brand that celebrates a truer version of women of color, paring it all down to stand out and glow. Our formulas are designed to enhance vs. mask the skin; by doing so, we want to give women of color the tools to actually celebrate their skin and their rich, deep stories.
How would you sum up the state and direction of the beauty industry right now? How do you see Ami Colé in that landscape, or forging ahead toward a new one?
The customer is getting smarter and smarter by the day. Customers want products that work for them, yes, but they also look at consumption as a partnership. Customers — specifically Black women — are looking for brands they can stand behind. The industry is now making space for brand experiences that speak to a specific demographic. 'Beauty for all' is now 'beauty for us.' In this new landscape, brands can talk directly to who they're creating for and marketing to, and with that, celebrate individuality, collectively.
Ami Colé was very intentional in who we're talking to and what we're talking about. We're here to celebrate the melanated consumers who, for a very long time, were in the peripheral of marketing stories.
Do you consider Ami Colé a mission-driven company? If so, what's that mission?
We're in the business of bringing joy to the melanin-rich people that were never the focus of many brand stories. That's our mission, and we're excited to watch it evolve.
Why did you decide to launch with three products, and, more specifically, why these three?
We thought about skin first. This meant enhancing the skin's base vs. masking or transforming the skin. The Ami Colé product philosophy is simply: We want you to see and celebrate you. Our inaugural lineup does just that, allowing customers to get that "my skin but better" makeup look, but without the payoff missing from other products marketed similarly, which is very key for melanin-rich skin. The Skin Tint took about three years to perfect, first utilizing consumer input and help from product development specialists who knew exactly how to tweak a formula with specific undertones in mind. We then worked with professional makeup artists who have a deep understanding of how to best showcase skin, even when you may not be having the best skin days. It was important to have a multi-level approach to edit such a refined range.
Tell me about the crowd-sourcing aspect of product development. Why was it important to you to get that input, and how do you think it ended up impacting the formulas you launched with?
Crowd-sourcing was less of a marketing plan and more so stemming from a place of desperation. I needed concrete information about my customer and when I went online to research, what I saw was not reflective of my experience growing up in these spaces. At one point, I put the computer down, looked up and went and talked to my people. The questions were simple: What exactly are you using now? How do we make the 360 experience better?
This was particularly important for our shade development, as there had been so much noise on the market, with brands all believing they had to offer 50-plus shade offerings for every launch. For us, quality editing was important over quantity.
What were some of the biggest takeaways from the crowd-sourcing?
My biggest takeaway was how excited this cohort of women were to share their experiences. We had one survey that was 20 minutes long, and they sat down and filled it out completely. It sounds so simple, but truly listening was our first step.
Walk me through what your product development process for Ami Colé has been like. What were and are your priorities?
My priority was always quality. I didn't believe in the tradeoff of quality vs. brand experience. It was alarming that not only could this cohort of women be unable to find what they were looking for in the market, but that the options that were available to them were often deemed toxic. Of the 'clean' beauty options, many of them outpriced our customer, making it a luxury that wasn't accessible or confusing or scary for the customer. We thought through many of the pain points that people on our team experienced, but also what our wider community vocalized.
How did your past experience with companies like L'Oréal and Glossier impact your decision to launch the brand and inform any aspects of the brand and company?
L'Oréal is known as the marketing mecca of beauty. I learned how important it is to create a story and product from a data-centric perspective. It was my first experience reading, interpreting and acting against well-known industry reports like NPD and Tribe Dynamics' EMV, which tracked the media value of influencer conversations. There, I married my art of storytelling to the science of consumer data.
At Glossier, community was king. I learned that it was paramount to listen before anything else.
What was the fundraising process like? What challenges or triumphs did you experience? How did you approach it, and what have you learned from the experience?
Fundraising wasn't an easy feat. It took an army of fellow entrepreneurs and first-time founders to learn the ropes, and quite frankly I'm still learning. The fundraising process is a difficult one, in that you're not only looking to find the right investors, but aiming to land the right term sheets that make the most sense for your business and most importantly, your customer.
You have some really impressive, big-name investors. How impactful was it to get their support? And how have they helped guide the direction of the brand, if at all?
One thing about me is, I know what I don't know. It was important for me to create a team of operators who understood the importance of brand, storytelling and selling to a customer direct to consumer. Investors like Debut Capital, Katherine Power and Natalie Massanet are known to challenge the 'this is how it's supposed to be done' narrative. I knew that I wanted to offer a superb experience to our customers, and our investors helped us do just that pre-launch and post-launch.
Why did you decide to launch with the direct-to-consumer business model, and why did you also choose to partner with Thirteen Lune for retail?
It's important for us to get to know our customer first, and DTC affords you that luxury and opportunity. A larger distribution channel is most certainly a part of our growth strategy, but we're still looking for the right partner that can service our customer, truly value our brand proposition, and meet our customer where she is. Along the way, we are excited to partner with strategic e-retailers and specialty retailers that take a similar approach to beauty, and in reading Thirteen Lune's mission, it's not hard to see how there is synergy between our two brands.
What's your biggest piece of advice for other entrepreneurs looking to get into beauty, particularly for those who may be women of color?
Start. My biggest challenge was honestly starting. As a Black woman, especially, you know the odds are against you, so you're almost paralyzed by analysis. It took a lot of pep talks with my girlfriends, family, spiritual alignment and months of research to jump into Ami Colé full force.
This interview has been edited for clarity.