Tomi Gbeleyi, Beauty Founder

Tomi Gbeleyi is the Toronto-based founder of Makeup for Melanin Girls, making her the first twentysomething to launch a Canadian beauty brand geared towards women of colour. Here, she tells FLARE how she made it

Stacy Lee Kong

 Tomi Gbeleyi wearing an orange top and applying lip gloss

Tomi Gbeleyi; @makeupformelaningirls


How do you describe your job to your family?

My job as CEO of Makeup for Melanin Girls is to make beauty products that make women of colour feel seen, beautiful and worthy. My mum is my biggest supporter. She only ever wears our nude lipsticks—it’s super cute when she’s marketing it to her friends.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I went to the University of New Brunswick, where I earned an honours degree in psychology and international development studies

What’s the weirdest gig you’ve ever done solely for money?

Definitely modelling. It’s of course a very popular and lucrative career, but I consider it weird because of the way people talk about your body like it’s a commodity. What would be an HR issue in most corporate settings is accepted as the norm, since your body is such a crucial part of your job. I think models have to be very tough mentally, because you’re being critiqued about your body every day. I’ve actually had a casting director measure me and say, “Thank goodness your hip area is not so big… you know, you people typically have bigger hips.”

What was your BIG break? How did you land it?

I think a “big break” is simply an accumulation of wins. So many incredible wins have happened since launching Makeup for Melanin Girls—I’m still in awe. These wins give me the energy to keep going during the challenging times. The first would be getting featured in a New York Times story about diversity in beauty. At the time Makeup for Melanin Girls already had 20,000 followers and was clearly resonating with my target audience, but getting noticed by NYT gave me a sense of credibility and international appeal for the brand. It’s also been surreal getting messages from celebrities like India Arie, Gabrielle Union and Cynthia Erivo, encouraging me and telling me they love what I’ve built. These are celebrities I’ve admired since I was a teenager and never imagine that my career would take me to a place where I’d get to connect with them.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

Be proud of your accomplishments and don’t be afraid that sharing them will be seen as bragging. I think this is particularly important for women who might be used to achieving success in an academic setting because they put their heads down and did the work. No one will know the awesome work you’re doing if you’re not sharing it. Have a growth mindset and consider your skills elastic—you can not only grow the ones you have, but gain new ones you never imagined.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

To avoid speaking up about issues affecting me at work out of fear. When I’ve experienced microagressions at my workplace, for example, I made sure to bring it to the attention of managers or, when it was appropriate, address it with the colleague in question. As a minority, especially when you are the only one on a team, it can be tough to be open about gender- or race-related issues because you don’t want to perceived as complaining. I felt if I didn’t speak up for myself, some of the things I experienced would not only continue to happen to me, but would happen to others as well.

When you’re feeling low about your work, what’s the one thing you always do/watch/read/listen to bring yourself back up again?

Podcasts! I’m obsessed with entrepreneurship, wellness and pop culture podcasts. Listening to the struggles of other entrepreneurs on podcasts like How I Built This, The Tim Ferriss Show and EOFire help me feel less alone during the challenging periods. And pop culture podcasts, like The Read and Insecuritea, which is based on the award-winning show Insecure, are great for a good laugh and mood boost.

How would you describe your industry in terms of representation and inclusivity?

Makeup for Melanin Girls has gained the attention of 300,000+ women across our different social media platforms because the beauty industry has neglected the needs of women of colour for many years. Thanks to social media, the success of brands like Fenty Beauty and a growing multiethnic millennial population, this is changing. Beauty customers are also turning to indie brands like ours because they see that we are a grassroots company that’s authentic and not simply including diversity in our marketing because it’s trendy now.

What’s the most pressing issue facing women in your industry right now? What would fix it?

Although there are many women who work in the beauty industry, the executive positions at the major conglomerates are mostly held by men—it’s very much a boy’s club at the top. It’s a bit shocking how few female CEOs there are in beauty, actually, since it’s an industry that primarily services women. There are some changes happening at the top brands ( for instance, Revlon appointed its first-ever female CEO this year, 86 years after its 1932 launch), but I have hope the startup community will fix this.

More women are taking advantage of the direct-to-consumer environment and launching their own companies. While some of these companies have attracted venture dollars and have been able to scale quickly, many women-led beauty startups are bootstrapped and have little outside funding. Male investors sometimes perceive women creating companies tailored to the needs of other women as frivolous. But beauty is a high profit-margin business with non-traditional, independent brands growing quicker than traditional brands (indie brands were up 42.7% in 2016 and keep growing). So, it’s incredible to me that an investor would consider a business in this industry frivolous.

Have you ever disclosed your salary to a colleague in the name of transparency? Why or why not?

I have, after I had already left the job. I thought it would be useful to share numbers with a previous coworker for her negotiations in the future. I wanted to give her the information she needed to ask for her worth. I never did that earlier in my career, though, and I realized it hurt me more than it helped me. It also depends on the culture of the place you are in. When I worked at a startup, more people were open to discussing it than when I worked at a Fortune 500 company.

Looking to the future, what excites you the most about your career?

Expanding the team. It’s incredible how much people are willing to invest their time in you when you have a shared vision. Our current head of business development, Mobolaji Edun, was a customer who was passionate about our mission and reached out through our network to get the role.

And what worries you the most about your career?

Forgetting to enjoy the accumulation of small wins and focusing too much on what’s next.

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