Two years ago this month, I gave myself a challenge: realizing that I wasn’t walking the talk I preached daily on TGU, I launched a Black-Owned Beauty Month challenge in February of 2019, restricting myself to only Black-owned cosmetics and personal care products for Black History Month. The results were, at turns, comical, insightful, inspiring and frustrating—but resulted in my now using at least 70 percent Black-owned products at all times (hey, I’ve still got some enduring mass-market faves), and birthed TGU’s Big Beauty Tuesdays.
More importantly, the experiment proved that Black founders not only produce plenty of products on par with those in the mainstream market but are often exceeding them in quality if one only knows where to look—which is where we often run into trouble, as many Black founders never gain wide distribution deals. In fact, as I spontaneously popped into beauty retailers looking for brands to try out that February, I was too often greeted by blank stares and only a handful of options to choose from among hundreds—no, thousands—of products on site. One such memorable occasion occurred at my local Ulta, where the sales associate stammered for a full 20 seconds before steering me to the Shea Moisture and Carol’s Daughter offerings—two beloved Black-founded brands, to be sure, but hardly representative of the wealth of options our beauty community has to offer.
Of course, Ulta has continued to diversify in the intervening years, adding more brands like Juvia’s Place, Uoma Beauty, Alicia Keys’ Soulcare and Tracee Ellis Ross’ Pattern to its in-store assortment. But there is still more to be done in making our beauty aisles more reflective of the wide swath of beauty in America, which is why we were thrilled to learn that Ross joined the Ulta team in an even bigger capacity this month, as its new diversity and inclusion advisor.
Per a press release from Ulta, Ellis Ross’ new position is “a formalized role to provide counsel, inspiration and drive accountability,” further explaining:
In her role as Diversity and Inclusion Advisor, Ross, a beauty entrepreneur, activist and actor, will provide counsel and insight, and drive accountability to Ulta Beauty with a specific focus on BIPOC brand development, diverse leadership development and supplier diversity. She will join internal Executive D&I Council Summits quarterly. The executive council is chaired by [Ulta Beauty CEO Mary Dillon] and brings together Ulta Beauty’s executive team to holistically review D&I progress, gaps and opportunities.
“As the country’s beauty retail leader, we believe we have the power to shape how the world sees beauty and as such, we have a responsibility to inspire positive change and drive greater diversity, inclusivity and equity,” said Ulta Beauty CEO Mary Dillon. “We are deeply committed to leading purposefully with and for underrepresented voices across retail and beauty on our D&I journey.”
“I look forward to formalizing an already existing dialogue and partnership around diversity and inclusion with Mary Dillon and the Ulta Beauty team,” said Ellis Ross in a statement. “This work requires commitment and accountability from Ulta Beauty to ensure measurable goals are achieved. I am hopeful and optimistic our work together will create foundational change.”
As further indicated by the release, the hiring of Ellis Ross is part of an expansive diversity and inclusion initiative by Ulta in 2021 which includes a promise to double the number of Black-owned brands carried by the retailer by year’s end. Ulta has also reportedly committed to a $4 million marketing budget for the as-yet-unnamed brands, in addition to a $20 million campaign specifically marketed toward “to create more personal connections with LatinX, Black and other communities, more than doubling the spend of the last three years,” states the press release.
Like its market competitor Sephora, Ulta is also seeking to mitigate instances of racial bias and profiling in its stores and in-store salons, “so they are better able to accommodate the shopping and beauty needs of customers with diverse backgrounds, “ reports Teen Vogue. This initiative includes more than doubling its D&I trainings for the second year in a row, with quarterly trainings to combat unconscious bias starting in March. Additionally, as part of a concerted effort to recruit staff from underrepresented backgrounds and foster meaningful advancement within Ulta’s ranks, a “Diverse Leaders Program” has been established “to empower more than 30, high-potential associates as future company leaders with CEO and executive mentorship,” says the company.
Finally, in tandem with the start of Black History Month, Ulta debuted MUSE (Magnify, Uplift, Support, Empower), “a platform to celebrate, honor, and amplify Black voices in beauty,” according to the brand. The project launched with a one-minute spot, “Ode to Beauty,” featuring a broad scope of Black femme beauty and a few familiar faces in the Black beauty space “who have defied and defined limits,” including Cosmopolitan Beauty Director Julee Wilson (formerly of Essence), including Briogeo founder Nancy Twine, Carol’s Daughter creator Lisa Price and more.
Of course, Ellis Ross may be Ulta’s biggest Black influencer to date, and as a successful beauty boss in her own right, will no doubt bring further insights to how to effectively diversify a space Black women have long influenced, but rarely been able to exact returns from.
“Authenticity as an inclusive brand with welcoming experiences for all and an approachable assortment are tenets of how we champion diversity at Ulta Beauty,” said CEO Dillon. “We have mapped these commitments to impact every facet of our work. We look forward to sharing more as we continue on this journey with steadfast commitment from our teams and our newly established advisor Tracee Ellis Ross, who brings passion, experience and perspective to this important work.”