There’s been a systemic shift in consumer behavior favored towards the online experience. Whether it’s a new dress for a workplace gathering or new computer parts, nearly anything can be bought within a few clicks. In a modern, busy world, people will pay for what’s most efficient. Companies have worked diligently in the past decade to make the consumer online experience as frictionless as possible. The Amazon model pinpointed the root of humans’ desire for instant gratification, offering same-day delivery at the cost of their prime membership.
The upward trend for customization
Another trend that’s been observed is the preference for customization. AR technology has made it possible for people to “try” on, let’s say a shade of foundation, or an eyeshadow color using an app on their phones. Due to the closure of makeup store Sephora amidst the pandemic, the company implemented a Facebook AR ad, resulting in increased online store purchases.
However, customization is not equally accessible or useful for every demographic. In the beauty market, there aren’t nearly as many products customized for people of color, as there are lightening creams and serums for people with fairer skin. As when it comes to hair products, the number is driven down even further. Women and men who have textured hair face the challenge of not having products that work for them, and in some cases, cause more damage to their hair in the long run.
Despite advertisements these days doused in the allure of diversity and equal representation, the applicability of beauty products has always been generically tailored for the majority of the population.
We spoke with D’Andra Montaque, who has for the past four years been steadily building her flagship e-commerce brand Empress Mane, which specializes in hair products for people of color coupled with the same-day delivery concept. Hailing from one of the densest cities in Canada, D’Andra began to realize a pertinent problem that was affecting many women of color across the greater Toronto region.
“As a consumer of hair products, I’ve spent a lot of time and money buying the wrong kinds of products. It became very expensive and exhausting. These were the experiences many people were having, as I later learned. That was the biggest pain point I realized,” D’Andra remarks.
The next step for D’Andra is to develop an app that’s an extension of the e-commerce store. She realized in order to scale this product and really tap into the $400 million beauty market for people of color (Canadian estimates), there was a necessity for the technology to come into play.
However, the challenges associated with that are ample. The major one: is funding.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for you in scaling this app?
As someone who’s been through many pitch meetings through competitions, D’Andra knows firsthand the types of barriers someone like her faces, as not only a woman but “to niche it down further, a black woman.”
D’Andra affirms, “funding in the VC industry is not a great experience for women of color. Caucasian males can walk into a VC meeting with just a concept not ironed out and get millions in funding for just ideation. Whereas in the case of black women, they’ll go in with a business model that’s already been launched and tested and be able to show the projections, yet unfortunately still don’t receive the levels of funding compared to the most funded groups.”
Why do you think this happens?
Partly, I think it’s just that people have blind spots. They have blind spots from the way they were raised and being in communities where racial issues were not very pertinent or known. A lot of people are simply, unaware.
I’m grateful that there’s data that shows the hair industry amongst Black people is $1.3 billion in the US— there’s no data here in Canada, but if we take a third of the US population, it’s around $400 million in the Canadian market.
Before D’Andra conceptualized the app and began her long process of pitching and raising awareness for her brand, she was focused on creating Empress Mane out of nothing. There was barely any research on purchasing habits of people of color, such that in the early days of the brand’s development, D’Andra was heavily involved in conducting her own market research.
Can you walk us through the research process for starting your company?
Prior to 2020, it was very difficult to find data on spending in Canada, but now it’s easier because the Canadian government is currently investing to create data specific to people of color and Black communities. We need this to continue.
When I started in 2018, it was quite tough but I had support from an entrepreneurship program Bizstart, which is a 6-month incubator. It helped me create a better market research report, and primarily I used data from Statistics Canada, Nielsen, and Statista. Pitchbetter also has more stats on women of color.
Could you give me an example of a research question?
One thing that became a priority for me was guaranteeing same-day delivery. I knew that especially when it came to beauty products, people would appreciate receiving them the day of.
A research question would be: What do you want the pricing structure for same-day delivery to look like for you?
I distributed a survey to define a time that people usually got home from school or work (after 6pm). The demographic was primarily students and working professionals.
It got very hectic some days because it was only me— “before becoming an entrepreneur, you’re a solopreneur.” You’re the operations manager, the customer service agent and the fulfillment person, you’re kind of everything. However, I understood the importance of same-day delivery (ie. Instacart, Ubereats) and how important beauty is for women of color, and how their experiences are a lot harder because there are no stores catered to people with textured hair. It was about creating a shopping experience that included them.
When did you know you wanted to become an entrepreneur?
To be honest, I’ve kind of always wanted to be an entrepreneur, I just didn’t know it. Growing up, I watched the Disney movie, A Bug’s Life. In the premise of that movie, the main character is an inventor. Watching that I’ve kind of realized I loved making things, creating things, and throughout life, I’ve always done that— and some of them were tangible, most of them not. For example, intangible things like creating communities and environments for people to be authentically who they are. I’ve never realized that was what I was doing until as I started getting older, people started telling me “You’re a boss.”
I think college is when I realized that entrepreneurship was definitely up my alley and after I graduated, I realized this is definitely where I should take a leap, and I did.
Did you have any initial believers or support systems?
I was raised by immigrant parents from Jamaica who worked very hard, trying to take care of and provide for me. They really nurtured and instilled the belief that I could accomplish anything I wanted. “You can do even more, we’re doing all this so you have the ability to go after your dreams.”
As a result of seeing them work so hard as a child, I developed a work ethic. They inspired me to work from a very young age.
Along the way, I was always encouraged by teachers, mentors, colleagues, and bosses to pursue greater opportunities.
To be honest, all the support I had, the only support that I needed was from myself. No matter how much people told me things, it was up to me to take action—and that’s what entrepreneurship is all about. People can tell you all they want, but unless you decide to step forward, and take the leap, nothing is going to happen.
Do you think women feel more pressure to adapt or change their behaviors in order to succeed in the world of business?
I think that more than anything women struggle with knowing what to do. Part of this is because of that mentality of “you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.” There’s always a space where we’re not doing enough or we’re doing too much.
It’s very tricky because of that. I encourage women to just be authentically themselves, because at the end of the day if people are going to criticize you regardless of what you do, you might as well just be yourself. At least you can say I did my best and I remained true to who I am throughout the process.
I believe love does exist in the world of business. The world of business has a lot of respectability politics, but, for example, when you get down to the relationships CEOs and VPs have with each other, it’s not very “professional”. But you have to be in that space to see how it is. If you get a moment to be in the same room with the CEO and the VP you work with, they’re good friends—goofing and laughing about sports; having a good time. I would like to see certain respectability politics come to an end, and more compassion to exist in business.
Especially in this current environment, where people are working 2 to 3 jobs to stay afloat, we need to find ways to give them grace and compassion and find ways to be human. Create an environment where care exists and collectively, the job gets done.
I encourage CEOs to look at the people who are leaving— these are talented individuals that bring a lot of value to your company, provide a lot of insight, and do their work very well.
If you want to keep your best talent, the ones that will help your company accomplish great goals and likely become extremely successful, think about their environment and the way they feel.
What’s the next step for you? How do you plan on getting from A to B?
I’m very good at networking and fortunate to be in an environment where I’m surrounded by many aspiring entrepreneurs and successful role models. I’m currently a tenant at HXOUSE, a creative incubator for entrepreneurs and creative individuals founded by the artist, the Weeknd, and Creative Director, La Mar Taylor.
I’m extremely grateful to have the opportunity to connect with people that can connect me to others that might be interested in funding my company. And connecting with like-minded individuals is more likely to lead me to like-minded investors.
I’m banking on the hope that with me pushing forward will eventually get me to that yes. And sometimes even the first yes, is not the one you say yes to. The truth is, due to lack of funding, we often don’t get the best deals either.
That’s something I really want to consider, especially for my community—we have a lot of work to do because we’re trying to build our generational wealth and equity. This means we have to be wise when we step into the world of business and learn from those that have already been successful— and find ways to push that envelope.
I really encourage other founders to do their research and connect with people that have experience so you can say yes to deals that are actually beneficial to you and your company.
When you receive something favorable, that’s actually a very sound investment for your company, you also ensure that other VCs know that if I’m going to invest in this person and this community, I have to make sure that I’m coming in with the right mentality.
Working in this space and PR you learn a lot about IP (Intellectual Property) and how quickly it can be yours one second and gone the next. You have to be very careful about what you sign on for, literally. Sometimes you realize that what you sign up for is not what you actually signed up for and I had to learn that the hard way. In some ways, I’m glad because those were learning opportunities. Now, I know better.
As a creator, what are your thoughts on pursuing untraditional education methods?
I’m an advocate for educating yourself on your own terms. Many tech companies these days don’t hire people with degrees or diplomas. If you want to build a skill set, there are ways to do so without going to traditional schools for it.
I went to school for PR at Humber College in Ontario and then I went to the Ontario Tech University for digital communication and design. I ended up dropping out my first year to pursue my business. I had a guidance counselor say to me that school will always be there but the opportunity to build a business will not. She really inspired me to focus full-time on my business.
However, I never stopped my education, I’m really big on that. I didn’t necessarily continue down the technical route but I took the non-traditional route. I did the Bizstart program, then following that, Business in the Streets, which is another type of business Bootcamp that helped me scale my business. I also did UforChange and learned coding and graphic design. Most recently, I made it past three rounds to the top 20 for the HXOUSE No More Dreams program. I got the opportunity to be in the accelerator where I learned many useful things like pitching, and archiving work, as well as getting to network with people who do amazing work in the industry, such as Vanessa Craft, the previous editor of Elle, and now the Director of Partnerships at Tiktok Canada, who also happens to be a woman of color.
There are so many non-traditional ways to learn. I’m currently looking to do a part-time course on UX/UI Design at Juno College.
The journey to providing a desirable service for minority communities is nothing short of challenging. However, with the motivation to represent and bring more prosperity and opportunities to her community, D’Andra is steadily building up her arsenal of skills to win game-changing collaborations in the VC world.
Her hope is that she’ll find someone that shares a similar vision and sees the potential in this largely untapped beauty market.