When it comes to beauty, Kristen “KJ” Miller and Amanda E. Johnson refuse to settle.
In September, 2015, the two friends and former Harvard Business School classmates set out to solve a cosmetics problem they kept running into: High-end makeup brands didn’t seem to have the right nude lip shades for black women.
“Is it just because we haven’t searched hard enough?” Miller remembers asking Johnson one night over a glass of wine.
“Or is it indicative of a larger problem in the industry? Which is that we are not being targeted.”
Both Miller and Johnson recall frustrating experiences while shopping for nude lipsticks and being handed pink and peach colors for their brown lips — or worse, watching makeup consultants start from scratch.
“It was, ‘I can create a nude look for you if I use this lip liner, this concealer, this lipstick, this lip gloss and everything else… and now I’ve got it.’ But how am I gonna recreate that?” says Miller.
The nude lipstick is widely considered to be a staple beauty product, especially for professional women who may have limitations on wearing bold colors to work.
For Miller and Johnson, the idea of black and brown women not having enough beauty options in the U.S.’s $62 billion dollar cosmetic industry wasn’t an option.
Following their conversation over wine, the duo spent months researching colors, mixing products and testing different looks on friends and family.
In 2016, the pair solidified six shades for their line and then began conducting focus groups and finding manufacturers. That fall, they went full force on fundraising and, with a persuasive pitch, secured a lead investor.
By the end of that year, Johnson and Miller decided to leave their full-time jobs to pursue Mented Cosmetics full-time.
This month, Mented, which is short for “pigmented,” rolled out a line of six nude lipsticks created with a range of multi-colored lips in mind.
“The fact that it shows up and it enhances your natural beauty is key,” says Johnson.
The brand has received positive early reviews from a budding online community of women who are bonding over their preference for a “nude beat” or clean beauty look. It fits into a larger nude revolution of companies creating everything from stockings to hijabs to honor skin tones often overlooked by mainstream businesses.
But the real lesson about never settling has also come in the form of overcoming naysayers.
Before launching Mented, some people questioned the duo about leaving their coveted jobs — Johnson worked in luxury retail and Miller worked for a top management consulting firm.
“People are like, ‘Look, you both have good jobs… Why are you risking it to create another beauty brand?” says Miller.
The inspiration to innovate and push beauty boundaries is now paying off. Miller says they’ve raised half a million dollars in pre-seed funding for Mented so far and will release additional products in 2018, including highlighters, blush and foundation.
“That whole ‘for us by us’ vibe is alive and well and I’m excited about what we’re creating,” says Johnson. “We have this great group of girls [who are excited] that we’re doing it for them, as much as for ourselves.”