What compelled you to start Hue Noir?
Hue Noir is really the story of a little girl who fell in love with makeup…probably way too early. But as she grew up, she had this love-hate relationship with makeup.
I had very sensitive skin when I was young. If I found makeup that worked from a color standpoint, it normally wreaked havoc on my skin. Then I tried healthy makeup, but it never matched my skin color. In those awkward teenage years, wearing makeup that wasn’t the right shade was terrible for my self-esteem.
As I got older, I thought: Why can’t there be healthy, flattering makeup shades for all the other women who look like me? And, that’s how the idea for Hue Noir got started.
How did your childhood dream turn into this one?
I had dreams of being in high fashion, but I couldn’t draw to save my life. When all of my friends were going off to be fashion designers and actresses, I fell in love with science.
My mom is artistic, and I used to play at her table a lot—I loved her color theory. Match that with my natural curiosity about makeup, and it’s funny how that dream turned into the creative and scientific work I do at Hue Noir.
I went on to college—majored in biology, minored in chemistry—and I started a career in product development. It was during that time that I started to understand what was behind all that makeup and all those ingredients. I made a lot of products for other people and companies, yet still fundamentally had this issue with makeup. I decided it was time to stop complaining about makeup and use what I knew to create something that worked for women like me.
Tell us about Hue Noir.
Hue Noir is a full line of color cosmetics designed to meet the nuanced skin tones of women, ranging from light skin tones all the way up to the deepest, darkest shades. We sell Hue Noir in salons, boutiques, online, and we have a couple of larger retail accounts. We take pride in providing exceptional color depth with skin-friendly formulations, which takes more chemistry research than typical makeup products.
I get asked a lot about what our name means. “Hue” obviously means shades. “Noir” is French for black, but in science, it is the inclusion or absorption of all color. So, Hue Noir is my geeky way of saying shades of color.
During the early stages of Hue Noir, what was the impossible challenge?
Unlike many of the founders I know in the beauty space, I was determined to do my own self-manufacturing. A lot of people tried to encourage me away from that. Because there are so many different units of product that go into a makeup line, getting a contract manufacturer to handle everything was impossible.
So, the big daunting task was…could I develop my own production facility? It would take about two and a half years to complete the build-out, and the facility had to be FDA compliant. I needed to have great science and great manufacturing, but also be able to push the marketing lever. I did many things beauty brands don’t have to endure, but developing my own production facility was the right decision for Hue Noir.
Share an “aha” moment from your first year in business.
No matter how great I think I could have built and prepared the company, there were always going to be improvements or changes. Early feedback was great, but it meant growing faster and bringing on more resources than I really wanted to.
That big “aha” was…running a business is more challenging than I thought it was going to be. No amount of planning could have prepared me for that.
Any rituals that help you stay healthy and productive?
I’m a firm believer that being an entrepreneur inherently brings really high highs and low lows. Early on I used to get lost in the depths of those lows, and race through the highs. I’ve learned to balance it out a little bit. I’ve learned to celebrate the wins, even if they’re small, because I know there will always be challenges.
Like most entrepreneurs, I worked so hard that I wasn’t taking care of myself. And I recognized that if I’m going to be the best me that I can be, and really lead my company, I’ve got to balance the emotional rollercoaster that comes with running a business.
My family is incredibly important. I have a supportive husband and two teenage boys. I take the time to make it to all of their sporting events. I also love to run. I find that I do some of my best thinking when I’m running. Sometimes the issues I was really concerned with don’t seem so bad after a run. Once I get that clarity, I feel like I’ve caught my breath and I’m ready to tackle anything.
What challenges do underserved entrepreneurs need to overcome?
Being a woman and a black entrepreneur, a couple of things struck me early on. I didn’t grow up with the kind of mentors who were in this industry. I had to seek out mentorship—and to be honest with you, it wasn’t readily available. I also found that funding was an extremely big challenge, especially as I talked about a business that was serving this niche need in the beauty industry.
Unless I found investors who could fundamentally understand what that underserved issue was, it was really hard to convince them of the value. A fund like Elevate really helps on both of those accounts.
Nitin and the Elevate team have been extremely instrumental in that mentoring role. Sometimes it’s as simple as Nitin walking in and asking me how things are going, and having an opportunity to talk through things. Sometimes it’s as simple as him saying: “You know what? It’s all going to work out.”
From the funding side, there are always pivotal moments. I had a very pivotal moment in my business where there was just one hurdle that I needed to get over. While I had been fairly successful at self-funding, you reach those points where you can’t move forward with your business. For Hue Noir, Elevate came in at that moment.
The support we received from Elevate Capital was extremely critical in getting us from where we were to where we are now. I see tremendous value in a fund like Elevate. The mentorship helped me work my way through all of the challenges I faced as an underserved entrepreneur.
Describe your venture capital experience with the Elevate team.
I got to know Nitin and his team as they were initially putting together the Elevate fund. I saw the passion behind the company with everything they were planning to do. When the fund came to be, I saw some of the early businesses they invested in and the amount of care and attention they provided.
I saw working with Elevate as a natural opportunity. I thought I would have a good partnership with Nitin, and that he had my best interests in mind. Not all investments are great investments. But investments by people who really care about you—and not just your venture—partner with you so that you both succeed. I just can’t speak highly enough about our partnership with Elevate.
In what ways does Nitin Rai’s mentorship guide your success?
As a president and CEO, accountability is a good thing. I provide quarterly reporting to show what our successes are, what we’re doing, what our challenges are, and just where we’re at in the business.
Nitin plays a great role in being that person I can turn to when I need to talk through issues. Given the level and depth of his experience—and the experience of those around him—I’m able to pull on their expertise to help me when I need to make tough decisions. That’s critically important with an investment partner.
How has networking in Portland helped your business?
Networking has been great for us at Hue Noir, especially for operations. I make it a point to network anytime and anywhere I can, and I’ve made great connections with a lot of other entrepreneurs in Portland.
I’ve also been able to connect with everyone from Prosper Portland to Business Oregon to people in public office. Having such a good community of partners in the Greater Portland area gives me a bigger podium where I can talk about Hue Noir and get resources when I need them.
What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur in an elevator?
Be true to your mission and your vision. There are going to be a lot of people who come along the way. Some will be helpful, and some will not be helpful at all. If you’re clear about where you’re heading, you’ll meet the right people. You’ll find the resources and make it happen.
I’ll also share a piece of advice that was given to me by someone very prominent in the beauty industry. Don’t stop. It may be hard, but you owe it to yourself to keep pushing on.