Calling all my melanin infused sisters to center stage, the spotlight is on you! Now let’s keep it all way real ladies, we have all been at the makeup counter being persuaded by the pushy sales rep more focused on the coin rather than your actual issue. You have been trying for so long to find the perfect versatile nude, yet come up short every time… or that same pushy sales rep has somehow managed to convince you that you need a lip scrub, primer, liner and lipgloss to go along with a nude lipstick in order to achieve a color only sort of like the one you had in mind. Well look no further, Harvard Business School Graduates, Kristen (KJ) and Amanda have created Mented Cosmetics to help put an end to all of our troubles. “Dope Taupe” and “Nude LaLa” are only two of the six creamy, highly pigmented WOC friendly shades. 

We had the opportunity to chat it up with founders Kristen (KJ) Miller and Amanda Johnson to learn more about Mented. These women are extraordinary. 

What was the inspiration behind Mented?

Amanda: This has really been a passion project for us and it started out of a real need. We were at Kristen’s house, this was fall of 2015. And we were just talking about makeup… you know, the good, the bad, the ugly if you will. I said to her, “I’ve been looking for the perfect nude lipstick for like 3 years, and she said the same thing.” 

Kristen: Yeah, exactly. We’ve all been there and every woman of color that we spoke to was like, “Me too. I can’t find it, it’s not out there” or I’m mixing 4 different products trying to make it happen.” And we felt like that’s nonsense. Like why shouldn’t I be able to have one shade that looks like my true perfect nude… So from there, we said, alright let’s see if we can make it.  If no one is gonna make it for us and we know there's a market need, let's do it ourselves. 

Did you ever think that you’d fail?

A: I mean, I think plenty of people along the way told us “No, this already exists, this isn’t a concern, this isn’t a real problem, or this is only a concern for a few.” … I think we really just took all that kind of negative energy if you will, and made it into something great. Like turned it around, used it as fuel to keep going…Guess what, with Mented you count, you matter, and you’re not an afterthought. We took all that hate and said you know what, its fuel and we’re going to make a bomb company with it. This isn’t just for us, you know, this is for Black women, Hispanic women, Indian women, Asian women, and White.” 

K: …No. I don’t think I’ve ever thought to myself I’m not going to be successful. But every single day is hard and I think that’s just the nature of entrepreneurship because I think there’s just so much that you just don’t know. You don’t know when you’re going to close your round if you’re trying to raise money, you don’t know “are these manufacturers going to screw me over? “ Like literally, before we got the lipstick shipped to us, we were just like steaming with anxiety. Like what if this s*** comes out and it’s wrong?…What if the manufacturer ships us 12,000 wrong lipsticks? That’s stressful and you don’t know it till it gets to you. It's stressful when like, the designers are asking you if you want this design, you have to pay 5,000 dollars more that you did not plan on spending.  It’s like every day, there are new stressors.  At no point did I think like, I’m going to fail because the idea isn’t right.  Like obviously the need is there… I feel like part of our lesson becoming entrepreneurs has been learning how to deal with that stress and to like cope with it and just live with it because there’s sort of no getting out of it.

Today, social media can be sort of intimidating- would you, say social media has been more of a help or hindrance to you? 

K: I mean social media is so crowded first of all and that’s what makes it intimidating. That there's a trillion different accounts, a katrillion different makeup artists, a trillion makeup brands and everyone’s selling something on social media- flat tummy teas and eyeliners and highlighters and the whole thing. So I do think that can be intimidating but I think one thing that we’ve curated really well is just sort of a story of not just us, but you. I really think we share when customers post themselves… when people are excited, we share that. Our Woman Crush Mondays are, yes the flawless Beyoncés of the world but also just like really natural thoughts of Aja Naomi King or Gabrielle Union. We’ve tried to use Instagram to tell a story that is “we are all in this together. This is a community; we get what it is that you’re going through…. In that, we try to make it less intimidating, less perfect.

A:  I think that’s huge for us in the kind of flaw if you will in Instagram- everyone is so perfect, everyone has a bomb beat and ten pounds of makeup on and they spent thirty minutes learning how to do their eyebrows… And the truth is, most women want to feel beautiful and they want products that just enhance the beautiful that they already are…Instagram has provided us and given us the platform to really tell that story and Mented is short for pigmented; because what we truly believe is every woman wants to feel beautiful. And what she needs is a pigmented product that enhances that natural beauty…It’s really been Instagram that has actually been pivotal in allowing us to tell that story because there are plenty of women who do makeup and put on all the makeup, and there are plenty of women who just want to know, “how do I go work every day?  How do I go to a wedding?” … So we’re just trying to highlight those natural stories and it’s about time a brand did that for us, you know? Say, “You don’t need to have on blue eyeshadow, red lipstick, and ten pounds of makeup. You can just be yourself and be beautiful and here are some products that will help you get there.

What has been the most challenging part of this whole thing? 

K: Um, honestly, I think fundraising for me at least, has been the hardest part because the people with funds in this country, for the most part, are not women of color. So if all we had to do was raise money for women of color, I think we’d get there, and get there pretty quickly because every woman of color we speak to gets it. Every woman of color who tries it, loves it. So there’s a very easy sell there… but the reality is most of the institutional capital in this country sits in the hands of white men and white women, that’s who we’re pitching to. There are certainly plenty of white men and women who get it, they’re like “Listen, I’m not a woman of color but I see what you’re talking about. I see them spending tons of money on makeup, I see them saying they’re not happy.”… And we have funders and investors who are white and Asian and all the rest, but for every one who gets it, there are like thirty who don’t.  We’re telling you and showing you, this is a real problem and people are really frustrated. Black women actually outspend white women by eighty percent on cosmetics. That’s based off of a Nelson report. Hispanic women posted faster growth across every beauty segment in 2014 than any other demographic. So we are spending a lot of money on this and so little of us are happy with the experience. Like we go into meetings and we think a lightbulb would go off for these guys, and sometimes it does, but often it doesn’t and that’s tough when you know like “gee, how else do I make it more real for you? How else do I tell the story?”.  That’s been tough, but at the same time, we’ve learned a lot and we’ve raised money, and we’ve never tried to raise money before. This is our first time doing this, and now I think we are a lot better walking into rooms with confidence and like making our case, doing our pitch, and raising our funds. We are way better at it now than when we started last fall. And it is a learning curve. I don’t think anyone jumps out the gate being really great with getting them to hand them half a million dollars. 

What has been the biggest lesson in this so far?

Amanda: What I’ve been inspired by and what I’ve been really excited about is just the response from the community…I think there’s a lot in the women of color community, black community, you know, that we aren’t there for each other. I have not seen that, I have been inspired, excited, I feel loved by women who try our products, who are excited for us. When we first started on Instagram, we would post pictures of us behind the scenes at the manufacturer, going into a meeting… and the comments would be, “You go girls” like, “I’m so excited for you” and “Do it for all of us.” Honestly, it’s been just lovely to see that, to feel that, to hear it everyday.- The comments on Facebook and on Instagram, the emails, and tweets. So just keep it coming, we love it and we think it’s just fuel that keeps us growing so I would say to any woman of color out there, if you have a great idea, you just find your community. Find those people behind you because they will feel you. For every “no” they are the “yes”… The Mented girl, the Mented Community, that’s what we love.

What separates Mented from other brands? Could you explain the formula?

K: I think there are a couple differences; I think one is the positioning of it like what we stand for as a brand and to your point, the formulation.  So on the positioning side, I think what really makes us stand out again is this idea of natural everyday beauty, where so many brands that say they’re targeting women of color really are always trying to put you in bold, super fierce makeup- Smokey eye, BAM! Contour, BAM! You know, glitter everywhere… long lashes… deep, deep dark lips and all of it, ombre lipstick and you know, that’s fine… That’s great if I’m going out to a club …But what we’re focused on is, well what do I do the other 364 days? …Most of us have day jobs and we just felt like there was no brand saying, “You women of color, should be exactly who you are, but just a little bit enhanced. You’re already beautiful; this is just a way for you to enhance your beauty.” …In some ways, I would compare us to a Bobbi Brown, because we think she did that really well for women and we want to say, “Look, there’s a whole other world out there of women who want that everyday look.”  To the formulation question… We did very specifically want to do a semi-matte, so, still a little bit of gloss and we wanted it to be hyper-moisturizing because we both hate that. I don’t know if you’ve ever worn like the liquid to matte or like the super matte lipsticks that are so dry, and then not only is it drying but it stays on forever like you cannot get it off. I mean, that doesn’t resonate with either of us, which isn’t to say that we’ll never do a matte lipstick. Like there are girls who want it and that’s perfectly fine, but we felt like right out the gate… we care about moisture and we care about having it feel hydrated. 

A: I would just add to the positioning. The other thing too is, it’s not lip service. What a lot of other brands do is, they love to ride the ethnicity train. “Diversity is in this year,” you know? And then all of a sudden they have three more shades of foundation for us. All of a sudden, they have one ambassador that we’re all supposed to look like and care about… This is not lip service, this is truly a brand for women of color and in the advertisements, if you are Hispanic, if you are Indian, if you are black, white, brown, dark, medium, whatever… you’re going to see yourself. 

Are there any plans of partnering with major retailers? 

K: Yeah, we’re having conversations. Interestingly, all of the conversations we’ve had with retailers have been them approaching us, which is good… that’s what we want. Right now we’ve said we want to focus on our website as our main distribution channel for now because we want to be in charge of our brand. We want to be in charge of telling the story. We want when people come to the site, they get the full story of Mented, they feel brought into the community, but we do think a retail play makes sense. We just don’t want to go there until we’ve made it very clear who we are. So for now, we think we’re going to focus on the website but we see retailing in the future. 

A: For us, we just want women of color to tell their story, to feel a part of Mented and right now, the best way to do that is on 

Do you plan on expanding your line of products, i.e. Foundations, Blushes, Etc.? 

K: For sure, we see Mented as a full-fledged cosmetics brand. So 2017 is about lips- we’re going to introduce gloss in the fall and balms during the holidays. We’re going to do a little venture away from lips and do nude nail polish in the summer… In 2018 is when we’re going to start introducing eye shadow and blush and potentially a highlighter pack and then after that is when we see like getting into foundation and concealer and powder and like all the face products. 

A: And we just want to do it right. Like if anybody were to ask us about Mented and how we want to expand, we want it always to be known that it is about our customers. We hear you. Girls tell us all the time, “We just want an eyeshadow palette where I can use all the colors. I just want to highlight. I just want a little glow that’s right for me.” And that is the most important part about our brand, like if you want a product, tell us! Let us know. That kind of community is really what we’re about and by the way, we want to get right. There are plenty of brands out there, plenty of brands on Instagram that are just throwing products up and slapping their name on it, and no shade, but that’s not what we’re about. We want to do it right, we want to spend the money, we want to take the time. And so we hear you, we’re working on it. 

What is the one exciting thing about your brand that you want everyone to know?

K: Honestly, the feeling of putting on a nude that was made specifically for you… when you do that literally in your 25-year life, 35-year life, 40-year life. I mean we have customers that are in their 60s. They all say the same thing, “It just feels so amazing.” It is an experience that literally none of us have ever had. I remember it to the day when we made “Mented #5” and we made “Dope Taupe” and we put those shades on for the first time, it was like electricity… We keep hearing from people the same thing like, “Wow, it literally feels like you guys came to my house, looked at me, looked at my lips, made a lipstick and handed it to me.” And that feeling of being prioritized is one that has been missing for so long in beauty, and it can’t be beat. 

Interview conducted by Jhatia Clemons