Sharon Chuter Ignited a Grassroots Anti-Racism Movement in Beauty That Is Reverberating Throughout Corporate America
Here at Fashionista, we're passionate about covering all the ways that the industry is changing for the better. That's why we wanted to honor the forces working tirelessly to reshape what it means to work in fashion and beauty. With our annual series, Fashionista Five, we'll be doing just that by ...Continue reading
- Sep 13, 2020
Photo: Courtesy of Sharon Chuter
Here at Fashionista, we're passionate about covering all the ways that the industry is changing for the better. That's why we wanted to honor the forces working tirelessly to reshape what it means to work in fashion and beauty. With our annual series, Fashionista Five, we'll be doing just that by highlighting (you guessed it) five people whose work we've admired over the past year.
In May of 2020, the world was grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, an emerging economic crisis and the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Corporate entities across just about every sector hopped aboard the bandwagon of vague solidarity and lukewarm support for the Black Lives Matter movement by posting a black square to their Instagram feeds — and doing little to nothing else to address the rampant systemic racism in their fields or within their own companies. Meanwhile, beauty executive Sharon Chuter took it upon herself to single-handedly spark a movement.
It was in the week after Floyd's murder that the founder and CEO of Uoma Beauty established Pull Up for Change, a grassroots effort to bring transparency, accountability and Black representation to the beauty industry – and ultimately, the rest of corporate America, too. On June 3, Chuter began posting to Pull Up for Change's Instagram feed with the simple mission statement of "Fighting for economic opportunities for Black people." To date, the account has amassed more than 135,000 followers and incited a tidal shift in the way corporations consider diversity within their businesses.
The initial challenge Pull Up for Change put forth was straightforward but incendiary: that companies publicly release specific employment statistics to quantify the racial breakdown of their employees. Particularly within the beauty industry, conversations about inclusivity, diversity and representation had been on the rise for years, with many brands responding to consumer demand for these values by building out their shade ranges to be less exclusionary, showcasing more diverse models in their marketing materials and basically patting themselves on the back for finally deciding it was worth their economic while to try to sell to people of color. But for Chuter, it was a lot of self-serving talk and empty gestures; her own experience at legacy beauty corporations like LVMH and L'Oréal had told her that there was still a huge race problem inherent to the industry.
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Chuter was no stranger to big undertakings. Prior to founding her own color cosmetics company, Uoma Beauty, Chuter had worked for major corporations such as PepsiCo, in addition to the aforementioned LVMH and L'Oréal. In her youth, she'd also had a career in her native Nigeria as a singer and entertainer, and as a teenager she'd been responsible for bringing about momentous change in the nation's beauty industry: "At the time, there weren't really many makeup brands that were available in the country — I mean, MAC was huge, but MAC wasn't officially in the country. It was people going overseas, buying a bunch of products, putting them in their suitcase and bringing them back to the country. So I was sort of like, 'Hey, why don't we have beauty brands in this country officially?'"
She took it upon herself to contact a slew of cosmetics brands, hoping to work with them as a distributor in the Nigerian market, but most companies turned her down. In fact, all of them but one passed on the opportunity: Revlon. At the time, the company was interested in getting into the Nigerian market, but regulations that classified cosmetics as drugs prevented them from getting the necessary access. "What that meant is that you'd have to register each and every one of the products, including shade variations, and follow the process that you'd have to follow if you were registering a medicine, which is just not doable for big brands that have 2,000 SKUs," explains Chuter. But she didn't let that hurdle stop her. "I was able to find a loophole in the law. I ended up doing the impossible, bringing Revlon to Nigeria at a time when they weren't able to come in." This opened the door for other brands, including MAC, to follow suit. "A lot of the big players now are [available in Nigeria], so that was amazing having a chance to be a pioneer — sort of unknowingly — for bringing in color cosmetics and incredible international players into the market."
Decades climbing the corporate ladder followed, with roles at the aforementioned corporations, mainly serving the Asia-Pacific region. It wasn't until 2016, when Chuter was working as an executive at LVMH's Benefit Cosmetics, that she became motivated to branch out on her own venture. "I had gotten really dissatisfied with my corporate life," she says of that period in her career. "I felt like I lacked purpose. I didn't like the exclusivity, the fact that we were leaving people out."
She also felt that she'd lost her own sense of identity in her quest for corporate success. "I'm a woman of color, and I know the price that I had to pay to assimilate enough to be considered 'acceptable' as an executive and operate in predominantly white spaces. I knew we were leaving people out, and at that moment I sort of had this moment of reckoning.... Everything I was was who I needed to be to succeed. That really started to feed into a lot of dissatisfaction with the way the business was being run, the fact that it was all about targets and numbers and nothing about purpose." At the time, she didn't know exactly where she would channel that desire, but she knew she wanted to create a career about which she could feel passionate while also rediscovering and maintaining her sense of self.
At the time, Chuter was hesitant about establishing her own company. She knew the beauty space was a crowded one — and an increasingly celebrity- and influencer-driven one. "I had to really get over myself," she says. "I had a purpose. I said to myself, I'm starting a movement, not a business." When she conceived of Uoma Beauty, it was this core motivation that created a framework for everything else. "I wanted to get the story right, it was more important than the product. That's why our products are so intuitive, because we'd already created the message. The product, the packaging, the marketing — everything was really born out of it. It was the gift that kept giving, because it kept telling us where we needed to be."
Chuter's beauty company is one which doesn't toot its own horn about the concept of inclusivity — it just practices it to its very core, and lets its actions speak a whole lot louder than words. "We didn't even want to talk about inclusivity because we were operating on my philosophy that we are all different, and that's a good thing. The idea of not seeing color is stupid. We have eyes and we see color. [Uoma Beauty] is about celebrating differences and not ignoring that we're different," says Chuter, a value she calls "somewhat controversial" but crucial to her business. "Why are we pretending that fair skin has the exact same needs as dark skin, when the science tells us differently, just because we don’t want to say it?"
Since Pull Up for Change first put out its call to the beauty industry to "Pull Up or Shut Up" by sharing their employment records, nearly all of the major industry players have participated, including Unilever USA, The Estée Lauder Companies, Shiseido, Revlon, Johnson & Johnson, Kylie Cosmetics, Sephora, Coty Inc. and many more. But the impact of "Pull Up or Shut Up" didn't stop with beauty. Major fashion companies like Gap, H&M and Levi's joined the conversation and pulled up, as did businesses as varied as Snapchat, Good American, Siete Foods, Milk Bar, Uber, Microsoft and even a small theater company in London. Trevor Noah featured Pull Up for Change on "The Daily Show"; Jackie Aina mentioned it in an Instagram video and called for her own brand partners to show up for the Black community.
Despite the far-reaching ripple effects Pull Up for Change has had over the past several months, Chuter seemingly hasn't lost a step when it comes to focusing on the success of her own business. Despite the obvious challenges of 2020 and a shaky global economy, Uoma Beauty is reportedly on track to grow for the year. And still, she's doubling down on her activism.
The next phase of Pull Up for Change is to actually hold all the companies that did, indeed, pull up, accountable. "These companies need to focus on what they're doing in terms of their ecosystems right now. What are you doing in terms of anti-bias training, educating [employees and executives] about racism, looking at your structure, your rules, your policies to make sure that you're an environment that can foster people from different backgrounds?" she asks.
Photo: Courtesy of Sharon Chuter
In the months and years ahead, it will become clear which companies are truly committed to embracing diversity and Black representation in an authentic way. "It's not a problem to just throw money at and solve. Unless the top [executive team] is diverse and leadership teams are eliminating their unconscious bias, how is that going to trickle down to your team?" Chuter says. "Companies have to really make sure that their entire leadership team is on board, not just saying they're on board. Creating diversity teams, updating HR manuals, looking at the pipeline for talent and your relationship with HBCUs, all of that really helps — but unless you can foster and develop and retain diverse talent, the recruiting initiatives are useless." Inability to foster and support Black talent in real, tangible ways will hold companies back from being able to report more diverse employment numbers in the future, says Chuter, because retaining a diverse workforce will prove challenging.
She stresses the importance of building an environment and corporate structure that sets up people of color for success. "Like attracts like. Everybody keeps saying, 'I can't find diverse talent, I can't find Black talent.' Well, when I put [hiring] adverts out there, I'm inundated with submissions from people. [Uoma] has communicated from the beginning that we're here for everybody, especially marginalized people. When I put ads out, people who the brand speaks to the most are the first to apply for the job." What's more, building a diverse team really benefits a company's bottom line, stresses Chuter. "Other companies are out there spending thousands of dollars on market research, but my team is my market research. What is being seen now as a huge challenge [for other companies] to increase team diversity is not one [for Uoma]."
To brands who have promised to "listen and learn" and to make efforts to recruit more Black talent, Chuter has a simple message: "It's not that hard." Or at least, it shouldn't be. "People always make this inclusivity thing look like it's a big deal. But at the end of the day, your business has to be reflective of the world that you live in. If you want to serve a global customer, the world is diverse — of course it makes sense to have a diverse team."
Despite having created a seismic impact within the beauty industry (and beyond it), Pull Up for Change is very much in its infancy, according to Chuter. "We're very excited about the impact we've made in a very short period of time, but we've got a long way to go," she says. "We're now evolving to become a resource. That's why we've been a little bit silent; we've been doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work so we can come out and announce some really amazing initiatives later this year."
When asked what she's most proud of having accomplished so far with Pull Up for Change, Chuter hesitates. "I don't think Pull Up for Change is something to be proud of," she eventually concedes. "It's devastating that we still live in a world that looks like this. It's surrounded with a lot of sadness and bitterness and anger. We're still living in this kind of reality [with pervasive racism], so I really have a hard time processing and reflecting on being proud of that. I'm always my biggest critic and I'm always looking ahead to what's next. There's so much work to be done, so I really haven't had the luxury of taking a break and trying to figure that out."
Chuter is resolute in her commitment to continuing her activism and not letting that negativity get in her way. Her remaining personal and professional goals are the ultimate blend of lofty and altruistic: "I'm trying to make the world a better place, period," she says. "You're never going to completely erase racism. But making the world a fairer place is what I've always set out to do. Everything I've done — from starting a beauty brand, to setting up a nonprofit organization — everything has been to combat racism and create a world where we can appreciate our differences, where we can understand that we're beautiful because we're different. I'm always driven by this bigger goal, and every other action I'm taking is just one piece at a time."
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