On SheaMoisture and whitewashing natural-hair-care marketing

hair care aisle

So…SheaMoisture released this online video, and many of the brand’s black women customers aren’t having it.

I think few people are begrudging SheaMoisture for seeking to expand its customer base. But it’s interesting to me that making this product appealing to the “mainstream” (read: white women) means lessening the presence of black folks in its advertising. (Carol’s Daughter, apparently, has undergone a similar phenomenon.) It’s a pretty tired trope at this point: gain a following among black consumers but abandon them once you seek to make it big, so to speak.

On a broader level, as a business journalist, I’m interested in two things:

  1. I think on some level there has been a move away from racial demographic-based marketing. Now it’s about psychographics and more specific affinity-based segments, from what I’m seeing. There’s some rationale for that: the customer profile for, say, a Luster’s Pink buyer probably looks quite different from the profile for a SheaMoisture buyer. (For one, the latter is more expensive.)
  2. The notion that Afrocentric spaces cannot be inclusive ones is quite odd to me, especially given the extraordinary influence of hip-hop culture. (There’s lots to say about business influence, co-opting, etc., but I think it’s very fair to say the culture is primarily driven by black folks.) Yet this idea persists in so many arenas, from this ad, which claims inclusivity yet doesn’t feature any dark-skinned or kinky-haired women, to criticism of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, in which it’s claimed that the emphasis on black lives is somehow an affront to non-black people.

I’ve spoken to several other natural-hair-care* entrepreneurs, most of whom are black women. Several of them discussed their initial surprise when they saw that women of other races and ethnicities were flocking to their products. Most described their marketing approach as driven by social media and user-generated content (e.g. customers sharing photos of their hair and videos of their styling tips), hence representing their customer base by default. All acknowledged the personal origins of their companies (i.e. they began making hair products for their own hair needs) and their predominantly black and female customer bases, while noting their desire to welcome customers outside that group.

Indeed, achieving sales growth usually means tapping into new markets, yet any business must be careful not to alienate its core customers while doing so. The SheaMoisture kerfuffle demonstrates (once again) that black customers won’t tolerate perceived exploitation for the sake of racial solidarity. But why even flirt with such a marketing hazard? Reaching a broad customer base, in 2017, should not require erasing blackness.

*That label in itself is murky, given that now there’s another segment of “natural” hair products, i.e. juices and berries, that aren’t necessarily marketed to black women!

Update: SheaMoisture has issued an apology and removed the original video from its social media accounts.

The future of Aereo and permissible TV hacks

Studio and transmitter compound of TV station.

The New Yorker recently ran a post on the embattled TV streaming company Aereo. Here are my quick thoughts:

The Grammys and hip-hop’s fight for legitimacy

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images via GRAMMY.com

Oh, the Grammys.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis took home four awards, including Best New Artist and Best Rap Album, while Kendrick Lamar went home empty-handed. Observers on the Internet, as anticipated, unleashed a collective raspberry; Macklemore responded with an awkward display of white guilt.

What I find most interesting about the reaction to Macklemore’s wins is that it illustrates hip-hop’s persistent chip on its shoulder. It belies any contentions that the Grammys are irrelevant to the genre. After all, if the awards didn’t matter, then why would the record exec Steve Stoute ever have bought a full-page ad in the New York Times to berate Grammy voters for not awarding Eminem or Kanye West Album of the Year?

In other arenas, hip-hop has made significant inroads into traditional cultural institutions. Jay Z’s book Decoded makes the case for readers (and listeners) to analyze the rapper’s lyrics as closely as, say, Wallace Stevens’s verses of poetry. Harvard has an institute devoted to the study of the genre; last year, the rapper Nas announced an eponymous fellowship there that will support scholars in the field. Others, such as 9th Wonder of the hip-hop group Little Brother, have turned full-time to academia.

Then of course, there’s the world of industry. Long gone are the days when rappers were merely unpaid pitchmen for sneakers and vodka. First, there was the proliferation of hip-hop-infused fashion labels, from Phat Farm to Rocawear, with Diddy even nabbing an award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America for his brand Sean John. In recent years, hip-hop artists have begun to make inroads in industries from media to tech. After reading Danyel Smith’s recent story for ESPN The Magazine on the convergence of sports and hip-hop culture, I couldn’t help but remark on Twitter, in a nod to Netscape founder and investor Marc Andreessen, that “hip-hop is eating the world.”

Oddly enough, hip-hop has struggled to attain that influence in its most immediate backyard—at least among those considered the gatekeepers of music’s legacy. By now, it’s ancient news that hip-hop acts can top Billboard sales charts (though this past year has revealed an interesting disparity in the makeup of songs versus albums charts) and achieve some measure of crossover success. Yet hip-hop artists have largely been confined to receiving genre-specific awards: no hip-hop artist, for instance, has ever won for Record or Song of the Year.

At the same time, however, there has been a gradual trend toward the collapsing of genres altogether. In recent years, the Grammys have made a big show of pairing artists from distinct genres in seemingly improbable collaborations. This year, for instance, featured the snubbed Kendrick Lamar alongside the alternative-rock band Imagine Dragons, as well as Metallica and concert pianist Lang Lang. The Grammys have also, controversially, minimized the recognition of genres it considers to be niche: the number of awards for R&B, for instance, has been slashed by half.

This blurring of genres has extended to the sales charts as well. In 2012, Billboard expanded its criteria for defining record airplay, and in many cases, crossover acts have overtaken artists with followings primarily within one genre. The change has arguably hit country and R&B hardest, but hip-hop hasn’t been immune from its effects: for instance, the Korean artist Psy quite dubiously topped Billboard’s rap charts for “Gangnam Style.”

Macklemore has been beset by a similar genre controversy, as he draws his fan base largely outside of the core hip-hop community. For this reason, the Grammys’ rap committee reportedly sought to bar his nomination in that category. But it’s hard to argue that Macklemore isn’t a rapper, at least in strictly technical terms. (During the awards show, a friend of mine wondered if his song “Same Love” should be considered spoken word rather than rap or hip-hop, but I suspect that distinction would be lost among Grammy voters.)

All of these factors produce an environment in which hip-hop is, paradoxically, both mainstreamed and marginalized. Unlike in decades past, when blues artists received neither recognition nor compensation after their songs became fodder for hits by rock ‘n’ roll acts, the stakes for today’s hip-hop artists aren’t financial. But for a genre—and culture—seeking to burnish its legacy, the slight still wounds.

Art and engineering: they’re closer than you might think

The Dream Series. (Courtesy Designs By Dash)

In judging people’s talents, we often make a rigid distinction between the “right-brained” (the creatives) and the “left-brained” (the geeks). But those labels are artificial, and nowadays, those boundaries are as blurred as ever.
Durell Coleman hopes his new company, Designs by Dash, can thrive in the margin between art and tech. So far, he’s off to a promising start. Coleman has raised more than $10,000 on Kickstarter for his company’s first product, the Dream Series: a set of laser-engraved wall maps, inspired by his travel to Nicaragua as a mechanical engineering student at Stanford.

Coleman says the reign of smartly designed tech, first championed by Apple but now evident in products from Google Glass to the Pebble smart watch, prompted him to start his company. “There’s been a shift from engineering to art,” he explains. “There’s a lot more thinking about how to make things more aesthetically pleasing, user-friendly. Designs by Dash is the reverse: taking art and moving to incorporate more engineering into it.”

With the Dream Series, Coleman sets out to merge art and technology through the manufacturing process. He first draws the landmasses for each map in Adobe Illustrator and uses a CNC laser to carve those shapes into acrylic glass. But the final production of each map is done by hand. Coleman arranges the individual cutouts onto backlit panels of acrylic glass to produce pieces that are at once industrially designed and manually assembled.

Coleman has a master’s degree in industrial design, but he wasn’t originally drawn to art. Through his first company, Project Spark, he sought to develop affordable power generators for the developing world, and he was accepted into StartX, Stanford’s business accelerator. But the renewable energy market proved tenuous, and Coleman put Project Spark on hiatus. In the meantime, he pondered the question of producing affordable yet functional and beautiful products. What if he approached the problem from the opposite end of the spectrum: producing inspirational art with a functional purpose?

The concept of engineering-inspired art isn’t new. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí have used common products to explore the connections between industrialism and art. That theme continues to resonate in the art world today. One recent reminder of this is Carl Swanson’s profile of Jeff Koons in New York magazine. Swanson describes how Koons’ works are meticulously manufactured, so as to bear virtually no traces of the human hand.

Few items, however, are designed at the outset to serve as functional art, though they may acquire that label retroactively. The company closest to achieving the union of art and engineering may be Apple. (The iPod, after all, found its way into MoMA.) But there’s a big difference between elegantly designed products and items made chiefly for aesthetic appeal. In the tech world, function still takes priority over form.

With Designs by Dash, Coleman seeks to break that hierarchy. By doing so, he believes, he will be better equipped to design products that elegantly serve real-world needs. “The laser maps,” he says, “are just the first step in the process.”

Update: Durell Coleman’s company is now known as DC Design.

Thoughts on the #PyCon debacle

The crowd at PyCon 2013
The crowd at PyCon 2013. (Photo by Ed Schipul)

So yesterday, I caught wind of all the uproar regarding Adria Richards at PyCon. (Recap here.) There have been several low points regarding women in tech and minorities in tech, at which I have shaken my head and sighed, but for some reason, this incident has particularly troubled me.

At first, I agreed wholeheartedly with this cogent take by Amanda Blum, in which she argues that the whole sequence of events is a total loss not only for the participants but also the tech community as a whole. But then I read these rebuttals, which made me rethink my position.

I believe that I, personally, would have sought to address the jokes directly with the men first. But then, I don’t work in the tech industry (although I do talk to a fair number of people who do, by nature of my job). I’m not exposed to the particular set of microaggressions—seemingly minor slants that over time compound themselves into a giant wound—that Richards, apparently, has been subjected to. I can, however, relate to the dilemma of how to respond when certain microaggressions simply become too much—and the inevitable backlash that comes from those who proclaim that you’re simply turning a mountain into a molehill.

Toward the end of my junior year at Yale, our campus tabloid (yes, we had such a thing) published an article entitled “Me Love You Long Time,” which supposedly sought to explore—and lampoon—how women of Asian descent are fetishized. But all it did was reinforce stereotypes of Asian women as sexually submissive (“they’re easy”), and it even included a crass reference to Hurricane Katrina as its kicker. I’ll never forget that line: “Asian girls are like New Orleans levees: they only stay tight for so long.”

The article, rightly, outraged a significant group of students. Especially problematic was that it was published and distributed on the same week that high schoolers who had been admitted to Yale were visiting campus. The article had also come on the heels of others, albeit in different publications, that reinforced stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans. (For instance, one newspaper comic expressed incredulousness that an Asian-American student would run for student council—don’t they spend all their time in the library, it asked.) So in response, Yale’s Asian-American Student Association (AASA) organized a protest, in which students would wear black clothing and gags and be silent for the day, even in class. Some participants, like me, chose to participate in class discussions but wore black in solidarity.

The day of the protest, the university also held a forum for students and faculty to address the article and the reactions it had garnered. And what comments did we hear? That we needed to lighten up—it was only a joke. That the truly bad thing was the pushback the members of the tabloid’s staff had gotten—not the ugly stereotypes their story had reinforced or the impact that might have on women of Asian descent on campus. But of course, all these are par for the course when pointing out incidences of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. What really stuck with me happened months later. That summer, I went to London as part of a university-sponsored internship program. I stayed in a flat with three roommates. One day, three of us were having a conversation, and the AASA protest came up (I don’t remember how). One of my roommates said something to the effect of, “What they did should be reserved for actual political protest.” In other words, the response was too extreme.

I remember countering that we were in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation: no one paid attention when people had written letters to the editor in response to past articles that reinforced stereotypes. (I remember it even being suggested that the tabloid in question had a history of publicly mocking criticism from others, so a simple letter might even backfire.) It was only when we went nuclear—for lack of a better term—that the issue came to the forefront in a serious manner.

So I sympathize with Adria Richards on the call she made. I may have made a different one, but that in no way excuses the subsequent retaliation she has faced.

That said, the question remains: why am I so worked up over this particular situation? Maybe it’s because as a black woman, I have a keen understanding of how intersectionality (in this case, race and gender) can play out in instances such as this. But I think it’s mainly because as a business reporter, I play some role in exalting companies and individuals that too often uphold the culture that produces sexist and racist debacles such as this. It makes me uneasy.

Last words: some insightful (and less rambling) posts on the situation:

Adria Richards, PyCon, and How We All Lost

“Let me get this out of the way. I don’t like Adria Richards.”

A Few More Thoughts on Adria Richards

Rachel Sklar: The Firing Of Adria Richards Looks Like Kneejerk Appeasement To The Troll Armies

Apparently We’re Not Ready to Be Adults About Anything

How Adria Richards Spoke For Me

Thinking About Adria Richards and Other Black Women In STEM Fields

A Woman Walks Into A Tech Conference

Why Asking What Adria Richards Could Have Done Differently Is The Wrong Question

Some Of Us Are Brave, Honest, & Transparent: The Adria Richards Edition

On Adria Richards, PyCon, and SendGrid

Sexism in tech is like an onion–it has many layers and makes people cry

Terrifying, Escalating Sexism

On PyCon

In Defense of Adria Richards and Call-Out Culture

Adria Richards and Donglegate – Right or Wrong?

Do what you love, especially if you’re launching a startup

Father and sons at children's computer

This morning, thanks to Matt Mireles of SpeakerText, I came across this post on why a journalism start-up called NewsLabs folded only two months after its site, NewsTilt, launched. It was a compelling read. I was struck particularly by this admission:

But we didn’t really care about journalism, and weren’t even avid news readers. If the first thing we did every day was go to news.bbc.co.uk, we should have been making this product. But even when we had NewsTilt, it wasn’t my go-to place to be entertained, that was still Hacker News and Reddit. And how could we build a product that we were only interested in from a business perspective.

What? Why would you build a product you wouldn’t use? As so many of Inc.’s stories attest, starting a company basically takes over your life, so if you’re launching a venture, it better be something you care an awfully lot about. (Even Paul Graham of Y Combinator, which funded NewsLabs, has said, “It sucks to run a start-up.”)

There are tons of strong points about business and technical issues made in the post, but the personal ones really jumped out at me. The author, NewsTilt co-founder Paul Biggar, was working on his PhD thesis and planning a wedding, all while trying to get a company off the ground. That’s already insane, but then again, many entrepreneurs love extreme multi-tasking. (I’m reminded of one CEO I profiled who started a non-profit to collect war veterans’ oral histories at the same time he launched his management consulting firm.) But, if you’re not all that into your day job, it’s probably near impossible to pull off the juggling act.

Biggar also makes a personal aside that ties into policy: namely, the startup visa that several politicians and figures in the entrepreneurial community have proposed. As he points out,

If you support the Startup visa take note: if the startup visa does not allow a founder’s significant other to work, then many founders won’t move. I can support my wife on a H1B because it comes with a high salary, but good luck on a founder’s salary, no matter how good the funding is.

I think that’s an important observation, and it raises (yet again) questions about where families fit into startup life.

Do black entrepreneurs just need better ideas?

Man and woman looking at laptop in office

This Huffington Post story on black entrepreneurs and angel investment caught my eye a couple of days ago. I was particularly struck by the interview at the end with Lauran Bonaparte of Lauton Capital Group. In her response to the last question, she made a couple of statements that contradict what I’ve heard from many investors I’ve interviewed (primarily for Inc.’s Elevator Pitch column):

Q: If an entrepreneur stems from a background of poverty, poor education and the relational family is similarly situated, what steps can they take to overcome those types of challenges in getting their idea to a level of funding?

A: Wow. That’s a great question. I believe, in my experience, it’s all about the idea that you have. If you have a great idea and a great concept, you can overcome poor management in a myriad of ways. […]

While Bonaparte’s contention is that good ideas generally prevail, most investors I’ve spoken to and read have been quick to point out that they invest in promising people more so than even promising businesses. And how do they determine who is promising? By looking at who’s in their inner circle. Therein lies the rub for black entrepreneurs—most are nowhere in these investors’ social networks, so they have to work much harder to convince them to take a leap of faith. Women entrepreneurs face a similar (though perhaps not as stiff) dilemma, which has been discussed in many columns and conferences.

I also find curious the notion that good ideas outweigh poor management, given that there are several companies (e.g., eBay, Yahoo) that have lost their luster due to leadership woes. One prominent example is a little site that predated the likes of MySpace and Facebook but now is pretty much forgotten, at least in the U.S. (Otherwise known as Friendster.)

Often it seems to me that blacks in the entrepreneurial field are reluctant to bring up mentions of any barriers to success, for fear of sounding like whiners. I totally understand this concern. But it often ends up with them dismissing obvious points, such as those above, or worse, throwing out stereotypes about black people’s laziness. Thankfully, Bonaparte does not do the latter, but I’ve seen egregious examples along those lines. One horrendous guest post on The Black Snob, a blog that I otherwise enjoy, comes to mind. Many years ago, Inc. committed a similar sin—and it was rightfully lambasted by Earl Graves, the founder and publisher of Black Enterprise, for doing so.