By Aisha Powell
Our mission is to empower women of color to look and feel their best, says Paula Hayes, the CEO of Hue Noir, a black-owned makeup brand that caters to women of color. The Portland-based product and development chemist was tired of the lackluster beauty industry that did not cater to women of color a decade ago, so she decided to start her own line with the science background to do it herself. From her kitchen laboratory to beauty stores around the U.S., read our interview with Hayes on how she created her beauty empire.
Give us a quick background on you, like where you are from, your upbringing and backstory?
I was born in a small town called Pueblo, Colorado. But, my dad worked for the government, so at the age of five I moved to L.A. I grew up in South L.A., specifically in Inglewood. I lived there until college. I decided I wanted something a little smaller and away from home, so I did my college in Oregon. And long story short, now I am back in Portland.
Growing up, were you exposed to the beauty or fashion industry?
I fell in love with makeup at an early age, just watching all the older women like my mom and aunts around me. I fell in love the minute I tried my mom’s lipstick. I always felt like she had great fashion sense, and she really did, she always put her best self forward. I was talking to my friends about what we wanted to do as we were getting ready to graduate high school, and I had a few classmates and girlfriends who started to model around that time. I also had a few other girlfriends who were becoming fashion designers and I loved all that stuff, but I was 5’2,” so modeling wasn’t in my cards. I couldn’t draw to save my life, so trying to draw sketches just didn’t work for me. But I loved science, figuring out all that stuff that was in products; I think that is how I ended up getting exposed to the industry and ultimately what I am doing now.
With your science background, were you leaning towards becoming a doctor or were you more interested in aspects of science like chemistry or biology?
I think it was more the latter. I mean, I told everyone that I was going to med school and would become a doctor. For one, I think because immature Paula at age 18 loved the response she got. People’s eyes would light up when I told them. But there was always something in my mind where I wanted to do something beauty and skin related. I have a lot of skin issues, so for some reason that equated to I had to become a dermatologist. Obviously, I learned later that I did not have to become that to do what I wanted to do, but that is where my mind was at the time.
Did you ever think you would become a business owner?
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bug. I know a lot of that came from my mom. My mom was an entrepreneur and she had an interior design business. There were times when I was in high school and I would help her. My dad was an accountant, he taught how to keep her books. She had me in and I could see what she was doing. Her business ultimately did not succeed, and I think I was a little scared of that. I knew how hard it was for her. I think the one thing that helped me too was when I decided I was going down this path, I went back to school, and I got an MBA. The company I worked for at the time decided to help me learn and they not only helped me pay for the MBA, but they also cross-trained me across the business. Once I got a bit of that insight, I was like yeah, I could run a business.
When did the idea of Hue Noir come to you?
I think that first inkling of a thought came to me right when I was entering college. By then I was really struggling with beauty products that were on the market. I got comfortable researching ingredients, so I had my mother take me to libraries and I’d rent out cosmetic dictionaries. I knew what was in the products, but I didn’t put two and two together until I started my first job out of college as a research and development chemist in the food and beverage industry. I started to get a lot of exposure to food, beverage and cosmetic chemistry, learning how those things, formulation wise, came together. Around that time, I was sick of product options that were on the market. Either they didn’t work for me because my skin is really sensitive and if the colors worked, it probably wreaked havoc on my skin more times than I can count. And if it worked for me and didn’t cause problems, I hated the color. As a product chemist, at that point, I would go into a store and see lots of different products that I worked on for other companies – whether it was food, beverage or cosmetics. I started to get mad, thinking if all this stuff could be on the store shelves, why weren’t there other or more solutions of makeup products for women of color? I reached a point where I said, I understand how this stuff comes together, I understand how to formulate it. I could either keep getting mad or I could try to tackle it myself. I ended up choosing the latter.
So, you have this idea of a beauty company in your head, but prior to Hue Noir, what were you doing?
I had a little bit of an evolution getting to the point where Hue Noir was my full-time job. After I got cross-trained, was doing my MBA and finishing that, I started to outgrow that company. I knew I would outgrow it if they didn’t have another position for me, we both knew that. But I wasn’t ready. There were still so many things that I didn’t know or understand, and I wasn’t in a financial position to run Hue Noir. I just decided to take any sort of job or position that was going to advance my general business knowledge. By then I knew product development, I just wanted more exposure. So, I took positions that ultimately gave me exposure to different parts of different companies. The funny story is, over the course of 5-7 years while I was doing that, I ended up being recruited and promoted at different companies totally unrelated to what I wanted to do. On my last job, I was the Executive Vice President of Sales and Operations for a small start-up, which came about from all my experience in product and business development. The owner was a gentleman who was primarily in real estate, and wanted to expand the industries he was in. He did not know how to put together a business, so he brought me on to help him build it. I thought it was a great opportunity for me to start and build a company. After a year of which included writing a business plan, getting the business up and running and hiring staff, I felt like it was time for me to go and start my own thing. So, in 2007 I gave it all up and started on my own venture. Fast forward, it took me two years. My husband ended up being recruited to his dream job and we were growing our family. We moved from California back to the Portland area and I wanted to make sure my kids, who were super young, a new born and a four-year-old, were settled by that point. Now, Hue Noir is my full-time work and has been for quite a few years.
What are some initial obstacles you faced?
There were pretty significant ones. When I first said, “I am going to start my own cosmetic brand,” I knew that there was no way that I was going to get a contract manufacturing company to take my product seriously. What I mean is, I knew I was not going to them so they could just pull something off of their private label and slap my logo on it. I was really trying to develop something that was considered more of a product solution, meaning they were all custom pieces. I knew that to get them (contract manufacturing company) to even turn on the machine and make the amount of products I needed, there was no way that I could pay for it or have a place to put all that product if I could pay for it. The best solution was to do it myself. It was a little too daunting to think about building out a whole facility and making products. Obstacles are obstacles, they will always be there; all I can do is put one foot in front of the other. So, I used the first early years to finish my formulations and then I started to make all the products out of my home just to be able to make enough quantities to take to little expos or trade shows. Then I found that if I wanted to make more, because I was obviously burning myself out, I had to figure out my next steps: building out a facility. That meant finding the financing for it, jumping through hoops and getting bankers and underwriters to understand what I was doing and why. I can’t tell you how many times most of them were men. I had my banker, who was a woman, talk to the underwriters because they couldn’t understand why they would do a loan for cosmetic equipment or if there really was a need. Just having to tell and demonstrate over and over and over that there is a need and that this is a viable market was one thing. But then also came the challenge, after I finally got over all those obstacles of getting financing for the equipment and things like that, of getting the working capital. The equipment would look great in my facility and it would be nice, shiny and bright, but without the working capital to buy the raw materials, to pay for people to work for me and start the marketing, it would’ve just ended up being shiny equipment. My husband and I ended up putting in a significant sum of money and bootstrapping over the course of the early part of the business just to get us to a point where I can get venture capitalist and others to take us seriously.
“The best solution was to do it myself. It was a little too daunting to think about building out a whole facility and making products. Obstacles are obstacles, they will always be there; all I can do is put one foot in front of the other.”
When did you begin getting outside funding?
A couple of years ago when I started scaling. We got the facility built out, we could make products, we could sell a whole lot more directly to consumers and do bigger events. But I got to the point where I wanted to take on larger retail accounts; up until that point, any retail or wholesale accounts were smaller boutiques and I could handle that. But by that time, I was talking with larger retailers. I was not only going to have to make more products but I’d also be able to do it faster and crank up marketing. At that point of going outside for venture capital financing, we were in a better place. It was a little impossible in the beginning but became a little bit more reasonable a couple of years ago.
Do you think you faced obstacles due specifically to your skin color or the fact that your brand is targeting minorities?
Yes, undoubtedly. I wouldn’t make any qualms or sugar coat that, I know I have. Everything from having to explain early on and justify why my business would cater to women of color and having to explain over and over just how under-represented products are to this group of consumers. I know we have been turned down, once or twice, by either investment firms or others because of that. I have had people ask me, “Why don’t I just expand my reach,” and what I’d often say to that is, it’s interesting that you would say this, because at the same time, everyone talks about if you want to penetrate a market you need to identify a niche. This is my niche, how is that any different? And so, I know that I’ve had to deal with that. I also witnessed a really interesting phenomenon starting in 2017. Up until then, whenever I would do an industry trade show, I really felt that I had to go to extra lengths to explain to buyers and investors the reasons why my business is focused on women of color. And then all of a sudden, I don’t think it is any coincidence, around late 2016 Rihanna comes out with Fenty (beauty). Literally, the next industry trade show I did, which was a couple of months after that, I stopped having to explain so much. Here you have a brand (Fenty) that definitely shows the market place that there is a need and people are interested in the products. For her brand to basically sell out of all of their dark shades within a few days of opening, and then I just saw the overall conversation shift. I honestly have not had to explain as much as I did before.
Where are your customers?
All of our customers now are US-based. We have inquiries from people who are in other parts of the world, but I am really clear about making sure that we really penetrate the U.S. market before we start going in international markets. But you can expect some of the big ones, New York is always high on our list, L.A. is high on our list, Chicago, Houston and Atlanta, those are the kind of ones you expect. Portland and the area that I live in is high on our list, but that’s because we have been here for so long and we are well-known in this area. There are places that I would have never thought would’ve landed on our list like Ashburn, Virginia, which is within the top 20, and not one I would have put on a pre-determined list of where we are going to sell products. There are always a few surprises along the way of where our main customers are.
What is a typical day in your shoes?
Oh God, I can get myself tired just thinking about it. I have two kids and although they are a little older, I have a 17-year-old and an 11-year-old, I found that if I don’t start my day focused on making sure they are up and out, my days can go downhill. So, from wake up, it’s fairly early. I get up somewhere between 4:30 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. every day. My youngest has to catch his bus at 6:05 a.m. So I make sure he’s up and out the door, then make sure my high schooler is on track to get himself up and out. They leave the house by 7:00 a.m. Then it’s me answering some emails and doing some early work. A year and a half ago, I found that I was so consumed with doing work that I was not taking care of me. So I now make a conscious effort to go and workout, to either get a run in because I love to run, or go off to do some kick boxing or something by 7:30 a.m. I am back home between 8:30-9:00 a.m., then it’s getting myself together at that point, probably answering a few more emails and getting to the office as quickly as I can. And then its whatever the day brings. As an entrepreneur and business owner, there are things in my day that I plan and things that just come up during the day. It could be anything from touching base on production or products being made that day. It might be working with my operations people on certain tasks that need to get done. It could be doing briefings and follow-up calls with my PR team or my digital marketing team. It’s really a hodge poge of duties that typically take me to about 5:00 p.m. I would stay later if I could. My parents were really good in making sure I could be a part of things that I was interested in, so I make a conscious effort to make sure my kids do what they want to do. So, at that point, it’s getting them off to their sports and events. Then I typically come home, and I like to cook. I cook dinner typically four days a week but while I am cooking, I am probably also on my laptop working. My husband usually gets home at 7:00 p.m., around the time my kids are home, then its dinner. I try to call it a night if I can but there are some times that I have to do more work. I also try to give myself some time to rest for a couple hours. I try to get to bed no later than 10:30 p.m. because I have to get up at 4:30/5:00 a.m. and do it all over again. That’s a typical day.
Have you found a good work-life balance?
It’s a work in progress. I think I am always finding it. Honestly, when I’ve gotten into my grove and find my routine, things might shift a little bit or change, or we start to get more demands. As the years go on, the business has always been moving faster and faster and faster and I have to adjust a little bit. The thing that I found in the last couple of years is by just making sure that I am conscious of taking care of myself. I am making more time for it. For instance, things have just been particularly busy this month and a half but tomorrow I am taking off for some much-needed R&R. My husband and I are taking a trip and I don’t plan on any work for those four or five days. And I know it will be good for me and it’ll give me a chance to rest and then get back at it. Whenever I do that it just gives me a little time to get some perspective and it helps me keep the idea of personal and work balance a little bit more in check.
How have you seen your brand make an impact on the black community?
I think I’ve seen it make an impact in a couple of ways. First, I think about all the times when we have gone to cities to do events, where we allow people to just interact with the product. Having so many black women and women of color say to me, “I have never been able to find my match,” “makeup has never worked for me so I just stopped wearing it,” and to see them giving our products a try, it tells me that we are hitting our mission: to empower women of color to look and feel their best. She is putting her best self forward; she feels good about herself and she can project that into the world. For me, that part of it is really gratifying. I also think about the kind of business I am building. A world class company that runs and does business the way world class companies do, and it happens to be black-owned. I think that is a great example for the world and it shows other entrepreneurs and business owners, especially those who are black, that there is a lot of success in setting up a business that way. Finally, I think the impact is in my hiring process. I make a strong point to hire as diverse of a staff as I can; that is part of my mantra. I think it not only provides opportunities to people who live in my community, but it is a great example that we are living what we are demonstrating to our customers. And so, I hope these are ways that we are making an impact in general.
I make a strong point to hire as diverse of a staff as I can; that is part of my mantra.
What are some tips you’d give current young black women who want to get into entrepreneurship?
Regardless of what you are doing, you have to dare to have, what I call, Big Hairy Audacious Goals. When you are looking to start or launch a business, let’s face it, that’s a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. I don’t care what kind of business it is; it takes a lot of work and it’s a lot more than anyone can possibly imagine. But with that, you can’t get caught up on what that end thing is, because it is big and daunting. All it really takes is one step at a time. Every step that you take will get you one step closer, so take the time to envision what that is. Take the time to understand what it’s going to take to get yourself there. Ask for help along the way. Don’t be afraid to take the risk and don’t be afraid to fail. You can’t be afraid to fail. You have to bet on you, and you have to know that if you just put one foot in front of the other, you’ll get yourself closer to whatever that ultimate goal is.
What is next for Hue Noir?
For us right now, the immediate next thing is expanding distribution and the penetration in the U.S. market. That is something that we are actively working on now and I feel like we are going to do that pretty quick. After that, it’s expanding into some of the international markets, where we have seen some interest for the brand. There are interesting opportunities for us in places like parts of Canada. London is also a place where we see a lot of interest for the brand. I have distributors in Africa that are evaluating the brand and really want to consider showing it. I think it’s just allowing Hue Noir to become not only a nationally recognized brand but an internationally recognized brand that succeeds in its goals of empowering women of color to look and feel their very best. If we get there over the next two to five years, I will be extremely happy.