Erica Douglas, known as ‘Sister Scientist’, is the owner of the specially-crafted manufacturing and product development company, mSEED group. The company is a business-to-business firm with over 55 years of personal care expertise.
Early in her career, Douglas noticed a cultural gap in the African American haircare and beauty industries. At the time, she was working as a cosmetic chemist with large companies like Organic Root Stimulator (ORS), and Curls Unleashed. The cultural lag, she observed, wasn’t necessarily product-related. Douglas recognized the barriers that black entrepreneurs and small business owners faced when attempting to develop, manufacture, and market their beauty-related products. With her knowledge of how the industry worked, she believed she could aid small businesses trying to break into the personal care and beauty markets.
BlackEnterprise.com caught up with Erica Douglas to talk about the beauty industry’s cultural gap. Douglas discussed how she overcame race and gender-related obstacles, as well as what motivated her to start mSEED group.
BlackEnterprise: Tell me a little about yourself. How old are you? What do you do for a living?
Douglas: My name is Erica Douglas. I grew up in the Chicago area. I attended Stanford University, where I earned a degree in chemical engineering. I am currently finishing my M.B.A at Northwestern University, with a focus in marketing management and business strategy. I’ve spent my career being the “brains behind the brands” as a cosmetic chemist, developing quality and innovative hair and skin products, for a number of globally recognized brands geared towards women of color.
Currently, I am the CEO of mSEED group – a private label manufacturing, product development, and marketing/branding strategy company. mSEED group is focused on providing strategic growth solutions to aspiring entrepreneurs and established businesses in the beauty and personal care space.
What were some of the experiences that lead you to recognize a cultural gap in the beauty and cosmetics industry?
When I first started, it seemed like the barriers-of-entry for minority-owned/operated companies in the beauty space were few-and-far between. When you pull back the curtain of a number of brands that we’ve supported for years, you’ll find faces that don’t necessarily look like us in the driver’s seat. It’s not to say people of different backgrounds can’t sell or create products that I would support, but it speaks to the fact that we as a community spend so much money in the beauty space, but own so little. As I started to see this emergence of black entrepreneurship, what I also observed were these same companies struggling to grow and sustain their brands in a very competitive world. I saw funding, opportunities, and connections being freely shared within other communities, but this wasn’t trickling down to minority-owned startups. The result was, a bigger gap between the companies that succeeded and the ones that failed.
After deciding to pursue a career in cosmetic science, did you face any obstacles as an African American woman in a predominantly white, male industry?
STEM related fields are mostly male-dominated. I was surprised to find that cosmetic science was no different, even though the field caters primarily to female consumers. There are a number of brands that cater to African American women that have non-black men behind them. Don’t get me wrong, men have made significant contributions to the beauty space and, admittedly, have provided a valuable perspective and touch. But I’ve been excited to see more women taking on ownership and leadership roles. We’re not just the pretty faces on the packaging anymore. We are now the brains behind the brands. After all, who knows what a woman wants better than a woman.
How did you overcome the obstacles?
When I first started, I experienced a great deal of the “good-ol-boys” treatment. I found it to be difficult at times, working in a man’s world, knowing that I knew the psyche of the black woman better than they did. I took the time to learn as much as possible about every aspect of building valuable, successful brands; not just formulating good products.
You’re far from just a scientist. Can you describe the motivation and savvy-business mindset behind creating mSEED group?
mSEED group was started as a response to the need for more resources and services designed for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the beauty space. We’ve seen an emergence of black entrepreneurship in this arena over the last 10 to 20 years, with women like Lisa Price of Carol’s Daughter, and Miko and Titi of Miss Jessie’s. But before those brands became household names, they had to start somewhere. Many companies will tell you how difficult it was to get started.
I began to realize that companies that offered large-scale manufacturing and product development, which are often outsourced functions for many companies in the space, were not very open to working with startup or smaller brands because of small volumes and unproven success. But in order to become a big brand you have to be, at some point, a small brand. From my experiences I started to realize that more people who didn’t look like me were finding opportunities, partners, and the funding necessary to launch and grow.
For more information about mSEED group visit www.mseedgroup.com.