When Sharon Chuter was a teenager, she asked Revlon if she could be their distributor in her home country, Nigeria. She had been struck by the fact that hardly any major beauty brands had made their way into the Nigerian market, and she wanted to do something about it. Revlon said yes, and with that, Chuter got her start in the industry.
In the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons, Chuter tells Shirley Chowdhary that she was beautifully naïve at the time, and had a certain fearlessness that propelled her to be proactive.
“One of the gifts I got is I realised that I do love this, I do love beauty as an industry. Beauty truly became an option for me where it wasn’t before,” she says. “I finally found a home where I could be creative, I could be academic, and in bringing Revlon, I realised I had a hustle.”
Chuter, who was born and grew up in Nigeria and then spent a decade of her young adult life in Australia, is now the founder and CEO of UOMA Beauty, a cosmetics company that is rewriting the industry on inclusivity and diversity. UOMA Beauty’s product line includes 51 shades of foundation, catering to everyone who wants to wear makeup and filling a massive gap that has been left untouched by many of the world’s most prominent cosmetic brands.
In the podcast, Chuter shares that before UOMA Beauty, she was often unable to buy cosmetics that were designed for her skin – an experience that is all too familiar for so many people of colour who are expected to navigate a system that ignores their existence.
“It’s a big deal. It shapes your idea of worth because everywhere you go, you’re being turned down, you’re being rejected. Even in places that you’re supposed to buy your way in, like with a damn lipstick,” she says.
“I should be able to go out and buy a red lipstick that works for my skin tone and not a red lipstick that’s going to make me look crazy. For the longest time I couldn’t wear red lipstick.
“But it’s not just a lipstick, it’s life.”
Chuter says her company is often labelled an “ethnic brand” or “multicultural beauty” because it’s inclusive of everyone.
“I’m like, there should be no multicultural beauty, the world is multicultural. There should be beauty,” she says. “We shouldn’t be labelling people who are doing the right thing and creating a category for them.”
Before establishing her own company, Chuter had spent years in the corporate world, working tirelessly she says to prove she belonged there. She idolised Indra Nooyi, the first female CEO of PepsiCo, because at the time, she was just about the only woman of colour in such a position in the corporate world.
“With Indra, she was an immigrant. To see a woman that wasn’t born in America… was able to come into PepsiCo and rise all the way to the top and become the first female CEO,” Chuter says. “I knew that if she could, I could. That in itself kept me going.”
Nooyi’s comments about the importance of working hard inspired Chuter to do the same.
“Her strength, her tenacity, some people called her aggressive and I loved it! I loved the tenacity she tackled things with. She was my biggest inspiration.”
For Chuter, leaving the corporate world and starting UOMA Beauty was all about doing something that was underlined in purpose.
“I used to be embarrassed to be African and Nigerian. But I started flying that flag so big and feeling my ancestors through me,” she explains.
“For UOMA Beauty, that was what I wanted to do there. I wanted to create this space where everybody was proud to be themselves. I wanted to create this beautiful rebellion. And it was a rebellion of love. It was an uprising to actually go: we determine our worth.”
In just two years, the company has grown from strength to strength, beating out some of the best-known brands in the world and winning numerous awards.
“I represent the marginalised and I cannot let them down. I take that very seriously. Every time we come out and win against Mac or Chanel…I feel a lot of that win,” Chuter says.
“We’re only two years old and it’s crazy the size of our company in just two years. That’s because the world was ready for this revolution.”
Hear more from this conversation with Sharon Chuter on this week’s episode of The Leadership Lessons, a Women’s Agenda podcast made possible thanks to the support of Salesforce. You can listen here, or subscribe via iTunes or Spotify.