Meet Desiree Verdejo, the Entrepreneur Spearheading a Harlem Beauty Renaissance
Nearly a century after the Harlem Renaissance—a period when African Americans shook up the art scene in uptown N.Y.C.—Harlem welcomed Vivrant Beauty, the neighborhood's first luxury beauty boutique, which we predict will spark a revival of its own by transforming the way women of color shop for beauty products in the area. The woman in charge of this movement? Desiree Verdejo.
When it occurred to the Harlem native that her section of town was missing a welcoming one-stop shop for hair, makeup, and skin care products for ethnic women, she made it her mission to change the game. "I felt that Harlem needed a better beauty shopping experience," says Verdejo, a former attorney. "So I changed careers and followed my passion to bring this space to my community."
Just six months in the beauty industry and the self-proclaimed newbie has drawn an impressive crowd to her storefront on St. Nicholas Avenue, launched an e-commerce site, and garnered instant buzz from reputable sources like the New York Times and our sister mag Essence. And even as the leader of this uptown revival, she managed to make time to reflect on her burgeoning beauty career with us.
Read on to learn how Verdejo is making New York City history.
First, tell us about your former career.
"I was a lawyer for seven years. I'm proud of my background as an attorney but I realized that as I was progressing, I was becoming less enthusiastic about my day-to-day tasks. So, I started a beauty blog, attended beauty events, and soon realized that I was putting all of my energy into this passion of mine while practicing law. I figured that if I was going to put my all into a career, it should be one that I'm happy to stay up at night working on. Law and beauty are very different but as a lawyer, you have to cater to your clients and that state of mind hasn't changed. Very rarely are lawyers able to say no. You find a way to get things done, and the same goes for being a small business owner. It's been a smooth transition, so I'm sure there are more underlying similarities than I even realize. But I definitely wasn't thinking about social media campaigns as an attorney, so some things do feel very different!"
Why Vivrant Beauty?
"I'm from Harlem and live in Harlem and I felt that the area needed a better shopping experience for people of color. I found myself going to different niche beauty retailers for skin care and the most unpleasant retailers for hair care, so I wanted to bring those together. There are some really beautiful products for black women on the market and where they were being sold just didn't do them justice. The goal was to cater to the beauty needs of this group of women that isn't always considered in a luxurious space, and to also offer really cool person-of-color-owned brands that often don't get the shine that they deserve."
Did you experience any resistance when trying to introduce this new concept to the Harlem beauty scene?
"Luckily, no. Just shock and excitement for this new approach to beauty. It's so different from any other beauty retailer in Harlem—especially in the black community. People are enthusiastic about the concept of a business that promotes beauty for women of color and person-of-color-owned brands. I'm so enthusiastic about the embrace and the relationships that I've genuinely been able to build and I'm excited to see them grow. We've launched our website and have had great response from not only the tri-state area, but from southern states and the west coast as well. My goal is to maintain our position as a boutique that is a go-to for new, cool, well-curated products that keep women of color in mind."
As someone who is new to the industry, how long did it take for you to see yourself as a beauty expert?
"We do a lot of hair and skin care consultations, so I immediately realized that our customers would see me as an expert in the field. Our first customers showed me that I wouldn't just be talking about products but about regimens and care as well. However, it was important to me to have a beauty-savvy staff since our clients really rely on our team's advice. Our first hire was an aesthetician and we have a professional makeup artist on board to offer a well-rounded perspective."
What moment are you most proud of in your career in the beauty industry thus far?
"On Thanksgiving Day last year, just four months after opening, we were mentioned in the New York Times. My family was very proud of me being an attorney and very skeptical of my transition from law, so this was something that I knew that they would respect. They were able to support me and see past how crazy they thought the move was because of that recognition. We're also very much a boutique in Harlem in a neighborhood where the landscape is changing, so it meant a lot for Harlem to be mentioned so highly in the publication. It felt like a triumph for a lot of people: my family, the neighborhood, other business owners. A lot of people stopped in to say congratulations—and still do! That was a really interesting experience. It made me feel planted in the business and also in Harlem."