Uoma Beauty Founder Sharon Chuter on Why Inclusivity Shouldn't Stop at 40 Foundation Shades
"I couldn’t accept the lack of diversity and inclusivity in beauty. More than that, I couldn’t accept that brands were starting to move into that space but it was from a place of tokenism. And I know this because I worked within those brands."
Welcome to Beauty Boss, a reoccurring series in which we spotlight the power players driving the beauty world forward. Consider this your chance to steal their get-ahead secrets, and grow from the real-life lessons they’ve learned on the job.
When Fenty Beauty launched its game-changing foundation in 2017, coming out 40 or more foundation shades quickly became the status quo for makeup brands.
But for Sharon Chuter, a Nigerian-born beauty industry veteran and former LVMH executive, stopping at foundation colors just isn't good enough. "It's not about 100 shades of foundation," she tells InStyle. "It’s actually getting to understand the differences in us, and from that, understanding what’s similar. I think a lot of beauty brands still don't get that."
This is why Chuter started Uoma Beauty (pronounced oh-ma) in April 2019 with the intention of creating products that truly suit the needs of people of color, along with skin tones and undertones across the entire spectrum. Uoma means "beautiful" in Igbo (one of the main languages spoken in Nigeria) and is also an homage to Chuter's African heritage.
Uoma initial collection included foundation, concealer, eyeliner, three eyeshadow palettes, lip gloss, matte lipsticks, and a dual-ended highlighter and contour stick. Surprising to no one, the Say What?! Foundation went viral. But what sets Uoma's foundation apart is that its formula goes beyond the actual shade range. Instead, the 51 available shades are divided into color families, and each family's formula is customized to meet individual skin needs.
"We still have a long way to go on every front, including embracing diversity, and then giving people a seat at the table," Chuter says. "I hope through our products and me speaking up very bluntly and honestly, we’ve achieved some change in a very short period of time."
Here, Chuter shares how she got her start in the beauty industry, why every product in every category needs to be made with a focus on diversity, the importance of listening to her gut, and more.
Tell me how you got your start in the beauty industry.
I used to be a singer and got into beauty almost by accident. Long story short, I ended up bringing Revlon to Nigeria when I was only 17. At the time I was curious why we didn’t have the major beauty brands that were in the United States. That really propelled me to discovering I was more passionate about business than I was about music, but I realized I was too young for entrepreneurship at that point. I wanted to learn everything about how brands are run, so I took a step back to eventually step forward by working on the sales floor.
It was recognized that I had a consultation approach to selling, and that brought me to account management which is about sales strategy. From there, I kept moving from one role to another. I have a short attention span so I always go into a role really hard, which means in a year I’m bored because I’ve done everything I wanted to do in that job. So, I kept on going and ended up an executive.
What inspired Uoma Beauty?
The brand was created out of frustration. Angela Davis said something phenomenal that changed the course of how I think. There’s a line in the Serenity Prayer that says “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Her response to that was no, we’re going to change the things we can’t accept. That was literally me going into starting this brand.
I couldn’t accept the lack of diversity and inclusivity in beauty. More than that, I couldn’t accept that brands were starting to move into that space but it was from a place of tokenism. And I know this because I worked within those brands. I wanted to come out and really show what inclusivity means to me, which is allowing people to be their true authentic selves and have a seat at the table.
In the past few years putting out a couple dozen of foundation shades has been the focus of diversity among many makeup brands. What other product categories still need work in terms of being more inclusive?
Women of color tend to have two-toned lips and some have really dark lips, for example. A lot of nudes on the market are still completely off and have too much pink in them. We also need to talk about how a lot of the transition colors put in eyeshadow palettes aren’t usable or the pigments aren’t strong enough. I see a lot of WOC beauty bloggers put white primer on their eyes before using an eyeshadow palette so the colors show up on their skin better. When we put out our product, you didn’t need to apply that white primer. To be honest, that white primer ruins everything because it’s meant to adhere to skin! If you want to use an eye primer, use one that’s suitable for your skin color. The problem is that there’s not that many available.
Our foundation wasn't about 51 shades, but the concept of different skin having different needs. It’s important to understand the people you’re catering to across the entire spectrum. I didn’t come out and say I only understand Black skin so I’m only going to cater to Black skin. I took my time to understand, research, and study all skin. Why aren’t other brands doing that?
Visibility in stores is another area that needs work. Every brand has 40 shades of foundation, but where are they? Go to Sephora in New York and you’ll see all of Fenty’s shades because they have exclusivity with Sephora, but a lot of brands are still keeping deep shades in Brooklyn because apparently, that’s the only place where Black people live.
All of Uoma's products have a storytelling element to them. What's your approach to making products?
When I create products, I want to tell stories that inspire people to be themselves and not really care about what the rest of the world thinks, because we got you. For the Say What?! Foundation, it was having appreciation for different skin having different needs and then building a collection around it. For BROW-FRO, I wanted to celebrate an era that was radical. The ‘70s was a time where Black people started embracing their hair and taking up space. With the ‘60s civil rights movement going into the ‘70s, the Afro became a cultural icon and everyone was rocking their ‘fro.
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What products from the line are you particularly proud of?
I’m proud of all of them because they’re my babies, so it’s like asking me to choose a favorite child. The Say What?! Foundation, of course, has been a breakthrough because we changed the game with foundation. There’s not many times in life where you go into a an established category with something new.
Our eyeshadow palettes are our top three best-sellers, and I think they’re a good example of why people should believe in themselves. The Allure Palette is our top-selling product. When I created it, everyone told me not to launch it because it’s full of yellow and green shades which isn’t a usable color story. This palette is part of our Black Magic Collection and with it, I was telling the story Oshun, the goddess of love and fertility. She’s a bomb ass goddess and I wanted to stay true to her color story. Funny enough, when it launched it become our number one product period. Makeup artists loved it because they knew how to manipulate the pigments, and real people loved it because it was easy to use and you can apply it with your fingertip. It’s now out of stock at Ulta and Ulta.com.