This year would have been Project Beauty Expo’s (PBE) fifth year exhibiting its diverse and inclusive beauty products at its annual trade show and conference event. But event organizers have pivoted to digitally connect with their community after the cancellation of its 2020 show due to COVID-19. Regarded as the first expo to specifically target women of color [WOC]-owned beauty and wellness businesses, founder Brittany Brown is driven now more than ever to educate and uplift emerging entrepreneurs in need of community and mentorship, especially given the renewed demand for diversity and recognition of people of color [POC] within the beauty industry. CEW recently caught up with Brittany about the latest at PBE, the challenges small brands face online and why she believes some companies may not follow through with their promises for more inclusion.

CEW Beauty News: How are you pivoting now that PBE 2020 has been cancelled?
Brittany Brown: We can still serve our community digitally, and that’s what we’ve been working on the past few months. We always want to stand out at PBE, do things a little bit differently, and not jump on any bandwagons. Throughout the development of the company and us moving forward as a brand, the goal has always been to lead with education. We plan to continue along that path, so we’ve collaborated with other companies, such as General Assembly. We also recently hosted a ‘Build Your Beauty Brand’ panel via Zoom to offer more insight and education to start-ups.

I see a lot of things happening in the industry right now, like grants being given and mentorship programs starting. A lot of these programs are for companies that are already in the growth stage. They already have $250,000 in revenue, $500,000, maybe even a $1 million in sales, and they just need to grow and expand. But there’s nothing out there to help those who are at step one. If we don’t help people at the basic foundational level and recognize the disparity that they have in regard to funding, education, bank loan opportunities and information on ways to self-fund, how can they even get to that $250,000 revenue mark? The goal of PBE moving forward is to continue virtual and digital sessions to get women – specifically black and brown women – the education, information and resources to get them from step one to step two and beyond.

As far as the expo/shopping part, I think there’s a lot of retail platforms that already host a plethora of smaller brands. So that’s not necessarily our focus this year; our focus is education. We’re still exploring ways that we can allow our audience to discover certain brands and shop them. We are going to start rolling out some opportunities for brands to do digital promos with us. That’s a great way to tap into our community, because people do follow us for that. We’re looking for that to launch in the next few weeks along with the launch of our new website.

BN: What do you feel will be the challenges about not having an in-person show?
BB: From a brand perspective — and I’m speaking from the indie brands that I’ve worked with over the years – I think the challenge is the digital transition, and how to sell online. If you look at the landscape of the brands you see at marketplaces, or farmer’s markets, a lot of them participate in the same one every week because that’s their source of revenue. Making that transition to learning analytics, data, ads and how to run them, and outsourcing for those things, is the challenge. Transitioning everything from an in-person business to online can be troublesome for someone who has either a product or a service-based business.

From my own perspective, I think there will be a greater degree of competition now, particularly for smaller brands. More customers are shopping online since COVID-19, so everyone has to transition over to selling digitally; it only makes sense that the cost increase of digital platforms will be substantial. I’m just waiting for Instagram to start charging us at this point, and we’ll be forced to comply. So for small brands, like mine or even smaller, it’s going to be a challenge to compete with the big players who have a $500,000 marketing budget, or more, towards digital ad space.

BN: What do you feel are the main challenges that WOC-owned businesses face now in beauty?
BB: Our core mission is to educate aspiring and emerging women of color entrepreneurs on the way to grow a sustainable business in beauty. We’re open to all women, honestly, but we focus specifically on those communities. As a woman of color myself, I remember the challenges I faced with trying to launch my own skin care line, and even with operating PBE. We can’t do things in the traditional way that you normally see elsewhere. X brand reached this level, or Y brand reached this level – we just don’t have the same opportunities. At PBE we try to say, ‘OK if you’re looking to self-fund these are the ways you can do it.’ We already recognize the disparities that exist.

Funding is certainly a huge challenge for black and brown businesses when they’re starting up. We can’t necessarily hit the market in the same way others can. We have to wear all hats. It’s not a case where you have the social media person, the customer service person, the full-on branding, the full skin range for your hero product, and then we hit the market with great press. That’s not how we hit the market. It’s more like this: we start a page, it grows a little bit, we build up our community, then we start to see a little revenue enough for us to hire someone. Personally I never wanted VC funding when I started my own brand. But aside from that, getting bank loans, credit cards, it’s still all very hard. We can’t negotiate at the same level as our counterparts. We just don’t have the revenue to do that.

BN: What are you hoping will be the long-term effect of the Black Lives Matter movement on WOC-owned businesses?
BB: This would have been our fifth year [having the show], so we’ve been recognizing and amplifying the voices of black-owned and brown-owned brands. More people are starting to pay attention now, which is great. I have friends who are also founders, and I can tell you it’s increased their sales which, in turn, has created more opportunities for other women of color because they’ve been able to hire more staff. I do love what’s happening right now overall.

I’m anticipating what’s going to happen when the movement isn’t trending anymore though. Are people and companies going to retreat? I think there are some brands that will leave it behind for sure, simply because people are people. If you weren’t doing this before, nine times out of 10 you’re probably not going to do it after it’s off the trending page.

What these brands and companies need to get is, it’s more than just adding more black and brown brands to their trade shows, or putting up more photos of women of color in ads. Your internal structure is off, so start there; don’t just do the front-facing things. Really show us the diversity and inclusion. A lot of the brands being recognized now are indies and they don’t have the money to go to trade shows. If they can’t fit, what is the alternative that you’re giving them? You’re telling them no, but how do you suggest they move forward? That’s why I go as hard as I do with education.

CEW Beauty News: How large would PBE’s 2020 show have been this year had it been able to operate?
Brittany Brown: We planned on having the event Sept. 12 and Sept. 13, and were anticipating 50 exhibitors and about 350 attendees. Our goal is to be more of an intimate trade show expo, so we never plan on having more than 50 exhibitors at a time. In 2019 we had 32 exhibitors at the L.A. show; in 2018 we had 40 at the New York show. When we initially launched in 2016, we only had 4 exhibitors and one of them was my brand (natural and organic skincare line Monee Cosmetics).

BN: What is your selection process for exhibitors?
BB: We have an application on our website that focuses heavily on what the company’s goals are. This is something that’s not necessarily talked about in the industry a lot – not every trade show is beneficial to every single brand that’s out there. Is the brand’s goal product sales? Is it brand awareness? Is it B2B relationships? B2C? So we ask those questions up front to make sure our event is the best fit for that particular brand at their stage of growth. We usually work with a lot of unique indie brands. This is what makes PBE so different, finding those brands that you haven’t seen yet. Do they boast a superior claim? A superior ingredient? Do they offer a new, innovative delivery system? Those are the things that make applications stand out to us. Also their social media presence, as well as their marketing. Are they speaking to our audience? We focus heavily on black and brown women, so are they currently speaking to that audience? Or if they’re not, what are their plans to make that happen in the future?

BN: Who attends your shows?
BB: It’s transitioned so much over the years. In 2016-2017, our audience was mainly bloggers, influencers and consumers. In 2018-2019, it really expanded with the growth of our platform. We made it a multi-day event in 2019; it went from a one-day marketplace to a 2-day event, part-marketplace, part-conference. This affected our clientele base, so now it’s a mix of press, bloggers, influencers, women who are looking to discover beauty brands, as well as women looking to start up businesses. A lot of aspiring and emerging entrepreneurs come to take part in our classes, as well as get inspiration. One of the toughest challenges in the beauty industry is to find mentors, so a lot of women come to find guidance and to network.

We do have a small audience of buyers. The funny thing is that a lot of them just come on their own; they don’t reach out to us in advance for a ticket. Target was a sponsor of our event in 2019, and within that sponsorship both PBE and the buyers hand-selected certain brands to do round-robin pitches to them. This was done so they could gain more insight into their excelerator program, as well as start potential relationships.