How Sharmadean Reid Is Building a Beauty Empire

In an industry where the average funding for Black women is $42,000, she’s accrued millions

Sharmadean Reid, Founder & CEO, BeautyStack and WAH Nails, takes part in the How Female Leaders Can Thrive — Panel Discussion during the London Fashion Week Men’s British Fashion Council Fashion Forum at The Ned on June 18, 2019 in London, England. Photo: Tabatha Fireman/BFC/Getty Images for BFC

The war room I am sitting in is pink and soft and large, and it exists because of a bad manicure.

I’m in London, in the conference room of Beautystack, a beauty-booking startup founded by entrepreneur Sharmadean Reid. The office is a hyperfeminine combination of white and pink, with iridescent acrylic partitions and beauty stations next to body-eating bean bags and aisles of desks. The kitchen, with a palatial island, is also pink. In the center is an open space with huge portraits of smiling Beautystack users in front of nail stations lined neatly with bottles and neon merch on the walls. I’m in the room named after Martha Matilda Harper, who modernized the concept of what hair salons could be. The smaller meeting room is named after Madam C.J. Walker, another beauty entrepreneur, and it’s where the founder of this empire is currently holding court.

“She went from running a zine and pop-up nail salons to becoming one of the very few women — and lone Black woman in 2018 — to secure $6.1 million dollars of venture capital funding for a business she founded herself.”

Sharmadean Reid is the centrifugal force through which all power and movement operates in this office, and she handles it with poise that shows she knows it. Everyone in the company knows where she is, where she’s going, and what they ought to present her with when they see her. And, as you would expect from the CEO of a beauty company, she notices my nails as soon as we sit to talk. This is a high compliment, coming from the woman who founded one of the best nail salons in London, WAH Nails. She went from running a zine and pop-up nail salons to becoming one of the very few women — and lone Black woman in 2018 — to secure $6.1 million dollars of venture capital funding for a business she founded herself. There was $131 billion in VC funding in 2018, and less than 4% of those companies were led by Black women. According to Project Diane, the average funding raised by Black women is $42,000 — as opposed to the industry average of $1.14 million for startups. She’s standing virtually alone, despite the fact she’s building something for markets worth $4.2 trillion.

This success story was a decade in the making. Beautystack came out of Reid’s experience running WAH Nails for a decade, alongside her zine, two books, and more. She had the initial idea to open a nail salon because she’d “had another crap nail job. I wanted a Dior-red base with a white tip or half-moon and they just wouldn’t do it. I was so angry — I got into the car and slammed the door and said, ‘You know what? I’m just going to open my own nail salon!’” Reid secured a lease on a place a few doors down from her apartment, and the first WAH Nails salon was born — the precursor to her latest startup.

It’s not that simple, of course. This was in 2009, when Reid was a stylist and trend forecaster for clients like Nike, and was a well known tastemaker in her own right. When her first salon launched, WAH had one of the most followed beauty Instagrams in the world. Even after its death, the account has nearly half a million followers. Her network made it the place to be if you were into music, technology, fashion, or beauty. She hosted pop-ups for friends that helped them grow their own brands alongside her own. Bleach London started as a pop-up in WAH when the founders came for a manicure and saw that there was empty space available in the back of the salon. I discovered her in this era — as a beauty intern at Teen Vogue, doing research on London beauty for my then-boss Elaine Welteroth. We both ogled over the work WAH and Bleach London were up to.

WAH closed just a few months ago, but Reid isn’t shedding any tears. “I closed WAH because I realized that my calling isn’t to run a nail salon. My calling is to economically empower as many women as possible. In order to reach millions of women on a global scale I need to focus all of my time and energy on Beautystack. Now we have a roster of Beauty Pros who we can chat with whenever we want to and get instant feedback from. WAH was integral to the launch of Beautystack because we had the perfect, ready-made user group and client base to tap into. I’ve had hundreds of nail techs work at WAH, so I understand what the users need.”

As a salon owner, the platforms she grew her business with always fell short for what her artists wanted. Beautystack hopes to become the best-case iteration out of what the other platforms have failed to address. It’s what you’d get if Tumblr, Instagram, and Pinterest’s endless sea of manicures and pristine skin and brow threading selfies were shopable. Rather than writing out your ideal modifications to limited options available on Glamquad or Mindbody, you book through the picture that inspired you to get a new set of nails, and you get exactly what you want by paying the artist who did the initial work.

Beauty stack office.

It is not catered by default to a White clientele the way competing apps have turned out to be, either. You can scroll through the offerings and get anything from box braids to Botox to grills to reiki to a manicure. Professionals using the app can host their appointments rent-free in Beautystack HQ, or bring clients to their own salon. In the app, the bookable services are interspersed with Q&As with the professionals providing them — so you not only find what service you want, but you learn about the person providing it. Professionals are vetted manually by the Beautystack staffers, which means there’s a limited, but curated, portfolio of around 50 pros available in London.

This technique of utilizing community to finesse a product is something she has in common with beauty brand founder Emily Weiss, who incubated her brand, Glossier, through Into the Gloss readership. Both companies have funding from Index Ventures, whose investments also include 1stdibs, Farfetch, and Grailed.

Reid is adamant her success should not be construed as miraculous. She is following in the lineage of particular female beauty entrepreneurs who utilized their community and she’s also going in thinking — knowing — her worth and identity is an asset, not something to make up for. We sat in the room named after fellow beauty entrepreneur C.J. Walker as she walked me through her challenges. “I try to walk into a room thinking, “I’m the best person here!” not, “I’m the best Black female here!” Having the confidence to know you’re as good as everyone else is key.”

“Beauty tech especially stands for the shakeup she’s bringing to the table — if beauty at its best is about showcasing our uniqueness, it’s concerning that most beauty companies are owned and run by older White males.”

“People assume that to be in technology, you have to come from a tech background — but that’s not true. Diversity is a competitive advantage, because the more varied points of view you have the more solutions you’re going to come up with. Technology is for everybody, we’re all consuming it, so why shouldn’t we all be building it? We need different voices, especially female voices, building the tech we all use,” says Reid.

Beauty tech especially stands for the shakeup she’s bringing to the table — if beauty at its best is about showcasing our uniqueness, it’s concerning that most beauty companies are owned and run by older White males. Even the trending A.I.-based customization companies that have become investor catnip, like Curology ($18.8 million funded) or Function of Beauty ($12.2 million), are founded and run by teams of White men. But Reid’s offer is one of the only successful ventures in the space run by a person of color, and it isn’t based on machine-learning A.I. Coincidentally, hers is also the only one that was born out of her direct experience in the beauty industry and not in an MIT business course.

Reid knows the competition she’s up against, but she also doesn’t see them as competition at all. “Beauty professionals are independent — with key contributions to the economy. They provide flexible, satisfying work, and I believe it’s one of the few industries that won’t be easily disrupted by A.I. A robot couldn’t really do the banging finger wave on the cover of [our] magazine,” Reid wrote in the editor’s letter of Beautystack’s inaugural zine. The zine is essentially a portfolio of success stories Reid’s team has fostered into existence, alongside tips on how to assist clients who’ve brought up circumstances of domestic violence, grief, and anxiety. For a booking app, it’s also trying to curate a community that recognizes beauty doesn’t start and stop with a manicure. It’s a potential relationship with a confidant, and that dynamic — so far — can’t be replicated by an A.I. platform.

Her second-in-command, Ellen Atlanta, edited the zine and shared as well: “The salon is a sanctuary for women. It’s something girls make thousands of pounds a month doing, working for themselves, making money from their platforms. What we try to do is arm them for situations you end up in as a beauty professional. Sometimes it’s the only time someone held their hand that week. You have to learn how to deal with that. Beauty treatments are one of the only times some people have human connection.”

Reid was still holding my hand examining my nails when she explained the promise of Beautystack better than the thousand-plus words I just wrote: “Being a freelancer, in beauty or otherwise, is a lonely thing. And to want connection is human. We just want to help build a community of people who are independent. It’s what we love to do here — connect people with one another.”

Beautystack has the same mission that WAH did at heart when Reid began that venture: the need for connection, to make beauty not just a surface transaction but a moment of connection that makes a dream into something more than material. It’s great to get a beauty treatment as self-care, but it’s even better to know the person you’re getting from is in control of their life and their business and is equipped to comfort you through yours. One bad manicure can build an empire, after all.

I wear stuff and write about stuff.

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