Nyakio Grieco is a woman who consistently beats the odds. With three beauty brands under her belt and a career that spans over twenty years, there isn’t a battle that Grieco hasn’t encountered, and successfully overcome.
Grieco entered the beauty industry with her own signature line, Nyakio. She cofounded Thirteen Lune, a beauty e-commerce space offering BIPOC-founded brands. She launched Relevant: Your Skin Seen, which has made waves with its debut, multi-use product, the One & Done Everyday Cream. Because of her unwavering dedication to inclusivity and equity, Thirteen Lune is slated to replace Sephora as the shop-in-shop experience in JCPenney stores nationwide.
What some may see as an easy feat for Grieco, has actually been quite the opposite. Not only has the beauty founder taught herself the secret to successfully acquiring over $3 million in venture capital funding. But she’s also mastered the greatest lesson one can learn as an entrepreneur: how to consistently pick yourself up after failure.
21Ninety sat down for an exclusive interview with Grieco. She shared what initially inspired her love for the world of beauty. Also, the most important things entrepreneurs should know when they set their eyes on venture capital funding. And what’s next as she ventures into the next 20 years of her career.
Jadriena Solomon: You are a beauty founder who has accomplished so much in your 20-year career. You advocate for clean products, inclusivity, and equity for Black women and BIPOC founders through all that you do. But I want to take it back to the beginning. What initially inspired your love for the world of beauty?
Nyakio Grieco: Yes, I’m a first-generation American of Kenyan descent. And my grandmother was a Kenyan coffee farmer. So when she would farm, she would pick coffee beans, crush them, and put out oils. And she would use rods of sugar cane to exfoliate. So that’s where my beauty journey began.
I went to college at the University of Oklahoma, graduated with a business marketing degree, moved to Los Angeles, and started working in Hollywood. And ultimately worked my way through the business. But I really found that I loved working with actresses the most. I found that so many products would come across my desk that represented many cultures around the world. But when it came to premium beauty, there was really nothing representing Africa and the sophistication of the country.
So that’s what inspired me to leave my business, working in Hollywood, and start making my grandmother’s coffee scrub for a living. I taught myself how to be an entrepreneur. And I had to quickly learn how to raise money. Because I had a business degree, I knew how to write a good business plan. And I knew the importance of angel investors. However, I didn’t know the statistics for Black women and finance at that time. And I’m kind of glad that I didn’t because it might have deterred me. I launched Nyakio Beauty at Fred Segal and Jeffrey New York in August 2002. And then continued to build the brand on my own to about 180 boutiques. It was a real labor of love.
I’ve had many start-over moments as my friends say – I’ve been to so many Nyakio launch parties. But it really is the tenacity to see it through that brought me to where I am today.
JS: In your 20-year career, you’ve launched three businesses: Nyakio Beauty, Thirteen Lune, and Relevant: Your Skin Seen. And over the course of your journey, you’ve successfully acquired venture capital funding. What advice would you give to founders or owners who are ready to take their business to the next level with VC funding, but don’t know where to start? What’s important for them to know?
OF: First of all, always come from a place of hope. The minute you start to doubt the possibilities – regardless of the statistics – you might just give up. And miss out on an opportunity to create something amazing for yourself. So don’t get deterred by the stats, do your homework. And have hope, because the venture world is changing. And while the numbers are still dismal, as far as funding that goes to people of color – especially women of color – what we are starting to see more are women of color writing those checks. And that’s something that I never saw 20 years ago.
Look for your people and ask for help. I think as entrepreneurs, we have a tendency to be perfectionists. So you want to make sure that you’re putting your ego aside. And remember that people generally want to help, so be sure to ask.
I would also say don’t believe the hype and don’t take dumb money. I’ve taken some really dumb money and it has cost me years of my life. There’s something about someone saying that they want to fund you. And it can be really enticing when you’re thinking about it. But you have to do your homework. You have to ask people about investors – ask three people about an investor before you ever take a check from them.
Finally, listen to your gut. In those times that I took a dumb money deal, my stomach was uneasy. I could feel it in my bones, but I was so desperate to keep my business going that I just said, yes. And that will cost you. Also be grateful for your lessons because if it wasn’t for that lesson about dumb money and trying to undo myself from that situation for so many years of my life, I wouldn’t be as deeply protective of other Black and brown founders today to make sure that what happened to me never happens to them. So while I’m not grateful for that person, I’m grateful for the lesson.
JS: You launched Nyakio Beauty twenty years ago solidifying your space in the beauty world, and have since launched Thirteen Lune – a beauty e-commerce space where people can shop BIPOC-founded brands in one place. A truly innovative idea that has filled a need really. Why was creating an e-commerce retail space like this for Black beauty brands so important to you?
OF: For two reasons. One, I wanted to create the beauty retailer that I always wished I had as a beauty founder. When I first started out, I didn’t necessarily have the budget to launch in international retail. And so I would get to the shelf often and realize I couldn’t afford to be there. And I was noticing that a lot of brands go through the same ordeal. They essentially go to the shelves to die and I wanted to be a part of the change.
I also wanted to debunk the myth that Black and brown people only make products for Black and brown people. I’ve been using products made by people who don’t look like me, for my whole life. And they work on my hair and they work on my skin. We, as Black and Brown people, deal with a lot of skin concerns that our counterparts don’t deal with as much. And the fact of the matter is that the products that we create for more melanin-rich skin are definitely going to work on the skin of others. And I was getting really tired of people assuming that just because we’re Black, we don’t deserve more shelf space because we can’t serve as many consumers. That’s categorically untrue. At the end of the day, we are the demographic that spends the most on beauty. We’ve helped make all these other people billionaires and they deserve to do the same for us as well.
JS: Thirteen Lune successfully raised $3M in a seed funding round by partnering with Black-owned VC firm, Fearless Fund. And is replacing Sephora as the shop-in-shop experience at JC Penney stores nationwide. This is such a major accomplishment. How does it feel to see your creation exceed your dreams? And what advice would you give to the entrepreneur who has an out-of-the-box dream like this but is constantly being told by the world that it’s not possible or not good enough?
OF: Yes, we’ve opened 10 doors and all 600 will be rolled out by this time next year. It’s surreal. I am definitely not an overnight success – this has been a 21-year journey full of so many wins and happy moments, but also so many moments on my knees, praying about why I chose this path. It makes me emotional because it’s just answering a calling by getting to do something I love – which I think in life when any of us get to do what we love and serve the collective – that’s just a blessed life. So no matter how hard it’s been, I just feel blessed.
For the second part of your question, people of color – even with the most loving parents in the world – come into the world being told that we have to be better. We have to be smarter. We have to be prettier. We have to stay quiet. So much of that is for our own protection but it’s also conditioning that we need to undo a little bit. We need to instead affirm that we are enough and we deserve to take up space – we deserve to be here. As an entrepreneur, you have to be strategic. You have to take constructive criticism. ‘No’ is often a gift. But you have to believe it. A lot of us run around with imposter syndrome – just trying to figure out how to love ourselves fully. But the minute you can do that, the possibilities are endless.
And it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to fall down. I have fallen off that Nyakio beauty bike more times than I can count, but what really matters is all the times that I got up. And didn’t just make it about my own ego or my own failure, but that I can get up and lift somebody else up along the way.
JS: Your latest brand unveiling is Relevant: Your Skin Seen. And it was rolled out with an amazing 4-1 in product with the One & Done Everyday Cream with SPF 40 which brings convenience and efficacious skincare into one product. What can we expect next with any upcoming launches from the brand?
OF: I’m so excited about One & Done. I was seeing so many people in our communities skipping sun protection. And I wanted something that was easy and simple that I could use, that my kids could use, that my husband could use, all my friends and people of color could use that would give them efficacious skincare and be a four-in-one. A serum, a primer, a moisturizer, and an SPF 40.
What’s to come is more skincare and now being able to play in so many other categories that I’ve only ever dreamed of as a beauty founder. I’m just having the best time – I got to hire two Black chemists who have made some of the world’s greatest beauty care and work with them independently. And now, with the lab that they’re in and seeing them elevated as a result of this partnership, it’s just so much fun. It’s a lot of hard work and fun.
JS: As a beauty founder who has accomplished so much and undeniably left your mark on the world. What is next for you as you look ahead to the next 20 years?
OF: That’s such a great question. I’m turning 50 in April, which I still can’t even believe because I feel so free on the inside. But gosh, the next 20 years – I really see Thirteen Lune as an opportunity to celebrate the beauty of inclusion here in the United States. I want to continue to grow and to really see this JCP partnership be a true catalyst for change-makers in the industry. My goal is to start investing in us. So may this journey bring me the generational wealth that I need in order to pay it forward.
I’ve just invested, for the very first time, in a Black female-owned business. And in sending that wire, I felt like I’m putting my money where my mouth is. When I think of my kids, and setting the stage of generational wealth for their kids and so on – it’s really powerful. So I hope the next 20 years and beyond also allow me the opportunity to invest in, mentor, and grow extremely successful businesses.