The Gen Z founders of a boutique skincare brand tackling chronic skin conditions and stigma

September 13, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

This is an installment in a special series, Startup Year One, interviewing startup founders about the major lessons they learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.

At 23-years-old, Olamide Olowe is purported to be the youngest Black woman to raise over $2 million in venture capital funding ($2.6 million to be exact). This year, she and cofounder Claudia Teng founded Topicals, a skincare brand with high-end beauty products intended to treat sensitive skin conditions at lesser price points.

As two young women of color, Olowe and Teng said they grew up settling for products that didn’t really serve them or represent their skin. With Topicals, they want to create an inclusive community around positive and authentic discussions about their skin.  And as chronic skin conditions often lead to serious mental health issues as a result of associated stigmas, shame, and embarrassment often felt by those with them, Topicals is donating 1% of profits to various mental health organizations.

Topicals is touted to incorporate high-quality ingredients with clinically-tested formulas that tackle skin conditions like eczema, hyper-pigmentation, psoriasis, and more. The brand launched with two products: “Like Butter” (a whipped, hydrating mask moisturizing and soothing dry, sensitive, and eczema-prone skin; $32) and “Faded” (a gel serum combatting dark spots and discoloration from sun damage, scarring, and inflammation; $36).

Among the supporters and investors in Topicals are several high-profile Black women, including Netflix CMO Bozoma Saint John, entrepreneur and DJ Hannah Bronfman, and the Emmy-nominated stars of Insecure, Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji. Led by early-stage venture capital firm Lerer Hippeau, the recent fundraising round included participation from Mucker Capital as well as the CEOs of Warby Parker, Allbirds, Casper, Harry’s, Bombas, and Red Antler.

Fortune recently spoke with Olowe to learn more about her business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome, and plans for the next year.

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Olamide Olowe co-founder of Topicals.
Olamide Olowe, cofounder of Topicals.
Courtesy of Topicals

Fortune: What inspired you and your cofounder, Claudia Teng, to launch Topicals? How does it stand apart in the skincare industry?

Both of us grew up with skin conditions: Claudia has severe eczema, and I have post barbae folliculitis [a skin inflammation]. We knew what it felt like to live with these skin conditions and the effect it had on our mental health, which is why we wanted to create Topicals.

Topicals is taking the focus off of having “perfect” skin and putting the onus on making the treatment experience more enjoyable or as we like to say “Funner Flare-Ups.” Chronic skin conditions aren’t curable so chasing the unattainable goal of “perfect” skin set by the beauty industry did not fit with the new era of beauty that Topicals is pioneering.

Courtesy of Topicals

Skincare is increasingly outselling cosmetics in the beauty business. Why do you think that is? How much of a role does social media play in your branding and marketing?

We’ve entered into an era of wellness where people no longer want to cover up their skin. They’d rather get to the root of why their skin is flaring up, and I believe that has led to the boom in skincare. Also, the idea of skincare as self-care has now been ingrained into our minds. Skincare offers a mini escape from reality.

Younger generations, especially our target audience Gen Z, is always on social media. Social media plays a huge role in how people feel about themselves. That’s why it is important to us to create a brand that doesn’t focus on perfection or unattainable beauty standards. We want to transform the way people feel about skin and we do that on social media by showcasing people with visible skin conditions living life in full color.

Topicals cofounders Claudia Teng and Olamide Olowe
Courtesy of Topicals

You recently just raised more than $2 million in venture capital, with some big name investors onboard, such as Netflix CMO Bozoma Saint John and Insecure actresses Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji. How did they, along with your other investors, get involved with Topicals? And given the ongoing economic crisis, what has been raising funds been like during the downturn?

I was super particular during my fundraising process. I wanted to have partners that could help me when things got rough so I chose to partner with funds and angels who were operators. I was also adamant about having women—particularly Black women—be key stakeholders of Topicals. By doing so, I was able to bring new, fresh perspectives and networks to the table that will ultimately help Topicals be successful.

Fundraising during an economic downturn is extremely difficult because no one knows how long it will last or how bad it will be. On top of that, I’m a 23-year-old Black woman, so the stats were not in my favor to begin with. I faced my fair share of bias from investors, but ultimately my overqualified background and my unique insights into the category got investors excited enough to back Topicals’ vision.

Post-pandemic and five years down the road, where do you see Topicals in the market?

At Topicals, we get excited about skin conditions and categories that the beauty industry has ignored. You’ll continue to see us create products and experiences for our community that innovate in taboo categories.