Master Class: Rachel Roff

When aesthetician Rachel Roff opened her medical spa in Charlotte, N.C., 14 years ago, she immediately identified a gap in the market:  skin-care products focusing on the concerns of Black women and pigmented skin tones. “The dermatology is dramatically different” between skin concerns of BIPOC and the rest of the population, Roff said, who herself is caucasian. So she decided to create products for the untapped market and launched Urban Skin Rx; 10 years later, the brand is growing 100 percent year-over-year. About half of its business is direct-to-consumers. Industry sources estimate Urban Skin Rx will reach about $25 million in net sales for 2020.

Roff declined to comment on the numbers, but noted the brand has been instrumental in helping gain more shelf space for products geared toward Black people. “It’s a sense of so much pride and feeling like our wins helped retailers realize that these are real shoppers, and they are spending money,” Roff said. The founder spoke to WWD Beauty Inc about skin-care needs of Black women, the social justice movement and brand authenticity as a business panacea.

How have you seen the skin-care market for Black women evolve over the last decade?

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Rachel Roff: I’ve seen it evolve dramatically. Still definitely not enough, but when I entered the industry for specializing in diversity in tones by opening my medical spa 14 years ago, it was nonexistent. There were a couple of dermatologists in the country. Dr. Susan Taylor played in cosmetics and aesthetics, and Dr. Battle has Cultura Medical Spa. Living in the South, there is such a wide population of people of color with the need for skin care. Today, competition is a real thing. I do consider myself a leader in the category, and I want to stay a leader.

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What are Black women’s specific needs, as they pertain to skin care?

R. R.: In terms of over-the-counter, what sets apart melanin-rich skin is the incidence of scarring. If I get a pimple or bug bite, I can get sun damage and get hyperpigmentation, but it won’t be quite as stubborn. For deeper tones, everyone is trying to even out their skin. If you’re buying an anti-acne or antiaging product, we’re ensuring you can keep skin even-toned. We’re always addressing that. All of our products, and we do retinols, vitamin C and peptides, are very concentrated on uneven skin tone.

What impact did the social justice movement have on the brand?

R. R.: There were countless hours our company put into navigating this period, and being able to be a resource that our customers could use and lean on. During that time, what I learned the most was just making good products for uneven skin tone wasn’t enough. I had always supported issues within the community, but I didn’t talk about it that much. Customers really want transparency in who they’re investing their dollars in. I don’t think I was good enough about that, so how do we communicate with our customers that we are allies?

I’ve always hired with an extremely high focus on diversity and inclusion, so we released our [diversity] numbers. Although they were good, I felt like I could do better. We promised to double our senior leadership numbers in terms of BIPOC, and we have already reached that goal.

What has been the general reaction to a caucasian woman making skin-care products for Black women?

R. R.: It’s always been a subject, but I have been largely embraced. On Instagram, I try to let people into my life and let who I am speak for itself. In the world we’re living in, unfortunately, people are just skeptical, which I do understand. I’ve had to truly invite people in to get to know me, and hope they can see the authenticity. At the end of the day, I saw something unjust in my career that I wanted to change. I decided to be a changemaker and with going against the grain, people are going to question you. But, it’s resonating with our consumers that I’m a good person and that the products work, and people are happy about that.

Has the push to “buy Black” affected your business at all?

R. R.: Buying Black is very, very important and I’m behind it. In order to fix a lot of social injustice, it calls for intense financial investment into that community. There’s room for us to be successful and lose some customers who want to invest in Black-owned skin care. I’m very passionate about Black-owned beauty brands and am friends with a lot of founders, and we do a quarterly beauty box, which we started including Black-owned beauty brands in.

Where do you see the key opportunity in the market?

R. R.: We’re in Target, Ulta and CVS. That leads me to think that there’s major opportunity at major retailers. If you make good products and have a way to distribute them, the consumer is there. The opportunity we see, we’re still struggling with brand awareness and how many people don’t even know we exist. But globally, our brand just launched in Nigeria, in a department store there. We’re really excited to grow internationally.

How would you describe your style of leadership?

R. R.: A gift and a curse. I am so collaborative, and it makes our work so amazing yet drives me so crazy at the same time. I’m trying to get my confidence up every day as a chief executive officer, and I have this chip on my shoulder that I’m an aesthetician-turned-ceo. Instead of managing aestheticians, I’m managing people who came from Walgreens and Cover Girl. It’s very intimidating, and the way I make the best decisions is asking people what they really think. When you don’t take somebody’s advice, you have to put into context why so it doesn’t deter people from speaking up in the future. It’s about fostering a collaborative environment while also believing in myself more, and trusting the experience and instincts I have.

What are the biggest challenges your business is facing today?

R. R.: We’ve been around for 10 years, and I went from this spa brand to major retail. Eleven months ago, we were 15 people in a back room in my spa. Now, we’re at almost 40 in different headquarters. It’s been a fast growth. I want to do better with brand awareness. I want everybody to know who we are, and they very much don’t yet. We’re growing so fast, and we’re analyzing data, but we’re not analyzing things to the degree I would like to. If we got that a little bit more in order, we could grow to be even better for our consumers.

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