After protests broke out in late May in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade, a number of companies felt it was time to lend their voices in support of the Black Lives Matter movement founded in 2014.
But like so many of them, direct-to-consumer brand ThirdLove wrestled with how best to respond.
“Back in June, when everything kind of started to heat up around Black Lives Matter, we were thinking as a company what we could do internally and what could we do externally to support the movement,” said Heidi Zak, co-founder and CEO of the intimates brand. “I thought what was really important was to do something aligned with our brand.”
Zak wanted whatever they chose to do to have a long-lasting impact and be something that the company’s internal team could be directly involved in. “We’re about supporting women literally and figuratively,” she noted.
That process led to the creation of TL Effects, a program that supports female entrepreneurs of color by providing them with a $20,000 grant, dedicated office space at ThirdLove’s headquarters, amplification via the DTC brand’s social platforms, and access to business and financial advice from the company’s founders on subjects such as merchandising and producing content.
This October, ThirdLove announced that Arah Sims, founder and CEO of DTC nail glam brand Kyütee Beauty, was the inaugural recipient of the program, chosen from a pool of 650 applicants.
“To be totally frank, when we started the application process, I would have been happy to [have received] 100 applications,” Zak said.
Sims will be the first of many such recipients, as the company plans to select a founder per quarter to support, she said.
“For people who are saying there aren’t women of color to invest in, this proves something different,” Zak said of the number of women who showed interest.
As for the process itself, to rustle up applicants ThirdLove reached out to universities, startup incubators, partners, publications, chat groups and mentorship programs. A team of 18 judges then narrowed the field to 20 applicants.
The three judges included Zak, senior social manager Courtney Lake and vp of strategy and operations Veronique Powell, who each each selected their top three candidates, from whom Sims was ultimately chosen. “We were all aligned that Arah was the one,” Zak said.
Sims was chosen because she already had a full website up and running, was a solo founder who created a brand and product by herself, was someone who could really benefit from mentorship, and possessed a dynamic and passionate personality, Zak explained.
“I got really excited about the opportunity to be mentored by a female founder who’s walked the path,” Sims said of the program. “Times are changing. A lot of people and companies are coming out of the woodwork to say they want to help.”
Sims is already discussing with ThirdLove strategies that will elevate her business and brand. “Heidi and her team opened up their company [to make me] feel included,” she said.
As for the inspiration behind Kyütee Beauty, Sims said that during the early stages of the pandemic, people could not get manicures because salons were closed. Her company’s products—elaborate peel-and-apply nail art made with nail polish that lasts up to two weeks—offer consumers a convenient alternative they can do at home.
“We are using nails as an extended canvas for self-expression,” Sims said.
The brand is already making waves, getting into the spirit of election season by partnering with former first lady Michelle Obama’s nonpartisan “When We All Vote” campaign.
Meanwhile, as Sims grows her business under the mentorship of ThirdLove, the entrepreneur is already thinking about how to pay forward her experience.
“Historically, opportunities like this don’t get presented to people of color,” she said. “My responsibility is to learn as much as possible, and then to uplift people who come after me.”
Indeed, the larger vision for ThirdLove is that participants in the program will go on to mentor other women founders, Zak said, who imagined at some point in the future organizing an annual gathering of the winning mentees as part of an ongoing partnership between ThirdLove and these promising young brands.
There is a need for such programs, given that there are no African-American CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and less than 1% of venture-backed companies are founded by women of color, Zak argued, adding that it’s going to take some time to create change.
But Zak, citing her own experience, emphasized that one business successful leader can have an immense impact, because they inspire others to believe they can do it, too.