KJ Miller & Amanda Johnson
KJ Miller and Amanda E. Johnson are the founders of Mented Cosmetics, a beauty line for women of color. Unlike many other companies and pop culture figures in the makeup industry, Mented isn’t mistaking diversity for a trend. It's devoted to celebrating the beauty of women of color through accurate representation. Miller and Johnson have been able to create a brand that reflects the preferences and needs of our community, while developing a thoughtful business model. As women of color themselves who see this demand, they offer products and a mission that are both “authentic and refreshing.” While their products are appealing enough, Miller and Johnson exude infectious confidence and kindness. It's because of this that attached to their brand is a feeling of familiarity and altruism, regrettably absent from other brands we carry and wear everyday. Speaking with Miller and Johnson, we learn how theater, entrepreneurial spirit, and a passion for beauty led to a company many women know they’ve been missing.
Can you tell our readers about Mented Cosmetics and its origins?
Mented, which is short for pigmented, is an upscale beauty line for women of color. We founded the company because we were tired of feeling like afterthoughts in the world of beauty - we firmly believe every woman deserves to be prioritized and celebrated by the brands they patron, and at Mented we strive to do just that.
We've been seeing a lot of designers and leading cosmetic companies coming out with nude lines and an expansion of nude shades to appeal to a trend rather than to be inclusive. How does Mented retain its authenticity without falling into the trap of a trend?
We started with nude lip shades because our brand is all about classic, everyday beauty, and we think nothing signals everyday beauty like your go-to nude shade. That said, unlike the “nudes” so many other brands offer that try to put everyone in a one-size-fits all pinky/beige box, our nudes come in a wide range of colors to complement every skin tone. So we think our brand truly has the breadth to draw people in, and we deliver on our nude promise in a way that’s both authentic and refreshing.
Some argue that the cosmetics industry profits off people's mostly women's, insecurities. How does Mented fit into this conversation and do you both see a responsibility in changing societal beauty standards or the way women feel about themselves?
KJ: If you look at beauty trends today, there are a lot of brands and influencers out there saying you need to transform yourself. Put on ten pounds of foundation, highlighter, contour and lashes and then you're beautiful. Now don't get me wrong, I love a good beat, but at Mented we don't think makeup is about transformation - it's about enhancement. You're already gorgeous, we're just giving you some options to enhance your natural beauty. And Amanda and I go makeup-free all the time (though you'll never catch me without a brow...), because makeup is like any other great accessory - you wear it when it suits you.
AJ: The beauty industry has created a certain standard of what and who is beautiful. For far too long women of color have been excluded from that standard and that has created certain insecurities within those cultures. Mented means to change that. We have the beauty of women of color as our focus and seeing positive images of brown beauties will change the way those women feel about themselves. We aim to celebrate the beauty of diversity.
In addition to Mented being a company with women of color as its core customer, we love that you both are bringing more representation and visibility to women of color as entrepreneurs. What advice do you have for other women of color who are looking to start their own businesses?
KJ: My advice is to make sure it's something you're passionate about. I've launched other startups in the past, and I ended up walking away from each of them because I wasn't truly passionate about the idea. If it is something you're passionate about, then I say go for it. Figure out a way to pursue it, even if you can't do it full time. Amanda and I worked on Mented for a full year before we quit our day jobs, and part of what made us so confident that this is something we could run with was the fact that we never grew tired of spending every morning, evening, and weekend working on the brand, even with the stress of our corporate careers.
AJ: My advice would be to just start. Women overthink their life plans and so often that results in regret. We should attack entrepreneurship as fiercely as we do everything else that we multitask. Any idea that you just can't stop thinking about and imagining what could be, that's the idea that you should explore as a real business.
We're interested in the women behind the brand. Tell us about yourselves and how you two met.
KJ: Amanda and I met at Harvard Business School, where we both graduated in 2014. Prior to business school, I was a fashion buyer by day and standup comedian by night. Random, I know, but it was a ton of fun. Luckily no one in the Mented office has had to endure my standup set. Also, I live in Harlem, I'm happily married, and I've been a Beyoncé stan since her 'No, No, No' days.
AJ: KJ and I met during the HBS Show, a variety show, at Harvard Business School; we've always shared a passion for the theater. Before school I was in investment banking and consumer marketing and post HBS I ran the digital business development group at a luxury retailer. I love living in NYC and exploring museums and various neighborhoods. I'm a beach bum and I love television.
At We, Ceremony, we believe there is a special bond that unites women of color and that we're inherently a support system for each other. Who are or were some of your role models in your life?
KJ: My mom is without doubt my biggest role model. She's the hardest working woman I know, and she graduated from medical school in the South at a time when almost no one who looked like her was doing the same. She's overcome so many barriers, and has worked incredibly hard to give me and my sisters a better life than the one she had.
AJ: My mom has shown me in so many ways, overtly and obscurely, what it means to be a woman and a good person. She came from very humble beginnings and created a life for my sisters and me that was full of opportunity, love, and strength. She is a wealth of knowledge and confidence and I wouldn't be the person I am without her.
In addition to building an empire and beauty and cosmetics, what are some of your other passions?
KJ: I grew up singing and performing, so I'm pretty passionate about music and theater. My husband and I make it a point to see a live show every month, and we often aim for more. On a more professional note, I've been so humbled by the number of people - particularly women - who have helped me and Amanda as we've built this brand, and I've become really passionate about paying that forward. I spend a lot of time working with women about building their own startups. There's lots of institutional knowledge out there, but so much of it is hard to access if you aren't...ahem...a white guy. So I'm all about spreading the wealth and making some of that knowledge more accessible.
AJ: I consider myself a lifelong student and I love volunteering. I love to absorb the world around me. I'm often at museums, the movies, reading the latest bestseller, or going down the rabbit's hole on Instagram. I can't get enough of new stories, funny memes, or solid reporting. I also love giving back to the people and institutions that have helped me. I'm a volunteer with the New York Junior League, a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and a board member of the Howard University Alumni Association.
And lastly, one of the questions we ask all of our interviewees - what is one thing about your culture that you'd like to share with us?
KJ: I LOVE THIS QUESTION. You know, black women often get a bad rep for being loud or aggressive, and it drives me nuts because the people who say this are (wrongly) trying to cast one of our best qualities - our vibrancy - as a flaw. Black women may laugh louder, dance harder, or walk tougher than other groups (or do none of these things, because we're not a monolith), but this is exactly what makes us so special. We endure racism of our skin color and the sexism of our gender, and yet here we are, laughing and dancing, and loving and being. I love how vibrant we are, and that's something I won't let anyone make me feel bad about.
AJ: I want people to know that Black people are just as layered and complex as everyone else. We are soft, strong, messy, organized, and just as worthy of love and compassion. I love the quote from the show Dear White People, "Sometimes being carefree and black is an act of revolution." We are always trying to tell people how we are people too, but sometimes we just need to laugh and enjoy life in order to find the strength to keep going. We would all be better off if we truly sought to see the humanity in everyone.