Black representation matters: Urban Beauty Supply

“I’m still in awe at how we’ve been doing this for three years. Women will come in and ask about a certain product, and my wife will discuss her expertise because we know our hair and our customers get the help that they need" - Urban Beauty Supply co-owner, Cecil "Dapo" Milligan

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Shirley and Cecil “Dapo” Milligan stand in front of their store Urban Beauty Supply at 5333 E Thompson Rd, Indianapolis, IN 46237 (Photo/ Jade Jackson)
Shirley and Cecil “Dapo” Milligan stand in front of their store Urban Beauty Supply at 5333 E Thompson Rd, Indianapolis, IN 46237 (Photo/ Jade Jackson)

It is an experience that a lot of Black women are familiar with:

Walking into a beauty supply store holding a variety of products for Black hair but seeing faces working behind the counter that are not Black.

“I have three daughters, and I’ve had that feeling where I’ve felt like we weren’t even wanted there. I would be disappointed by the lack of customer service,” said Shirley Milligan.

This feeling drove Milligan and her husband, Cecil ‘Dapo’ Milligan, to create Urban Beauty Supply, located in Indianapolis at 5333 E. Thompson Road.

RELATED: Driving economic impact by embracing diverse businesses

Launched in February 2020, a month before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown retail and much of the U.S. economy, Urban Beauty Supply struggled in its early stages and was forced to sell products curbside.

But word of mouth spread, and the shop’s popularity – and sales – grew.

The simplest difference, according to the couple, is their customer service.

How Black owned beauty supply stores differ

“You can honestly go in and buy shampoo from other beauty supply stores, but we’re welcoming to everybody. We’ve heard of other stores that aren’t as welcome. You’re pretty much family when you come into the store,” said Shirley.

Beauty supply is a roughly $13 billion industry in the U.S., according to several trade groups.

Sales of Black haircare products alone account for $1.75 billion in annual revenue. That is according to data from Mintel, a London-based market research firm.

Black Owned Beauty Supply Association (BOBSA) is a California-based trade association that consists of only Black-owned beauty supply stores. They report that of the roughly 9,000 beauty supply stores in the country, 3,000 are Black owned.

The majority of stores are Asian owned, primarily Korean.

“The reasons for the lack of Black owners goes back generations, from inadequate access to credit to open discrimination,” wrote Tobi Idowu in a Beauty Newsletter for Business of Fashion’s website.

Shirley said it is important that if you are going to sell a product for a specific community, you at least know how the product works.

“It can be a little bit deceptive because Black faces are on the labels, but the people that own the stores that have the products don’t know the product themselves; we’re trying to change that narrative,” she said.

Majority Black product should mean a majority of Black ownership

Dapo said Black people should be the faces behind Black beauty supply stores. He said 95% of their customers look like them.

“So why aren’t there more of us behind the counter? That goes back to colonialism, and that’s a bigger subject. We can at least make a difference in what we’re trying to do right now,” he said.

Shirley said the journey to owning a beauty supply store has been very difficult. There are many hoops to jump through. They have heard “no” a lot when trying to obtain certain products that they know their customers want.

However, she said the goal for their business is to “play the game” because they need those products.

Some vendors, Shirley said, will not sell products to a retail store if that store is in close proximity to another beauty supply store that sells their products. And if she and her husband put in an initial order for a new product, vendors will require the order to be a certain dollar amount.

“We’re not sure if that’s the case for others, but for us, that can be difficult for some accounts that we’re trying to open.

I don’t think it’s fair, but we have to play it in order to still be a part of the community,” said Shirley.

This is only the beginning for Black owned beauty supply businesses

Accounts are for multiple types of products that they want for their store based on brands in hair, hair product, chemical products, lashes, makeup and many other areas.

“It’s a monetary game. Money talks. You have to have so much money to even open an account. If you don’t have it, you don’t get to play,” Dapo said.

Dapo said it is a dream to have locally created products in their store, but he said it will be a harder reality to create.

“You can design a certain type of shampoo; it can be the best shampoo in the world, but if nobody has heard of that shampoo, then it’s going to just sit on the shelves. It needs marketing and more. It takes more than that,” said Dapo.

They have products in the stores that are local, but they do not sell as much.
Regardless of the setbacks they have faced, the couple said representation in the beauty supply industry is needed.

“I’m still in awe at how we’ve been doing this for three years. Women will come in and ask about a certain product, and my wife will discuss her expertise because we know our hair and our customers get the help that they need,” Dapo said.

With three girls and a son who is growing his hair out, Shirley said that as the owners of Urban Beauty Supply, knowing about urban beauty has been beyond helpful.

Contact staff writer Jade Jackson at 317-762-7853 or by email JadeJ@IndyRecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @IAMJADEJACKSON

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