The thoughts expressed in this Guest Opinion are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of S&P Global.
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As Americans continue to struggle with recognizing and figuring out how to overcome systemic racism, Moj Mahdara has developed one way: by creating a safe space for people to learn, be vulnerable, and grow is a more conducive way to eradicate systemic racism.
As a lesbian, Muslim, Persian-American woman, Mahdara has never been able to code-switch or blend in. She became interested in the beauty space after watching other diverse women, such as Michelle Phan and MakeupShayla, rise to the top of the industry. Seizing upon this momentum, she grew “Beautycon” from a small, invite-only meetup of YouTuber gurus to an international conference with over 400,000 attendees; women of color founded 80 percent of the participating brands. However, Mahdara’s most impressive initiative for diversity and inclusivity came later after the COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique opportunity.
In March 2020, Madhara created a Whatsapp channel that connected different beauty company leaders and enabled them to discuss navigating the challenges presented by COVID. In contrast to her 80% diverse Beautycon demographic, this group was 80 percent white and comprised of individuals Madhara describes as, “people who had never wanted to come to Beautycon but had always wanted to be my friend.” Evolving past the Whatsapp channel, the group of fifty-plus founders started having weekly Tuesday Zoom calls. However, after the death of George Floyd, the dialogue of the group shifted from the logistical complexities of COVID to social justice. The racial unrest of the United States induced members of the group to reflect upon the ways the beauty industry was perpetuating racial stereotypes and sexism through their products, marketing strategies, and work cultures. Every week, Madhara would add new founders of color to the group slowly and subtly.
Events during the summer of 2020 challenged the country to confront the effects of racism in policing and beyond. They also deeply affected Madhara, prompting her to realize that the best to combat racism was not by seeking to eradicate existing racist, sexist, or homophobic institutions, but instead by enlisting whites as allies for change. To do so, in her words, would require “pulling Whites in without canceling them.”
With her nuanced perspective, Madhara built on her work and co-founded the non-profit inclusivity education platform, Beauty United. Designed in a lighthearted, millennial-friendly format, Beauty United included sections for both employees and stakeholders. The employee side provided strategies on how to navigate an industry dominated by white men, deal with microaggressions, and negotiate for a salary raise. On the stakeholder end, Madhara focused on creating a safe, non-judgmental space to educate company leaders on the importance of consciously implementing equity and inclusion. Progressing beyond the e-platform, Madhara regularly met with company stakeholders to bring up necessary hiring changes. For example, she would explain to companies why their exclusively white board members might not have been intentional.
Over the years, Madhara has formed an impressive network ranging from Gwyneth Paltrow to Kris Jenner to the CEO of Revlon, her “super spreader” allies, who are willing to have difficult conversation and create inclusive opportunities for minority beauty brand founders. She developed some relations through Beautycon but attributed most of her contacts to “following the thread” – following with individuals she relates to and pursuing introductions. Connecting with people is a core competency she has always had because she recognizes that people love to talk about themselves. She listens actively and gives people credit for what they do. Anastasia brought back thick eyebrows, Kim Kardashian promoted a curvy body type, and Madhara works to be a megaphone for these positive attributes.
In the spring and summer of 2020, not only were all beauty brands “losing,” but the entire American people were faced with months of failure. She describes her philosophy, “Leadership is like a muscle, and things must break down to grow back stronger. This industry had to go down to its knees to improve.” The COVID crisis provided a silver lining for Madhara’s efforts: an outpouring of empathy that would bind the historically alienated and hostile beauty brand leaders together through their shared struggles.
Madhara does not seek press for her activism. Her work with Beautycon legitimized her in the public eye, and since she can move quietly underground, enabling companies to enact her suggested changes privately (such as Target’s hiring of a Black woman for a board seat) without having to justify anything to their consumers. She plans to continue this type of work in the coming years and hopes to amplify her impact by causing companies to think more deeply about whom they hire, where they source their ingredients, how they dispose of their products, and the communities affected by their waste.