Why Desiree Verdejo Quit Practicing Law To Open A Beauty Oasis For Black Women
Photo: Vivrant Beauty
Have you heard of VIVRANT BEAUTY, Harlem’s newest premium beauty boutique? The store, which opened in July 2015, carries a vast selection of skincare, hair care and cosmetic products catering to women of all skin tones, nationalities and hair textures.
Founded by attorney-turned-entrepreneur, Desiree Verdejo, Vivrant Beauty stocks beauty goods from a variety of major and independent product lines that are ingredient-conscious, women-owned, person-of-color owned and local beauty brands.
We caught up with Verdejo to chat about what caused her to leave her successful and “cozy” career as a lawyer to pursue her passion, challenges she’s faced launching and building the store, current successes, and how she thinks Vivrant Beauty fits into the ever-changing landscape of Harlem USA.
MN: What made you quit law to become an entrepreneur?
Desiree Verdejo: I spent seven years practicing law here in New York. I’ve spent the last couple years plotting and planning how to start Vivrant Beauty. This year I finally made the decision that Vivrant needs to be a thing. I’ve been in a very comfortable and cozy career but I wasn’t passionate about it. It wasn’t horrifying, but I didn’t go home thinking about it or gain any excitement from it. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve really been into beauty. I had a beauty blog at one stage. Beauty is the thing that I talk about. I love the beauty industry. It was a natural organization transition that I knew wanted to do.
Vivrant Beauty was something that I wanted to see. It started with, “This should exist….where is this thing? It must exist because it’s so simple.” I spent the beginning of this year reaching out to brands, reaching out to loan providers, looking for space, and making it happen.
MN: What kind of risks did you have to take?
DV: The biggest one was leaving behind a cozy position where I’d grown to be a competent, well-known rising attorney in my field. I was very proud of the experience and reputation I had as a lawyer. There’s a lot of cozy things that come along with practicing law, salary being one. That went out the door. It’s a lifestyle change. No day is the same.
It’s very different from law where the goal is to become an expert. You do the same thing until you’re the person people call to do it. This is all very new to me. Everything from picking products to planning events and doing social media. The second risk was entering a field, that is the unknown.
There was struggle in terms of waiting for people to find out that you exist. There’s a lot of things that aren’t certain. Passion is what keeps you going.
MN: How do you think your skills as a lawyer helped to build Vivrant Beauty?
DV: As a lawyer, if you’re representing someone, your goal is to fix a problem or get something done. That carries on really well. As a lawyer, nobody wants to hear no. It’s really “how?” I bring that here and I think it’s worked so far. Also, strategizing and appreciating the business behind beauty.
MN: Why the decision to have a store and not just an online site?
DV: E-commerce is a big aspect of our business, but I wanted brick and mortar to bring that experience that I think is missing in Harlem. Our audience is wide, but I think that women can always appreciate having products for them in a setting that is more curated and thoughtful. I think you can extend that experience to an e-commerce but having women come in… nothing compares to that.
MN: So, what exactly is the “Vivrant Beauty” experience?
DV: I’d like to think that it’s a very inviting, calm, and catering experience. We cater to our customers and to what we think they can appreciate and what we know they reach for and are checking out and wanting.
MN: What were some of the challenges you faced early on?
DV: Getting products on our shelves is a challenge. We have smaller brands, but they are still premium brands. They want to be represented in a certain way. If someone comes along with no images and no background in beauty and say they want to open a store in Harlem…people aren’t familiar with Harlem. All of those things made it a little more difficult. Now when I reach out to a brand, I can show them an image and show them what’s on our shelves. It’s so much easier. Fortunately, we were able to get a couple of brands on board who were able to sell the other brands. Getting those people was a lot of work.
There are some smaller brands that don’t have as much of a process. They go on your website and say sure, but there are some lines that want to know who your customer is, what’s your demographic, what’s your average income. They want to know where they will be located on shelves. It makes sense. The brands that we sell, I investigate them and see if they’re a good fit
MN: Who is your target customer?
DV: We sell diversity. We have White, Asian, Latinas, and Black women shopping in the store. In Harlem, there is a range of income. We have students/grad students who might spend a small amount and we have some people who are big spenders. For us, we have to keep in mind how diverse Harlem is and try to be relevant to that variety while still being true to the brand. The commonality is the Uptown Woman. Despite age and income, they are sophisticated, city-women, stylish, in the know, and explorers. When they find something good they are loyal.
MN: In a world where beauty is dominated by big business, how do you fit in?
DV: Being smaller, we are able to speak to and listen to a specific market. We are able to respond with the right product mix, the right brands…I think there is an advantage to being small in a world where the Sephora’s and Duane Reade’s are really where people have been shopping.
MN: What are the top three things you have done to promote and market Vivrant Beauty?
DV: Being active on social media has allowed us to reap the most rewards. We spread the word and interact with folks. We get a lot of feedback from people photographing their products or telling us about things they would like us to see on our shelves. That interaction is valuable.
Being involved in Harlem business organizations has been another great way. Harlem needs to know we are here so being part of Harlem business organizations has been strategic and beneficial and put me in touch with people who have done it before. Having access to people who have put their business out there and been able to grow exponentially has been valuable.
Another has been reaching out to major outlets and feeling confident that our stories are worth telling and hearing. There are a lot of great black-owned businesses and because we don’t see ourselves enough in certain publications, I don’t think we think to tell them about us. We got featured in Travel + Leisure Magazine. Getting a response from a publication like that is telling and means alot. It encourages you to tell it to more people…people that you cater to and also to a greater audience.Photo: Vivrant Beauty
MN: Where do you see the business three months from now?
DV: In three months, I see myself letting go and trusting that I have a small but really smart team of people. I can use my talents and knowledge in one area and not always have my hands in every single thing as aggressively as I do. To grow, you need to let go of something and share the load with people.
The one year mark is an evaluation point where we see how things are going and how people are responding to us. We’ll see if it makes sense to grow online or to see if they get it somewhere else. We’ll explore those opportunities. That seems like a good time to say how it is going.
MN: How does Vivrant Beauty fit into the Harlem landscape?
DV: It’s a balance. For me, that’s the only way that I would approach a business in the area. As a woman of color, we do speak to the diversity of Harlem. I keep Black women in mind. When we’re curating products, we are thinking behind the woman behind the products. In that sense, we’re always keeping the legacy alive. We acknowledge that we have $45 face washes and that works in Harlem of today where it might not have worked in the Harlem I grew up in.
Harlem in the 90s and Harlem today… I speak both languages. I’m trying to tilt the line. Aside from having Black-owned brands…we have higher price points but we also have affordable items. I consciously did that but never wanted to have a store where people walk in and say, “That’s not for me. That’s for them.” Them being the new people who have moved to Harlem. There’s racial AND income diversity. I’m always keeping both in the back of my head because I’ve experienced and am familiar with both.
MN: What do you love the most about owning your own business?
DV: I love that I’m shaping it in every sense of the word – from choosing logos to decor. Every decision feeds the brand. I appreciate that. It’s really excited to build something that can be as big or as small as I want it to be. I love the potential. That’s the part of being a businesswoman that I’me excited about.
MN: What business tip would you give to aspiring beauty entrepreneurs?
DV: Get prepared and get started. “Get prepared” is loaded. It depends on the business and finances. There’s alot. Get started. Do it. That’s the only way to feel fulfilled.
MN: What keeps you going?
DV: The little accolades. Right now, we’re new. Every day is not certain in terms of success. Sometimes it’s just as small as someone coming into the store and being excited that we’re here. It’s really motivating. At times, it’s a great blog write-up…someone feeling like we’re worth talking about. I get excited about our new brands. It’s the little things that keep me motivated.