Yewande Masi had already made the tough decision to pivot her business away from hair extensions at the end of 2019, but the Northeastern graduate had no idea how important her decision to focus on skin care and self-care would be in 2020.
It took a pep talk from Masi’s sisters, combined with a breakup with her boyfriend, to give the 2009 criminal justice graduate a new focus that served her when the COVID-19 virus shut down many brick-and-mortar businesses in March 2020.
“My sisters knew that hair extensions were my passion, but they suggested I put it aside and focus on my homemade skin care, which a lot of people were requesting,” says Masi, who had created her signature lotion for the boyfriend she would eventually break up with.
“I was thinking about the rebrand and doing a bunch of inner self work because I realized the boyfriend I was in love with just wasn’t going to work out for me,” says Masi.
“I found myself in the bathroom a lot. We, as women in general, the bathroom is kind of a ritual for us and a place to decompress. There’s nothing really centered on making that a self-care experience, and so that was what I wanted to do with Ornami,” she says.
The name means “to adorn,” and it comes from a little-known international language called Esperanto. Masi named her signature lotion “Let that Mango,” marketing her brand as a focus on self-care by eliminating toxic products and relationships. She launched in April 2020, just weeks into the pandemic.
“That was around the time that everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, this is just going to be for two weeks,’ about the shut down, so I didn’t know it was going to affect me as much as it did,” Masi says. ”But the funny thing is it actually affected us in a positive way because people were really seeking experiences in their home.”
Once Masi realized that retail stores and open-air markets were unlikely to reopen, her focus moved to e-commerce where she sought to gain name recognition. She partnered up with online stores similar to Credo or BLK + GRN that promoted natural skincare lines as well as Black-owned businesses.
“We started getting some press coverage in late summer, and that’s when things started to pick up,” she says.
But Masi’s biggest business bounce came in October, when superstar singer Beyoncé Knowles chose Ornami to receive a $10,000 grant as part of her ”Bey Good” initiative focused on helping small Black-owned businesses during the pandemic.
“Yeah, getting that grant from Beyoncé was pretty dope,” says Masi, who had filled out an application months before the announcement. “I was having a terrible day that day and wondering how I was going to get through this and then that grant came through.”
Smaller companies were thrown into a precarious situation, she says, “where it was very scary for us because we didn’t have the name recognition or the resources that larger companies had. However, we could be a lot more nimble.”
Lessons learned? “Try to keep your expenses as low as possible. Also, see how the customers respond to your products and listen to them. That’s how I came up with my second product, and it’s probably my best seller,” she says, highlighting a sugar and vitamin E scrub called ”No Scrubs,” used to slough off dead skin while deeply moisturizing.
She urges new business owners to have confidence in their product and to nip negative thoughts in the bud.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just keep pushing forward and everything’s gonna work itself out,” says Masi. “Try not to be mean to yourself. There’s enough of that happening in the world.”
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