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By Alexandra Jones
ast year, the financial research and insights company Extend Ventures published the results of a quantitative analysis which looked at the distribution of venture capital (VC) investment in the UK between 2009 and 2019.
Its investigation found that within that period, less than 1% of investment went to teams of Black entrepreneurs. Even more witheringly, the report noted that across the 10-year period “a total of 10 female entrepreneurs of Black appearance received venture capital investment (0.02% of the total amount invested)... with none so far receiving late-stage funding”.
Despite these odds, young Black women founders in the UK are helming businesses and driving innovation in areas as diverse as beauty, e-comm and real estate.
“Investors often tell me that the problem is pipeline; that not enough Black women are actually pitching to them for investment,” says Sharmadean Reid, founder of The Stack World. “So we decided to tackle that head-on by gathering 25 Black women founders, who represent some of the most exciting investment potential in the UK today.”
Investors, there are no excuses.
Founder: Lola Okuyiga
A multi-brand e-comm marketplace specialising in luxury, contemporary and street/sportswear fashion, Wonder is currently in its pre-launch phase. Lola Okuyiga – a former brand executive at Fred Perry and buyer at Browns, ASOS and Topshop (where she created their best-selling item of all time, the Joni jean) – she has a proven commercial track record and unique access to brands.
“I’ve directly generated over £250 million in sales for fashion companies, and have an understanding of infrastructure and execution to scale,” says Okuyiga. With a future-focused approach and a mission to do retail better and more equitably for all stakeholders, diversity, inclusivity and representation are at the centre of Wonder.
“I’m excited to create opportunities and influence change within the fashion ecosystem. Selfridges and Browns (Farfetch Group) agree and they’re backing me and the concept.”
Founder: Grace Ukwuenyi
Company: My First Maison
My First Maison is a direct-to-consumer (DTC) real estate company with a mission to make high-quality period conversions more accessible to a wider range of customers, particularly first-time buyers. The traditional residential developer model is to acquire a remote patch of land and demolish any existing building on it, then erect new structures and extract as many units as possible from the plot.
“My business model is community-first,” says Grace Ukwuenyi, formerly of Barclays Investment Bank and Commerzbank London, where she was the top revenue generator in the fixed income, currencies and commodities department for three consecutive years.
“I have made the conscious decision to only work with existing building stock, specifically 19th-century and former industrial buildings in vibrant, multi-ethnic neighbourhoods. The plan is to update the interiors sympathetically and stylishly to create inspiring, accessibly priced homes primarily for first-time buyers.”
With a vision to re-imagine the design and quality of starter homes for a new, socially engaged buyer, Ukwuenyi is passionate about delivering an innovative solution to an industry ripe for disruption.
Founder: Rebekah Clark
Company: Happy Marlo
While the major players in the wellness space have brought mindfulness to the mainstream, offerings for children are typically “add-ons” rather than the core business. Happy Marlo is a wellbeing platform with a monthly subscription model, created specifically for six- to 11-year olds (encompassing approximately 2.3 million families in the UK).
The platform puts science-backed tools in the hands of children and their caregivers, to help them cope with difficult experiences, boost positive feelings and build resilience – something that has become even more pertinent since the pandemic hit. Rebekah Clark is a seasoned social impact specialist and has worked with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF, World Health Organization and the Malala Fund.
“The results of our beta testing at the end of 2020 were overwhelmingly positive, and we’re getting ready to bring Happy Marlo to more children later this year,” says Clark. “We combine true purpose with profit, alongside the opportunity to create a lasting legacy, supporting the next generation of emotionally strong business leaders.”
Founder: Sadie Sinner and Cassie Leon
Company: The Cocoa Butter Club
The Cocoa Butter Club is a performance platform showcasing and celebrating Black performers and performers of colour. The first of its sell-out showcases took place in September 2016, after founders Sinner and Leon discovered there were no Black lesbians booked on the cabaret stage at London Pride.
“There needed to be a platform where producers could come and discover authentic, Black or POC talent. We have created something that doesn’t exist and we are unapologetically taking up space and doing it with proven results,” says Sinner.
The Cocoa Butter Club has hosted events at The Roundhouse in London, Underbelly Festival, Soho House Berlin and Brighton Pride. Its network of performers, producers, managers and event coordinators is unrivalled and they plan to create an online talent directory.
“It is essentially the hub that you come to to discover Black and POC talent within the creative industries,” adds Leon.
The success of Australian company Hot Brown Honey, who have carved out a similar space in the creative industry in their country, is testament to the potential of Cocoa Butter Club. “The Cocoa Butter Club is trailblazing, it’s award winning, it’s a sell out show,” she says.
Founder: Emma Samson
Lavage is a wig care service providing convenient at-home cleaning and maintenance for wigs and hair extensions. Emma Samson launched Lavage after spotting a gap in the market for wig aftercare.
“So much money is being made at the front end of the wig industry, but there hasn’t been anything implemented in the back end with maintenance,” says Samson. With demand increasing for better quality wigs made from human hair, post-purchase care is increasingly important to customers.
Using a subscription model, members pay a monthly fee to get access to regular cleaning and treatments for their wigs.
“Lavage addresses the inconvenience and effort involved in keeping expensive wigs clean, healthy and styled,” she adds.
Founder: Dupe Burgess
Bloomful’s mission is to make quality, on-demand, reproductive healthcare available to all women. Founded in 2020, Bloomful's digital clinic connects women to healthcare professionals for personalised, remote care, and is initially focused on helping women with endometriosis – a chronic, painful, pelvic condition that affects 10% of women, but which is often misunderstood and takes an average of eight years to diagnose.
“Our platform is disrupting this journey and making it easier to access the expert care needed to diagnose and manage endometriosis,” says Dupe Burgess, who trained as a doctor and worked in the NHS for six years before joining global consulting firm BCG. Bloomful triages users’ symptoms, matching them with a specialist gynaecologist for a virtual consultation (for which users are charged a fixed fee) and then curates a personalised plan including a suite of experts to help users manage their specific symptoms and needs.
“Less than 2.5% of publicly funded research goes into reproductive health and that has left us with a gender health gap that has a huge impact on women every day,” says Burgess.
Data indicates the femtech industry is growing 15% year on year and is expected to be worth $60bn globally by 2027. Bloomful’s initial obtainable market in the UK is £400 million, and total addressable market estimated at £6 billion.
“We’re building traction and raising a pre-seed round that will give us an 18-month runway to build the team and gain our first 10,000 users,” says Burgess. “The vision is really for Bloomful to be the agent for change that shapes and expands the women's health market of the future.”
Founder: Rachael Twumasi-Corson and Joycelyn Mate
With a mission to help people with Afro and curly hair access safe, effective products, Afrochenchix founders Rachael Twumasi-Corson and Joycelyn Mate researched and produced their first hair oil in 2009. Since then, their range of sustainably produced haircare has featured in top publications including Vogue; was voted BBFA Best Natural Hair Brand in 2018; and is now the first British brand specifically for Afro hair available in a major retailer (Whole Foods Market).
The pair raised funding from Angel investors and saw funds from their WeWork Global Creator Award and Backstage Capital added to the round in early 2019.
“Afro hair care is a $42 billion market and it’s growing fast, but the big players don’t understand the customers or their problems: 78% of products for Afro and curly hair contain toxic chemicals,” say the two founders. “Our customer centric, data-driven approach has helped us sell over 60,000 bottles of our products.”
Founder: Abi Oyepitan
Company: LIHA Beauty
Along with her co-founder Liha Okunniwa, Abi Oyepitan launched LIHA Beauty in 2017 with just two products. They’re now on track to become a global brand, synonymous with ethical and natural skincare and wellness.
“We want to empower our customers with a knowledge of raw materials, and an understanding of African beauty philosophies,” says Oyepitan.
The global skincare market is expected to grow to almost $190BN by 2025 and the fastest growing segments of that market are natural skincare (30% of total volume and luxury skincare / 40% of the luxury cosmetics market).
“But the luxury beauty market is a saturated industry,” admits Oyepitan, who as a two-time Olympic athlete brings drive and focus to her work as a founder. “Consumers care more and more about clean products and want simple, natural, sustainable skincare that they can trust.”
In the immediate term, the duo are gearing up for a marketing push in America, but their long term ambition is to grow the company to the point where they can drive improvement in Fair Trade and sustainable organic farming in Africa.
Founder: Jasmin Thomas
Founded in 2019, Ohana is the culmination of Jasmin Thomas’ deeply personal mission to create efficacious skincare for women with auto-immune diagnoses.
“I started Ohana four years after I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis,” she says. Spotting a gap in the market, Ohana products combine high-grade CBD – which, when applied topically is said to help alleviate pain and inflammation – with plant-based science to create fast-acting, ethical skincare.
CBD is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. It is estimated to reach $1.8bn by 2022 and $23bn by 2025. Alongside this, the global natural cosmetics market is predicted to grow to $54 billion by 2027. “Women are twice as likely as men to receive an autoimmune diagnosis,” says Thomas.
“We aim to give them the self-care tools, which will help them feel empowered post diagnosis,” says Thomas.
Operating on a DTC model, growth to date has been driven by word of mouth and peer recommendation.
“We have now begun our digital marketing strategy to acquire further customers outside of our direct community,” says Thomas. “It’s an exciting time.”
Founder: Kayleigh Oliver
Company: Junction 5 Studios
Junction 5 Studios is an app development startup with a mission to help the Black community via innovative digital solutions. The company was created in 2017 and develops client projects alongside their own original IP.
“Our next project is an educational app called Figures of Black British Society (FOBBS),” says Kayleigh Oliver, who has a degree in software engineering and has worked in development roles within award-winning tech companies for over 13 years. “FOBBS will showcase the stories of notable Black Britons past and present, serving both as an educational tool to be used in schools and a community building platform.”
The overall market for online education has a projected worth of $350bn by 2025 , which Oliver hopes to tap into using a combination of freemium and subscription content. The app will also connect students to private companies who are looking to diversify their teams and provide training via internships.
“Using different storytelling mediums and technologies (including VR), we want to tell the stories of incredible figures from the Black community who’ve too long been overlooked. This will inspire future generations to do great things,” she adds.
Founder: Mariam Jimoh
Oja is a digital supermarket transforming access to cultural groceries and world foods via fast delivery. With a background in finance, Mariam Jimoh (one of Forbes 30 Under 30 in Technology for 2021) wants to fill the gaps for communities that are largely under-served, by improving access to the products they love but struggle to source. Bottom up, Oja has an addressable market in the UK of £10 billion and an even larger market across Europe.
“We see this market experiencing 5% year-on-year growth, reaching 16% by 2023,” says Jimoh. “The shift to online grocery shopping was accelerated by three years due to COVID and shopping in physical stores is predicted to decrease by 22% post-COVID, yet the UK world foods market is practically untouched in terms of innovation.”
Founder: Lottie Whyte
MyoMaster is a sports tech company which has created a fleet of massage guns and other technologies to ease muscle and joint pain. Lottie Whyte set up the company with her business partner, ex-professional rugby player Joe Gray in early 2018 after Joe developed achilles tendonitis. Frustrated by the slowness of his recovery, Gray dismantled a drill, welded on a stool leg and made a make-shift massage gun. It became the prototype for their flagship product, the MyoPro.
“We sold our first proper product in May 2019,” says Whyte, who used her background in advertising (before founding MyoMaster, she worked for agencies including M&C Saatchi and Instinctif Partners) to create a credible brand identity within the fitness space. This, she says, is a dynamic time for the company.
“More than 80% of our revenue currently comes from our DTC online platform but, on 12 April 2021, we launched in Selfridges and sold out within six days of being on the shelf.”
She argues that MyoMaster products have even greater cut-through in physical stores. “Muscle and joint pain account for 30% of GP consultations in England – our products can make a genuine difference,” she says.
Founder: Olivia Simpson
Company: Jamcan Juice
Inspired by her Jamaican heritage, and having researched the health benefits of CBD, Olivia Simpson has developed Jamcan Juice, a CBD-infused fruit juice without the usual ‘hempy’ aftertaste that many CBD products have. She plans to tap into the global cannabis beverages market, which is expected to be worth $2.8bn by 2025, with a subscription service, allowing customers to order their juice shots bi-weekly or monthly.
“With a legal background, I understand the regulatory landscape which CBD operates in,” says Simpson. “I also understand exporting directly from manufacturers in Jamaica to the UK, so I can uniquely bridge the gap between Jamaican produce and the UK market.”
Founder: Tobi Oredein
Company: Black Ballad
Black Ballad is a media and data company for and by Black women in Britain and beyond. It started life as a free-to-access blog but in 2017 evolved into a subscription-based platform, supported by live event and B2B sales. Tobi Oredein has spent the past seven years engaging and communicating with her audience, turning Black Ballad into one of the most trusted spaces in the media landscape for women of colour.
“There has never been a digital media product that has put this audience of Black women first and created the ultimate lifestyle experience for them through words, visuals, data and safe space,” says Tobi Oredein. “Brands have spent billions trying to engage Black consumers globally. Black Ballad is the key in unlocking Black consumer spend and the affinity brands now crave.”
Founder: Simi Lindgren
Watching revenues grow by +300% month on month in YUTYBAZAR’s initial testing period, Simi Lindgren knew she was on to something.
“That all happened organically,” she says. An online marketplace for consciously-produced indie beauty brands, YUTYBAZAR uses patent-pending algorithms to match consumers to products based on their unique needs.
Lindgren was already an award-winning commercial leader, who had taken a FTSE-listed business from £2 million to £10 million within four years when she decided to strike out with her first solo venture, in August 2020.
“Making YUTYBAZAR a reality in the midst of a global pandemic took resilience. I bootstrapped the business using savings, taught myself the programming languages Ruby on Rails and Python and juggled everything alongside two young children,” she says.
YUTYBAZAR owns the entire process from discovery to purchase and payment, as well as all customer data. The conscious beauty market has seen 2x growth in the past two years alone, and is expected to reach just shy of $60bn by 2027.
“We charge a commission from each transaction and vendors dropship products directly to the customer with the shipping labels we provide. The idea was born out of a need to eliminate the trial and error that it takes to find conscious beauty products that work for specific, under-represented markets.”
Founder: Zainab Sanusi
Founded in January 2021, FRO is a beauty community with a mission to redefine the textured hair experience for Gen-Z and millennials, creating haircare products that simplify the styling and upkeep of natural, textured hair. Zainab Sanusi launched FRO to change misconceptions about the care of textured hair, which can lead to overcomplicated routines: heat and chemical damage, traction alopecia, and seborrheic dermatitis are all conditions common in the textured hair community.
“The founder-market fit is in total alignment. I stopped chemically processing my hair three-and-a-half years ago, so I have a unique understanding of the pain points of our target customers and how to fix them,” says Sanusi. “Social constructs have viewed textured hair as less attractive, difficult to style or grow long – we want to change the narrative to something fun and positive.”
FRO is being launched as a community platform first, to grow its reach and open a dialogue with its target customers, before selling products direct to consumers via ecommerce channels.
“We want to speak directly to them and use these insights to create products that directly address their needs,” she adds.
Founder: Tracey Curran
Company: Sunday Archives
Sunday Archives is a Black-owned womenswear brand that launched in February 2021. After graduating from the Fashion Retail Academy in London, Tracey Curran worked as a fashion buyer at several UK high street retailers before launching her own label. Inspired by vintage styling, Sunday Archives doesn’t follow trends, and each collection is created with high-quality fabrics.
“The materials used in vintage wear were made to last, and this is a design element that is very important to me,” says Curran.
Natural fibres run across the brand’s premium basics line, while soft modal, tencel, organic cotton and silk feature in the seasonal, unique pieces. Sunday Archives’ debut spring/summer 2021 captures the ethos of the brand: timeless, effortless, sophisticated styles intended to survive the fast-pace of fashion.
Founder: Urenna Okonkwo
Company: Cashmere App
Launched in 2018, Cashmere is a personal finance companion for the next generation of aspirational consumers. The current iteration is a savings app that helps young women save up and buy luxury fashion and beauty products guilt-free, without dipping into savings or getting into debt. With affiliate partnerships with leading luxury retailers – including Selfridges, Harrods and Harvey Nichols – Cashmere generates revenue via commission (of up to 20%) from sales, and members pay a service charge per purchase.
Since launching, Cashmere has helped members save £3 million in their Cashmere wallets and generated over £1 million in sales.
“Millennials and Gen-Z are projected to make up 50% of the personal luxury goods market by 2025. We want to be the company that helps this number grow, by bringing in a new set of customers who ordinarily would not have made these luxury purchases,” says Urenna Okonkwo, a former wealth manager.
More than 70% of Cashmere members are young women who prior to signing up had never made a luxury purchase. Cashmere is raising seed funding to accelerate its growth and has received commitments from strategic Angels from Facebook and Farfetch. Long term, they plan to expand to other lifestyle verticals including travel, wellbeing and homeware.
Founder: Natalie Otwoma
Company: AFRO ZURI
AFRO ZURI are an early stage startup developing sustainable detangling hair tools for people with Afro-textured hair. Natalie Otwoma stopped chemically straightening her hair in 2020 and while she loved many of the natural haircare products available to her, a dearth of quality detangling tools made the washday experience painful.
“Seven in 10 Black women feel that detangling their hair is their least favourite part of wash day,” she says. “I definitely used to fit into that bracket.”
She set about creating a prototype detangling brush and, in April 2021, completed her first incubator round.
“Now I’m working with an award-winning product designer and developer who specialises in mass production and quality analysis. He is a great asset to the team as he is based in China and has direct access to our future manufacturers.”
And, she points out, the potential market is huge. 3.2bn people in the world have curly and Afro hair, and data shows that Black women spend up to six times more on their hair than counterparts.
“Black women in the US continue to embrace their natural hair, with a Mintel survey revealing that 40% no longer straighten using chemicals or heat styling,” continues Otwoma. “While 90% of the African population have curly and Afro-textured hair.” In this pre-launch stage, AFRO ZURI is building brand recognition and community via social, and is planning to sell DTC.
Founder: Marie Farmer
Company: Mini Mealtimes
Marie Farmer’s vision for Mini Mealtime was to create a “dietician in your pocket”. After two years of research, the digital health app launched in early 2020, to help parents understand their child’s nutritional needs with personalised nutrition reports, as well as access to on-demand consultations with dieticians.
“We’re making high-quality nutrition services accessible and affordable to parents,” says Farmer. “Our ultimate goal is to help stem the growing issue of children being obese but malnourished.”
Currently, the average Mini Mealtime user is a working mother in her late twenties to mid-forties with two children but Farmer estimates her total addressable market is 19 million in the UK, 83 million in the US and 1.9 billion globally, with an initial serviceable obtainable market of four million in the UK and 33 million in the US. The B2C model is subscription-based, although the core functionality of the app and access to the platform is free.
“Once this round is closed, we can start building out the scalable and paid services. Parent Tech represents an enormous opportunity,” she adds.
Founder: Yoanna ‘Pepper’ Chikezie
Company: The Assembly
The Assembly was founded in 2017, with the aim to connect Nigerian creatives with international companies, and has so far supported more than 2,000 freelancers and micro, small and medium enterprises with training, mentorship, talent matching and business support.
“Our mission is to unlock potential, upskill, and upscale Sub-Saharan African talent, starting with Nigeria,” says Yoanna “Pepper” Chikezie.
While China and Southeast Asia dominate the creative goods and services market, Sub-Saharan Africa has the potential to take its share (by 2035, the region will have more working-age people than the rest of the world combined).
“Microsoft plans to invest $100m in African talent development by 2023 and Afreximbank has announced a $500 million creative industry support fund. This presents an underexploited opportunity for growth in the nexus between digital creativity, which is likely to become a fast-growing sub-sector,” says Chikezie.
The Assembly takes a commission on each connection it brokers between creatives and companies, and in addition to training programme fees, offers a subscription service for members with access to premium resources. Its acquisition strategy combines community partnerships and networking events however, significant growth has been through referrals and word-of-mouth.
“We are embedded in the local ecosystem,” says Chikezie. “We have direct access to the best creative talent.”
Founder: Josephine Philips
Founded in 2020, Sojo is a fashion-tech startup for the circular economy. Its app and cycle-powered delivery service uses a Deliveroo-style model to connect customers to local seamster businesses, taking a commission from the seamster’s services and charging the customer a delivery fee to cover collection and drop off. With the second-hand clothes market set to be worth $51bn by 2023, physics graduate Josephine Philips saw that repair and alteration services will be increasingly in demand from eco-conscious consumers. In fact, the company’s research found 86% of second-hand shoppers “very frequently” find clothes they like but which don’t fit them.
“Now is the perfect time to invest in sustainable fashion, and this is the perfect solution in an area of the sustainable fashion space that hasn’t been tapped into yet,” says Philips. “Resale is booming, rental is on the rise – and with Sojo, repair and tailoring are the next facets of the industry to take off.”
Founder: Winnie Ogwang
Company: Living Proof
Living Proof is a youth-led insights consultancy, founded in December 2020 by Winnie Ogwang alongside her co-founders Rosie Baker and Miriam King. They bring together a wide range of experience in innovation consulting, consumer and tech sales, marketing, operations and local government. Uniting them is a shared belief in unlocking the next generation of diverse young talent.
“Young people are the raw, entrepreneurial and creative voices organisations need to look to,” says Ogwang. “By employing young people to work with us directly, our research and insights will always be relevant to the client, no matter what sector they operate in, be it a public sector youth engagement project or a private company wanting to understand their future consumers.”
For each project (their first was with UN Women UK), Living Proof hires a team of diverse young people to work alongside them and the client. Revenue is generated from this B2B consulting but it is about to launch a training arm of the business, focused on creative entrepreneurship skills. It also plans to partner with corporates to deliver training as part of their graduate schemes.
“Organisations want and need to engage new young audiences to ensure future relevance and growth,” says Ogwang. “By working hand in hand with our talented young people, they have direct understanding of how to engage this generation in a meaningful way.”
Black women founders received just 0.02% of venture capital funding since 2009 and yet they represent many of the most exciting new startups on the block.
By Alexandra Jones