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Black Beauty Roster’s Maude Okrah Is Striving Not Just for Inclusion, but for Equity Too

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What does equity in the beauty industry look like? To Maude Okrah, founder of Black Beauty Roster (BBR), equity in beauty doesn’t stop with the glossy, multi-hued pages of a skincare spread or diverse model casting in a fashion show—it begins with sourcing qualified professionals to call the shots behind the scenes.

After the racial reckoning of 2020, beauty professionals were having productive conversations about the state of the industry, but Maude decided it was time for more significant action. So how did this beauty founder go from an industry outsider to covering backstage beauty at Christian Siriano for New York Fashion Week? Keep reading to see beauty through Maude Okrah’s lens and learn how Black Beauty Roster is changing the industry.

The Simplicity and Intricacy of Black Beauty

Maude has a subtle yet undeniable confidence to her. On our call, her long brown-black hair is blown out into soft curls, and her makeup is applied in that effortless, no-makeup makeup way that might not even be makeup at all. She flaunts a complexion of evenly toned deep brown skin, which she humbly credits more to “genetics, drinking water, and minding my business” than any particular skincare routine. Her approach to solving the beauty industry’s most pressing accessibility issues is just as practical as her approach to beauty. “Culture, convenience, and simplicity,” says Maude. “That’s what beauty has always been to me.”

While other Black women in America were learning to appreciate their skin and hair texture in minority environments, Maude was affirmed by the beauty around her. Born in Florida, she moved to her parent’s homeland of Ghana, West Africa, as a young child and then returned to the states for her formative years in Worcester, Massachusetts—also known as little Accra. Maude appreciated simplicity as well as the intricacy of the beauty around her.

“There are pictures of my mom either wearing a natural afro, rocking a Jherri curl, or even embracing her natural hair through protective styling,” recalls Maude. “Braiding was huge in Ghana, and that’s where simplicity and intricacy collide. On the one hand, it’s this simple protective style, but on the other, there are so many different renditions of what this can look like. I would go from box braids one month to extensions to wearing my hair relaxed the next.” Maude felt empowered to experiment with her hair, and she didn’t think much about it, which she would later learn was a privilege.

Beauty, Tech, and Equity

In just five short—but effortful—years, Maude has gone from an alternative energy professional to a beauty company founder working at the intersection of beauty tech and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Though her journey wasn’t linear, her work has stemmed from authenticity and filling much-needed gaps in the beauty industry.

“I spent over a decade working with startups in energy, very much on the economic side,” she says. “I was visiting all of these different cities—whether speaking at a conference or moving for work—and the running joke was that in a new city, you have to find a doctor, a church, and a hairstylist.” The latter always proved to be the most difficult to find, and that’s what led Maude to create Black Beauty Roster’s parent company, Bonnti, which derives from a word in her native Ghanaian dialect that means to braid her hair. Maude was simply trying to find solutions to the problems she was encountering in her own life. Bonnti provided a way for women of darker complexions and textured hair to find beauty professionals who were qualified to serve them.

“My journey has been very personal,” she continues. “It was just about finding beauty professionals, and then we started working with executives and then conferences with public figures, and ultimately celebrities started using our platform as well. From there, our network opened to larger organizations, like production companies and studios. And then, of course, there was the murder of George Floyd, and the racial reckoning happened.” While the nation paused to reflect, Maude and her team also stopped and thought, what more can we do? They knew they had to go beyond diversity and inclusion and get the industry to the next level: equity.

While everyone was wondering what to do, Black Beauty Roster created solutions. “All of the discussions that happened in the wake of 2020 were so important,” Maude recalls. “There was finally a safe space to share about the challenges, frustrations, and microaggressions we were experiencing, but after venting, Black professionals got tired of holding the mic. They were tired of being the spokesperson for everyone at their company or within their communities. Black people did not create this problem, but at BBR, we knew there was a huge opportunity to educate and become a part of the change.”

Far too often, we’ve seen Black actresses burdened with doing their own hair and makeup before a scene or models paired with professionals who had no idea how to enhance their look. While hairstylists, makeup artists, talent, and companies were all speaking in silos, Black Beauty Roster created a bridge for them to interact in new, more productive ways.

Their first action was the 2021 Black Beauty Roster Summit, which united all parties. Artists were educated on the beauty business, and brands were given resources to become better allies. They also hosted their first Black Excellence Luncheon in 2022, which was an opportunity to celebrate the work Black artists were doing in the industry. “While we know we’re not where we want to be yet, we recognized that creating a moment to give flowers was important. We created a moment to celebrate the beauty in the work that has been done by amazing legends in the hair and makeup space across TV, film, and fashion. Because the reality is if we don’t give ourselves flowers, who will?”

The Beauty of Allyship

Today the work has expanded even more, including a portal where brands can hire industry talent qualified to work with all skin tones and hair textures and even a dynamic partnership with Warner Brothers Studios. BBR isn’t merely providing beauty talent to work with diverse casts, they are also providing education on allyship to empower people in decision-making positions to help move the needle forward.

Allies are always welcome at Black Beauty Roster, as they recognize the importance of everyone working together to build a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable community. “We want to showcase artists that work with all textures and complexions—which is often Black artists. They went through schooling and learned to work with Asian and Caucasian hair, but they’re often only called in to save the day for Black talent. It’s limiting their careers, and we want to see the diversity happening in front of the camera catch up to who’s working behind the scenes.”

Maude and her team are committed to making real progress in beauty, and industry heavy-hitters have aligned themselves with Black Beauty Roster to support this mission. Their leadership counsel includes the likes of Sir John, Larry Sims, and Kim Kimble—to name just a few. “When you’re willing to do the work, building community and fellowship is much easier. It’s not easy work,” Maude adds, “but we’re determined to do it. We want to encourage as many people as possible to join the roster. We want to help hairstylists and makeup artists get the recognition they deserve and help brands and companies simplify the beauty experience for themselves and their talent.”

For anyone like Maude, who has big dreams and ambitions, she says to remember that it all starts with small steps: “When your vision and goals are massive, you have to take a step back and understand that there are little things you can do each day, week, and month to help you get to that. It’s also important to remember that you never have it right. There is always something to learn—one day, you might be on top of the world, and the next day might feel like, now what? And that’s okay. You don’t need to know everything; you just have to be willing to take the first step. Each day I’m learning something new, and that’s amazing. It’s a beautiful journey.”

Interested in discovering more Beauty Through The Black Lens? Learn how travel influencer Francesca Murray gained a global perspective or meet the melanin chemist who is debunking misinformation one Instagram post at a time.

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About the author
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Kindra Moné
Kindra Moné is a writer and content creator who works with brands and magazines to create culturally relevant fashion and beauty content. She is also the founder of The Moné Edit: a community and podcast at the intersection of style and wellness.
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Article Last Updated February 28, 2023 12:00 AM