Growing up in Harlem in the early ’90s could be described in one word: bustling, according to Diarrha N’Diaye-Mbaye. She recalled Mary J. Blige blasting from stereos as people walked down 125th Street, and the scents of Little Africa emanating from 116th, filled with West African restaurants and markets. From the sights to the smells and vibrant fashion, N’Diaye-Mbaye said it was a very exciting time to be a kid.
“I remember that very distinctly, kind of turning the curve and being in a different world where you smell incense suddenly, you heard different languages and dialects being exchanged,” N’Diaye-Mbaye said. “Music was a really big part of it, fashion being a big part of it. This is the age of Moesha and Brandy and Monica and Aaliyah.”
Her father immigrated to Harlem from Dakar, Senegal, in 1985, setting the foundation for his family first. His wife, Aminata, followed three years later. N’Diaye-Mbaye’s first beauty touchpoint was her mother, who worked as a braider. At the time, it wasn’t about luxury, self-care or preservation of Black beauty, but rather a means of survival.
“My mom came here in ’88 and she was like, ‘Hey, I don’t speak English. I don’t have a vocational occupation just yet, but I can braid,’” said N’Diaye-Mbaye. “I literally cannot remember a time where I wasn’t in the shop. I was kind of born there; she didn’t have maternity leave. I was on her back or in the stroller while she was braiding hair.”
Since the ’90s, N’Diaye-Mbaye’s mother has been the owner of Aminata African Hair Braiding Salon in Harlem and is the inspiration behind her daughter’s brand Ami Colé. Just as the braiding salon has been a pillar in NYC for decades, beauty has been a cornerstone of N’Diaye-Mbaye’s life, which led her to roles at L’Oreal and Glossier.
With Ami Colé, N’Diaye-Mbaye, 31, has created an award-winning brand that focuses specifically on melanin-rich skin while amplifying A-beauty, merging African heritage and clean, natural ingredients in its products.
As a teen, the entrepreneur remembers watching her mother put on her signature Fashion Fair or Mary Kay lipsticks. Once she began delving into foundation, N’Diaye-Mbaye struggled to find product lines that carried her shade. The problem still persists today for dark-skinned Black women.
“As I’m growing up and exploring the teenage years where you want to try eyeliner and all the things in the Seventeen magazine, nowhere to be found was a makeup brand where you could guilt-free walk to a counter and buy something,” she said. “It was just like, ‘This is not made for you.’ For me, it was a lot of mixing and matching. None of my white friends are going through this.”
Ami Colé’s tagline is “rich deep excellence,” centering melanin-rich consumers and filling a void in the market. Despite the fact that Black women contributed to over 86% of beauty industry sales in 2017, N’Diaye-Mbaye recalls being in corporate development rooms where deeper tones were merely an afterthought.
“I would go to certain spaces and try to be like, ‘OK, well let me be the one that forges the relationship between this brand and their brown consumers because it doesn’t exist right now,’” she said. “And the system wasn’t ready for that. That’s why I became so frustrated and was like, ‘I’m going to step away.’”
In 2019, N’Diaye-Mbaye left the corporate beauty space and began working on her brand; she first envisioned it in 2014 while working for Temptu, but hadn’t made the leap. With Ami Colé, she knew she wanted to prioritize Black women, from the marketing to the ingredients. While shea butter and Moroccan argan oil have long been Black beauty staples, Business of Fashion reported in May that other African heritage ingredients are increasing in popularity, such as baobab.
Upon its launch on May 17, Ami Colé released its starter pack, consisting of a skin-enhancing tint, lip treatment oil and light-catching highlighter. The skin tint comes in six shades, beginning with Rich 1 and extending to Medium 2. The brand champions clean beauty — which, according to the site, “means formulating without endocrine-disruptors” — throughout its products, using pumpkin, hibiscus and baobab seeds, extracts and oils.
K-Beauty and J-Beauty, shorthand terms for Korean and Japanese skin care products, have major “marketing machines” behind them, notes N’Diaye-Mbaye, but the same cannot be said of A-Beauty’s deep roots.
She says the issue is that resources are often extracted from the African continent, but the soul of the materials and the story behind them are left behind. It was important to N’Diaye-Mbaye to incorporate history into these skin-loving ingredients.
“The baobab tree can go as high as 20 feet, can go as wide as 40 feet in terms of its root, and can live up to about 600 years. Do you know how much life happened in front of this tree, how much shelter it has provided, how many nutrients it has provided generations of people? The baobab tree in itself is so symbolic of us,” she said.
“People can’t even wrap their fingers around what African beauty actually means,” she continued. “It’s too dynamic, it’s too diverse — and it is because your South African beauty is going to be different from your West African beauty — but the central hub of it is just the richness, the depth of it, the excellence of it. There’s a way to better market our raw materials and ingredients that have been coming from there forever.”
Through Ami Colé’s marketing, the brand ensures that women of all hues and backgrounds feel seen and features dark-skinned models, hijabis and other Black and brown women as the focal point. Rather than strictly casting racially ambiguous models and calling it “diversity,” N’Diaye-Mbaye was intentional in making it clear who the brand is for, and selected models from the Harlem community.
“I’m always in the business of trying to show people that there’s not one way to be,” she said. “There’s not one way to be Black, there’s not one way to be African, there is definitely not one way to be Muslim. But there are so many dynamic ways to show up and have the same faith and the same heart towards something.”
While N’Diaye-Mbaye is changing who gets to be the face of beauty, it’s hard to discern whether the rest of the industry is invested in doing the same or will even keep up.
After summer 2020, one fraught with police brutality, retailers such as Sephora were flocking to stock their shelves with Black-owned brands in the name of the 15 Percent Pledge. Created by Brother Vellies designer Aurora James in May 2020, the 15 Percent Pledge is a nonprofit organization that “encourages retailers to pledge 15% of their shelf-space to Black-owned businesses” and products.
However, before the 15 Percent Pledge, N’Diaye-Mbaye said that when she was raising capital, “there were some VCs that wouldn’t even answer my email.”
Eventually, she garnered $1 million in pre-seed funding. The brand is supported by investors including Imaginary Ventures, The Cut editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner, HB Fit Founder and author Hannah Bronfman, and others.
N’Diaye-Mbaye reached out to the same venture capital firms again in 2020, without changing anything about the Ami Colé deck. After radio silence, they finally responded with enthusiasm.
“I think we’re doing a good job holding people accountable, but I think the equity portion is still missing,” N’Diaye-Mbaye said. “Trying to understand inclusion, and everyone’s checking that box off now because visually you can see that. But what systems are you actually putting in place or, more importantly, breaking down to really support these founders?”
Despite such barriers, N’Diaye-Mbaye has continued to expand the Ami Colé brand. In October, the company released its lash-amplifying mascara in “one inky, deep” shade called rich black. The buildable formula consists of 87% naturally derived ingredients such as shea butter and jojoba oil to soften and condition the lashes. On Nov. 29, Ami Colé unveiled its (now sold-out) incense bowl and booklet duo ahead of the holidays.
“If you go to anybody’s Senegalese household, there is going to be incense. We call it thiouraye,” said N’Diaye-Mbaye. “Thiouraye is basically a mix of wood shavings, oils and all these concoctions that various specific women craft and sell at the market. I wanted to be able to offer Ami Colé in a 360 experience because it really is that. It’s really about creating this space where you can feel good and incense is a big part of that, especially from my culture.”
Shoppers should stay tuned for the next product the brand will be releasing; N’Diaye-Mbaye said she intends to come back strong in January “with newness.” In terms of the next category of products, the founder/CEO is excited by body products but knows it’s not an easy category to do well.
What she hopes is that Ami Colé inspires people to keep huddling, sharing ideas and fostering community.
“We’re very cognizant of how we label and shade and even merchandise our website to make sure that this person knows, ‘Hey, you are home. Welcome home. Have a seat. We get it,’” said N’Diaye-Mbaye. “It’s so much deeper for us just in general just to be able to nod to someone down the street and be like, ‘Oh, baby girl, I see you. I literally see you, I celebrate you, and I respect you.’ We’re just the tools to do that. We’re just a conduit to be able to connect people.”