Since the 1960s, Chicago has cultivated a great deal of entrepreneurs who have built their fortunes on the beauty and haircare industry. For Black-owned companies who have paved the way from Soft Sheen to Luster—many have sold off to bigger conglomerates or foreign ownerships.
With an estimated $7.5 billion spent by African-American women on beauty and hair care products—only one major international haircare corporation is headed up by a Black female CEO.
Shawn Tollerson has climbed the corporate ladder throughout the years, starting as a writer for a hair care brand, moving into brand management and working on several marketing campaigns. She recently joined Namaste Laboratories three years ago as Chief Marketing Officer, gradually making headway with her efficient management style landing at the top spot as CEO.
The company was acquired in 2010 by Dabur International, a company whose holdings include several health and hair care brands across 35 countries and is based in Dubai.
Namaste Labs is headquartered in Chicago and recently relocated to the West Loop.
Organic Root Stimulator (ORS) is a familiar brand that has built a large audience and recently received a facelift through a special marketing initiative.
Tollerson says the No Stereotypes campaign was an award-winning campaign that focused on the consumer being “who they are” and breaking through stereo barriers. “Speaking to consumers about the fact that no matter what your hair type or texture, we should celebrate who we are and love each other because God made us and our hair types. Sometimes people judge us when they see our hair a certain way whether you’re smart or whether you are pretty or whether you’re right for this particular job,” she said. “So, working with Burrell Advertising, we’ve been able to create this campaign. When I was chief marketing officer for Namaste, it really was a groundbreaking breakthrough versus just a pretty beauty ad.”
Working on this campaign, Tollerson was able to bring together a strong team of women who understood their core consumer—Black women. “We really cut to the core of who we are as a culture and from that role I was promoted to COO as chief operating officer. In that position I was able to work with operations, finance, human resources, legal and really trying to get some infrastructure into the company. We worked really hard to rebuild some of the foundation. Later, they asked me to become the CEO.”
For a year, in her role as the company’s CEO, there have been some changes, but she is confident the team is in the right direction. As they move into 2018, they are revitalizing a long-time product of the ORS family—the Olive Oil brand.
“The biggest focus for us right now is the refresh of Olive Oil. We’ve had this brand around for over 20 years. The last time it’s been refreshed was about 2012. It needed to get an update. We have to add new things to increase our relevance. So, we’ve been able to do that and now our focus is going to be in ensuring the brand really does provide the customer what she’s looking for.”
Tollerson grew up in South Carolina, married her high school sweetheart and attended the University of South Carolina, where she studied Journalism. After graduation, she entered the hair care industry by default but soon learned by fate—her journey began.
“I come from a very humble beginning. I don’t come from wealth. I started very much in the projects of South Carolina. I paid my way through school and I didn’t intend to become a CEO of a hair care company. That was not the intention. But one thing I always loved is us; wherever I’ve been in my life, I appreciate the struggle of who we are and what we mean,” said Tollerson.
Without the support of her husband she said, the road would’ve been bumpy, but marriage and motherhood has kept her grounded.
She says, “I think you have to marry your best friend because you change over time and that person has to know who you are, and you have to know who they are. I’ve been very blessed in my career to have been able to facilitate and bring to life a lot of the things that help us as a people.”
Running a multi-million-dollar operation in a billion-dollar industry, Tollerson feels Chicago is the right city despite the lure of bi-coastal markets such as New York City and Los Angeles. “Chicago is in the middle of the country so when you want to do a focus group, Chicago is a great place to know the heartbeat of the consumer. We’re in the middle so we’re not too extreme one way or the other. I think when it comes down to consumer intelligence, Chicago is an amazing spot to be.”
In 2017, there are fewer Black owned corporations controlling a dominant share of the Black hair care and beauty market share than in the 1970s. With more start-ups breaking on the scene, encouraging the spirit of entrepreneurship—Tollerson says more African American executives must head up companies who benefit from our consumers.
“You have to be at the table and we can’t be afraid to raise our voice when it’s not correct. I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my career to be a very strong voice and I won’t let anything go. Regarding the “no stereotypes” campaign, we’ve hit a lot of sensitive spots. By having an African-American female team, we have placed on point—it shows through our connection,” she adds.
“I always say you have to invest in each other. We have to help pull each other up. I feel if we don’t do that, we leave people behind.”