How the Mented Cosmetics Founders Built Their Own Seat At The Table

By Shannon Hawkins, Staff Writer | Digital Business

Sometimes in order to break the glass ceiling, you must build your own house. That was the case for KJ Miller and Amanda Johnson--founders of Mented Cosmetics, a beauty brand headquartered in New York City that’s finding success through specialized products for women of color. And they’re starting with the potentially trickiest beauty buy of them all: "nude" lipstick. With over $1m in capital raised (a feat less than 1% of black owned startups achieve), features in publications like Essence, Martha Stewart Living, and Fast Company, glowing reviews from top influencers, and growing a social media presence, Mented Cosmetics is having a lit 2017. We caught up with them to hear how they built their business; they also participated in a panel discussion at New York’s YouTube Space on December 14.

What were your professional backgrounds before Mented Cosmetics?

KJ: I was a buyer for Sears and then moved to New York, where I was the head apparel buyer for Dr. Jays women’s division. Post business school, I continued to work in corporate, but by night, I was in the process of launching a bunch of different businesses. Although they didn’t work out in the long run, they were such an important part of my career path because of the learnings I got from those experiences.

Amanda: I started my career in investment banking and then moved to Time, Inc, where I was able to focus on tangible products. It was where I fell in love with marketing, and ultimately spurred my decision to go to business school. Post business school, I ran the digital arm of Barneys NY for several years.

We read that the Mented Cosmetics brand started over a glass of wine, when you both discussed how you could never find the right nude for your skin tone. What was the first step you took to launch your business?

Amanda: Once we had the lightbulb moment regarding the issue of finding nude lipsticks, the immediate next step was to figure out if it was actually a market problem. We asked friends and family if they’ve found the perfect nude, did the legwork of going to makeup counters and challenging the employees to find the right lip color for us, and generally just a lot of first party research.

As bankers and consultants, we took the measured approach, looking at data to figure out the market demand before coming to the conclusion that, “hey, maybe we are the ones who will have to solve this problem.”

The market problem you're solving for is predominantly based on skin tone. How do you feel this era of being “woke” and hyper-aware about the consequences of being Black in our society impacted not only your product vision, but also your approach to business ownership?

KJ: When we had the idea for Mented, we both said, “we should not be afterthoughts in the world of beauty.”

We spend a lot of money on cosmetic products, but when we go shopping we feel that way--like afterthoughts. For us, we weren’t thinking about the politics or being “woke” when we made the decision to start our company. We were just thinking about our disappointment in that industry and what we’re going to do to solve a real problem. But it is interesting that during the infancy of our business, as a country we were in a period of flux where people were [and still are] looking to support and buy Black. That was a product of feeling ignored by society, and it coalesced with what we were saying about feeling ignored in the beauty industry.

Did you ever face setbacks that you felt were motivated by factors beyond your control like your race and gender?

Amanda: One of the things that stands out to me is when we did our preliminary market research. We thought we were being appropriate about our business estimates; however, when we sent these projections out to VC firms, we would get pushback around not thinking “big enough.” Subtle things like that remind me how people might see you and how you’re interpreting the world. We had to work harder to win people over on our idea while holding the line on what we believed to be true.

KJ: Because I’m less familiar to those in the VC world, it takes that much more to get them to grasp our ideas. However, it can’t be undersold that It’s hard to raise money for anyone and in many ways, we had advantages (i.e. being Harvard Business School grads).

Switching gears, given your success driving product adoption via YouTube, what are some of your suggestions on how to use that platform to drive growth as an up and coming company?

KJ: We literally learned how to make lipstick via YouTube. You can learn almost anything from YouTube if you just look. So starting there is important. YouTube and Google are literally how we started our business.

Amanda: Regarding driving adoption, when we started making our handmade samples, we wanted to get the buzz going so we started to send those samples to social media influencers and YouTubers. At first, we were just looking for feedback but then they started making content and helping us build early demand well before we launched. A great way to use social platforms is to get in front of new people well before you make any new money.

Do you have any basic tips for a new business owner who not only wants to run a company but run it profitably AND with scaling potential--for example going from a 2 person company to having people you actually have to manage is no small feat.

KJ: Amanda and I knew from the beginning we didn’t want to stop at lipsticks. We refused to be one trick ponies. We thought long and hard about our product development roadmap and what would give us the initial momentum to launch with more products. Also, scaling takes capital, so we also knew we had to raise money in order to re-invest in the next thing.

If we had to offer tips, here they are:

  • Ask friends and family for initial capital
  • Build an investor deck
  • Hit the digital pavement and reach out via Linkedin
  • Source capital from Angel investors in your city

What has been your biggest triumph as a business owner thus far and what keeps you motivated?

KJ: Being in Forbes was pretty sweet! But on a personal level, the biggest triumph was just making the leap. I’ve wanted to do startups for so long but could never make it work. This was due to a variety of things--fear being a huge reason. So overcoming that fear and making the jump with Amanda was by far the biggest win for me.

Amanda: Off of that touching moment, I have another. Being on talking about our vision on the floor of the NYSE was a surreal moment. You don’t just land on the floor of NYSE. The market decides you’re a bet and that you deserve to be there.

What’s your single word (or phrase) of wisdom you’d like to pass along to women who may look at you as SHEroes?

Amanda: Follow your passion and continue to learn.

KJ: I will borrow a quote… "well behaved women seldom make history.” I’ve always been assertive and if there is something I want I’m gonna fight like hell to get it and probably ruffle feathers along the way.

For more from KJ and Amanda, watch their panel discussion with Jackie Aina, YouTube creator and beauty vlogger with over 1.8 million subscribers; Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Panszczyk, founders of Area NYC, a New York fashion label; moderated by Jamie Rosenstein, Producer, Business Inclusion at Google, hosted at YouTube Space NY.

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