How many times have you traveled abroad and realized that you didn’t have the moisturizer or conditioner you needed? It’s a conundrum, but if you’re a person of color, much of the world won’t have what you need in local stores, unless perhaps you can dig up some grapeseed or coconut oil at the supermarket.
It happened to Orion Brown when she traveled to Japan in the spring of 2017. “I miscalculated,” she recalls. “We were planning for Tokyo and Kyoto, but I didn’t realize that Okinawa has a whole different climate.” The tiny bottle of conditioner that she was able to get past the TSA simply didn’t cut it in the humidity of the tropical prefecture. And with seven days left in the trip, she couldn’t just go to a pharmacy and buy something that would work for her hair type.
What she needed was products formulated for her hair and body needs that she could get through airport security. “Why don’t you do it?” asked her now-fiancé.
On reflection, there weren’t many reasons for her not to. After all, Brown was an experienced brand manager and strategist for big companies like Kraft and Oracle. She knew how to build a brand already. But was she ready to strike out on her own? By August of that year, she started with strategic planning. “A quick trademark search and we came up with a company name and a really bad logo,” the jovial Brown jokes of her company, Black Travel Box. “I started looking for partners because I wanted to design the brand before I worried about the inner workings of it. I had a vision for what I wanted the brand to be first.”
By day, she worked on strategic planning for Fortune 50 companies. By night, she went to work doing the same for Black Travel Box.
She left her job, partly due to the challenges of being a woman of color in corporate Colorado, in 2018. “I was like ‘I’ll get another job. I’m very employable. Pat myself on the back a little bit,’” she remembers. But after three months of working on Black Travel Box, “I started getting customers by accident.”
Publications started wanting to write about the product. Why wouldn’t they? No one else is making cruelty-, sulfate-, and phtalate-free all-natural beauty products just for people of color, then sizing them specifically to make it through the TSA’s grasp. The Black Travel Movement is a powerful one. Just consider millennials: In that age group alone, there are more than 5 million black travelers, says a study by DigitasLBi. Surely, those young people take good care of themselves and need high-quality hair- and skincare.
In the year that she’s been working on her MVP (minimum viable product), Brown has had them reformulated to achieve exactly the effects she wants. What’s her business model? “I work until I can’t work anymore,” she says with a laugh.
Many retailers still call beauty products for people of color a “niche market.” But guess what? “You can hear the death rattle,” she says of retail. Millennials aren’t interested in the IRL shopping experience anymore, she explains. They want what they need at the click of a button. And if people call it “niche” that’s OK with Brown. “The whole premise is that I wanted to create something for people like me,” she explains.
Brown is focused on selling not just from her website, but also getting her products in hotels. This year, she expects to come out of the beta testing phase that she says has gone on longer than she would like and “launch for the market in a big way.” The plan is to make it through the holidays and prove that she has an audience even after the biggest retail push of the year, hopefully using media coverage to get the word out.
By the five-year mark, Brown dreams of her brand becoming “a bit of an Away meets Glossier.” She hopes to have interest in a larger company purchasing Black Travel Box, but she doesn’t see herself making an exit in that time frame. She has too many plans to put into place to let that happen. And in doing that, Brown will change how it feels to be “traveling while Black” one conditioner bar and lip balm at a time.