If there's one thing Historically Black Universities are known, it's fostering a sense of interconnectedness for collaborative genius to thrive. Of all campuses, it was on the soil of The Mecca, Howard University, where She'Neil Johnson-Spencer and Nicolette Graves rooted their friendship and aligned their passion for beauty and natural brains. Today, the two have founded a skincare brand of their own, Base Butter, that has not only carved out their niche space in the market but rallied a community of women to glow from the inside out.
It all started with a Facebook message. In the midst of the buzzing anticipation of her inaugurate college year, She'Neil was on the hunt for a roommate with a particular aptness to live with, "Someone who was clean and possibly a Leo because I'm a Leo. And [Nicolette] answered my call."
When the two graduated, there were few Black-owned indie brands on the market, which compelled She'Neil to develop one of her own, "I was really inspired to create something for us, by us with clean, safe, and effective ingredients and celebrated our beauty," she shares. As an escape from her mundane work life, She'Neil followed her curiosity and began to explore her true passion: beauty. What she landed on was a quaint makeup line called, Color Cosmetics, which, although short-lived, led her to the real winner, "I had all these raw ingredients in my apartment and I was like, what am I gonna whip up with this?" What prevailed from the leftovers, was a homemade, natural butter that serviced the body from head to toe.
Photo Credit: Taylor Nickens
The roomies turned business partners when She'Neil sensed that her multi-use skin butter line, Base Butter (the product), was in need of some serious scaling. Meaning: it was time to call in reinforcement. Recalling Nicolette's background in product development, She'Neil knew there was no better person suited for the job than her bestie. As Nicolette recalls, "There was an interesting interaction between wellness and beauty at the time. I was consistently sending [She'Neil] trends and data that I was seeing at work then coming home and being her guinea pig."
The two knew that it was time to develop a product that would keep customers coming back for more, and looked no further than their growing community for the answer.
She'Neil and Nicolette conducted a survey called, Skin Struggles, which accumulated the insights of over 3,000 women to learn not only what ailed their skin, but how they could create a solution. "The women ended up sharing what their skin struggles were, what products they're using, what they hate about the industry, what they loved, and that was the beginning vision of the Base Butter 2.0." What they landed on was their "Hero Product," the Radiant Face Jelly, a staple for their oily, combination, and acne-prone skin to rejuvenate and restore.
xoNecole chatted with co-founders, She'Neil Johnson, CEO, and Nicolette Graves, VP of Product, to learn the secret sauce of running a successful business with your bestie.
xoNecole: For those creatives who are looking to find their business partner, what are some traits that you would recommend them looking for in that person?
Nicolette Graves: You need the Yin to your Yang. A lot of people will say, don't get into business with your friends, but I think when you're very clear on what your strengths and weaknesses are, and the other person's as well, it creates space to have a level of trust. Early on, when She'Neil brought me on, I would always joke like, "Oh my god, [Base Butter] is like your first baby." And I felt really protective of her first baby. Therefore, I was very clear on being intentional about how I came into it helping. You have to trust that the person you're working with has the appropriate decision-making skills in general. There's also the spiritual component.
It's the trust piece and having faith and knowing that person is going to pull up and show up when you can't and that you can be honest. There were some points in time where She'Neil wasn't feeling it and certain times when I wasn't feeling it, so you have to be able to communicate that and know that there's no hard feelings. It's being able to flex between those things and I think we've been successful because of the love that exists in our friendship and the level of respect.
She'Neil Johnson-Spencer: And you have to know that people's track record. I was able to officially live with Nicolette over the past 10 years because we were roommates in college together. So I knew at the end of the day, Nicolette would get it done - she graduated with a 4.0. She knew when it was time to work and when it was time to play. I think that's really important because there are signs when you meet someone and you want to work with them, and sometimes people ignore those times. So since I've been, I guess, "interviewing" Nicolette for 10 years, I know who she is, in and out.
"You need the Yin to your Yang. A lot of people will say, don't get into business with your friends, but I think when you're very clear on what your strengths and weaknesses are, and the other person's as well, it creates space to have a level of trust. There's also the spiritual component. It's the trust piece and having faith and knowing that person is going to pull up and show up when you can't and that you can be honest."
Photo Credit: Taylor Nickens
I’ve heard the term “hero product” come from entrepreneurs who describe the product that changed the game for their business. For you two, it’s the Radiate Face Jelly. How did you all know that you had something special with the Radiate Face Jelly?
She'Neil: When Nicolette came on, we were really like, "OK, what problem are we solving?" So from the Skin Struggles survey, we knew that 50 percent of our customers had oily, combination, acne-prone skin. We knew that we needed a solution for at least those skin types. It was also great because it was the type we also identified with and so it was kind of like a personal decision as well. For those with acne-, oily-prone or combination skin, a lot of times we're really scared to moisturize and hydrate our skin because either it's going to leave us oily or greasy or clog our pores. It was that revelation that led us to create Radiate Face Jelly.
She’Neil, you’ve once mentioned that at one point of your journey, you challenged yourself to just put things out there and not be such a perfectionist. What were some steps that you took to overcome perfectionism and how has that paid off in the long run?
She'Neil: I came into the business with a very strong design background, so for me, everything is about design, aesthetics, and being perfectly curated. It would be terrible to the point where I would spend so much time on maybe one graphic just to post on social media. But it got to a point where our brand became a business and I had to really look at the numbers and the bottom line, and make decisions based on what was making us money. That's really when the shift came. Even to this day, I don't want to do anything design- or aesthetics-related with the business because I just don't want to go back there; to being a perfectionist.
At the end of the day, it's really just about the bottom line: what's going to make us a conversion or a transaction? What's going to win us a customer? What do our customers want? The industry has changed to where customers really want that more real and authentic experience. That gave me some room to chill out some. I also became the CEO of my business and learned that everything is trial and error. Nicolette and I really take on this mindset that everything is an experiment; we're either going to hit the goal, or we're going to have a lesson learned.
"At the end of the day, it's really just about the bottom line: what's going to make us a conversion or a transaction? What's going to win us a customer? What do our customers want? The industry has changed to where customers really want that more real and authentic experience. Nicolette and I really take on this mindset that everything is an experiment; we're either going to hit the goal, or we're going to have a lesson learned."
Photo Credit: Taylor Nickens
One common misconception about starting a business and working for yourself is that you have to quit your job and let your business catch you. But for you two, how did having a full-time job help you all build your business?
Nicolette: I'm a single Black woman living in New York and therefore, I need money. We've gone through all the phases of broke entrepreneurship, making money, and all the ups and downs. One of the things I realized is despite having the goal of building this business to be as big as it can be, there are other things I want to do and that takes money and savings and being able to use those resources strategically. In addition to that, I think people have the 9-5 game messed up a little bit. I don't think they realize that when you have a 9-5, you're getting paid to learn. If you're strategic, you'll make sure you're in a role that is consistently teaching you new things.
In my [current] 9-5, I do Product Marketing for a B2B company. Through that, I've learned a lot of interesting things that I get to bring back to our company. Because I've always worked in the startup world, it's allowed me the ability to think of solutions ahead of a problem that might present itself so we're not being reactive, and we can be proactive. It's been like a really interesting space to continue to learn and find inspiration in the weirdest places, while also making sure that I'm financially setting myself up for success as it relates to the wealth gap.
"I think people have the 9-5 game messed up a little bit. I don't think they realize that when you have a 9-5, you're getting paid to learn. If you're strategic, you'll make sure you're in a role that is consistently teaching you new things."
Photo Credit: Pierre Eliezer
She'Neil: I started Base Butter with a 9-5 and ultimately, that funded the start of the business. But when Nicolette and I were laid off, we lived there until our lease ended. I had to make a decision: do I go and find a new job or do I still take this risk and make decisions to still work on Base Butter. Ultimately, I ended up staying in Philadelphia because my expenses were cut a lot and I had the support from my now-husband to build my business. I had to give myself a better financial situation so I could be a better CEO, owner, and founder - if you're not good as a founder, your company's not going to be good.
I thought early on in my business, that I'd just never pay myself until that "one day" we make it big. I thought it would be OK to be broke, broke, broke until we hit a million, but it honestly doesn't work like that. I had student loans, some credit card bills. So I went back to work with the goal of paying down debt, and I had to get very real about the type of life I wanted to live. Nicolette gave me a book calledProfit First and from that book, we learned how to pay ourselves, no matter how much we were making. Through implementing that model, we were able to start paying ourselves and things got a lot easier from there.
"I had to give myself a better financial situation so I could be a better CEO, owner, and founder - if you're not good as a founder, your company's not going to be good."
Photo Credit: Pierre Eliezer
Most creatives and entrepreneurs are used to only having themselves to look to for support in difficult times along their journey, but you all are fortunate enough to have each other. How do you all affirm each other when in moments of doubt or when you’re questioning yourselves?
Nicolette: We have the advantages of being best friends. We've always said, "If this is not fun anymore, then we'll stop doing it." In addition to that, although we're not perfectionists, I will say we are committed to doing a good job. There's a level of loyalty and commitment to the idea and the vision. Just consistently being aligned or finding room to realign. And understanding that there's no one right way to do anything, so we have to be flexible.
She'Neil: And I also would say we have each other, but because the of the industry being a mix of beauty, entrepreneurship, creatives, [we] do have a community of people who provide insight and advice based off their own experiences.
What’s one thing that you didn’t know prior to becoming business owners that you would impart to aspiring entrepreneurs?
She'Neil: Pay yourself from day one. I feel like a lot of the stress that comes with launching a business and starting a business is really the finances. Like, how am I going to take care of myself? How am I going to feed myself or how to pay my bills? But if your bills are paid, you're eating every day, and have a roof over your head, you can really focus on your business without having to figure out, how am I going to survive?
You want to build your business around what's going to make you happy and keep you satisfied. It's just making sure that you're in a comfortable position so that you can really focus on your business because your business is going to need you to be present. It needs you to be healthy and for you to be wealthy. Build out your financial plan around your business as early as you can to make sure your needs are met.
Nicolette: And to piggyback off of that, I would say there is no one right way to do anything and you have to trust yourself. Going back to the idea of a saturated market, things will always be saturated because none of these ideas are new. It's understanding that whatever you're building is unique because you're unique and different.
But also, I've seen a lot of people taking any and everybody's advice as goals, but you're supposed to sift through that information and discern what makes the most sense for you and your life. In the grand scheme of things, 5, 10, 20 years from now, what do you want your life to look like? Understanding that as long as you feel OK with that, any and everybody else's opinions of the way that they've done it is irrelevant. You can learn things, but it's your journey.
For more of She'Neil and Nicolette, follow them on Instagram @sheneilmonique and @nicolette.camille. Also, check out their brand Base Butter by clicking here.
Featured image courtesy of Base Butter
Aley Arion is a writer and digital storyteller from the South, currently living in sunny Los Angeles. Her site, yagirlaley.com, serves as a digital diary to document personal essays, cultural commentary, and her insights into the Black Millennial experience. Follow her at @yagirlaley on all platforms!
This post is in partnership with Amgen.
The seemingly simple task of taking a breath is something most of us don’t think twice about. But for people who live with severe asthma, breathing does not always come easily. Asthma, a chronic respiratory condition that inflames and narrows the airways in the lungs, affects millions of people worldwide – 5-10% of which live with severe asthma. Severe asthma is a chronic and lifelong condition that is unpredictable and can be difficult to manage. Though often invisible to the rest of the world, severe asthma is a not-so-silent companion for those who live with it, often interrupting schedules and impacting day-to-day life.
Among the many individuals who battle severe asthma, Black women face a unique set of challenges. It's not uncommon for us to go years without a proper diagnosis, and finding the right treatment often requires some trial and error. Thankfully, all hope is not lost for those who may be fighting to get their severe asthma under control. We spoke with Juanita Brown Ingram, Esq. and Jania Watson, two inspiring Black women who have been living with severe asthma and have found strength, resilience, and a sense of purpose in their journeys.
Juanita Brown Ingram, Esq.
Juanita Ingram has a resume that would make anyone’s jaw drop. On top of being recently crowned Mrs. Universe, she’s also an accomplished attorney, filmmaker, and philanthropist. From the outside, it seems there’s nothing this talented woman won’t try, and likely succeed at. In her everyday life, however, Juanita exercises a lot more caution. From a young age, Juanita has struggled with severe asthma. Her symptoms were always exacerbated by common illnesses like a cold or flu. “I've heard these stories of my breathing struggles, but I remember distinctly when I was younger not being able to breathe every time I got a virus,” says Ingram. “I remember missing a lot of school and crying a lot because asthma is painful. I [was taken] to see my doctor often if I got sick with anything so I was hypervigilant as a child, and I still am.”
Today, Juanita says her symptoms are best managed when she’s working closely with her care team, avoiding getting sick and staying ahead of any symptoms. Ingram said she’s been blessed with skilled doctors who are just as vigilant of her symptoms as she is. While competing in the Mrs. Universe competition, Juanita took extra care to stay clear of other competitors to ensure she didn’t catch a cold or virus that would trigger her severe asthma. “I would stand off to the side and sometimes that could be taken as ‘oh, she thinks she's better than everybody else.’ But if I get sick during a pageant, I'm done. I had to compete with that in mind because my sickness doesn't look like everybody else's sickness.”
Even when her symptoms are under control, living with severe asthma still presents challenges. Juanita relies on her strong support system to overcome the hurdles caused by a lack of understanding from the public, “I think that there's a lot of lack of awareness about how serious severe asthma is. I would [also] tell women to advocate and to trust their intuition and not to allow someone to dismiss what you're experiencing.”
Jania, a content creator from Atlanta, Georgia, has been living with severe asthma for many years. Thanks to early testing by asthma specialists, Jania was diagnosed with severe asthma as a child after experiencing frequent flare-ups and challenges in her day-to-day life. “I specifically remember, I was starting school, and we were moving into a new house. One of the triggers for me and my younger sister at the time were certain types of carpets. We had just moved into this new house and within weeks of us being there, my parents literally had to pay for all new carpet in the house.”
As Jania grew older, she was suffering from fewer flare-ups and thought her asthma was well under control. However, a trip back to her doctor during high school revealed that her severe asthma was affecting her more than she realized. “That was the first time in a long time I had to do a breathing test,” she describes. “The doctor had me take a deep breath in and blow into a machine to test my breathing. They told me to blow as hard as I could. And I was doing it. I was giving everything I got. [My dad and the doctor] were looking at me like ‘girl, stop playing.’ And at that point [it confirmed] I still have severe asthma because I've given it all I got. It doesn't really go away, but I just learned how to help manage it better.”
Jania recognizes that people who aren’t living with asthma, may not understand the disease and mistake it for something less serious. Or there could be others who think their symptoms are minor, and not worth bringing up. So, for Jania, communicating with others about her diagnosis is key. “Having severe asthma [flare-ups] in some cases looks very similar to being out of shape,” she said. “But this is a chronic illness that I was born with. This is just something that I live with that I've been dealing with. And I think it's important for people to know because that determines the next steps. [They might ask] ‘Do you need a bottle of water, or do you need an inhaler? Do you need to take a break, or do we need to take you to the hospital?’ So, I think letting the people around you know what's going on, just in case anything were to happen plays a lot into it as well.”
Like Juanita, Jania’s journey has been marked by ups and downs, but she remains an unwavering advocate for asthma awareness and support within the Black community. She hopes that her story can be an inspiration to other women with asthma who may not yet have their symptoms under control. “There's still life to be lived outside of having severe asthma. It is always going to be there, but it's not meant to stop you from living your life. That’s why learning how to manage it and also having that support system around you, is so important.”
By sharing their journeys, Juanita and Jania hope to encourage others to embrace their conditions, obtain a proper management plan from a doctor or asthma specialist like a pulmonologist or allergist, and contribute to the improvement of asthma awareness and support, not only within the Black community, but for all individuals living with severe asthma.
Read more stories from others like Juanita and Jania on Amgen.com, or visit Uncontrolled Asthma In Black Women | BREAK THE CYCLE to find support and resources.
Since we’re at the stage in 2023 where we can pretty much count down the hours until a brand-spanking new year is before us, I thought it was necessary to encourage those of you who are in relationships to do a bit of relational inventory. It’s not something that I haven’t mentioned in my content before. Hey, charge it to being a marriage life coach and writer but I think clear communication is super essential — and that means there are times when you need to flat-out ask certain questions, listen to the answers you receive, and then decide where to go from there.
And so, today, I’ve got six questions that you should ask your man over the next couple of days. Now, I’ll be honest: some of these might be hard to ask simply because the answers might be difficult to hear if they’re the kind that you didn’t expect. Still, I believe that it’s important to close out the year by opening up the floor to hear where your man’s head and heart are as you express your head and heart in return. Because, from both personal experience and observation of others, time is too precious to be out here assuming that what you want is what he wants as well.
If you want to know, you need to ask — and I think you can pretty much get the clarity that you need by asking — asking not berating or pressuring — the following six questions before the ball drops at midnight on January 1, 2024.
1. "Are we on the same page?"Giphy
The reason I’ve written articles like “6 Signs You’re In A One-Sided Relationship” in times past is because I know what it’s like to be seeing someone and, while I think we’re doing one thing, they are thinking we’re on something completely different. I’ve thought that good sex was establishing a solid connection while the guy saw me as his favorite kind of recreational use. I’ve thought I was officially dating while guys thought they were in situationships with me (and no, those two things ARE NOT the same). I’ve thought that seeing someone for months was ultimately leading towards marriage while the guy was having a good time just…seeing me for months (LOL).
And while it’s easy to demonize those individuals while playing the victim role, the reality is when one assumes, it still can make an ass out of them — and yes, many times, because I wanted something to be a certain way, I assumed that they did too.
And that’s why it’s so important to make sure that you and whoever you’re…whatever-ing with (LOL) is on the same page as you are. I don’t care how long you’ve known him. I don’t care how much the two of you have in common. Don’t fall into the “surely, he must be on what I’m on; how could he not be?” trap because men and women are different. That’s not a flaw on the man’s part; that’s just the way it is.
I could go on and on about this particular question alone yet I think you get my overall point. Before going into 2024, see, not only if you’re on the same page but even in the same kind of book. I would hate for you to see your dynamic as a romance novel while he treats it more like a magazine that he casually thumbs through at the doctor’s office — you know, something to do…for the moment. You’d be amazed how much that happens. Sad yet true.
2. "Do we want the same things?"Giphy
Okay, so say that you both are in agreement that you’re exclusively dating. Thing is, you’ve got marriage in your sights while he doesn’t want to get married. “Now Shellie, why would a man get into a one-on-one situation if marriage wasn’t the ultimate goal?” Yeah, this right here is one of the main reasons why I pitched this article in the first place. A man will date you, even exclusively and seriously, and be fine with that because he may like serious relationships while having no intentions of ever getting married at all (check out “Single-Minded: So, What If You Like Dating But DON’T Desire Marriage?”). I mean, who said that everyone thinks that companionship equates to sharing a home, sharing a name, and sharing a life until death parts them from their partner?
Or what about kids? What if someone has verbalized that they can see making you his wife someday (check out “We Asked 10 Men What Makes A Woman 'Wife Material'”)? Thing is, you are in your 30s and want kids ASAP yet he is on the fence about whether he wants children at all. Listen, I have worked with couples, both as a marriage life coach and a doula, long enough to know that this isn’t something that just “works itself out with time.” Why? Because time is not on a biological clock’s side. The way life — and science — have it, men have damn near forever to figure out what they want to do as far as parenting goes. Us? Yeah, not so much.
Bottom line here, whatever it is that is truly important to you, whatever is pretty much a non-negotiable as far as you are concerned, that is something else that needs to be brought up. Because no matter how much the two of you may love each other, that has little to do with if you want the same things — and in order for a relationship to run smoothly, the latter has to be a part of your relationship’s reality.
3. "Have your needs changed?"Giphy
I have shared in articles before that, one of my favorite quotes as far as relationships are concerned is, “People change and forget to tell each other.” This is a big part of the reason why people end up getting divorced, all the while saying that they feel like strangers to one another. It’s because, NO ONE goes day by day, month by month, year by year, and doesn’t change as a person on some levels. And when you’re evolving with another individual who is doing the same, that’s double the shifting. It takes a lot of patience and grace to go through those transitions smoothly.
Anyway, it’s always a wise move to ask your partner if the same needs they had last year — or hell, even six months ago — are the ones that they have now. And I mean in every department too. What they may have liked sexually may have shifted (as is with you). The ways that they used to like you to express your love for them might be a bit different now (as is with you). The kind of relationship that they were looking for — getting older, their goals, and all kinds of other stuff may have altered that as well (as is with you).
You can’t meet someone’s needs if you don’t know what they are and it’s unrealistic to assume that those needs are always going to be the same — no matter how much you may want them to be (that’s a play on words by design). The best relationships are proactive about making sure that mutual needs are met. Discuss each other’s needs with your man sooner than later. Much sooner if you can.
4. "Is this what you thought it would be?"Giphy
Even though I mostly work with married and engaged couples, I do come across my fair share of people who are just dating too. One couple, in particular, I remember the woman being absolutely heartbroken when her boyfriend of three years told her that he wanted to end the relationship because it wasn’t what he thought it was going to be like. He felt that she wanted to monopolize too much of his time. Not only that but she didn’t get along well with his family and they had two different faith beliefs. Although he went into the relationship thinking that so long as they strongly cared for each other, everything would work itself out — it wasn’t going smoothly and he wanted a relationship that required a lot less…finessing.
Listen, a motto that I have is “better to break up than divorce,” so it’s a good thing that he spoke up before paperwork, kids, and a lot of other stuff got involved. However, that story alone is impactful enough for this question to be mentioned because…you’d be amazed how many people won’t speak up about stuff like this unless they are point-blank asked. ASK.
5. "Are we making each other better? Or...worse?"Giphy
There are so many words that just get “thrown around” without really appreciating the weight of them. One would be “toxic.” Something that is toxic is something that is basically harmful at a poisonous level. And so, when we use the term “toxic relationship,” one way to qualify if one is or not is if it’s making two people better or worse. Honestly, this can apply to familial dynamics, friendships, co-workers, fellow church members…yeah, it pretty much runs the gamut. Yet since we’re talking about romantic connections here, you definitely should discuss with your partner if the two of you are making each other better or worse as the direct result of intimately interacting with one another.
I actually have a male friend right now who is at this crossroads because he doesn’t feel like he or his fiancé are making each other better. It’s not so much that they are making each other “worse” so much as they are keeping each other stagnant — and that’s not good either. Why? Because if there is anyone who you should be able to say that, as a direct result of them being in your life, you are thriving and flourishing, it needs to be your partner. And if that isn’t the case, no matter how much you care for each other, something isn’t healthy about staying together because life is too short to be “treading water” when you should be moving forward.
- If you’re not emotionally maturing, you’re not getting better.
- If you’re not getting stronger in your sense of self-worth, you’re not getting better.
- If you’re not reaching goals that you have for yourself, even if it’s simply because you’re distracted with trying to maintain the relationship all of the time, you’re not getting better.
- If you feel like you’re sacrificing, to the point of losing, parts of yourself, you’re not getting better.
- If you’re not getting better, you’re not getting better.
Better means “more.” Worse means “less.” If there is more "less" than more "more" when it comes to your relationship with your man…don’t overlook that. The time to talk is now. RIGHT NOW.
6. "How do you want to end next year?"Giphy
Okay, so back to what I just said about the whole treading water thing, I definitely think that you and your partner should reflect over the past 12 months and chat about the strides that were made. Yes, as individuals yet more importantly (as it relates to this article), as a couple. If you can pinpoint clear new milestones that were reached — mazel tov! On the other hand, if nothing has really changed at all…you know what I’m about to say, right?
And no, I’m not saying that folks should expect what I just recently read about Fantasia (did you know that she only knew her husband for three weeks before getting married? Wow.). All I’m saying is that healthy relationships consist of two people who move with intention and when intentions are executed, progress is made.
So, as we close this one out — talk about how things were this time last year and if there are clear signs of growth. Then talk about 3-5 goals that both of you can feel good about setting for the new year so that you can keep improving as a couple. Because it would be sad to spend years with someone and, in the words of Nina from the classic movie Love Jones, all you can look at each other and say is, “All we have are all these years.” Geeze.
An author by the name of Justin Wetch once said, "Love starts as a feeling, but to continue is a choice." And in order to choose to continue, in a mutually beneficial fashion, you both need to know that you want the same things and feel the same way. So, before entering into 2024, please make sure that the both of you do — for both of your sakes. That way, you can move with confidence and clarity…without any type of assumption.
And that’s always the best place, relationally, to be.
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Featured image by Riska/Getty Images