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How Lip Bar Founder Melissa Butler Went From 'Shark Tank' Rejection To The Shelves Of Major Retailers

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Being an entrepreneur is often associated with finding something that you're passionate about and turning it into a business.

If you love fashion, start a boutique.

Got a love for social media? Start a digital marketing company.

Hair always on fleek? Don't sleep on the extensions business.

But for Melissa Butler, founder and CEO of The Lip Bar—a lipstick line made from natural ingredients, her now nearly half-a-million dollar business wasn't birthed from passion, it was born from a flame that ignited inside of her to challenge the standard of beauty, one pretty pout at a time. “I started growing frustrated with the beauty industry altogether because first of all, why can't I find a nude lipstick that looks good on me? Furthermore, why do the lipsticks only come in nudes, reds, and pinks?" says Melissa. “It became this quest of 'I want to find products that are natural, but also look good on people who look like me.' And it was literally impossible to find."

It's hard to imagine that the brainchild behind the bar-themed brand doesn't have an affinity for a beat face, especially one with a bold lip color, as you would expect her to. Though the Detroit native has shamelessly rocked a fire orange “Boy Trouble" lippie, she admits to makeup not being the motivating factor behind her vibrant creations. “I've actually never been really that into makeup," she admits. “I'm still not really that into makeup, which is very interesting. I'm passionate about the purpose of the brand more so than the product of the brand. The product is kind of the afterthought."

It may seem contradictory for an entrepreneur to start a business around a product that they have little sentiment towards, but in actuality it's the reason that, despite the opposition, she's been able to steer her company into its fifth year of business in an industry where anybody with a brand name and a few thousand dollars in their pockets can jump on the beauty bandwagon. Melissa's more about the mission than the money, which is ironic for someone who spent their first four years out of college working on Wall Street as a financial analyst. But like many millennials, she was less interested in a corporate career, and more focused on a fulfilling one.

“The first year when you are straight out of college, you get a good job, and you are just happy to be making money. So, for the first year I wasn't affected by it, I was just happy to be there," she says of her foray into finance.

But two years in, she had a change of heart.

“I'm just looking around me like, this can't be me. I didn't take out several thousands of dollars in student loans to be unhappy or to work to pay off these student loans. I think once you get a taste of money, you realize that money isn't everything, and so I started looking at life from a different perspective. "

Self-reflection led her back to the thing that she loved most as a kid growing up in the gritty hoods of Motor City—being her own boss. She didn't come from a family of entrepreneurs, but seeing the work ethic of her single mom and the success of her favorite cousin, whom she describes as a serial entrepreneur, gave her the foundation needed to one day run her own business.

With a high-level of confidence that radiates even as we chat on our call, shouldering responsibility was the least of Melissa's concerns. She struggled more with figuring out what she was passionate enough about to do full-time than she did in committing to the idea of leaving her beloved nine to five. “Often times when you're thinking you want to start a business but you don't necessarily know what [business], you're kind of just going through the motions of okay, well what am I good at?" says Melissa.

The answer came to her while sipping a few cocktails with some girlfriends during an after-work happy hour in New York. For Melissa and her friends, the bar was a place where they could kick back and be their true selves. "Corporate America is built so that you're no longer creative. You're no longer expressive, and you're no longer who you were before you started that job because you're always trying to find some way fit in. Happy hour in New York is like the biggest thing, and so I found that was the place where you kind of get to be yourself. I'm here, I'm having fun, I feel comfortable. I'm surrounded by people who get it. So it became like a safe haven."

With cocktails as inspiration, The Lip Bar was born as a way of challenging tradition and giving women the courage to be who they are.

"We live in this really sick world where we're always trying to validate our existence and prove why we're worth something. Unfortunately with women, that happens with our looks, and I felt as though lip color, especially with bold and bright lip color, would give women the opportunity to express themselves just a little bit more."

With that in mind, the go-getter set out to create the very thing she felt was missing in the beauty industry—a product whose mission was just as bold as its pigments. Her first two years on the market, she made $107,000. It was enough to quit her job in 2013 and pursue her business full-time. “We had already gotten several features in magazines, and it became a thing where I had to say to myself, 'Well, if you want your business to give you 100%, you have to give your business 100%,'" Melissa says. “I knew that The Lip Bar would never have grown the way I wanted it to if I wasn't actually focusing on it."

Though she wasn't doing too shabby on the sales front, her desire to take her business to the next level encouraged her to seek further funding from the infamous investors of hit business reality show Shark Tank. Unsurprising to Melissa, the “sharks" were less than supportive of her already profitable business, with one investor even going as far as to say, "I can see a massive market share in the clown market," before referring to Melissa and her business partner as "colorful cockroaches." Despite the controversial statement and walking away without a deal, the founder ultimately had the last laugh.

Shark Tank

“We went to Shark Tank basically knowing that we wouldn't get an investment, because if you watch their show they basically only invest in stay-at-home moms or tech companies, but you have to remember that Shark Tank is like reality TV right now, so it's literally the most exposure that you can get as a brand. And so we went on there for marketing."

The strategy worked, sending over 30,000 hits to their website when the show aired last year in February, and another 120,000 within the first two weeks of the premiere. The increase in their brand presence also lead fashion sites such as Nasty Gal and Forever 21 knocking on their door. “A lot of our opportunities have come organically. We've never paid for marketing. It's just been an awesome experience and so because I think The Lip Bar keeps growing and the appreciation for our very cool packaging, for our story, for our product, has gained us interest."

Still, Melissa hoped to get her products in stores with alongside fellow trailblazers serving the natural and multi-cultural market such as Miss Jessie's and Shea Moisture, and took the initiative to blind email Target's corporate team pitching her products. "I'm a firm believer in going after and getting exactly what the hell you want. I had been working on this idea of a price drop, and I'm like you know what's going to be perfect for this? Target, because my customer shops for their hair care two aisles away, and now my products are more affordable and so I'm a stalker. I blind call all the time. What can they do? They can answer or they cannot. And if they don't' answer I'll email them again."

It worked! The Lip Bar is available for purchase on target.com and is available in more than 450 stores across America.

Although the team is staffing up to accommodate the increase in sales, Melissa isn't allowing looming deadlines to stress her out or, “As an entrepreneur, you'll find times where you're so devoted to your business, that you forget to take care of yourself," she speaks from personal experience. “For me, it was very difficult to understand that I deserve all time off, and I had to learn to stop beating myself up from it. Now, I literally take vacations."

Taking time to kick back doesn't mean that the beauty queen is relaxing on the mission. With the brand on the cusp of making nearly a million dollars this year, Melissa hopes to not only grow in sales, but in awareness of the issues that plague the beauty industry.

“We decided to start using really dark women because I notice there are tons of self-esteem issues directly related to complexion."

"It's so troublesome, and so we decided to start using very dark models in very bright lipstick colors. And to really put them at the forefront, not as the object, but as a beautiful woman."

In a society where little brown girls aren't often shown their beauty through mainstream media, Melissa and her team strive to turn the anomaly into the norm—one bold and beautiful campaign at a time.

If you missed Melissa's appearance on Shark Tank, you can watch a clip here.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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