Skin You're In

Austin company on mission to end discrimination one lip balm at a time

Austin company on mission to end discrimination one lip balm at a time

SkinisSkin founders
The balms can be purchased online or at retailers like Whole Foods Market. Courtesy photo
SkinisSkin founders
Skinisskin founders Sharon Miller and Magatte Wade met on a plane. Skinisskin/Facebook
SkinisSkin founders
SkinisSkin founders

Austin-based skin-care company Skinisskin is a Senegalese-British endeavor selling “the little lip balm on a mission to end discrimination.” To which one might wonder: What has lip balm got to do with discrimination?

The answer lies in the company’s origins, steeped in racial tensions that erupted in America during 2016 over a deluge of much publicized police shootings of African Americans.

“It was a stark, stark reminder for me, and it really highlighted the fact that we still have biases running deep in our society,” says Magatte Wade, CEO and founder. In addition to founding the company, Wade is a well-known thinker and speaker — she’s cracked a TED talk — on the subject of using business as a solution to poverty and social issues.

“I consider myself a radical optimist, especially in the face of pain and in the face of adversity,” Wade says. “I am always reminded and inspired that that’s actually the time to do something.”

While America seethed with anger and confusion over the shootings, Wade caught a New York-bound flight from Austin en route to Paris to give a talk about “Economic Freedom in Africa.” She found herself sitting next to Sharon Miller, a British expat who has made Austin her home for the last two decades while building her stateside advertising and marketing company, Fire Studios.

The two ladies got into a deep conversation about the state of xenophobia in the world and the role of brands in changing culture. At the end of the flight, they decided to meet again. Four coffee meetings later, a new partnership was formed, after which Skinisskin followed.

The pair decided to start with the humble lip balm as it is an accessible product that anyone can buy. It’s also easily carried around, hence the company’s hope that each time you take out your lip balm to take care of your lips, if it’s the “mint and curiosity” variety — the range also includes “anise and empathy” and “coconut and love” — you are reminded to also switch on your curiosity, an essential ingredient in un-doing the habit of unconscious bias.

The lip balms are produced in Senegal — where Wade is from — and made from organic coconut oil, organic shea butter, candelilla wax, castor, and hibiscus and baobab seed oils, all of which are 100 percent natural and vegan, and have a proven track record of improving skin.

“We wanted to make a product that nourishes the parts of people that can do some good,” explain the duo on the website. “Lips are connectors, they are the place for kind words, they smile, they encourage, kissing isn’t bad either.”

In addition to an online store, the lip balms are sold in 28 independent natural stores and co-ops scattered nationally, though mostly in Texas and on the West and East coasts for now.

Fifty percent of profits go to organizations working to end bias, and the company is always looking for new partnerships with those working on discrimination and bias in schools and the community.

It is also currently partnering with the University of Wisconsin Prejudice and Intergroup Relations Lab, which has developed a training program that has shown to un-do the habit of unintentional bias.

“They have helped us extensively with making their training program palatable for the general public and the short attention spans of the current social media landscape,” says Miller, the company’s CMO and brand steward, who started her career as a publicity department assistant to Jim Henson before working on assignments for the likes of ESPN, Apple, Nike, Whole Foods Market, and Rolling Stone.

The Skinisskin website carries five exercises from the university’s research that can be applied to counter such unintentional biases, as well as other myriad pieces of advice, information, and videos on how to avoid stereotyping and retrain your brain against its hidden prejudices, which, the company wants you to know, are much deeper and bigger than any of us realize.

“You believe yourself to be fair and open, but in reality your brain is relying on harmful stereotypes to make a million decisions throughout its day,” Miller says. “This happens because your brain is lazy and loves automation.”

With its efforts to do more for society than just sell a product, the company fits into growing momentum for more socially conscious businesses that encourage societal change, with younger customers increasingly demanding greater honesty and accountability from businesses.

With new accounts such as Whole Foods, Skinisskin is planning for good growth this year and is also coming out with a hand balm, which the duo say they hope encourages more hugs and handshakes.

Underpinning all this, Wade and Miller emphasize, is the notion that the mission comes before the product. “This company, at its base and core, is really an act of hope,” Wade says.