Atima Lui: Building a Business Around Color and Confidence
The Sudanese-American founder and CEO of Nudest has innovated a way to connect women to a new world of fashion and beauty products, not to mention a boost in confidence.
During her last semester at Harvard Business School, Atima Lui turned down a prime Silicon Valley tech job to pursue a higher purpose: improving the confidence of dark-skinned women and girls. She built her company, Nudest, around the “Nudemeter” — technology that matches a woman’s skin tone to one of 54 in its system to perfect-match products, including lingerie and hosiery. “We’re now adding a machine-learning aspect to it,” Lui says. “So it’s actually getting smarter and more accurate every time we scan someone’s skin.”
Last year, her idea drew particular interest — and investment — after she won a top prize in the National Black MBA Association Scale-Up Pitch Challenge, sponsored in part by FedEx. Access connected with Lui at her New York office to learn more about what she has up her sleeve.
Your idea for Nudest stems from the fact that most women aren’t served by traditional lingerie, hosiery and beauty companies when it comes to the color “nude,” right?
Percentage of global population not matched by traditional shade of nude
Exactly. The traditional shade of nude does not match 84 percent of the global population, and the majority of that 84 percent are people of color. But very pale women struggle in this space, as well. The opportunity to fix the problem is really huge — and it’s universal. What’s also interesting is that, even for those who might have considered themselves being met by the color “nude,” the problem is finding products that truly are your nude and not a random shade of beige. So, it ends up being an issue that affects pretty much anyone with a skin tone.
How is it that such a large group of women has been so underserved?
For as long as there have been products that are flesh-toned, businesses have decided that people of color and very pale people were a minority that did not need to be addressed, and that you could satisfy the masses with a very limited range of colors. There’s also an assumption that people of color don’t have buying power and don’t make up large enough of a market to support a business.
How are you able to effect change on this front?
A couple of important trends are at play. The first is that the browning of America is very real — non-whites will be the majority in this century in this country. The second has to do with the prevalence of social media. When we consume media, we consume product messages and standards of beauty based on our own standards — because whatever we see in our timeline is what we choose to see. In the beauty and fashion space, that means that you generally follow influencers and celebrities who look like you for tips and tricks on how to make your own natural beauty work for you and fashion tips that work for you. So, that means we are no longer accepting a narrow view of what it means to be fashionable and what it means to be beautiful, as determined by a handful of large corporations. Now, in this direct-to-consumer world, the consumer is deciding.
The timing for your idea is perfect. Describe your ramp-up and how it’s been received.
“I always say that some of the best businesses and best ideas are the ones that sound like “duh” when you hear them.”
I always say that some of the best businesses and best ideas are the ones that sound like “duh” when you hear them — so obvious. And I think my business can be put in that category. We have just been accepting the random few beige shades of nude as acceptable and haven’t thought of an alternative. And so when people hear about my company and hear about my website — where you can be connected to over 3,000 lingerie, hosiery, shapewear and beauty products that match your particular skin tone — their eyes light up if I’m seeing them in person. And in social media, we really see people liking our message.
Our mission is to change the standard of beauty to match the full range of diversity in human skin, so it’s a lofty goal. But I know we can do it because of how much our service resonates with the people who follow us — and also because it’s helping brands modernize and get toward that truth, which is that skin tone and skin color is infinite. So we empower brands with the information and the data that they need in order to surprise and delight their customers, and see customers the way they’re telling us they’ve always wanted to be seen.
The technology behind Nudest comes thanks, in part, to your brother. Tell us about that.
I’m very proud that my brother is our chief technology officer. This idea came to mind my final semester of business school, but I don’t code. So I’m so lucky my brother, who’s a computer science major and math minor, was graduating from college that same year — and we had the summer of 2016 to sit on our parents’ couch and work on this algorithm together. So, he launched the first version — or the minimum viable product, if you will — of the technology.
We really thought we would be emphasizing the messaging of “check out the products on our site and buy, buy, buy the products,” but what we found was that people were so excited about the technology. So, that really became the emphasis of our business, and we now see ourselves as a software company, as a digital products company, more than a physical products company.
Talk about a modern-day family business. But you didn’t always have this entrepreneurial streak, did you?
“I can’t underscore enough the importance of bravery along the journey. Bravery as defined as being scared but going for it anyway.”
My previous experiences have been working for some of the largest companies in the whole world — Walmart, Apple, Google. The decision to go out on my own and start my own company was honestly very terrifying. I actually had a job offer to go back out to Silicon Valley, and on paper, that was such a blessing and success to have this job in hand that was waiting for me after I graduated from business school. But it didn’t feel right in my gut. Something was telling me that this is not what I was meant to do — that I was meant to do something else. So, what I did was turn inward and meditate, and it came to me as a sign. I don’t know if you want to say if it was from God, from the universe or from spiritual forces, but it told me my purpose is to improve the confidence of dark-skinned women and girls.
The entrepreneurial journey is tough. I learned in business school that what would motivate me through the inevitable ups and downs of trying my own thing would be doing something I would be passionate about and personally connected to. A lot of people are motivated by different things, but for me, that’s what it was. So, having this mission has, in fact, carried me through. And it gave me the gumption to turn down that Silicon Valley offer and to instead move to New York and to look my parents in the eyes and tell them, “Hey, I’m going to do something that has a very high likelihood of failing,” and go for it. And I’m really glad I did.
I can’t underscore enough the importance of bravery along the journey. Bravery as defined as being scared but going for it anyway. There were many times that I thought everything was going to end, that something was not going to work out, that the company would fail.
But quite the opposite — your company has thrived. What’s next?
I’m so excited that we’ve been accepted into Coty Inc.’s digital accelerator. Coty is the third-largest beauty company in the world, so we’ll be working with their portfolio of brands to incubate our technology further so that it can work with some very big makeup brands that they own. The other big thing I’m gearing up for is our seed round of funding. My goal is to be one of the less than 20 black women to raise more than $1 million in funding — and I’m hoping it will happen this year, in 2018. I can’t emphasize enough how tough it can be to be a woman and a minority in the start-up space — because the people who tend to have capital tend to be male and tend to not be black. I feel very good about where we are, and I’m ready to get out there and raise the money I think we deserve for the company we’re developing.
Want to read about other people, places and ideas reshaping our future? Check out the 2018 FYI: FedEx Young Innovators List.
PHOTO: Keziban Barry