Entrepreneur Rachel Roff says the key to her success as a “melanin expert” is authenticity and plain old know-how.
Her Charlotte, N.C., medical spa, Urban Skin Solutions, and skincare line, Urban Skin Rx, both cater, first and foremost, to people of color. Roff, who is white, launched the spa in 2006 and the skincare line in 2011, after noticing a lack of diversity in her aesthetician training classes.
“There was such an injustice going on, and a need for this” business, she says.
Potential customers and journalists alike were skeptical at first, since she is not, herself, a woman of color. “I definitely have to go above and beyond to [address] people’s worries about my lack of experience or to prove my expertise despite not having the same skin color.” So, Roff shares her clients’ positive results, and makes sure both she and her staff are thorough experts on the particular skincare needs of people of color.
This effort and careful attention have paid off — Roff has built two profitable, long-lasting firms with more than two dozen employees that she projects will pull in about $5M in revenue in 2018. Her spa has now served more than 30,000 clients. And this year her skincare line, until now sold mainly online, is taking Target’s shelves by storm.
Serving an Oft-Ignored Market
From the start, Roff was thoughtful about how to cater to a community that is not her own.
For the most part, she lets her work speak for itself. She shares before-and-after images through all of her social media channels — especially on Instagram, where her skincare line has over 143,000 fans. And employees answer customers’ questions in real time on Facebook. “We’re really going the extra mile to offer an education that has not been there for this customer.”
She says she is dedicated to inclusivity. She recently added Spanish translations to her product labels to better serve Latino customers. And, many of her employees are people of color.
Roff says she is extremely particular about who she hires. As a serial entrepreneur and single mother, “I’m pulled in a hundred million different directions,” and need to trust that workers “can represent my brand, and me.”
To keep her staff on the leading edge, she frequently shares educational materials with employees about issues dark-skinned clients face, from hyperpigmentation to ochronosis. She, herself, earned a certificate in the study of skin color and pigmentation from The International Dermal Institute in Atlanta, as well as certifications in laser technology, microdermabrasion, skin biology and chemical peels.
And, to connect more personally with her clients, she put together a mini-documentary series that features her and her staff’s individual struggles — for example, Roff’s single motherhood and other employees’ issues with body dysmorphia and anxiety. “Authentically allowing customers to see who you are and what you represent really inspires women” in particular, she says.
Her multi-pronged approach has enabled her to create trust with customers — today, she says, “a lot less explaining” is needed.
Personal and Professional Growth
Roff was born and raised in northern California in a Russian-Jewish household, but her extended family is a mix of races. Yet despite their open attitudes, she struggled with self esteem. “I grew up with really bad acne, and was slightly overweight,” she says.
Then during middle school, a precancerous mole was discovered on the side of her mouth. Its removal was a complicated, lengthy process. But once it was gone, and she began seeing a medical aesthetician for her acne, “my confidence soared.” Moreover, “I immediately fell in love with the field. I wanted to be a medical aesthetician, own a medical spa, and more importantly, help others with bothersome physical flaws.”
To appease her parents’ desire that she get a formal education, Roff went to the University of North Carolina. But three days after earning her bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2004, she enrolled at the Academy of Nail Technology & Esthetics in Charlotte to pursue her passion.
There, her career became hyper-focused, after she noticed the dearth of black teachers leading classes. “Even though Charlotte has a large African-American population, the aesthetics industry was still very Caucasian.” Likewise, the demographics of her classmates stood in stark contrast to the people in her life, many of whom had melanin-rich skin.
But it wasn’t until Roff landed her first post-certification job at a medical spa that she saw the financial potential in speaking directly to underserved communities of color.
The spa had just purchased a skin laser specifically designed for use on black patients. Roff wanted to share the news with area residents, and got a small budget from her boss for marketing efforts. She created radio ads and went into nearby barber shops to talk with black customers about how the spa’s laser could ease discomfort caused by ingrown hairs. Immediately, it saw an influx of customers — and Roff came away with a new business idea.
With a loan from her parents, a then-24-year-old Roff opened Urban Skin Solutions in 2006, and the business soon found a steady client base in the Charlotte area. Five years later, she expanded into skincare products, using her training and education to whip up homemade soaps, balms and other products created for darker skin.
“Why carry products [at the spa] that people could order from Amazon?” she says. “I wanted to force people to walk through my door.”
And walk through it they did. To manage the growth, she hired a business manager to handle day-to-day operations at the spa and found a manufacturer to make her ever-growing product line. The business was stoked by press coverage in Essence, Ebony, Cosmopolitan and other publications and celebrity endorsements of her products from singer Fantasia Barrino and model Eva Marcille, among others.
Plans for Expansion
Now, explosive growth could be on the way. In January, three of Roff’s skincare products landed on shelves at over 200 Target locations.
Roff is excited about the opportunity, but also focused on making sure she can handle the new influx of orders. She recently switched to a manufacturer in Texas that can better accommodate the increase in product quantity she needs to produce. Still, “there were a lot of trips back and forth, for about 9 months, to make sure they could duplicate” the process she has used to make her cleansers and moisturizers.
Roff hopes the move into big box stores is the first step toward becoming a global brand. “We do so many orders online out of Africa and the [United Kingdom]. I’d love to get into distribution at retailers internationally,” she says.
But no matter where her work takes her, Roff says she will always focus on serving people of color. “This is a demographic that has been ignored,” she says. “Going that extra mile to cater to our customers is important.”