In a multi-part series, our contributor, Chinea Rodriguez, interviews Niambi Cacchioli, Founder of Pholk Beauty. Our All the Pretty Birds community are in love with this new clean beauty brand and its holistic origins to the African Diaspora. The richness and depth of conversation imparted to us by Cacchioli prompted our team to divide the interview so that we make space for the culturally nuanced narratives we love. Read on to discover the magic of African Diasporic ingredients.
What are some of the African Diaspora ingredients you capitalize on at Pholk?
We call Pholk “soul food for the skin” because for the most part our active ingredients are sourced from cultivators across the diaspora. African North African, Caribbean, and I also include the South, because those are my southern roots. Hemp seed oil, I reclaim that as an African diaspora ingredient because it’s from my home state of Kentucky. The history of cultivation in Kentucky is that black folk were cultivating the crop during the slavery era and it was actually hemp and tobacco, not cotton. We have a long history of being in the hemp industry. This year especially, I’ll be working with more small farmers in the south to really tell them more of the black American story because like you were saying at the beginning of our conversation when people think about African diaspora ingredients they tend to think about either Africa or the Caribbean. Hemp is in 65% of our products. I love hemp seed oil for melanin-rich skin because it will not clog the skin. Since a lot of us have oily, combination skin, it’s a good ingredient for all skin types.
I am really obsessed with honeysuckle. It’s very hydrating, balancing, and super gentle. People know rose water as being hydrating and calming, honeysuckle is antibacterial. It’s a nice way to keep your pores clean and when you keep your pores clean especially when you’re dealing with maskne then you diminish your chances of breakouts. We’re always thinking about breaking out at Pholk and clogged pores because a lot of women, after a breakout they’ll either have scarring or they’ll have a black mark. We love that in the beauty aisle, there are more options for women of color and dark mark hyperpigmentation serum that can act as a targeted treatment, we love that those are on the shelves. Where we really come in is finding ways to minimize breakouts. If you don’t have a breakout because your pores are clean then, you’re less likely to even need or do any sort of dark mark fading treatments which can be a little bit more aggressive.
The latest plant in our plant family is lemon balm. You’ll see me talking about that all the time I’m growing lemon balm, I’m putting lemon balm in my tea. Lemon balm is part of the mint family when you eat it it tastes like a lemon drop. I love it a little bit in my salad. Lemon balm grows wild and plentiful in Kentucky and in other parts of the south. It is like an instant stress relief. We have lemon balm in our Aloe lemon balm face mist. It’s cooling, it’s gentle, it keeps your pores clean, and it helps minimize the size of your pores. It gives a nice fresh scent, a lot of people like a lemony citrus scent on their face. I don’t use any citrus in my face products because some people are photosensitive to it so having a lemon balm aroma, it’s just instantly calming and uplifting.
From the diaspora, one of my favorite ingredients to talk about is Moringa. We get our Moringa from Ghana. I love talking about our Moringa because we source our moringa oil from another beauty brand called True Moringa. They also have a wholesale supplier line called Moringa Connect. One of the founders Kwame is based in Ghana, and he sources moringa from like 5000 small Ghanaian farmers and then he processes it. I love that we can continue to grow our mission of cooperative economics. There’s nothing more cooperative than getting one of your core ingredients from a fellow beauty brand. I think that’s the way forward, to really think through, how not only can we impact women’s health by getting them healthier ingredients and beautiful ingredients for their skin? But also how can we use Pholk on the back end to create relationships of cooperation? It’s the healthiest way for me to build my business.
How has your emphasis on wellness folded into the overarching identity at Pholk?
The ingredients are all-natural. There has been a lot of research on the toxins that still exist in the multicultural aisle, like hormone disruptors, some are known carcinogens. Just the fact that those are not in our products it’s a health goal for us to encourage black and brown women to really think through the ingredients that they’re putting on their skin. Beauty is at the heart of our culture. As we’re growing more knowledgeable about what we’re putting in our bodies, and eating. Really embracing our own cultural traditions of healthy eating, really connecting our cultures with the farm-to-table movement and the Healthy Eating movement. As black and brown people start to embrace this part of our culture, they are really starting to think about what they’re putting on their skin. I think for a long time we have a lot of pressure for our skincare to be to have certain results we’re very results-oriented. The fact that our products work, that they are real solutions for the concerns that women of color have, they moisturize, they hydrate they clean, they diminish breakouts. When a person shops the first time they may be interested in the culture of Pholk, and they may be interested in the ingredient stories but if they don’t work, they’re not going to replenish. We’re always thinking about the wellness of our customers. We want it to be easier for people and for women of color to make healthier decisions for their skin because it does impact their health.
We only use natural fragrance. All the scents, which are super light, they’re all either from the hydrosols or the oils, or the or essential oils which also have calming and uplifting mood, boosting effect. That’s probably where my sociology background comes in. I’m always thinking about what mood I want to evoke with our products.
At the beginning of the shutdown, we were getting DMs, emails, I was getting calls on my cell phone from customers who had discovered us through social media. Their skin was breaking out or they’re having dry patches. We’re one year into the new normal. If you remember there were so many transitions that people had to get used to and a lot of our customers are front liners. They had never worn masks in the way that they were wearing masks and they were working overtime and it was so stressful. Most of their lives felt out of control. I think a lot of people started to focus on their skin because they felt like it was something that they could control.
We talk about skincare, but we also make sure that with our platform that we’re also just talking about real life. 2020 really shaped how we reshape how we build community at the end of the day, we’re, we’re community builders. If you look at our Instagram most of our lives are about other aspects of wellness. Last week we had Dr. Little Scott Williams, who is a Puerto Rican psychologist and astrologist and we didn’t even talk about skincare. We were talking about, like, how to move into the spring with ease with action, and with joy. Skincare is how we pull people onto our platform and we’re really able to slide in our wellness intentions. If you’re stressed, your skin’s gonna show it right? We’re always thinking about the larger lifestyle needs of our customers and just like filling those in where it’s possible.
What became of your brand during the Buy Black movement?
It was an awakening, I would say. It was, it was a moment where every skill that I had cultivated in my life, all came together. My background as a historian, my training as an aesthetician, my love for community building, and my own exploration of black global herbalism all of it came together, and being a woman as well.
Being a mother, was really at the core because my children were at home. On one hand, I found that this was a way that I really could help, I couldn’t be out in the streets protesting. In my earlier days, I was always out in the streets in some social movement but because I have kids at home I didn’t feel like that was my place to be out there. Sometimes we put aside skincare and we just talk real, like, Breonna Taylor is from my hometown. It was an emotionally draining year for me. I realized this is actually a way that we can connect with women. I also have a small team of black and brown women that work at Pholk, they’re young, they’re my “ride or dies” and I thought to myself, what opportunities are they going to have this year? Everything is shutting down.I just made a decision after week two of our sales growing that I was going to develop their talents. The Pholk story for last year offline is really about our team, it’s about investing in their growth.
It took a lot of trust because I had to spend time with my kids and make sure that they understood the virtual landscape. Which meant that if we were going to continue with Pholk because we still make everything and pack everything ourselves. Very quickly, the one person that I had as a salesperson, transformed into my social media manager, and we hired her sister because they live together. Her sister was an aesthetician student, we brought her into apprentice with me. I taught her all of our formulas, all of our batching, all of the ingredients. Then I brought in another young person from the community to start handling our shipping. It was mayhem at the beginning because we went from having like six orders a day to having like 100 orders a day and we had to learn how to scale in real-time.
What I learned is that the Pholk story is now our story like it’s not just my founder story, it really is about the sisterhood that we have created around our work table. We even brought in a retired like a retiree from the community and she does all of our labels, she had worked on assembly lines before she retired. Every day they’re in there making products, communicating with our customers. It’s about really growing opportunities for them, it’s been a transformation. It pushed me to transform from being like a solopreneur, and really focusing on my founder story, to creating opportunities and growth for the sisterhood.
It’s a real community. I had so many opportunities because somebody reached into my life when I was younger. Teachers or mentors or a professor would reach into my life when I was struggling and they saw what I didn’t see. They would provide these pockets of rest for me. I had mental health concerns when I was growing up and I had women along the way who reached into my life and said, You see where you want to go, pause right here and we’ll help you. Jersey City is the most diverse city in the country. I’ve worked alongside these young women, they come in and out of Pholk, I see them at cafes and they’re super bright, all they need is an opportunity to show what they can do. During the social unrest, what sparked, there were so many orders coming in, Pholk was on 90% of the press list and I thought, what am I going to do with this? Then I looked around at what was happening with the young folk and they’re all being laid off. Growing opportunities for them, that’s the best thing that I can do right now. It’s absolutely transformed my company.
[This concludes Part Two of this multi-part interview]
Niambi Cacchioli gifted our Head of Beauty, Chinea Rodriguez, with such rich conversation. We didn’t want to leave anything out for you, Pretty Birds! This first installment centers on the origins of Pholk Beauty by way of Cacchioli’s personal narrative as a Historian and thoughtful pursuit of treating melanin-enriched skin. We encourage you to revisit Part One of this series if you haven’t already, to be further blown away by this beauty brand and the brains behind it!