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Topicals’ Olamide Olowe on Connecting With the Gen-Z Shopper

For The State of Fashion: Beauty, the skin care label’s founder unpacks how she has found multiple ways to support and build a Gen-Z community, from mental health advocacy to open, dynamic dialogue with Topicals’ fan base.
Topicals Founder Olamide Olowe interview
Olamide Olowe, founder of skin care label Topicals, outlines ways on how to connect with Gen-Z and build a trusted community. (Topicals)
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For many beauty brands, figuring out how to connect with Gen-Z is akin to deciphering a foreign language.

But not for Olamide Olowe, the founder of US skin care label Topicals. As a member of the generation herself, the 26-year-old has built a company on many of the principles that matter most to Gen-Z consumers: mental health advocacy, racial inclusivity, and an open dialogue and feedback loop between consumer and brand. These competitive advantages have resonated with not just consumers, but also investors. She’s the youngest Black woman to raise over $2 million in venture capital funding, having raised $14.8 million as of April 2023, and has her sight set on making an effective product for all types of chronic skin conditions, for Gen-Z and beyond.

Along the way, she’s discovered for herself what the power of community really means for a beauty brand. She likens a brand’s community to a country’s citizens, in which loyalty should run both ways. “You feel like it owes you something, but you also feel like you owe it something,” she says.

BoF: As a Gen-Zer yourself, and a Gen-Z founder, what do you think that this generation of consumers is really looking for from their beauty brands?


Olamide Olowe: Good product is table stakes. Gen-Z, because they’re more cash-strapped [than older generations] are not just spending money on any and everything. They really want to know that it works. Reviews, before-and-afters, are really important to this customer.

On top of that, storytelling is essential. Gen-Z really loves messages that are nostalgic, messages that … just remind them of a simpler time. They’ve democratised a lot of things, and the stories they want to hear in efforts to democratise beauty are more inclusive. They’re stories that tell narratives around the LGBTQ+ community, around Black and Brown consumers, around differently abled consumers. That’s really amazing, because now instead of beauty looking singularly, it looks multidimensionally.

BoF: As a Gen-Z founder, what do you think is the most common misconception about your generation?

OO: I always say that Gen-Z is a psychographic, not a demographic. The internet is the great equaliser because people are sharing ideologies across generations. I know people who are over the age of 50 who act more Gen-Z sometimes than my little brother, who is 20. I don’t think that the way that Gen-Z approaches businesses or interacts with experiences is relegated just to a specific age.

The misconception that a lot of people have around Gen-Z is that they’re fickle. I think Gen-Z is probably one of the most loyal demographics, but they’re loyal to what they believe is true. There are a lot of things that aren’t as true as people think that they are. That is why people think, like, ‘Oh, Gen-Z changes their mind,’ or, “Price is the only thing that really impacts Gen-Z,” because people will figure out how to pay for certain things.

BoF: What mistakes do you see businesses make when they try to connect with Gen-Z?

OO: They try to be everything to everyone. You have to be everything to one. My one is people with chronic skin conditions, people who love culture, people who are really community-orientated, people whose mental health has been an issue for them as it relates to their skin condition. Those are very specific things that I look for in my customer.

People may not be all of those things; they may fall into one of the buckets. But I was super adamant about who it was that I was serving, and because of that, I’m able to tailor my marketing, and I don’t [share] deluded stories and messages across the chain, across the stack. I tell very specific stories, and it may not resonate with certain people, but that’s okay.


Some brands aren’t supposed to get big, because if they get too big, they then lose the niche. When a brand is no longer in touch with anyone, it becomes a dying cash cow, where there’s a tonne of revenue but no innovation and no growth, because they can’t pick one message to speak to because they believe it alienates another core [customer].

BoF: What role does TikTok play in curating Gen-Z’s beauty tastes, and what sort of role does TikTok play in your own business?

OO: To me, it’s almost like Google 2.0, because it has a visual element, and the information is being presented by everyday people.

It’s done really well for us in just spreading awareness about what we do at Topicals, not just our products, but also mental health advocacy. It’s been really important and interesting to see how people have taken our products and used them not just as a medium to show people before-and-afters or treatment on skin conditions, but also as an opportunity to have open conversations.

We know that we’re not going to solve the issue of mental health, but we want to at least open up the conversation.

BoF: Do you think brands should experiment with emerging platforms? You never know what’s going to be the next TikTok.

OO: There are so many shiny objects and so many new things that are constantly launching, where you’re like, ‘Should I jump on this? Should I not do this?’ Brands never want to be left behind, but you also have limited resources. What people don’t realise is … there’s only so much you can do with a limited budget and a small team. Especially for a lot of the indie brands that are really driving innovation in the industry, you have to choose certain things.

If you are the first on some of these platforms, you have to do a lot of the groundwork. But I think you should be in touch. We have a community programme of over 4,000 members called Topicals Insiders; they run the gamut of age and where they live in the United States and their backgrounds. They keep us super hip and young.


BoF: Community has become such a buzzword. How do you think that brands can really connect authentically with Gen Z?

OO: Everyone just thinks, ‘If I get a cheap product or a quick, cool, viral-type product, then I’ll build community,’ but community isn’t followers and it’s not customers, although they can overlap. A community is a citizenship to your brand world. If you are an American citizen, you feel pride to be an American. If you’re French, if you’re Nigerian, if you’re Middle Eastern … you feel a sense of entitlement to that country. You feel like it owes you something, but you also feel like you owe it something. Citizenship is really important.

BoF: So what language do you speak [when communicating with those citizens]?

OO: Topicals has been really adamant about not using negative language as it relates to your skin. Quite literally, the citizens of the Topicals world are called “Spottie Hotties” because, for us, we just make fun of what people have made fun of us for, this idea of having spots or not having clear skin.

BoF: What would be your advice be to the next crop of Gen-Z founders, and particularly Gen-Z founders of colour?

OO: People need to understand that VC is rocket fuel. If you’re not building a rocket, if you don’t want to build a business that’s going to be doing north of $50 million to $100 million in sales in the next five to seven years and you don’t want to dedicate your life to that, there are — and we should be creating more — other ways to fund businesses.

It’s important to understand what you’re walking into when you take venture capital. Do you want to build a very, very big business, and are you ready to sell this business, part ways with this business in five to seven years, or is this something that you want to keep in your family forever? Or do you want optionality?

If you want optionality, I would say you just don’t take VC and you take other types of capital until you’ve then decided VC is the route for you. I do think more founders, Black founders, should have access to VC capital as well, if that’s what they’ve decided. Raise with a plan to execute, and execute like you’ll never raise again.

BoF: What is next for Topicals? How do you see the business continuing to grow and connect with new audiences?

OO: We’re going to continue to innovate in different skin conditions; we want to create products for every skin condition that exists.

Our goal is to continue to donate money. We’ve donated $100,000 since our inception to different mental health causes. … By 2026, we want to have educated 10,000 skin care professionals on the connection between skin health and mental health, which is called psychodermatology, and on skin of colour.

Fifty percent of dermatologists say their medical school training didn’t prepare them to treat skin of colour. So our hope is to also educate professionals. Over-the-counter skin care is great, but having an aesthetician or a dermatologist also look at your skin is part of this toolkit.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This article first appeared in The State of Fashion: Beauty report, co-published by BoF and McKinsey & Company.

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Further Reading

How to Decode Gen-Z’s Evolving Relationship With Beauty

The State of Fashion: Beauty explores why outsized influence of today’s teens and twentysomethings over consumer industries mean beauty brands face a fast-changing challenge to adapt their businesses — from marketing to pricing strategies — to remain attractive to this hugely discerning cohort.

About the author
Diana Pearl
Diana Pearl

Diana Pearl is News and Features Editor at The Business of Fashion. She is based in New York and drives BoF’s marketing and media coverage.

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