Beauty

Inside Sephora’s Accelerate program

The program is now focused specifically on diversifying its in-store assortment and “what it takes to be successful” on shelves, from financing to merchandising.
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Adrian Hancu/Getty Images

· 6 min read

Hitting Sephora’s shelves is most beauty brands’ dream come true, so when the retailer approached skincare startup Eadem in 2020, co-founder Marie Kouadio Amouzame was “over the moon”—but also “super, super anxious.”

“We’re like, ‘Wow, Sephora is a huge thing. Are we ready?’”

It ultimately decided it wasn’t. As a pre-launch, self-funded brand, Eadem “had literally nothing,” Amouzame told Retail Brew. But it found a way to work with the retailer while priming for its on-shelf debut: the Sephora Accelerate program.

Eadem was selected to the 2021 cohort, Sephora’s first since it underwent a “significant overhaul,” which included a commitment to bolster BIPOC-founded brands, Rauvan Dulay, its VP of global merchandising, business development, and strategy, told us.

  • Started in 2016, the accelerator has mentored ~75 early-stage brands so far, initially centered around international beauty tech and social impact.

In line with joining the Fifteen Percent Pledge in 2020, Dulay said the program is now focused specifically on diversifying its in-store assortment and “what it takes to be successful” on shelves, from financing to merchandising.

Beauty school

Sephora picks participants based on “brand storytelling, their vision, innovation, and where they are with product differentiation,” Dulay explained, adding that they’re typically evaluated like any prospective brand for its store.

The six-month program welcomes accepted brands in its cohort in mid-January (the class of 2021 had eight companies; this year’s has 10), and orientation and curriculum kick-off extends through March, with founders forming partnerships with merchant sponsors. Then comes the boot camp in April, a “fairly intensive” week of sessions covering everything from investment strategy to marketing—the two topics participants appreciate the most, Dulay said. Finally, there’s Pitch Day—where brands give presentations to industry leaders, investors, and Sephora execs—followed by graduation in late May.

  • Sephora also provides all participants with a grant, though it declined to disclose the amount.
Eadem co-founders Alice Lin Glover and Marie Kouadio Amouzame

Eadem

Amouzame also described the program as intensive: “I felt lucky that we are two running this business because I don’t know how other founders did [it.]”

  • She said she and co-founder Alice Lin Glover had meetings about three days a week for a “good chunk” of the day in the beginning, though the time commitment tapered off toward the end.

A lot of that time, Amouzame noted, was spent with Cindy Deily, Sephora’s VP of skincare merchandising, who was able to “accelerate,” of course, discussions Eadem “hadn’t even thought about”—like how to set the right price and whether it should include a spoon with its moisturizer. (Final decision: Yes.)

  • Plus, Amouzame said the program helped it form a category-focused product launch strategy that would help Eadem establish consumer trust.

Good hair day: For hair-care brand Shaz & Kiks, which is currently in this year’s program, it’s taken the opportunity to work with its mentor, Philomene Olivier, senior buyer of e-commerce at Sephora, on prepping for a new product next month. 

Co-founded by sisters Kiku Chaudhuri and Shaz Rajashekar in August 2020 with a single SKU—a vitamin-based hair mask—Shaz & Kiks expanded into shampoo, conditioner, and hair oil in 2021. But figuring out an addition with someone from Sephora has added a new dimension to the brand’s process, Chaudhuri told us.

  • Some new considerations: the words that should make it on the label, and considering online search when picking out a name.
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“It’s been really positive for us both at the high level of how to run a beauty business and then also even just kind of tactically how to pull some best practices and put in the right protocols,” Chaudhuri said.

Asking for a friend: Amouzame noted the program offered Eadem a strong support system of fellow participants, with whom she can discuss topics like packaging manufacturing—as well as celebrate the highs and commiserate the lows of running a business.

“When you start a beauty brand on your own, and you don’t have that background, and you’re doing it during a pandemic, it can feel quite isolating,” she said.

  • The 2021 cohort is now in a WhatsApp group together, which she said is still active even after the program.
  • Amouzame said they also still meet with Kristin Odegaard, senior director of merchandising, strategy, and business development at Sephora and one of the program’s leads, once a month, and turns to speakers like Amy Liu, the founder of Tower 28, and Tatcha founder Vicky Tsai for advice.

Shelf-care: Brands aren’t the only ones benefiting from the program. Sephora is filling gaps in its assortment, too. Two brands from its 2021 cohort (Eadam and Hyper Skin) introduced the company to the concern of hyperpigmentation for darker skin tones, something that Sephora’s product selection hadn’t addressed, Dulay said.

While Amouzame said she was “surprised” Sephora hadn’t explored this issue before, given it’s “top of the list” for those with non-white skin, she said the retailer has since worked to further develop the space.

  • The retailer brought on 2021 participants Topicals and 54 Thrones, which also sell products tackling hyperpigmentation.

As for this year’s class: There’s a fragrance company, House of Foster, for the first time. Shaz & Kiks, meanwhile, is based in “reimagining ancient Indian rituals” and practices. Chaudhuri told us that, as of late, Eastern cultures have inspired a number of health and wellness trends, but she and her sister “didn’t feel like their origin was really attributed correctly.”

  • It is one of three hair care brands part of the 2022 program; the other two, Wonder Curl and Miss Rizos, focus on curlier styles.

What’s in store? Sephora now sells half of 2021’s cohort online and in stores. While Dulay said it’s the company’s “intention to launch all the brands,” participants are ultimately at different stages of product and brand development, so the number of brands that hit shelves with Sephora varies from year to year.

“Our mark of success isn’t just the ones that have launched, the ones who receive the press. It really is about meeting each brand where they are, and making sure that we’re doing right by them, and exceeding their individual needs,” Dulay said.

Eadem did finally feel ready to enter Sephora after the Accelerate program, and hit (virtual) shelves last September. But even then, the prep for launch—from supply chain to software to marketing—was “a lot of work.”

“Honestly, it’s not something to take lightly because it can take over your life, basically,” Amouzame said. “And I’m really grateful that we had the program to prepare us to do that.”

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