The Silicon Valley startup scene has diverse technologies, diverse platforms, diverse office spaces, diverse management styles. What it does not have is diverse people. There is no shortage of news about the awful job the tech sector is doing at hiring people of different genders and races. Many of the top companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Apple, released reports about their workforces in an effort to promote transparency but there is a big difference betweening owning up to not being diverse and doing something about it.
Amidst the sea of white faces, Tristan Walker stands out. The highest-profile startup CEO in Silicon Valley, he is the founder of Walker & Company, whose goal is to make products that make health and beauty simple for people of color. Its first brand, a shaving system called Bevel, launched in early 2014 and reduces shaving irritation by 50% over four weeks.
On paper, Walker’s background is not dissimilar from many of his peers in the Valley. He attended Hotchkiss, a New England prep school, and Stony Brook University, and worked at Twitter, Foursquare, and the venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz, where he was an entrepreneur-in-residence, before starting his eponymous company. But the problems he is trying to solve are unique.
People of color tend to have coarse and curly hair. When they shave with multi-blade razors that cut hair below the skin, they are more prone to razor bumps and ingrown hairs. Bevel features a single-blade razor that cuts hair level with the skin and includes a proprietary priming oil, shave cream, and restoring balm that reduces or eliminates skin irritation. It also comes in packaging that is akin to an iPhone, a stark contrast to the bottom-of-the-shelf products most drug stores carry for people of color depicting, as Walker’s says only half-jokingly, “a guy with a JherI curl, petting a tiger, and drinking a cognac.”
The potential of the opportunity is enormous. Walker & Co. is often called the Proctor & Gamble for people of color. Even though Walker himself has never said those words, he welcomes the comparison. People of color make up the majority of the world’s population so if his company is the one that is providing them their health and grooming products, Walker will take it.
We spoke with him to find out about the genesis of the brand, where it’s headed, and his own personal battles with shaving.
What do you think most people don’t understand about the shaving options that are currently available for people of color?
I was about to answer that question in a different way until you added the “people of color” part. The first thing I was going to say is that the way that they’re using it is wrong. Bevel is really the first and only shaving system designed specifically for men and women with coarse, curly hair who are prone to shaving irritation, razor bumps, etc. Too many folks use multi-blade razors that perform worse than a single. If you’re prone to the ingrown hair and razor bumps, you gotta go single blade. It cuts level with the skin. It’s easy. Then, the approach that we take which is different from everyone else, is a system-based approach. The razor is the great hero but that combined with the right priming oil, shave cream, restoring balm, and brush is when you’re doing it right.
How prevalent is the issue of coarse, curly hair?
The razor bump issue is a problem that 80% of black men and women have but 30% of everyone else. If you have coarse, curly hair, you can be a black man or woman, you can be Asian, any kind of race with curly hair, you’re going to have these issues. Thirty percent of all other folks deal with razor bump issues too. It’s a pretty significant issue that has gone unsolved until we’ve done it.
What prompted you to start Bevel?
For 14 years I was unable to shave. Every single way that I encountered facial hair removal sucked. The first way I learned was in prep school and there was no barber shop nearby so I had to learn to cut the hair on my face. I didn’t have a father to teach me, so I went to the local retail shop, picked up the multi-blade razor, got a shave gel. I woke up the following morning and was completely broken out. I had no idea it was a function of my having curly hair. So I wrote off razors forever. The second way I learned was observing my brother. He would put this depilatory cream on his face. It’s like the male equivalent of Nair. You put it on your face, let it sit for 6-8 minutes and then you wipe it off. No razors needed. I did that for 14 years, but it smells like crap. It has all these hazardous, harsh chemicals. It burns your face. So I really started Bevel out of that frustration. This is a problem that has existed for awhile. It set me on this path to help a new generation of folks learn to shave the right way and eliminate a lot of scepticism.
What has the response been from people who use the product?
We started shipping product in February of 2014, and the response has been fantastic. I get emails all the time from customers who are excited. I got an email from a gentlemen in the Army. He said, “Tristan, you’ve gotta shave every day in the army. And for as long as I can remember, razor bumps have been as big a part of military career as my uniform. Thank you for having a product that works.” There’s a woman who reached out and said thank you for having a product that lets single moms teach their sons how to shave. Another guy sent me a note saying that for 15 years he’d been wearing a beard to work out of fear of using some of the mass marketed products and felt like it limited his career advancement. Those three emails alone show me we’re on to something special. And we get emails like that all the time.
Have you heard those “A-ha!” moments from white people?
Oh yeah, we have a large number of non people of color. It’s funny, people always describe us as the Proctor & Gamble for people of color. That’s never come out of my mouth. But people say it as if it’s a niche opportunity, but we’re the majority of the world. We like to say we make health and beauty simple for people of color. But the big message is more focused on the problem as opposed to the demographic. So every brand that we launch we’re going to be focused on acute health and beauty problems that people of color over-index in but everyone has. We have black consumers, white consumers, latino consumers. All of whom say they love it. We also have women who are consumers as well.
The razor space is a popular one right now with Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club. How do you think Bevel differentiates itself?
We’re not a razor brand. We’re a skincare brand. There’s no other brand that is offering a true system to eradicate this very acute health and beauty problem for men and women. Period. For us it’s not about selling razors more cheaply. The box that we send our consumers is a three-month kit and within that, you get 60 blades. 60! You could get a fresh blade each shave if you wanted to. For us it’s less about trying to monetize or earn margin on the blades. We care about charging for a system that works. Unlike any of the brands that you’ve mentioned, we have a product that is clinically proven to work, that people love and actually yields the results around the efficacy promise that we desire to have. Additionally, we’re going to have more brands than Bevel that also solve acute health and beauty problems, whether its skincare, health, hair care.
Shaving tends to be passed down from generation to generation. What challenges does that present for you?
We’re in the long game. We sacrifice fast initial growth for people that want to stick with us forever. I want to build a company that outlasts me. We also have a portal called Bevel Code. It’s really the first and only digital magazine online focused on style and grooming for men of color. I couldn’t find anywhere online what moisturizer to use for my skin. I couldn’t find that on GQ, Esquire, anywhere. That’s important information. So we have information like that: how to treat your beard, how to use face wash. But we also do these great one-on-one interviews with influencers. We spoke with Nas, about the origin of the half-moon part in his hair. We spoke to the Alpha PhI Alpha fraternity at Stanford about what it’s like to live on a campus without a barbershop within five miles. These are stories that need to be told. We very rarely push the Bevel product on Bevel Code because it’s a different value proposition. When you might not get passed down tips on how to shave the right way, let Bevel Code help you figure that out.
What’s next for you guys?
We have a new product launching for Bevel in two to three months that we’re very excited about. Towards the end of the year or early next, we want to launch our second brand centered around this idea that there is nothing more personalized than an individual’s physiological makeup but there’s nothing less personalized in the world than the entire health and beauty products industry. The next brand that we launch is really going to have a core focus on how can we rethink personalization in the world of health and beauty.