There are times in life when we arrive at an issue we’ve never before encountered, and that single dilemma can change the direction of our lives. This is what happened to Patrick Boateng, founder of Ceylon, a skincare company geared toward men of color.
Growing up, Boateng didn’t really struggle with his skin, he says. It wasn’t until he moved to China for his first tour as a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. State Department that he started having breakouts and struggled to cure them.
“Seeing myself break out, have acne, scarring, really struggling every single day, was a big wake-up call for me,” Boateng says.
In an effort to clear up his skin, he was trying products and treatments from all over the globe, from flying to Tokyo and Seoul to get skincare treatments and getting products shipped from the U.S. to having his father who was living in Ghana send him African black soap.
“What I discovered was that there wasn’t really anything out there for guys like me, guys with pigmented skin,” he says. “Skin of color dermatology is such a big issue, and the lack of options for people of color, both on the side of diagnosis, which is what a lot of dermatologists deal with, but also on the side of having consumer brands that can answer to that.”
And so, began his journey to creating Ceylon.
“I collaborated with Dr. Lynn McKinley-Grant, who is the top dermatologist for skin of color. She’s the current Skin of Color Society president,” he says. “And through her, began to formulate Ceylon.”
“And really the idea behind Ceylon was, create one brand that has the promise of creating the best possible products to treat pigmented skin,” Boateng continued. “But also, personality-wise and brand-wise, it’s aimed at men. So how we think about product usage, how we think about the messaging, how we think about the identity behind what we do, and how the mindset of someone similar to me is going to approach their skincare routine. It needs to be simple, it needs to be understandable, it needs to do a lot within a very little, smaller group of products.”
The brand launched in late August of this year, but the road to launch wasn’t easy, especially considering Boateng’s background isn’t in the beauty or dermatological industries. He holds master’s degrees in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School and urban planning from Harvard Design School, and while schooling helped him prepare to create a business, it didn’t prepare him to become an entrepreneur.
“I think just being at school, one of the things you learn is that you have to study a lot, you have to do a lot of reading and research. And I did a lot of that upfront, but none of it really prepared me for the experience of transitioning into actually becoming an entrepreneur,” he says. “One of the things that was really key was just, one, the encouragement of friends and family, but really shifting my mindset from how do you do it to just do something. And if it slips up, don’t let it become an impediment.”
“So, for example, very early on I was looking for manufacturers to create the product. And I ended up getting really lucky and having a neighbor that connected me to a supplier that connected me to a factory,” he continues. “But early on, it was like…I remember going to Singapore for a trade show, and everyone looked at me with extreme skepticism. People didn’t take me seriously. But the whole time it wasn’t like, ‘OK, that means we’re not going to do this.’ It was like, ‘OK, these people don’t know. These people are not the ones I need to partner with, so keep going and find the next one, don’t get discouraged.’”
Perhaps the hardest part about transitioning to entrepreneurship, according to Boateng, was shifting his mindset.
“I think that very often, at least in the academic world and the government world, it’s not so much like you’re getting no’s, so much as it is a big, bureaucratic process that you can just go through. And once you actually complete all the steps, OK, it’s done,” he says. “As an entrepreneur, there’s no roadmap, there’s no process, there’s no steps to anything. It’s just zero to one, all the time,” he says. “And so, I think for me, that was probably the most challenging transition because it was mainly a psychological thing. Being able to pick yourself back up and say, ‘OK, repeat this zero to one over and over and over again.’ To be able to actually get to the point where you say, ‘OK, we have something here.’”
Men’s skincare is a growing industry, projected to be worth over $18 billion by 2027, a stark statistic it would seem, considering the market has largely ignored men of color, despite the fact that Boateng asserts men of color could comprise up to half of the men’s skincare market by 2024. While many skincare products and treatments are universal, there are specific skincare needs people of color face that tend not to get addressed by larger brands. This is part of what makes Ceylon’s presence in the market so important.
“I think that as the market grows, and the presence of Ceylon and other brands that will follow it, that this market will shift a bit, and you’ll start to see more brands that are trying to cater to that audience. I don’t know that that will necessarily become a big part of the industry. I don’t see the industry turning around, saying, ‘Every brand must have a segment where they specifically have developed for skin of color,’” Boateng says. “I definitely think that whereas maybe now you only see Ceylon, perhaps one or two other brands that are trying to cater to men of color, in the future, I think you’ll end up seeing maybe five to 10 brands, by 2024, that are trying to achieve this sense of, ‘OK, this is a viable space that we can exist in. We can drive it and continue to serve men of color in a way that allows us to deepen the science, continue to explore, but most importantly give them the products that they need.’”
But the question still remains, why has the skincare industry for so long ignored the needs of people of color? Boateng believes it comes down to who the decision-makers are.
“Most of the decision-makers are going to be older white men, who dictate a lot of what money gets put towards, what type of research is done. And who gets to dictate what we explore and what we dig. So, I think that that’s one,” he says. “The reflection of that is just the sheer inequality of the industry. One, it’s reflected in the way in which people of color specifically don’t have access to the kind of products that might help them because the science is like, we’re having to actually make sure that dermatologists are practicing on different types of skin. But I think also, if you look at other parts of the cosmetic and grooming industry, the way women are marketed to and spoken to, for the longest time, I think only now you’re starting to see a different way of talking to the consumer. That isn’t in these stereotypes, these ways that are dictated not by the people that are actually being sold to, but by people who are saying, ‘This is what this group likes, this is what this group needs.’”
“So I think that that’s the reason,” he continues. “Because the decision-makers have been the same. The same reason that you look back at films, and films you look back at, it makes you want to cringe. But you’re like, well who was making the films, and who was financing the films, and who was directing, who was writing them? It’s very much that same thing in cosmetics.”
Ceylon is changing the conversation by having Boateng as its decision-maker, along with McKinley-Grant, both of whom have a vested interest in serving the skincare needs men of color face, who tend to more often deal with hyperpigmentation, acne scarring and razor bumps than white men. And part of developing skincare for men of color means formulating products with ingredients that will aid the melanin in their skin instead of harming it.
“We know that one of the best ways to help pigmented skin heal is actually to just assist its ability to turn over. Because it’s going to heal itself naturally, and instead of using ingredients like hydroquinone, which often gets recommend and prescribed for pigmented skin, but which is skin bleach,” Boateng says. “But the skin doesn’t actually need to be bleached. The whole point is to get the skin to just renew itself and bring those new skin cells forward. So, then we say, ‘What if we turn this moisturizer into an exfoliator?’ And so, it has that dual function of protecting the skin barrier as well as helping the skin quickly turn over just a little bit faster than normal without irritating.”
Boateng and McKinley-Grant work together to utilize her research to bring to life products that could help fix issues men with pigmented skin are facing and try to treat and prevent underlying issues that can arise from struggling with your skin. And there’s a lot that goes into it. To create Ceylon’s face wash, they tested out 27 different versions before arriving at a product they were happy with.
“I remember we did nine textures and three core ingredients,” Boateng says. “You know, there’s the tea tree, and there’s a couple other ingredients we tried. And so, we went through these 27 different iterations of the wash to be like, ‘OK, what’s the right texture? What’s the right type of…If we’re going to add oil, if we’re going to add some additional botanical, what’s that going to look like? What’s not going to irritate the skin, what’s going to have a low clonogenic gradient?’”
But Boateng doesn’t intend for Ceylon to be merely a skincare company, but a lifestyle brand, complete with a magazine that launched with the company called This Ain’t Soap. In creating a bigger brand around Ceylon, Boateng has also created a community.
“I don’t know about other brands and the way they talk about it, but for us, I think just the energy and the dialog has been absolutely incredible,” he says. “I think that’s probably the best part of the experience of testing, is number one, people have access to my…Everyone who’s been part of our beta has access to my calendar, so they can book time. People text me, people call me, email me directly. So, it creates this real energy where you look and you say, ‘Hey look, I can reach out to Patrick any time, and he’s going to respond and have a full conversation,’ and just treat it as this is not necessarily something that we own, this is something that the community around it owns. Because that’s who it’s responsible to. So, I think that’s also been a really great experience, to see the love and to see the support. And just the things that people are willing to share with you. Most people will buy a product, if they don’t like it, they just move on. But for people to actually want to push you to get better, there’s nothing better than that.”
“Also, you’re always surprised at how few degrees of separation you have between many, many people, once you get to talking and learning about what they’re up to, what they like, what they’re doing. It just really is great,” Boateng says.
It is this sense of community that seems to be the heart of Ceylon, this ability to provide people with a product, as well as a sense of belonging, that could really benefit their day-to-day lives. But as far as Boateng is concerned, Ceylon doesn’t need to be the next Neutrogena to have value.
“If your company never gets that big, if your company never grows that much, you still are doing something for a group of people who, without what you do…I think it’s quite sad to think about the fact that for a lot of companies, there’s not that true desire to cultivate smaller communities that can sustain you. Because your business can exist in a lot of different forms, but there’s almost this idea that if it’s not big and massive and millions of people, it’s not worth anything. And that’s just simply not true. So, I think that being able to enjoy this aspect of it really helps emphasize the value of what we do, no matter how big our audience is.”
But Ceylon is just the beginning.
“Anim Labs [which owns Ceylon] is a company that’s focused on really being able to be the best possible consumer health company for people of color,” Boateng, who is also the founder and CEO of Anim Labs, says. “So, what that means is that Ceylon is not the only brand that we’re going to create. We’re looking at nutrition, we’re looking at hair, we’re looking at all sorts of areas of health. Because number one, people of color are just under-served as far as health goes. But I think that for us, what we learn from this can give us insights into being able to create other things that work for people in really special and unique ways. And this is important work to us. It’s just important to us to be able to serve our community in different ways, very thoughtfully. And so that’s what we’ll be working on, at least in the long-term.”