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Ulta Beauty supports BIPOC brands’ retail readiness through MUSE accelerator program

The Ulta Beauty MUSE Accelerator supports eight early-stage Black, Indigenous and People of Color founders in their journey to retail readiness.
ulta beauty muse accelerator
Octavia Morgan, Olivia Bae, Jessica Pritchett, Leigh Joseph / Styawat, Sharie Wilson & Tonya Thompson, Melissa Samuel, Ana Núñez, Devin McGhee Kirkland & Brit Kirkland

Following the pivotal events of 2020, Ulta Beauty was one of many organizations that accelerated its efforts to support diversity, equity, and inclusion. Jessica Phillips, vice president of merchandising at Ulta Beauty, shared, “DE&I was already an important value of ours and we were doing the work, but it accelerated and spotlighted how we needed to develop a more inclusive assortment to service our guests.” 

In 2021, Ulta Beauty signed the Fifteen Percent Pledge, which asks businesses to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned brands, representing the fact that Black people make up 15% of the U.S. population.

The challenge was that while there were a number of founders who wanted to launch with Ulta Beauty, many of them weren’t ready for various reasons. In response to this need, Ulta Beauty launched a cross-functional effort, captained by Renée Reid, senior brand manager, diversity, equity, & inclusion, to uplift and empower Black-owned and founded brands, and created what is now the MUSE Accelerator.

[Read more: A legacy brand broadening its base]

The Ulta Beauty MUSE Accelerator will begin its third year when it kicks off this fall. The 10-week program supports eight early-stage Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) founders in their journey to retail readiness and will open for applications on June 3. Phillips commented, “It’s the right thing to do to meet our guests’ needs, and also because of the impact it will have. If we can play a role in closing the wealth gap in this country by creating more equity with Black founders and other founders of color, we’ll be pushing the industry forward.”

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johnny velazquez and camille bell
Johnny Velazquez and Camille Bell, co-founders of Pound Cake

Phillips continued, “Everyone gets up for a paycheck every day, but I am so proud to work for Ulta Beauty, because I’m really proud of our work around this and I get up for this purpose.”

The MUSE Accelerator not only offers a curriculum that includes education about the supply chain, product development, cash flow, brand strategy and positioning, and retail 101, but also a mentorship program. Cohorts are paired with a founder who has been in their shoes and, as Phillips says, are a few steps ahead of them, but not too far ahead that they’ve forgotten what it’s like. In the second year of the MUSE Accelerator, a merchant mentor was added to the program. “I think the magic of this program is actually the community it builds, and the fact that the cohorts have a lot of people to go to who have diverse perspectives,” Phillips said. 

Each brand also receives $50,000. Phillips shared that when they were building the program, they uncovered the fact that less than 3% of venture capital and private equity funds go to underrepresented founders — women and BIPOC individuals — and Reid said that is industry agnostic, so the funding is important.

At the end of the 10-week program, the cohort gets the opportunity to pitch to merchants and investors to see if there is an opportunity for distribution. If there isn’t at that time, Phillips said they stay in touch with the brands to get updates on how they are evolving. One such brand, Pound Cake, a participant in the 2022 MUSE Accelerator program, launched nationwide in over 500 Ulta Beauty stores in autumn 2023. Pound Cake’s crème-matte liquid lipsticks are made for different skin and lip tones. 

[Read more: Beauty benefits: Focus on ingredients]

Camille Bell, CEO and co-founder of Pound Cake, said some of the highlights of participating in the program are the relationships built — with fellow cohorts and mentors, whom she continues to stay in touch with, the experience of pitching at the end, and the financial support. “It was so exciting to be picked to launch nationwide because it felt like they aligned with our vision and really believe in what we’re doing and what we’re offering,” Bell said. Bell also noted that all of the knowledge was helpful and the $50,000 was especially crucial. “The mentorships are great, for sure, but Black and Brown founders are often over-mentored and underfunded, so it was really great to receive the financial help to propel the business forward and also take the advice they were giving us and execute it, because a lot of times these programs tell us what needs to be done, but it costs money to execute.”

Phillips commented, “What’s so cool about Pound Cake is it’s a great example of solving for an unmet need in the market. The efficacy is super strong and the story is really cool. It’s off to a great start, and I think there’s a lot to come from this brand.”

Applications for the 2024 MUSE Accelerator program open June 3, 2024. Phillips said they are looking for brands that deliver innovation to beauty, fill an assortment gap, and have something special or unique about it, and, of course, are efficacious. She added that the brand’s story matters as well as the growth potential of the brand. The program starts in mid-September and Phillips said the first and final weeks are in-person and the weeks in-between are virtual. More details can be found on Ulta Beauty’s MUSE Accelerator website.

Megan Moyer is HRG’s corporate marketing manager. HRG is in the details of retail, working with product manufacturers, distributors, retailers, technology partners, and other industry organizations to provide data & analysis, shopper experience, brand development, fixture coordination, and retail communications solutions. HRG reviews new health, beauty, and wellness (HBW) items every month and assesses their potential for longevity in the monthly Products to Watch feature in Drug Store News as well as the annual Future 50 list. 

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