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Once We Define Our Lanes, Others Will Follow: Portia From BarBella Co.

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

What are the toxic chemicals in nail polish that cause skin disorders? Turns out they were hiding in plain sight. It was common knowledge that nail polish contained harmful, Cancer-causing chemicals like phthalates and toluene. But what most people didn’t know was that these chemicals seeped through where the nail meets the skin and into their bloodstream. Soon people started realizing that this chemical wasn’t just affecting their nails — it was wreaking havoc on their health. The products are being sold as if they were normal, but in reality, they contain hazardous toxic chemicals.

When Portia Mathis was a nail tech, one of her friends contracted an extreme case of dermatitis due to the toxic chemicals in nail products. She thought it was counterintuitive for someone to be in the healthcare industry while also engaging in poisonous products. Portia wanted to learn how to create a vegan product that was nontoxic that promotes healthy nails. After working with a manufacturer, she made a formula that works well and is nontoxic.

Portia minored in Spanish and has an affinity for the culture. She envisioned having a beauty bar, where it's a combination of a nail salon with a social experience. Bella means beautiful in Spanish. Therefore it's a play of words between beauty bar and bella. And that's how she was able to come up with BarBella Co.

What are you most proud of when it comes to BarBella Co.?

Portia says, "I'm most proud of the support." After much back and forth with wanting to launch her business, Portia was nervous about launching in the middle of COVID might not be the best time. But, she has received so much support since launching. She knew that despite the times that we're in, women still had skin issues, and she dedicated herself to solving those issues.

What's the biggest fear you had during your business journey?

"My biggest fear throughout my business journey was more so about revenue. I know that the number one statistic in small businesses they start in the year and fail within the first year. But my fears lessened once I got the ball rolling." The hardest thing for Portia was taking that first step because her natural default was making sure things have to be perfect. "No, Portia, you're procrastinating, you're just sitting on inventory, and no one else will know what a good product you have and a good brand unless you get the ball rolling and actually start it," said Portia.

Tell us about a significant setback you had in your business and how did you recover?

Like most service-based businesses, COVID dramatically impacted Portia. People go to the nail salon to feel, see, and touch the different colors and see how different colors pair up with their skin tones. Between COVID and consumer skepticism, it prevented BarBella Co. from bringing more awareness to the brand. Portia's initial goal was to partner with other nail salons, attend trade shows and other face-to-face events that she could be a part of, but that all changed. Barbella Co. had to pivot its business model and bring the social experience online. As a result, Portia had to redefine BarBella Co.'s messaging to fit current times.

Describe what it was like preparing for the pitch competition?

Usually, Portia is an introvert. She doesn't like talking much and doesn't like pitches. Her business partner Kim signed her up for the pitch competition, which was less than a week away. "Going to the practice that helped, it helped to alleviate the stress I had. My thing is, when I'm passionate about something, I get lengthy, and I get wordy," says Portia. Being around the other pitch participants helped to eliminate the fears that she had. She says, "Just pushing yourself, and getting yourself out there to just do it. If you make mistakes, you can always go back and reevaluate yourself on anything that you needed and move on."

Portia's advice for pitch competition participants is to research the resources applicable to your industry, see which ones you're interested in, and apply, even if you have reservations that you might not win. "You won't know unless you start..get comfortable with making yourself uncomfortable, and once you do that, you'll find opportunities in the strangest places," Portia said.

She used her pitch winnings for marketing so that her business could stand out. She further designed and built her business to be able to socialize online with its customers.

Support is not always given to women of color in business; when has this shown and hurt or disappointed you the most?

Living in South Florida, she experienced a racial encounter when she entered a beauty supply store to purchase products. The manager followed her around the store. This is a store she spends a lot of money, and in her attempt to solicit her products, the response went radio silent. "The support wasn't there," explained Portia. She thought the experience would've been different since another person of color owned the store, and there has been such a massive push for diversity ––but it wasn't. "Once we define our own lanes, others will pick up," says Portia.

What's the most critical lesson you've learned about business, in general?

She learned that being an entrepreneur requires being organized and lots of planning. When you're rolling out campaigns, planning months in advance will save you time. "When something abrupt comes up, you already have a plan. You just have to pivot, more so than making a whole entire plan." Planning allows you to play out different scenarios and will enable you to adjust your business if need be.

Was there a time that you wanted to quit?

"Oh yeah...yeah...definitely, oh yeah, VP-led Kamala says she eats no's for breakfast, and I'm similar. I get comfortable with being told no, so whenever I'm told no, I just find a way for it to be a yes," shared Portia. She continues by saying that you will give up if and quit if you don't get accustomed to the rejections. You don't make it as an entrepreneur if you quit. Portia noticed a prevalent theme while studying great CEOs, entrepreneurs, and great people and that their catalyst for change is through hardships. There's a confidence that eventually pokes its head out during turbulent times, enabling entrepreneurs to make it on the other side.

What's the biggest risk that you've taken so far?

Creating the brand was the biggest risk for Portia because many naysayers told her that the industry was oversaturated. The idea of competing against big nail brands made her nervous, and she wasn't sure how the market was going to respond to her products. She invested in the business before understanding her customer base and had inventory before knowing customers would be interested in it. Her belief in herself and her product's quality gave her the confidence to bypass her fears and launch BarBella Co.

What's the most exciting part of your business?

Portia loves meeting new people and networking. Networking and building her support system is what helped her on her business journey. Networking wasn't something she was always comfortable doing, but she became more and more comfortable over time. Portia believes in the power of networking because you might meet someone who could become crucial to your business.

What do you think the future holds for Black women entrepreneurs and small business owners?

"I think the future is definitely great. I feel like where we are now is great, but the future is even greater. It goes back to earlier what I said about VP Kamala. It kind of lets us know that you could be told no. You could be told it's not your time, but your time will come. And if you keep pushing and persevering, then you'll get to your end goal. I think it's a great outlook for Black women," shared Portia. She believes many companies create more diversity efforts that more doors and opportunities will be made available for Black women. "We don't necessarily get our credit all of the time, but we okay with that because now is our time to shine," Portia continued.

If you and I were meeting three years from now, looking back, what would it take for you to feel happy about your progress?

The impact is the most crucial metric for Portia. It's not about the nail product and not necessarily about having a great nail brand or redefining the status quo. What's dear to her heart is empowering Black women and women of color, specifically young women. She believes without mentors instilling positivity throughout your journey could make or break someone. This is something Portia had growing up.

She hopes to inspire other young women in the nail industry because there aren't many Black women in the industry, let alone those who own the brick and mortar businesses and the manufacturing companies. "Some of those products are not in other areas if that makes sense, so it's like, that lets me know, oh okay we're probably not reading the labels, or whatever the case might be, or they think it's acceptable and it's not," Portia continued. Many of these nontoxic products aren't on the shelves in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

What do you think is an important skill or asset you need to be successful in business?

Portia said, "It's going to seem selfish, but I'm going to say self-care. I'm a strong advocate in if you're not whole, you can't pour into others. And if you're not whole in business, there are so many people tugging at you in so many different areas and environments, and if you're not whole or to your best ability, that's only going to break you down. It's only going to deter you. It's only going to make you more prone or want to quit. Whether it's taking the time out to meditate, or whatever your happy place or where you go to disconnect, so I think self-care and mental awareness are definitely important in business." She believes whatever helps you to be better individually and in business, then do more of that.

Running a business while balancing a personal life can be demanding and taxing. How do you take care of yourself?

Portia meditates regularly, gets a massage, or pampers herself. Before COVID, she was working out, but with being a mom, that hasn't been much of the focus.

What is your favorite quote or mantra?

Love conquers all.

What is your favorite book?

Nice Girls Don't Get The Corner Office which has led her to be more direct.

What's your favorite business hack or app that you can't live without?

Outlook and QuickBooks.

Name one food item that you have a hard time saying no to.

Sweets, candy.

What's next for BarBella Co.?

They are redefining the status quo, bringing out some of their audience's favorite influencers and nail enthusiasts from beginner to professional to help drive brand awareness. She wants Barbella Co. to be on the top of everyone's mind, and when someone thinks of any nail products, they think of BarBella Co.

Subscribe to the Digital Orange Juice for juicy ideas and the people who fund them. You can find out about our next pitch competitions here. Also, be sure to join our new community BGV Connect!

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