February is Black History Month and for Black Travel Box founder Orion Brown, celebrating and recognizing Black women’s personal care needs no matter where they are, whether halfway across the world or at their gym, is essential.
In 2017, after a trip to Japan where she ran out of hair products and spent the rest of the trip trying to find suitable products for her needs to no avail, Brown put together a business plan so Black travelers can have personal care products catered to their specific needs, in a way that won’t get them in trouble with TSA and interfere with the fun of a vacation. The box includes everything from body butters to balms.
“I was like this is crazy. There should be stuff that I can use. I am a human being that makes up a decent amount of the global populace and I should be able to walk into any store and find things that acknowledge that I exist, that acknowledge my textured hair and my melanated skin. And so that was really sort of the impetus of, why isn’t there a brand made for people of color who travel? And I started to do research from there,” says Brown.
According to JP Morgan, Black women are the fastest growing demographic of entrepreneurs despite facing disproportionate financial headwinds. Brown herself can attest to the biases that persist in the investment market, as she herself had to fight for respect to create her business. At the time Brown didn’t know that only .34% of all investment goes to Black women. In 2019 she began talking with potential funders, doing pitching competitions, being on pitch podcasts, taking steps to get her idea out there.
“It was probably the most abysmal experience possible. I was getting the response of Black people need different products? Black people travel? But do they really want to spend at that price point? Well, why is it just for Black people? Don’t you think that’s racist? Well, I don’t understand why this isn’t for me? Well, I think it’s a really small idea. And so it was a very interesting time and I learned a lot about the biases that are built into investment,” says Brown.
She also learned about gendering within investments. In talking with other entrepreneurs, especially women and women of color she found that men often received questions while doing their pitches, all around, how big can it get? How awesome can it be?
“Women got questions around how they were going to not fuck it up. And what were they going to do when it failed? And how would they handle it when somebody came in and clobbered them?” says Brown. It really took a toll on me emotionally as a new entrepreneur,” says Brown.
Black travel is a $109.4 billion market and Black women spend nine times more on beauty and personal care than any other ethnicity. After facing deep discrimination in the investment world, but Brown still had trouble convincing investors there was a market for her products. Like many other Black women entrepreneurs she decided to take on the financing job herself.
“And so I said, you know what, screw it, 2020 we’re going to do this ourselves. We’re going to bootstrap it. We’re going to launch in April. It’s going to be awesome. And then everybody got a cold and that was kind of a different story. So now we’re regrouping a couple years later, down the line,” says Brown.
Black hair carries deep emotional and historical significance. Cornrows, locs, twists, afros and bantu knots have historic ties to Black culture, pride and history. Yet, most Black adults and children experience hair discrimination in their schools or at their jobs. As of February 2023, 20 states have enacted the CROWN Act into law, legislation that prohibits discrimination of this type. More than half of all states have filed or pre-filed legislation for consideration and about 1 in 10 states have yet to formally examine the CROWN Act.
“Up until recently it was perfectly legal for me to show up at work, my boss to go, I don’t like how you have your hair done, you’re fired. Period. If you Google unprofessional hairstyles, now you’ll get a whole bunch of articles about this issue, but years back, unprofessional hairstyles were people with stuff shaved in their heads and like 15 different colors and Black women just wearing their hair,” says Brown.
Brown says beauty products marketed to Black women often contain the most toxic ingredients used by the cosmetics industry. Exposure is of particular concern of Black women because they purchase and use more beauty products per capita than any other demographic and they face many health disparities, including the highest breast cancer mortality rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Brown emphasizes the need for clean products. Delivering safe products to her clients is of the utmost importance as her own mother and aunt have both battled with fibroids and cancer.
“If you look at the Black community, Black women have fibroids all over the place. You can’t meet a Black woman that doesn’t either have them or knows somebody who has them. We have a history of being sold very low quality crap, with extra chemicals and other things being put into it, just because they could and nobody was looking. Now we’re in a world where clean beauty is a thing. Clean beauty has been pushing forward. However, it still has left the ethnic aisle behind.”
Brown believes it is really important that a light continues to be shown on beauty double standards, and that all sectors of the human populace feel seen and cared for when they walk into the personal care aisle. Black Travel Box’s core founding principle is that travel is an amazingly rich form of self-care.
“It’s particularly very important to the Black community. We have this amazing democratization of the world, where from my perspective, if I look back on my parents’ generation or the generation just before, they were really only seeing the world if they were in the military. And then my parents’ generation, it was all about the Caribbean, it was a hop, skip and a jump away and for the longest time, they didn’t need a passport to go. And now we’re at a place where ASAP Rocky is in a hot spring in Iceland or another person of color is in someplace in Japan and you’re just like, I wouldn’t put that face with that location. Because we just hadn’t seen it before,” says Brown.
Brown has proven all those potential investors wrong, even against all odds, most significantly weathering a global pandemic. In June 2021, the brand got the recognition from the Queen Bey herself. Beyonce, featured Black Travel Box on her curated Black-owned beauty brands to purchase list, Black Parade. The impact of the exposure was immediate.
“This was after a year of not knowing if I could keep the business open because we were in the middle of COVID. No one could travel anywhere. I was pivoting and going live and doing all kinds of stuff to keep the awareness of the business up. So I was really proud that they would not only see us and like us, but consider us,” says Brown.
“There’s a beauty standard in our world that a small sliver of the population actually meets. Meanwhile, there should just be something for everyone who has hair and skin, period and in all the ways that it shows up,” says Brown.