For as long as she can remember, Diarrha (pronounced “Gia-rha Jaye”) N’Diaye-Mbaye has loved all things beauty. She would spend her childhood days at her mother’s braiding salon in her native city, Harlem, New York. Yet, beauty was much more than a business, it represented N’Diaye-Mbaye’s family’s “language and livelihood.” N’Diaye-Mbaye explains, “If I wasn’t at the babysitter’s, I was at the shop [Aminata African Hair Braiding] with my mother.” The shop, a longtime neighborhood staple, sits in the heart of Harlem’s style epicenter on the world-famous 125th street. “For me, it was some of my earliest experiences, seeing women getting their hair done, feeling good, and communing through beauty,” N’Diaye-Mbaye fondly recalls.
Despite her early and frequent exposure to the hair salon, N’Diaye-Mbaye didn’t realize how much she loved the beauty industry until she tried another career path. Before founding Ami Colé, her skin-care beauty line created in the fall of 2020, which she named after her Senegalese-born mother, she went to school to be a pediatrician — an unusual choice given her self-described hatred of blood. After graduating from Syracuse University N’Diaye-Mbaye realized her true calling dated back to her mother’s business and the lessons she learned from those early days in the salon.
“My mother says the customer is always right,” N’Diaye-Mbaye, who became a new mother herself this year, persuades. “Not in a cliché way, but she will literally bite her tongue knowing they are wrong. It was so important for that customer to come, but also come back and tell their friends.” This lesson instilled the importance of word-of-mouth marketing in N’Diaye-Mbaye, or essentially, social media before it was mainstream.
N’Diaye-Mbaye, now 32, applied these lessons to founding Ami Colé, using this community-centric approach to build her clean beauty brand. She hired models from Harlem where she grew up to promote her brand and heavily incorporated her Senegalese heritage into product development, which focuses on tinted concealers, darker-toned foundations, lip treatment oil, uniquely designed facial brushes, and more.
“It’s the fabric of what we do,” she says whole-heartedly. “I’m an African woman so it’s important to me to have my culture represented in my work.” That cultural representation included everything from the models she uses to the music she listens to (she loves Afrobeats) and wants others to experience it as well.
“When we work with agencies, I give them a playlist because I want them to be immersed in the world,” she implores. But more than that, she wants Ami Colé to be a celebration and safe space for Black women to have fun with beauty – something she says this community doesn’t always have the permission to do. “With serious runway makeup, women get the very ‘I’m fierce’ Tyra Banks approach to beauty. I’m very much like the girl next door.”
N’Diaye-Mbaye is telling a story through her brand. A story that historically has excluded darker skin tones as the main character. But she’s writing a new narrative. “When I was younger, maybe 12 or 13, there was no space to tell a Black story that was beautiful,” she says. “It was always the ugly duckling story where a Black girl would have to change something about herself.”
Fortunately, N’Diaye-Mbaye never battled beauty insecurities – mainly due to her father always reminding her she was beautiful in her own skin. “He always made me feel like I was the white tiger grazing the land, asking me, ‘how rare is it that your skin is this dark?’” And N’Diaye-Mbaye wants to do that for others now.
Having once worked at VIBE magazine as the brand’s social media director in the early ‘10s and at beauty institutions like TEMPTU, L’Oréal, and Glossier, N’Diaye-Mbaye was no stranger to the beauty industry when she started Ami Colé. She remembers seeing the women coming into her mom’s salon, living in Harlem, being around her aunts in Senegal, and thinking how beautiful they are. But despite her childhood experiences with her mom and professional experience in the industry, she still faced challenges when starting her business.
“I’m like ‘Why is no one talking about this? Maybe they just don’t know.’ I thought I would go into these spaces and incite change and be able to share it with them, but when I found out it was a little bit intentional, I was like, ‘Wait, I wasn’t invited here.’ I just happened to be here,” she states. “To understand that and come to terms with it, because there’s also a mourning that happens when you love something so much and it doesn’t love you back, is tough.”
But N’Diaye-Mbaye didn’t turn her back on beauty, she simply changed it.
“When I think of what I’m trying to do and the feeling I’m trying to evoke, it’s like that one moment when you find that perfect match or the perfect jean,” she says. “I want Ami Colé to be that thoughtful experience when it comes to beauty. When you put on that skin tint that actually matches and it’s really clear the person that made it thought about you.”
N’Diaye-Mbaye recalls a trip to Thailand where she went to her hotel room after a day of water sports and couldn’t use the hotel blow dryer because it didn’t work for her type. “It was too weak, didn’t have the nozzle to do my hair and I thought, ‘what if I walked in here and all the amenities here actually worked for me?’ I’m talking about luxury spaces where I’m not even considered. So, what happens when we as a brand give you a luxury experience and make [it] accessible?”
According to Beauty Independent, Ami Colé is projected to generate $2.5 million in revenue by the end of 2022. There’s clearly a market for the brand, which already has accomplished so much since it first launched in May 2021. Even with the early success, N’Diaye-Mbaye recalls the early rejection she faced when launching her brand. “I knew I was prepared, but people kept telling me no,” N’Diaye-Mbaye says. “I heard, ‘you look like Hourglass,’ ‘Fenty already exists’ and ‘you’re a random girl from Harlem, who do you think you are?’
It was disheartening for sure – there are only so many no’s one person can hear, especially when you’re factoring in pitching to 100 people back-to-back in a pandemic, you have no job, no savings because everything you have is going back into the company, and you’re running on empty with zero inspiration because the only example of success at the moment is Fenty – a conglomerate.
But N’Diaye-Mbaye kept telling herself that Ami Colé needs to exist. Blink to 2020 when Black Lives Matter hit, and investors had the epiphany that yes, Black-owned brands [are here] and no, they don’t have money for funding. “Suddenly everyone has money. Suddenly everyone is answering emails. And suddenly people are flooding the gates to invest in Ami Colé,” she lists.
It’s a bittersweet moment. On one hand, N’Diaye-Mbaye now has the opportunity to turn her vision into a reality, but on the other, why did it take the murder of a Black man for some people to understand that racism is still happening in America? N’Diaye-Mbaye notes that even when an entrepreneur secures capital, it’s still an uphill battle. “You’re still breaking down that systematic mindset because they never trusted you,” she says. “You’re not the nephew they can trust because he went to boarding school and they golf with their father on the weekends and have a house in the Hamptons. Here you are a Black woman by yourself in Harlem, trying to learn the language and trying to understand contract sheets. And once you’re at the table, you’re by yourself.”
“Every step of the way, you feel crazy. Even today, as you continue to raise and you continue to look into new distribution, you’re going up against the behemoths. The playing fields are not even – there are a lot of head starts, but as we do we prevail, especially Black women,” N’Diaye-Mbaye steadfastly. “It continues to be very challenging, but it’s also inspiring.”
While N’Diaye-Mbaye may be an inspiration to Black women (myself included), her inspiration comes from a not-so-unlikely source. “I’m still forever inspired by-product,” she says. “When I go to Sephora and I’m walking down those aisles and I’m seeing new trends, I get so excited. I have an amazing product person on my team and she and I get reinvigorated by things. I also get inspired by getting my makeup done or talking to my makeup artist friends and asking them what they’re working on. They’re like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you do this or that?’ and I’m excited again.”
Thinking about Ami Colé’s future also gives N’Diaye-Mbaye something to be excited about. Imagining where it could go and who could be impacted by it, makes her more determined. Since the brand’s launch, its product lineup expanded from the Skin-Enhancing Tint, the Light-Catching Highlighter, and the Lip Oil Treatment to include brushes, powder, concealer, and an array of other items. That’s just the beginning. N’Diaye-Mbaye plans to add new products, including merchandise this fall.
“Imagine in a couple of years when we’re able to bring the heat and meet our girl where she is in London, Canada, and on the continent,” she says. “We’ve only just started.”
Meredith Jenks – Photography
Makeup: Jaleesa Jaikaran at Forward Artists
Makeup Assistant: Linda Charles
Wardrobe Stylist: Sinceré Armani