As AFROTECH™ previously reported, Olowe is behind the popular skincare company Topicals, which sells skincare products for people with chronic skin conditions such as eczema and hyperpigmentation. Founded in 2020, by 2022, it had become one of Sephora’s fastest-growing brands, selling one product every minute.

Meeting Richelieu Dennis

Olowe’s trajectory to founder was not her initial calling. In fact, she attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on a full-ride scholarship to participate on its track team. Additionally, she was studying to become a doctor, she said during an interview on the “God Is My Creative Director” podcast.

While there, she was introduced to another student, Rechelle Dennis, the daughter of SheaMoisture Founder Richelieu Dennis.

“My freshman year, I’m standing there with one of my teammates, and a woman comes over to me and is like, ‘Hey, you all look like you do sports. My daughter is on the gymnastics team, and you know she’s like new to the school,'” Olowe explained on the podcast. “I’m friendly so I was like, ‘Oh yeah let’s talk. Let’s get to know her,’ and it’s so funny ’cause when we tell the story now, people laugh, one because her mother introduced us randomly, but it led to a relationship that changed my whole life. This person I’m talking about, Rechelle Dennis, [I] later came to find out that her father owned SheaMoisture.”
The connection between Olowe and Rechelle blossomed throughout their freshman year, and they became roommates for their sophomore year. Rechelle shared her career aspirations with Olowe that she wanted to create a brand similar to her father’s but geared toward young women. She believed Olowe could help bring the idea from pen to paper, Olowe explained on the podcast. At the time, Olowe felt Rechelle saw something in her that she had not recognized in herself.

“I’m Nigerian. I’m pre-med. I’m going to medical school. I don’t know about who sells lotion,” Olowe said on the podcast. “I don’t know how you get into stores. I didn’t even know that existed as a way to have a career. I only knew that you could be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer… sales creativity, even computer science at the time was not on the radar of Nigerian parents, and so her asking me to come do this was like, ‘Girl, I don’t know how to do this… I don’t know how to do all the things that you would need to do to become a successful beauty business.’ The second thing was, ‘Why do you think I’m qualified? What makes you believe that us working together is going to get this from point A to point B?’ Nonetheless I was like, ‘Let’s do it.'”

Launching SheaGirl

The pair flew to New York during their sophomore winter break and pitched Richelieu, who at the time said they were “thinking too small” when he heard their initial proposal, Olowe said on the podcast. When they revisited the idea in 2015, they had scaled it as a beauty brand called SheaGirl for young women.
I love that he pushed us because you know sometimes people just say yes to your first idea, but [Richelieu has] always been someone that makes you go deeper and think bigger about who you can be,” Olowe said. “I think that’s where real innovation comes, it’s when you’re pushed to connect different ideas, to think bigger than you’ve ever had to think before.”

Founder’s First

The brand launched in 2016 at the Essence Festival as a sister company to SheaMoisture while Olowe was a student-athlete at UCLA. In the meantime, she had been sharpening her skills in business and learning about finance and operations through Richelieu, who she described as one of the most “prolific” businessmen.
While SheaGirl didn’t reach immediate market success at its launch, it was sold to Unilever in 2017 through the consumer goods company’s acquisition of Sundial Brands, CNBC reported. Selling the brand inspired Olowe, and she hoped to replicate its success through her next venture.

In 2018, Olowe’s next foray unfolded as the brand Topicals. She spent time connecting with more than 100 investors to build the brand. However, many did not understand the bigger picture.

“Everyone said this idea didn’t make any sense. ‘How are you going to get people to get excited about skin conditions when everyone wants to look perfect? Why are you going to show people with skin conditions? People are going to think your products don’t work. If this is such a big opportunity how did you figure it out?’ The bigger incumbents didn’t figure it out… It was definitely a trying time,” she recalled.

By 2020, Topicals launched to market with Olowe’s founding partner Claudia Teng, who served as the chief technology officer. Olowe credits her past experiences with SheaGirl for providing the necessary training and contributing to her success.

While it was hard to secure funding initially, Olowe received small checks from some investors. The turning point for Topicals was a $2 million check from a woman who had also invested in skincare brand Glossier and glasses brand Warby Parker.

“She changed my life by writing that check,” Olowe said but did not name the investor in the podcast interview.

Securing Funding

While initially securing funding may have been difficult, Olowe secured $2.6 million in funding during Topicals’ first year. In 2022, she made headlines for becoming the youngest Black woman to secure $10 million in funding, per Forbes. CAVU Consumer Partners led the Series A funding round. Jay-Z’s Marcy Venture Partners, Kelly Rowland, Gabrielle Union, Yvonne Orji, Bozoma Saint John, and Hannah Bronfman also participated in the round, per a press release announcing the funding.

Olowe raised about $14.8 million for the brand before she turned 26. Topicals has raised $22.6 million to date, per Crunchbase.

In hindsight, Olowe is thankful for the initial rejections she faced from investors who did not understand the brand’s vision, recognizing that her journey today might have been different.

“I’m also grateful because the no’s are really important because if I had said yes, or if those people had said yes to me, my journey maybe wouldn’t have even been what it is now,” Olowe said. “I have so many friends who have investors who maybe they wrote the $2 million check, but they’re breathing down your neck and you’re not able to do the work that you want to do. You’re not able to build in the way God’s called you to because you have this investor who wants you to do things a specific way. So, we also have to be OK with the no’s and not harp on them too much because that door closed for a reason.”