Tracee Ellis Ross doesn’t just put her money where her mouth is.
She puts mind, body, heart and soul there, too.
The multihyphenate launched Pattern Beauty, hair care for curly, coily and tight-textured hair, in September 2019, just months before COVID-19 shut the world down and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a new social justice movement.
But rather than deter her, for Ellis — successful actor, producer, advocate and, now, entrepreneur — who had worked for a decade to bring the brand to life — those events helped catalyze an even larger role: becoming a leading voice in beauty for driving meaningful change around inclusivity and equity in the industry.
“Tracee is such a magnetic force whose superpower is inspiring others to feel seen and considered,” said Nyakio Grieco, cofounder of Thirteen Lune. “Tracee creating Pattern is an extension of her artistry, talent and ability to inspire a future generation of founders.”
That has meant Ross taking on additional roles beyond the confines of Pattern, such as diversity and inclusion adviser to Ulta Beauty. But even more importantly, it’s resulted in the founder doubling down not only on growing her business — but the textured hair category overall. She has become a leading voice for driving equity across the beauty industry, holding herself — and her partners — accountable.
“There has been progress,” said Ross, “more Black-owned brands on the shelf, more people showing up wearing their hair in a natural way. But there is more work to be done.”
For one, although textured-hair care is the fastest-growing category in hair, with more than half of the U.S. population considered to have textured hair, it’s still considered “niche” by many. “Black consumers represent $1.2 trillion in spending power, which is a huge opportunity for growth, but I still don’t think Black consumers are being prioritized,” said Ross, who believes that more research and data is needed to demonstrate the scope of the opportunity.
And it’s not just getting more Black-owned brands on store shelves. It’s helping them stay there, too. “It’s no joke, the amount of financial and operational resources that a brand needs to stay competitive in a major retail environment,” said Ross. “A lot of newer brands aren’t set up for that, particularly if you take into account that Black female founders are the largest growing group in the industry, yet the money is at the lowest end of the scale. That needs to be looked at from a systemic point of view.”
Ross knows whereof she speaks — she’s a hands-on founder who is intimately involved in the day-to-day operations of the business. “She’s a dynamic businesswoman who’s deeply passionate about her brand and the community she serves,” said Dave Kimbell, chief executive officer of Ulta Beauty. “She’s been an incredible champion for our DEI efforts and a trusted partner to helping keep us accountable. She helps keep us honest and focused on areas we must improve, and offers unique perspective that we rely on to fuel our work.
“She pours so much of her heart into everything she does,” Kimbell continued, “and it’s reflected in the results of her efforts.”
Pattern Beauty’s success belies Kimbell’s assertion. Since launching in 2019, the brand has grown from seven stock keeping units to more than 50, in the wash, style, treat and heat categories; distribution has grown from Ulta Beauty into 10 retailers globally, including Sephora, Macy’s, ThirteenLune and Ulta at Target in North America and Boots in the U.K. Ross declined to disclose the size of the business, but industry sources estimate sales are TKTKTK.
In the past, Ross spoke of expanding into body care and potentially skin care, too, but for the moment, she is fully focused on hair. “The business has scaled at a tremendous pace, and I didn’t know what came with that growth,” she said. “Being a smart leader and smart business owner means continuing to pivot in terms of what the business needs, staying focused on that vision and at the same time responding to the growth that is happening.”
“The thing that has been most resonant with customers is our dedication to a specific promise and purpose, our conversation around authentic beauty and the fact our visual language is constant validation of that promise,” she continued. “That’s something I’m transparent about when I talk to other entrepreneurs — be clear about your mission and stay focused on it. Really deliver on your promise, which means you have to define that promise and mission from the beginning.”
Ross recently brought in former Fenty exec Christiane Pendarvis as co-CEO, but has no plans to step back from the business. She interviews every new hire (favorite questions include: What is your superpower? What is your dream job? What kind of growth are you looking for?) with the goal of building a team and culture that is joyful, kind, creative and purposeful. “Pattern is a hands-on, heart-led business — everything from our formulas to our campaigns really come from that space,” she said. “That requires a particular type of team.”
If it all sounds very personal — it is. “I’m the chooser,” she famously told Oprah during an interview in 2020, noting that so often young girls are brought up to dream about their big weddings rather than their life goals. “I’ve pushed up against this so much because I want young people to dream of the life they want and what they want to give back to the world,” Ross said. “Launching Pattern wasn’t just about doing something — it was, I want to share something with the world to make it feel better about something.”
She tells a story of a disagreement she had with a beauty entrepreneur in the service sector who went on to become a household name.
“I said to her, ‘I don’t understand. If you’re building a business, don’t you need to maintain your core customers like me? You’re going to lose your core if you keep upsetting them.’
“She said, ‘my goal is to be a household name and if that means sacrificing my core customer, that’s OK by me,’” Ross recounted.
“I’ve always remembered that, and the one thing I brought to Pattern is I will always honor my core customer base. I will never sacrifice the core mission of the brand to be more lucrative,” she said. “The success for me must come from honoring and servicing the mission.”