The nude nylons Atima Lui pulled over her dark skin as a child were one of the initial small sparks that got her questioning the status quo. Growing up in a white-centric community in middle America, the daughter of a black activist mother and Sudanese refugee father always studied her roots but was well removed from diversity. Years later, Atima combined her passion for celebrating all skin colours with a technical application that no longer pigeonholes nude as one shade of beige. Her company NUDEST is redefining beauty by giving women – and men – the ability to identify their unique skin tone and find garments and accessories that compliment it through NUDEMETER™, a proprietary computer vision technology that algorithmically matches a user’s skin to fashion and beauty products online. The NUDEST vision took shape at Harvard Business School (HBS), where Atima fell further in love with entrepreneurship. Her drive landed her work experience with Google, a position with Walmart, and a job offer with Apple, but Atima felt inspired to create her own company. With her brother Nyalia at her side, Atima conquers the hard-knock school of entrepreneurship daily. She has embraced failure and reset her brain to view mistakes as growth, taking her lean startup business to full capacity and successfully championing the truth: that beauty comes in many shades. She grows her company from The Wing, a home base and social club for women in New York, and encourages anyone interested to connect with her about anything as she strives to make a lasting impression on the world.
Therapy to maintain my Jedi mental health
Making time to connect with other entrepreneurs
Celebrating every single success of my team, no matter how small
Keeping my space at home organized and zen
Portable Lap top stand perfect for the startup life
Portable colorimeter so I can discover the colour
Start my morning listening to R&B
Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday podcast episodes on my commute to work
Noise cancelling headphones keep me in the zone
Digital office hours powered by the calendly app
Tell me about NUDEST.
At NUDEST our mission is to change the standard of beauty to match the full range of diversity in human skin; the way that we’re achieving that is through technology and data. We empower fashion brands and beauty companies by helping match the products they sell to their customers’ skin tones through our patent-pending application NUDEMETER™. This technology can be put on any brand or retailer’s website or mobile app; it prompts the user or customer to take a picture of their skin and answer three to five questions about their tanning preferences, and then NUDEMETER™ calculates their undertones and is able to calculate which of the brand’s products match them at that moment and also seasonally throughout the year. It’s really cool because it also empowers companies with data on their customer bases’ skin colours, what matches them, and what they like to order. Companies then know if they need to develop new products or manage their inventory accordingly to make sure products are available for the full range of skin tones.
How does the NUDEMETER™ work?
After the user takes a picture of their skin and then answers questions about their tanning preferences, they provide their name and email address and then the application assigns them a skin tone and suggested products. That’s all read through the camera – through computer vision and data processing – and we also save individual user information. What’s pretty cool for us is we can see the data from all the brands that use our app. Brands can see the data for their particular customers and are able to run analytics from that information to say, ‘hey, these are the most prevalent skin tones; these are the ones that show up less often, there’s a gap here’ – that’s how it works.
Can you clarify how NUDEMETER™ interacts with the companies using its technology?
It integrates directly into their brand. For example, once we add the application to their site we actually connect it to their customer system, so when a user goes to their site, NUDEMETER™ is on their website landing page. Then when the user provides their name and email address, it puts that info into their normal customer relationship management system. So regardless if they make a purchase or not, the brand is able to see users in their database. The brand is empowered by everything that they see, but we also provide an additional service in which we analyze the data for them.
What inspired you to come up with this technology?
The idea came from a personal struggle that I have as a dark-skinned woman. My dad is a Sudanese refugee, so I have a Nilotic skin tone, which means a skin tone from the area of the Nile in East Africa. I grew up in Topeka, Kansas, which is a predominantly white town in the middle of America, and so I think subconsciously or consciously – both really – I’ve always been aware of how my look and my aesthetic doesn’t match the beauty standards I was consuming, or the standards of beauty the women who were physically close to me held. Really the only person I had around who looked like me was my sister. My mom doesn’t have a skin tone as dark as mine and so I always felt like I didn’t fit in. I wanted to explore business challenges and opportunities to help women feel confident about who they are, and so I meditated on what I was meant to do with my life. What could I do and what could I give to the world? What is my purpose? It really came to me that I was put on the planet to improve the confidence of dark-skinned women and girls. What I love about my company is, yes, it’s working towards that personal process but I think more excitingly it’s about women of all skin tones, or rather people of all skin tones. When I dug deeper into this problem I saw that very pale women also struggle with what I’d felt, because the colour nude is traditionally this random shade of beige that doesn’t match them either. And then there are just people in general, you know, who segregraphically feel like they don’t match the tall, blue-eyed, blonde-haired, skinny standard and so I’m happy to be a part of the movement to help women and men and everyone really feel better about themselves.
So it sounds like the idea for NUDEST was born from your personal experiences and then grew into a business that addresses the lack of diversity in beauty and fashion, correct?
Yeah, it’s related to a myriad of what would now be called microaggressions I’ve experienced being a dark-skinned woman in the United States. Everything from Band-Aids not matching my family members’ skin to being a young girl taking dance lessons – I would just look ashy with “nude” hosiery on. Wearing things labeled as nude is literally the action of covering yourself with white skin; they were all random shades of beige and I wasn’t any shade of beige. I think it’s an amalgamation of all of these experiences that helped me arrive to the idea, or rather I saw a problem that needed to be solved; I think that it was my business mindset that helped me figure out what a potential company might look like to address that problem. My personal experiences make it heartfelt and meaningful for me to be able to identify with the people and customers who use our technology.
You mentioned you felt different from most kids growing up in Kansas. Can you tell me more about your upbringing in what you described as a predominantly white community?
My upbringing, honestly, was a very happy childhood. I have an older sister and a younger brother, and I always looked up to my parents as really great role models. My mother is African-American, and she’s always been an activist. She was actually a communist when she was younger, which was very radical when she was growing up. She raised all of us to have a lot of pride in our identity as black people. I think she felt a particular responsibility to do that, given we were growing up around people who didn’t look like us. I remember that any time I had the opportunity to do some type of independent study or to choose what I was going to do a project on for a requirement in school, it always focused on black people. I feel really fortunate to know that I’m standing on the shoulders of really amazing African-American people who have made it possible for me to have equal rights in this country. My Dad, who’s a Sudanese refugee from an area of the world that has been going through civil war and violence for generations, gave me a broader understanding of places outside of where I grew up. As a member of the African diaspora at large, it helped me see I have a lot of privileges and I can use those to help and better those around me. Even though I was isolated physically from the black and African diaspora if you will, my parents really did a good job of always making sure that I knew who I was and where I came from, and I think that background has given me the ability to see how I’m different. I mean I know how I’m different compared to those around me, but it also made me recognize this unique opportunity I have to help others.
Can you tell me more about your professional journey? How did you get to where you are today?
I started my first company when I was in college; it was pretty cool because I went to Washington University in St. Louis and it had a student entrepreneurial program. I knew I was interested in doing my own thing at an early age; being my own boss, tinkering and having my own ideas – I got to try that all out at school. I launched a full-service hair, nail, and tanning salon – ironically; I say ironically because I don’t really personally tan. I employed certified cosmetologists, barbers, and people to do services for students, who didn’t necessarily have a car on campus. It was a really awesome experience – we were profitable in our first two months of operations. I ran that for two years and I really really loved it, but I also recognized it was a huge responsibility, so after undergrad I decided to take a job with a large company. While in college I interned at Google for three summers and fell in love with technology. Then I took a job with Walmart, which is the opposite of a tech company because it’s more of a legacy company and legacy brand, but I learned a lot about retail there. After that I decided I wanted to go to business school to further my marketing career; I wanted to do something that would marry my love of technology that I developed during my internships in Silicon Valley with my new love of retail, which is all about getting people things that they need. I actually had a job offer to work for Apple marketing their new products in their retail stores, and I was like ‘OK, cool this brings those two things together,’ but my entrepreneurial spirit was still kind of itching me.
So you were at a place where you were questioning whether you wanted to take a more conventional path post-graduation - then what?
Before I graduated from business school I asked myself ‘OK, if I were to do my own thing, what would that be? What would it look like?’ I realized having my own business is a lot of work, so whatever I did needed to be something I was super passionate about. I was speaking to myself: ‘Atima, you’re going to go through hard times, like when trade-offs start happening – hang out with friends or work on your company – what’s going to make that worth it for you?’ NUDEST is totally worth it for me. I started working on it as an idea during my final semester in business school. I launched a minimum viable product – if you’re familiar with the lean startup model or ‘MVP,’ as they say – which was just a WordPress website where you could filter products in the fashion space by six different shades of nude – and it went viral. It was picked up by the Huffington Post and some other online publications like cosmo.com, and that told me it was something that was resonating with people, and was worth my full-time effort. I didn’t show up at Apple – I moved to New York and started building this company.
Wow, that's quite the leap. Did this happen fairly recently?
Yeah, I graduated from Harvard Business School in 2016, and we launched the more modern version of the company in June 2016 with our first version of the skin tone matching technology. It’s been over two years of research and it’s been almost two years of being public; it’s still very new. We’ve been funded by a round of pre-seed investments – that’s how we’ve been operating – and we also won a pitch competition in September of 2017, where we were awarded a $50,000 prize from the National Black MBA Association, which was great.
Excellent. What’s the response been like so far?
The response has been very positive but I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t also include that we’ve pivoted a lot with our ideas – it hasn’t always been the same. From the beginning, I mentioned we had an MVP, a minimum viable product, the website that we launched while I was still in school. People immediately wanted to check that out; we had a thousand people within two weeks request access to the deeper levels of the site after we’d initially made it exclusive to just 300 test users, so that was really cool. But we also learned that people felt like six shades of nude was too limiting – the feedback said that people come in more than six shades and so they wanted more options. From there we devised the NUDEMETER™ idea, which in the beginning was more minimal than what we have today. It was like ‘take a picture, click on the area of your skin and these are the products that match you.’ Our idea was to have an online retail store that would filter these products and we’d make money on those transactions. People liked NUDEMETER™ but we found that they’d say, ‘it’s really cool but can you add this button,’ so there was some discussion on making it easier from a user experience perspective. We found it unrealistic to really focus on the retail aspect, dealing with customer service and transactions and products et cetera while we were still developing the process, so we switched our entire focus to be 100 percent on the technology. As soon as we changed our strategy to getting really good at matching the skin tone and selling the technology to brands we got really great responses from brands, from entrepreneurs, and from investors. What we hear from brands and retailers is that it’s cool because it gives them the data they need to do better, more inclusive business with a diverse customer base, so that’s really positive. We also got a positive reception from a product perspective. With foundation, for example, there’s more confidence in purchasing one product online when the consumer is educated on which colour matches their NUDEST skin tone. This beats buying four different shades, trying them on and then returning some of them, which can be a retailer’s worst nightmare.
What colour does the NUDEMETER™ rate you as?
I am a Rich 6 skin tone. We have 54 shades, ranging from a Fair 1 to a Rich 9. We built it to be sort of the pantomime of skin tones. Pantomime is the language of colour, but we’ve done it for skin. While our technology takes into account an infinite range of skin tones, we like to provide you with one of these 54 nudes because we imagine a future in which you can shop anywhere and be able to say ‘oh, I know my NUDEST skin tone is a Rich 6,’ and then click and filter your online options by your skin tone. Retailers can put the technology on their sites and consumers can easily filter for products and recommendations by their skin tone.
What products and colours are recommended for a person with a Rich 6 skin tone?
On our site we recommend across the categories of shoes, lingerie, hosiery, and shapewear as well as beauty products, which we started doing just last month, so we’re very excited about that. For example there’s a brand that makes lingerie and I match with their berry shade of lingerie; I love the name berry because it’s a play on the phrase ‘the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.’
I understand you work out of The Wing - what’s that like?
The Wing is a lot of fun! As you probably know, it’s a women-only space. It’s really nice because in the earlier days of the company before having space there I used to work at a coffee shop. I actually had a lot of guys try to hit on, harass or bother me while I was head-down working – and not so rarely as you might think. At The Wing it almost feels like an extension of my home: it’s comfortable in the way that my home is but it’s productive in the way that an office is and so that feels really great.
I also understand you work with your brother - does working with family complicate things at all?
No, I love working with my brother – he’s my favorite person on the planet. He comes from an opposite educational background too, which is really great because we balance each other out. He has a degree in computer science and he’s an engineer, and I think that gave him a more analytical, black-and-white, serious way of looking at things, while I bring a more emotional marketing background to the business. I’m also grateful to him because it meant that at an early time in my company – before we had any funding – I was able to launch a version of our technology. He graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta the same summer that I graduated from HBS. They say the way to motivate an engineer is to find a problem they find interesting, and so before I turned down my Apple offer we sat together on my parents’ couch to work on this. The largest risk, like truly the number one risk in startups – and investors will tell you this – is the relationship between the co-founders. It’s not at all uncommon to see there be friction there, but I have a great working relationship with my brother. We already had a great rapport since I’ve known him his entire life, which is – oh man, how old is my brother? He’s 25; so knowing him for as long as I have and getting along so well means that if we disagree, or if there’s something difficult with the company that we’re dealing with, we always have that relationship to fall back on. It makes me feel really confident about anything that we face in the present or in the future as we continue to build the company.
Let’s circle back for a moment - could you speak more to what precisely made you switch from the more conventional career path to entrepreneurship?
I think that there’s a couple of things: first, I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I’ve always loved to put on events and to create new things, as indicated by my experience in college when I had my first business. I also think that it’s never been easier to start a company in the history of the world because of the Internet, and because of systems you can easily put into place. It’s not just that the Internet exists, because it’s existed for many decades now, but it’s the tools and services that are available for affordable rates for small businesses. It’s easier now for anybody who wants to test an idea, you know?
So your natural inclination, combined with the tools and information available online were the two main driving forces?
Not entirely; I think the other thing that played a big role is my training as a graduate of Harvard Business School. I generally come from what I would call a more risk-averse culture – I’m referring to both my African-American and also the first generation backgrounds. My Dad is an immigrant and the expectations are very very high from him. I think there’s a psyche in African-American culture of black people being left out of economic prosperity and professional careers, and so success looks like getting that big corporate stable job. I’ve done that, but after I did it was a challenge for me mentally to shift to instead thinking about starting something that probabilistically is more likely to fail. It was hard shifting to a startup where I’m calling the shots, as opposed to following the leadership of an established brand that’s already seen success in the media and in the marketplace.
To be totally honest, it was business school where I had the pleasure of being exposed to people who had already started their own things. The exposure to the culture of HBS was key; their whole mission is to create leaders who will make a difference in the world. Those two years I was regularly hit with: ‘Atima, what are you going to do to make a difference?’ It’s totally OK not to know the answer for many many years, but I couldn’t help but pontificate on it. I feel very lucky that the desire was clear.
What exactly was clear to you at that point?
Through the process of going through business school and thinking about different options, taking entrepreneurship classes, and hearing other people’s business ideas, the possibility of me being an entrepreneur just became more and more clear in my mind. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be a graduate of the school and I think about my privileges regularly, especially as a woman and as a person of colour. Having this degree meant that if I failed I was still in a position where I could get a job. You know? Understanding that the risk factor was very much reduced encouraged me to try my own thing – that was a big part of convincing myself that I could do this, and then I also thought that if I wasn’t the person to help solve the problem of a lack of diversity in beauty standards, who was? If I don’t have the balls to do this as a graduate of a top school and as a dark-skinned woman, who does? I realized it could totally be me and I could do it, and I wanted to do it. There are people who don’t have the same opportunity I do, and I have the ability. So when I’m feeling doubtful, which still happens quite regularly, I fall back on that.
What's it like being the face of your company and putting yourself out there?
In some ways it’s really easy because I feel very authentic in what I’m putting out there – it comes from my heart. Because it comes from a purposeful, driven desire inside of me to build this company it’s very natural, and it’s easy for me to talk about it and put the message of skin tone inclusivity into the universe. But I would say the hard part is how risky starting your own company is – sometimes it feels like we’re going to fail. There have been times where we thought we wouldn’t have enough money to keep going; there were times when we thought the technology wasn’t performing to our standard and we worried about what we’d do to fix it. In those lower moments you think, ‘Oh my gosh, my face is all over this and if this fails it’s going to be this big public failure,’ so that’s hard. But it’s also been an awesome learning opportunity because it forces you to strip away the ego. I think that might not be intuitive because people might think ‘you’re the face of your company, so your ego must be massive.’ But you actually need to have basically no ego because you can’t be afraid of failure; failure actually needs to feel like a positive thing.
Could you elaborate?
Every day I fail at something. I’m always doing something new, and I’ve embraced failure as part of the learning process. I know we’re going to be successful, I feel good about the company we’re building, and I feel confident about it, but the truth is that the entrepreneurial process is about figuring out what doesn’t work, especially when you’re building software; you have to fail often in order to get things right. I’m proud to say that no matter the outcome of anything we do, I’m learning a ton. For anyone out there thinking about starting their own thing, I can say hands down that I’ve learned at a faster rate doing this than anything else I could have chosen to do with an established business, and so I feel really good about that. It helps me get through the more difficult times.
How do you change your definition of failure?
I rely on the literature and advice of other entrepreneurs. Before my colleagues and my coworkers in big corporate America were the people sitting in cubicles beside me, but today I envision my coworkers and colleagues as other entrepreneurs. I connect with them in person, over the phone – any way I can. One of the things I learn over and over again is that failure is positive, and that you should actually be going for failure because it means you’re stretching yourself, and if you’re not failing regularly it means you’re not trying hard enough; you’re not pushing the envelope. It’s totally shifted the definition of failure for me. For the past three or four months I’ve been in a better mindset. I’ve always been failing through this whole journey, but I would kind of punish myself about it, telling myself, ‘don’t do that again, do it better.’ Since I’ve had this failure-as-positive mindset it’s reduced my emotional stress. Anyone who has their own thing, is doing something entrepreneurial or is their own boss will tell you the emotion is difficult. Having a positive attitude regardless of the status of the company is important. It’s a conflict because as an entrepreneur you want to be unsatisfied so you push more with the company, but you also have to be content regardless. It’s powerful, and it’s the way to be most successful from an emotional standpoint.
What's the message you're trying to send with your company?
The message I’m trying to send is that all skin tones are beautiful; that there’s not one standard; that the standard for every person needs to be themselves and that looking to others as a standard doesn’t make sense; that you write your own standard. I think that’s not only healthy for people but it’s also the way for companies in the modern era to be successful. It’s also pretty cool to take something I believe that has a ‘woo woo feel-good’ message and see that it translates and makes sense in the market. Beauty and fashion companies realize they have to customize their services and products at-scale. As the individual-as-beautiful standard continues to rise in this social media era we don’t have to follow trends put upon us. What we follow and what we consume is personal and it’s up to the companies to meet our infinite diversity instead.
What's next for you?
A round of financing; right now I’m putting together our latest pitch deck for investors. I’m so excited because we want to hire more engineers to really get things going. I can’t name the brands at this time, but I can say we’ve been contacted by two very large beauty companies who want to work with us, so meeting with those new business partnerships is also coming up. Fundraising is next for us, growing our team is next for us; really just continuing to push through with our company.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
One thing to note is that I’m really grateful for this opportunity, so thank you for this interview. Also, giving back to others is really important to me so for anyone out there who wants to connect I do have open office hours every week. All they have to do is go to my website and sign up to chat for 30 minutes with me about business, school, confidence – truly anything!