Hall of Femme Honoree: Desirée Rogers Is Breathing New Life Into Black-Owned Beauty Brands

Desiree Rogers

You're never going to have all the knowledge you think you should have to do something. It's just a matter of having enough, not being afraid, and being able to ask for and find what you need when you need it.

Desirée Rogers is CEO of Black Opal Beauty and the co-owner of Fashion Fair, two iconic makeup and skincare companies that have helped define and transform the Black beauty industry as we know it. Over the course of her awe-inspiring career, Desirée has put her unique, game-changing stamp on businesses, legacy brands, and even the White House.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Desirée knew from an early age that she could do anything she set her mind to. Her mother and grandmother were both entrepreneurs who founded a successful childcare business in the 1960s, normalizing the idea that Desirée’s dreams were limitless. “They became entrepreneurs when I was quite young, so my vision of the world was really formed through their evolution over time,” she says. Desirée studied at Wellesley College and Harvard Business School, and got her start in the corporate world with high-ranking roles at Integrys Energy Group and Allstate. 

In 2009, Desirée was appointed as the White House Social Secretary, becoming the first African American woman to hold the position. The Hall of Femme honoree played a key role in planning and executing events for the President and First Lady, and was instrumental in the Obama administration's efforts to promote diversity and inclusion (she spearheaded initiatives like the Historians Dinner, Library of Congress Gershwin Prize, and White House Poetry Slam, featuring the first performance of Hamilton!). Desirée is widely praised for repositioning the White House as the “People’s House,” and credits her time there with giving her confidence to continue a career in the ethnic space. “I felt that I had something to offer my community in a tangible way and wanted to see that my efforts had made a difference,” she says. 

Soon after leaving the White House, Desirée was named as CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, the Black-owned parent company of Ebony, Jet, and Fashion Fair. While there, she expanded the base, relaunched the magazines’ digital websites, and secured several capital investments — essentially, Desirée used her creativity and keen sense of community to breathe new life into pioneering Black American businesses. 

Fashion Fair was founded by and for Black women in 1973, at a time when the breadth of skin tones, hair textures, and physical characteristics in the African American community were being embraced and affirmed in a new way. Black Opal was born in 1994 — and also catered to women of color in a way few companies have — but it wasn’t Black-owned until Desirée and fellow entrepreneur Cheryl Mayberry-McKissack acquired the company 25 years later. Along with Cheryl, who now serves as president, Desirée is on a mission to modernize the Black Opal brand for a new generation while continuing to create high-quality, melanin-friendly products that make people of color feel beautiful.  

Increasing the Black wealth profile and injecting money back into the community is also part of Desirée’s vision for Black Opal. Black Americans spend nearly $7 billion on beauty products, yet only 2.5 percent of that goes to Black-owned and -founded companies; it’s an “alarming” stat that Desirée is dedicated to changing. “We should pledge to ourselves that we are going to be part of this movement,” she says.

Here, Desirée shares career inspiration and beauty advice, and reveals how working for the Obamas prepared her for a Black beauty renaissance. 

When you were a young girl, what were the narratives that you were exposed to about women and women's rights?

I'm from New Orleans, and I grew up with a very strong circle of women around me — in particular, my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother was a maid — a very smart woman, but that's what was offered to her and that's what she had at that time. She saved her money and opened a daycare center for children in the neighborhood, and wound up having three different centers. Through her and my mother, I saw firsthand that women can do whatever they set their minds to, and that they have a right to that. 

I also saw the extension of that. It was a time when many women were just going into the workforce; we're talking '60s, '70s. [My mother and grandmother] offered a place where you could drop off your child and know they were going to be well cared-for while you, in fact, went to work. I feel like they were on the cusp, very early on, of creating scenarios where women could be free and have jobs and not be held down because they didn't have a place to have their child cared for, and they maybe couldn't afford a nanny. They became known in New Orleans as a trusted ally in the neighborhood, where all the kids went, and I saw them build that business from scratch.

Tell us about an entrepreneur who inspired you.

It would certainly be my mother and my grandmother, in those early years. I saw all the hard work. I saw all the sacrifice. But I also saw all the rewards, not just in terms of financial stability, but their influence on so many other women, and men, too; lots of the dads came to pick up their children, and they would sit them down [laughs]. They were very good at handing out advice to young couples about their children and relationships, because they were quite sophisticated. 

My ex-husband [John Rogers Jr., chairman and CEO of Ariel Capital Management] has also been a real entrepreneurial force in my life since I moved to Chicago in the '80s. He is my mentor and constantly reminds me of the importance of ensuring that we bridge that gap in the African American community. We’re performing much worse than other groups; Why is that? What kind of opportunities can we create to change that? That's something I'm working on in the beauty industry, as he works on it in finance.

How did working in the Obama White House prepare you for your role at Black Opal? What did you learn there that set you up for such huge success?

I think the biggest thing I've learned is that I could do it. I spent so much of my life preparing, and many times we do so much preparing that we become cautious and afraid to take that next step to what we really want to do. That time encouraged me to take a chance and work in the ethnic space. It's a much more tangible ideation of hope, which is what [the White House] talked about all the time. As I walked out of those doors on the last day, I said, "You know what? I'm going to give this a shot. I'm ready. Enough prepping. Where else are you going to go? You've been at the White House; you'll be able to do this." 

The point is — and I think the point my mother would make is — there's always going to be something new to learn. You're never going to have all the knowledge you think you should have to do something. It's just a matter of having enough, not being afraid, and being able to ask for and find what you need when you need it. Keep an open mind, and think of yourself as constantly evolving and always able to curate those next steps. Don’t let it absorb you and take you directionally off of what really makes you happy and where you think you really want to be. And have some fun, too, in the process.

What's a ritual in your life that you swear by?

There are two things that people laugh at me about: I'll say, "Oh, I'm taking to my bed," or "I'm taking to my bath." I find that there's a wonderful opportunity for your mind to rest and for you to really be able to clear your thoughts and think about not just what you’re working on, but where are you? Where am I in the spectrum of life, and how do I feel about where I am? What changes might I want to make? It’s also a time to relax and slow down, so I'm a big proponent of baths.

What's your favorite way to celebrate a win, big or small?

First I give myself a personal pat, because I find that sometimes I can be very difficult and hard on myself. No one's harder on me than me, so I think you have to pause and celebrate for yourself, without adoration of others, that you've accomplished something that you're proud of. Confidence has to come from within; [others] can talk to you about how you might gain confidence, but it really is an inner spiritual thing. But I will celebrate with dinners or travel or anything that I think might be fun for me, like a concert. I'm just coming off of the Usher concert.

How do you define Black beauty? 

I could show you better than I could tell you! [Laughs] I cherish the inner beauty and strength of Black women. There's nothing like Black women; they come in all shapes and sizes, all looks, all physicalities, all mouths and voices. It’s such a wide range of spectacularness. As I looked around the room at the Usher concert, there was one Black woman after another and they were all spectacular in their outfits and their expressions. 

I love how people, particularly Black women, are embracing who they are and not hiding it. “I don't have to be a size two to wear a cutout.” That's right; you don't! “My lips don't have to be super thin to wear a fluorescent purple…or I can wear my hair in 20 different colors down my back, and not think anything of it.” Black women are truly expressing themselves from a beauty perspective with their hair and makeup, and the nail art, and the lash art! I feel like everyone has nails and lashes, except me.

What's your go-to piece of beauty advice?

Well, you have to use Black Opal! Seriously, Black Americans tend to skew heavily in purchasing beauty products — and there's a lot of history behind that, some good, some not as good. What’s alarming is that in this country we're spending a little under $7 billion, yet the revenue that's going to Black-founded and -owned beauty companies is only about 2.5 percent.

That’s my beauty advice: seek out a Black-owned or Black-founded company and try the products. I think you're going to be pleasantly surprised by the thoughtfulness and the research you get from companies that are focused on Brown and Black people. We'd like to see that 2.5 percent doubled in five years. That's part of our vision, because you'll see that investment going back into the community — for example, Fashion Fair has a scholarship at Spelman College. We all need to be thinking about how we can increase the wealth profile of Black people and close those gaps that we’re seeing. Let’s start with us.

You can follow Desirée on Instagram and Twitter.