CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson University student Nia Grant has a higher purpose for her cosmetics company than merely selling skincare products.
Grant founded Purpose Cosmetics Co. after spending summer 2019 working at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab during an internship she landed through PEER & WISE, a pair of programs at Clemson dedicated to recruiting and retaining students from underrepresented groups into science and engineering fields.
“I had seen science in the classroom but being immersed in the world was different. I enjoyed the aspect of the research and learning what to do,” said Grant, who hails from McDonough, Georgia.
But while renewable energy is a hot research topic, it wasn’t something in which Grant was particularly interested. Beauty and skincare were, though, and she combined this interest with her chemistry background to start Purpose Cosmetics. “I don’t think this would have happened if I hadn’t gone to the DOE and learned about research, and what I do and do not like,” she said.
Grant, who credits her love of chemistry to the passion and enthusiasm her 10th-grade chemistry teacher displayed for the subject, said some women might not consider STEM because of dated stereotypical images of chemistry and scientists.
“Those images are not necessarily the case. It’s also people like me who create cosmetics,” she said. “That sounds like a dream job, at least for me. The products we use every day, like the lotions we put on our bodies and the products we put on our faces, somebody has to create those. There’s a lot of science behind it, and I think science can be fun.”
Grant said as Purpose Cosmetics grows, she hopes it will energize young women about STEM by showing them science “can be whatever you make of it because everything around us, the products we use every day, involve chemistry.”
Purpose Cosmetics specializes in skincare products such as body butters and scrubs, and lip scrubs and glosses.
When Grant is creating her products, she puts what she’s learned at Clemson and through her two internships to work. She begins by researching what’s already on the market, consumer likes and dislikes, and potential ingredients. Next, she determines what she can change or add to improve the product and differentiate her product from the others to give Purpose Cosmetics a competitive edge.
“I really like the research aspect of it,” said Grant, who spent the past summer interning with the multibillion-dollar consumer product manufacturer Procter & Gamble conducting consumer market knowledge research for the company’s digestive health portfolio.
Once Grant completes her research for a new body care product, she has to source the ingredients and develop a formula through trial and error. After that, she gets feedback from family and friends and refines the process to get the final product. She manufactures her products at her home near Atlanta and distributes them from Clemson.
It can take months for a product to go from idea to be ready for sale.
“What I’ve learned at Clemson, I’ve been able actually to put into practice in my business,” she said, from learning to interpret scientific research and the importance of precise measurement to how to keep ingredients at the right temperature and sanitary during the manufacturing process.
She sells her products online and through local markets, such as those sponsored by the Arthur M. Spiro Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership.
Nekita Sullivan, a Clemson alumna who knows the difficulty women of color face when opening a small business, has also helped, allowing Grant to hold a pop-up shop in her store in downtown Clemson.
A weekend trip she took with a sorority sister was Sullivan’s impetus to open the Butterfly Eco Beauty Bar. The sorority sister said she owned a business in her field of study, but she wanted to have another for fun. The idea intrigued Sullivan, who thought back to her time as a student at Clemson when she and her friends would have to drive to Greenville, Seneca or Anderson to get their hair done and buy Black beauty products.
Sullivan decided to open a multiethnic salon and day spa in downtown Clemson where people of all races could go to get their hair and nails done under one roof.
Sullivan signed a lease in 2017 for the space that was a one-block walk from campus. Opening was a three-year marathon. Sullivan struggled to get traditional financing, so she used the income from her physical therapist job, savings, and even tapped her retirement and credit equity lines.
Butterfly Eco Beauty Bar eventually opened this past Valentine’s Day. However, the COVID-19 pandemic began to accelerate soon after, and South Carolina ordered salons to close. While salons have since been allowed to re-open, Sullivan lost all of her employees and remains closed.
“I have to start all over again,” she said.
But remaining closed doesn’t mean the rent isn’t due each month. Desperate to generate some revenue, Sullivan pivoted and started holding small-group yoga classes in her shop. She also offers space to students and young entrepreneurs who don’t have a brick-and-mortar place to sell their products.
“They have a business but don’t have the space. I have the space but don’t have a business,” Sullivan said.
Her first pop-up featured Purpose Cosmetics Co. and Grant, who had attended the beauty bar’s grand opening and given Sullivan a sample of one of her products.
“I was so impressed by Nia,” Sullivan said. “It’s tough to become an entrepreneur. It was difficult for me as an adult. But doing it as a student? It impressed me that Nia had the courage and bravery even to try.”
Grant said she eventually wants to have a larger production space and hire a team to make manufacturing her products more efficient. One day, she wants Purpose Cosmetics to be in a retail space.
“Sometimes you don’t know what’s out there, what’s possible until you see it,” Grant said. “When I met Nekita and saw what she did, I realized I could do something like this one day for Purpose. If she could do it, I can do it, too.”