Katonya Breaux On Making FUBU Sunscreen And Raising Black Sons In America
From construction to cosmetics and mothering Frank Ocean
Photo by Frank Ocean
In celebration of Black History Month, NYLON is running a spotlight series called UNAPOLOGETIC. Every day, we’ll celebrate different aspects of black culture through profiles, interviews, roundtables, reviews, videos, and op-eds. #Blacklivesmatter and we hold that truth to be self-evident.
Sometimes it seems like our most brilliant artists came from out of the blue, like a gift from above; it's easy to forget that even, for example, the genius that is Frank Ocean came from someone of this earth, namely, his incredible mother, Katonya Breaux.
The 50-year-old Breaux's bloodline flows between New Orleans and Los Angeles, from a family where she is the seventh of 11 children. At the age of 21, Breaux was balancing raising eight-month-old son Frank with being a full-time student when her mother unexpectedly passed away. It was a huge loss, but Breaux managed to push herself to finish college. From there, Breaux started running her own construction business, and eventually went on to earn a masters degree in arts administration. Fast-forward to April of 2014, and she introduced Unsun Cosmetics to the market, featuring a mineral-tinted sunscreen designed for people of color. Since the launch, Breaux's line is now carried at Dermstore, the second largest e-commerce store in the nation.
A few weeks ago, Breaux became the subject of headlines when she spoke out against Kim Burrell on Twitter for Burrell's ignorant comments about the LGBTQ community. As someone who grew up in a religious family, Breaux understands the conflict of going against what you've been taught in the church but stresses the importance of developing an empathy for people regardless. "For me, it's not an excuse, because when you know better, you do better," she says. "Everybody has to figure it out. In doing so, you have to refrain from making other people feel bad, and that's the thing for me."
Although the present looks grim at the moment, Breaux has seen dark times before, which make her hopeful about the future. "We'll definitely get through it," she says. "I think it's going to bring us closer together. I think it'll be an interesting time for our community, for the country."
We recently talked to Breaux about adapting to motherhood, learning the ropes of entrepreneurship, and rolling with the punches of life. Learn more about her in the interview, below.
I left my construction company, and I wanted to do something different. I had no idea what that was going to be, but I found myself desperately wanting a sunscreen that didn't leave that white film on my face or that wasn't chemical-based. A friend of mine has a hair care line, and I asked him if I could meet with his lab. I was thinking of just getting something made for myself, and it started from there in 2013. It just kind of morphed into Unsun, and I decided that if I needed this, if I had this problem, then a whole lot of other people that look like me probably had the same problem. I thought, Wow, this could be something that could work. It could be good, it could be fun. And then it just started. Now it's morphing into so much more, and [I'm] really loving the educational component of this. I love it when we do something for us, and it works and it's needed. So I'm expanding on that with new products that are coming out this year. We're not a year old yet and we have some really great opportunities on the table, so I'm really excited about it.
I know, right? It's crazy. But, you know, you see what's happening, though, we're doing things, we're doing it for us. I'm seeing more and more of that. Not enough, but we're getting there, and I'm really excited about that. It's also so important because there are still so many of us. I went to a Women's Expo last year and we had a booth, and so many women of color [were like], "Oh, I don't need sunscreen, I never burn," and "Oh, I don't need sunscreen, I never go out in the sun." I was sitting there like, "Well, how did you get here?" [They were] like, "I just ran from my house to my car." I just end up thinking, We just really don't understand. We really don't understand that we are susceptible to it. Are we gonna burn as quickly and as easily as someone who is blonde and fair and freckle-covered? No, but why put ourselves at risk for that all? Why put ourselves at risk for premature aging and dark spots and dark moles that we get on our face? It's just unnecessary, and we need to become more aware of what we need as a people. I'm having a good time being a part of that. It's weird, it's not where I thought I would be after building houses for 20 years.
About three-quarters of products on the market are chemical-based, and when I went to the lab, you provide them with things that you absolutely do not want and that you do want. I was very consistent in what I did not want in these products, and it created so many delays. I'm having some issues now because people just aren't making them—companies are making what sells, what's easy, tests better in bulk. It's tough because the majority of consumers aren't really reading the label. They're feeling it, to see if it feels great, they're putting it on their skin, and, heck, even I have to go to my internet quite often when I get the ingredient list. I'm like, "Who knows what these things are?" I've just been determined in working with my formula of the ingredients that I do not want. Any company can do it, it's just not always within the company to be that selective. It's more time-consuming, and it's pumping up businesses on my part, but I've made a commitment to myself and to my customers and future customers, and I feel good about it. I'm not going to sell anything that I'm not going to use.
Yes, and I think that we are. Surprisingly, I have so many young customers, and honestly, I thought, They're beautiful and they think they're going to have it good, they're not really worried about it yet. But I was so wrong because a lot of young people are just aware. I mean, this generation of young people is just really quite incredible. They're just so much more aware than previous generations. I'm sure it's the internet and all sorts of things... the political climate. I'm really proud of the young people today.
You know, it was a much bigger challenge with my first one because I was so young and I didn't have the support that I needed. I was trying to go to school, and I was trying to do the right things to make sure that I could be a good example and provide him with a life that was meaningful. So that was a really tough time for me. It's so great because we got through then and my life has benefitted so much from it. My oldest son has really been an inspiration to me to get my life together. My youngest son was a lot easier because he came when my life was just different. I was more settled, and I was finished with the growing up, but now he's a teenager and grown—I want to throw him in that pool sometimes. I am just starting to get to the challenges of dealing with him, but he's a good kid. The teenage years you start getting there, but it's so much easier this time around. The real challenges were the first time because I was single, I was alone, I was a kid, I was young... My mom was gone, and the support wasn't there like it should have been. But yeah, he turned out to be a great kid.
Yeah, I tried—I try. It's important to remember that it doesn't matter how old they are, everybody needs support. It doesn't stop, needing love and support, just because you reach a certain age, especially from your parents.
It's different. I think the core principles of running a company are the same, but it's a completely different speed. I've been on a huge learning curve, but I've brought so many great people around, and it's been really great consulting. I've got people who've been in this business for years, so that is just really helpful. I've been well with figuring it out, but there's something to be said about young people because they're technology savvy and you can just give them an assignment and so much of it is based around technology. I do intend to bring on some crazy young person who just sees the world the way that young people do and make change off of that perspective every day. We definitely need more seasoned people at the helm. You really do 'cause it makes a difference in the business side of it. And, ultimately, that's really what it's all about, but it has been a bit of a challenge, and I have had a bit of a learning curve. It's a different industry altogether, and we've been dealing with the FDA and its regulations and all of the regulatory requirements. It's different, but I've learned a lot.
So tentatively, we're scheduled to go into some of the Anthropologie stores. For that rollout, we're doing the sunscreen, but I have three tinted lip colors coming out with an SPF 15 that, hopefully, we can include in that rollout, [and] a hand cream that's an SPF 15 that we're having some issues with getting the formulation right. We're working on it, so that's the goal. And then we're going to be launching Unsun Beauty hopefully by summer, which would be some lipsticks, blush, and eyeshadow, and working on some really cool mineral formulations.
What was important for me to hear and know at that time as a young single mother who had just lost her mother and was trying to finish school [is] that it's gonna be okay. If I had someone who could make me believe at that time that it was gonna be okay, that my life was gonna be okay, that my kid was gonna be okay, I think it would have saved me so much unnecessary grief that kind of dictated some of the decisions that I made. And I know that's really a simplification, but it's so powerful in so many instances if you just think of it. If you're sick and a doctor says, "Hey, you're gonna be okay," it changes your world. Or if you lose your job and you don't have any money and really being able to allow those words to resonate with you. So, for me, that's really what I would have said to Katonya 30 years ago.