Virtual photo: Peyton Fulford
Beyond the day-to-day goals that go into building a business, every entrepreneur shares a singular aspiration: freedom. But that word doesn’t have a singular definition. For some, it represents earning potential; for others, unrestricted creativity; still others, the power to validate one’s own imagination.
For Tristan Walker, the freedom of entrepreneurship embodies not only material benefits but pioneering new spaces and platforms that help millions of people with similar stories experience freedom for themselves. That’s what prompted him to become an entrepreneur-in-residence at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz; it’s what drove him to co-found Code2040, a nonprofit pursuing racial equity in the tech world. And it’s what led him in 2013 to found skin care company Bevel.
As the flagship brand of Walker & Company, Bevel offers hair care products and grooming accessories designed specifically for the needs of Black men. The company’s Bevel trimmer and shaving kit introduced the first answer for men of color battling to alleviate razor bumps and skin irritation, blending quality design and engineering with a nuanced understanding of the audience. Next came a suite of hair care products and accessories. After that? A serious level up.
In 2018, Walker & Company struck a merger with Procter & Gamble, an acquisition that provided Walker’s team with significant financing, brand support, distribution, and access to world-class research and development resources. Notably, while the company relocated from the Bay Area to Atlanta, Walker was able to maintain ownership and executive control, allowing the company to continue operating independently.
In January, the fruits of that merger came ripe: Bevel expanded distribution into 10,000 additional stores nationwide, rolling out a new 11-item product line that included the first head-to-toe personal care solution for men of color — from all-day moisturizing lotion to 48-hour aluminum-free deodorant.
We spoke with Walker about the vision behind his company, expanding across categories, and the importance of pursuing freedom through ownership. It’s the LEVEL x Bevel convo you never knew you needed.
LEVEL: You’ve been building this brand since 2013. What statement did you want to make with this newest collection?
Walker: Before the release of our latest product line, we started with the shaving system; that’s how we started the entire brand. The goal was to help Black men, and ultimately all men, eliminate issues related to razor bumps. These are issues that impact a man’s confidence and are issues that have frankly gone unsolved for the more than 200-year history of health and beauty.
When you consider our cultural influence, how much money we spend on these categories, the needs and problems we face regarding our skin and hair, along with our desire to have products that look great and work — I believe we deserved better. That thinking is what started the company and was really the ethos for Bevel.
We started with the shave system. Then we said the trimmers themselves needed a new look; we launched the second version of our trimmer two years later. Then we said we’re not done with skin care. Yes, there are razor bumps, but then there’s skin irritation, skin dryness — all of the products we make prioritize the needs of Black men first.
That’s a lot going on above the neck — but now you’ve gone full-body. What led you to expand Bevel across categories?
After we launched the skin care products, we realized there was a greater opportunity. We’ve gotten Black men to solve for razor bumps on their faces, which is the hardest thing to do in this category, and I don’t think people give that enough credit. We knew that they now trust us, they appreciate our design, they know our nuances. That’s when we knew we had the opportunity to develop the number-one trusted brand delivering personal care solutions for Black men in the United States. That’s our true north, and we’re going to do that. The only way to do that is to continue to develop applications and products in new categories.
The research and development required for even a single category are significant. Branching out like that, how do you maintain consistency in quality and design?
It’s easy — because the majority of our employees are men and women of color. So first, we’re solving our own problems and constantly in a research, development, and testing mode. We identify a problem we want to fix, then we go through the process of developing the solution. For example, we know we needed aluminum-free deodorant. When you use a lot of aluminum-free deodorants, it gets chunky on your hair, it streaks, it doesn’t last that long and causes a multitude of other problems when it’s supposed to be a better solution. We said that we need to create an aluminum-free deodorant that lasts long, that actually penetrates the coarse and curly hair that we have, and leaves no streaks. Whether people realize it or not, the deodorant that we just released is actually a breakthrough; the fact that it lasts 48 hours, the fact that it penetrates our hair type, and it doesn’t leave any streaks is a significant breakthrough. But, that all came out in prioritizing the needs of our audience, which is ourselves. This allows us to identify, develop, and design things far more quickly than any other brand in the category. Since we have such a clear and sharp focus, now that we’re in all of the categories with all of the products that we have, there’s no one touching us right now, and we’re not stopping either.
It sounds simple to build a company that reflects the consumers you serve, but most companies aren’t designed like that.
There are over seven billion people on the planet, with the majority of them being non-White or people of color. In this country, over the next 20–30 years, the majority will be people of color. We spend more money in every category than everyone else; we are the most socially and culturally influential. If we are going to serve the consumers, who are people of color, the diversity of our employee base needs to reflect the diversity of our consumer base. We’ve had this makeup of diverse employees at our company since we started in 2013, and there’s no reason for us to change. Frankly, I enjoy it, our people enjoy it, and our consumers enjoy it. That’s the only way to trust it. A lot of people say that they do it, but they might not really do it. When people see me and they see the people who work for us, they know that we have no choice but to do it because we don’t know any alternatives.
“Running a company is hard; growing a company is harder; ensuring your company is well-financed for that 150-year vision is even harder than that.”
Saying you’re going to build the number-one brand in a category like health and beauty that solely targets people of color can still be met with resistance from people who consider your focus too narrow. How do you respond to that skepticism?
We’re focused, but I wouldn’t say we’re narrowly focused. I think the “narrow” doesn’t give the opportunity enough credit. We are focusing on the majority of the world, and if we’re focusing on a majority of the world, what is everybody else focusing on? I never understood that argument amongst people in the space. Skepticism is fine, but time outlasts skepticism. The way I like to think about it is that Procter & Gamble is 180 years old, and I started Walker & Company to establish a brand that is still around 150 years from now. I’m not in and out with this; my name is on the company. While people may be skeptical of how we bring this massive vision to life over the next couple of years, I’m doing this work thinking about the next 150 years. Every step of the way, we continue to prove that there is a need for this. Every step of the way, our consumers continue to celebrate what we’re doing. The only variable remaining is time.
What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve faced getting Bevel to this point?
Prior to our merger with Procter & Gamble, we were a venture capital funded business. Running a company is hard; growing a company is harder; ensuring your company is well-financed for that 150-year vision is even harder than that. As such, I would spend the overwhelming majority of my time focused on when and how we were going to get the next round of funding. Now, I don’t have to worry about getting that next round and can focus 100% of my time on ensuring that we’re around for the next 150 years.
We’re partnered with a company that spends over $2 billion in research and development annually and has innovations we can leverage right away without needing to make new investments. That significantly enhances our ability to bring new, innovative things to market.
For example, the aluminum-free deodorant I mentioned was a breakthrough. About two months after the merger happened, we were sitting down at Procter & Gamble’s research and development center with the world’s foremost expert on deodorant. Literally, nobody else knows more about deodorant than this person. As he was explaining the differences between natural deodorant, aluminum-free deodorant, and so forth, I asked a seemingly simple question: What do you have that can help penetrate our hair type better? There was a pause in the room, and then he says, “I have something.” Within two weeks, we had a breakthrough. Two weeks.
The default in most industries is developing for the mass market. But we are the mass market. Now we get to ask the questions and push for our ideas because they have the innovations.
With the majority of the world being people of color and the U.S. becoming more diverse, how do we start to shift that way of thinking, that mass-market-versus-segmented binary?
People are so used to their old arguments that nobody is willing to educate themselves about how things are changing. I’m self-aware enough to know that I can’t do everything. I can’t force people to know something that is staring them right in their faces. What I can do is make great products for people who deserve it and do things that are aligned with values people expect me to be consistent about. I’ll let time take care of the rest.
It has to get frustrating, constantly needing to prove the validity of your mission.
More than anything, it’s a duty. Not just for me but for our people to keep going and believe that someday, things are going to change. In my house right now, there are no other products other than Bevel and Form Beauty, which is also one of our brands. I have a five-year-old son and a nine-month-old son, and I care very deeply about the power of defaults and precedents. Think about a world where my son is growing up exclusively with a beautiful brand that serves his needs. I didn’t have that. So now, we can focus on other things, solving other problems in other spaces. One day, my son will be 20, and then 40, but his default will be much different from my own.
“What people need to realize is that companies get started, but companies need to thrive. I didn’t do this to get rich; I did this to serve.”
What was your strategy stepping into the merger with Procter & Gamble, and how has the vision evolved to this point?
It’s not as if Procter & Gamble came and simply said, “You’re bought now.” There was a discussion that was had, along with critical requirements we had. First, I said that we still need to operate independently, which was an important move because that’s how we retain the authenticity. Secondly, we needed to be based in Atlanta, not [P&G global headquarters] Cincinnati. Lastly, we need to be able to leverage all of the things they do well as Procter & Gamble while respecting all of the things we do well. That meant our authentic connection to our consumers, focusing on people of color, while they helped us in the areas they have mastered such as research and development, designing innovative products, driving awareness and scale. It presented a best of both worlds situation, and frankly there’s no other company that’s been around for 180 years. If we want to be around for at least as long, what better way to learn than directly from the company that’s done it?
What people need to realize is that companies get started, but companies need to thrive. I didn’t do this to get rich; I did this to serve. There’s nothing about the acquisition that has slowed that down; in fact, it has accelerated us. For anyone who is skeptical, I would ask why? We’ve moved faster, in more categories, with better pricing, without compromising design or authenticity. More importantly, I’m still running the company.
You’ve always been about and lived the concept of ownership, building brands, and scaling companies. We see more cultural leaders like Jay-Z speak to this but are still seeing people settle for endorsements or partnerships. Why is it important to actually own your company or brand?
First, I would say your business doesn’t have to be scalable. I think sustainability is more important than scalability. People start bed-and-breakfast businesses or simple ideas that are very profitable but, more importantly, sustainable. I think too many people get caught up in growth and ultimately lose sight of what they are uniquely positioned to do. Secondly, ownership is freedom. I didn’t realize that until I sold my company. You don’t owe anybody any time anymore. Isn’t that freedom?
For a while, I knew what it felt to be free, or to feel free, but I didn’t know what it felt to have freedom. Those are two very different things, and I didn’t know what freedom meant until I had it. It’s great to be ambitious, but it’s more important to have ownership of whatever you aim to create. We should take what we deserve. We have an asset that I think is immeasurably valuable, and that is our Blackness and our creativity. I think we are starting to realize that in a very big and important way.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of growing your business?
I started the company in 2013. In that time, I’ve had two children, I’m seven years more married, I’ve raised tens of millions of dollars, I’ve hired a large number of people, I’ve had to terminate some people, I’ve had to go through layoffs, I’ve gone through lawsuits, I’ve gone through acquisitions and so many other experiences. A lot has changed in a sense, but what has remained consistent are my six core values: courage, inspiration, respect, judgment, wellness, and loyalty.
I’m not hanging out with people who don’t share those values, I’m not making decisions that don’t align with those values, and I’m hiring people according to those values. That allows the inevitable ups and downs that come with life to be manageable and maintains a consistency in how I operate and make decisions.
When you look at the landscape of the hair and beauty industry, how would you describe the current landscape and where do you see it evolving in the next three to five years?
Culturally, we are more powerful and influential than we’ve ever been. I think the market is finally catching up to the reality, and they’re still behind. So, I think there is still a lot of work for the market to do in order to reach an honest realization that we will only continue to win. Especially if the power players are willing to partner with us in the ways we deserve to be partnered with. We deserve to be paid, we deserve to be empowered, and we deserve to be engaged.