Supermodel Icon, Iman On Diversity and Entrepreneurship


Gorgeous and famously outspoken regarding diversity in the beauty industry, Iman is a powerhouse with a unique perspective thanks to an exciting life in the public eye.

The 5 foot 10 beauty, who emigrated from Somalia after being discovered in college to begin a modeling career in the US, said she immediately saw that the playing field was not leveled in terms of foundations for women of color.

“Back in the mid-70's when I started my career as a model “ethnic" and “women of color" meant one thing – Black. True, it later evolved to include Latina or Asian," Iman tells SWAAY. “But from an early age I began seeing more similarities than differences among different ethnic groups. Let's face it: women of every race, nationality and background want the same thing – to look radiant and feel beautiful in their own skin."

I first interviewed Iman back in 2012 when working for WWD to discuss her beauty brand. She told me then that she decided to create Iman Cosmetics in 1994 after and experience in which she was “made over to look 'gray'" during her first day working as a model for American Vogue in New York.

“The makeup artist asked me if I brought my own foundation [to the shoot]," says the 61-year-old mother of two. “You have to understand what foundation means. It is really a self-esteem booster, especially for women with skin of color. It becomes like the holy grail of a product. It is the one that makes you look as beautiful as you can be, as flawless as you can be."

Iman founded her company with the goal of product inclusivity for women who had few options in terms of makeup. Iman was clearly ahead of the curve, as now in 2017 the multicultural beauty market is swelling in record numbers. In fact, according to US Census data, by 2020 the United States will be a minority/majority population, meaning addressing skin tone will be a more vital than ever for beauty brands.

“Everyone can be a consumer – that's the beauty of it!," Iman tells SWAAY. “I created the brand because I wanted to put a new face and a new language on what beauty is and what beauty means to a new generation of beauty. So, I was really trying to create a brand and a beauty company that was more about the skin tone of a person rather than their ethnicity."

One of Iman's biggest grievances in terms of the beauty industry is the segregation of products in retailers. She has openly spoken out regarding this throughout her years promoting her brand.

“If you go into a lot of cosmetic stores, you still have the ethnic section in the back," says Iman. “It's like, if you're a company that caters to just women of color, you're sold differently. I wanted there to be options for us. While larger companies are now becoming more inclusive, there are still more options for women with paler skin. I was the first company to create bronzers for skin of color, to put SPF in our products, to think of skin care and technology for women of color."

In recent years, Iman has evolved the brand to include nuanced skin tones that work for Latina, Asian and Indian women. She also has developed an app, the Iman Cosmetics App, which, according to Iman “approaches the task of extracting a user's colors by combining cutting edge computer vision technology with intuitive interactive engagement."

The app is available on iOS and Android and includes automatic lighting detection and image validation, while allowing the user to perform the final check and validate her colors visually.

“The app can then recommend which products would fit you best," says Iman. “It's amazing!"

As part of her brand DNA, Iman continues adding to it with products that have strong color payoff and flexibility in terms of complexion.

The newest launches from Iman Cosmetics include the Luxury Concealing Foundation, a highly pigmented two-in-one formula which can be used for everything from spot-coverage to dark under-eye circles, or as foundation for full coverage. The item is available in eight shades so as to cover a variety of skin tones. Iman's Luxury Matte Lipstick, available in five shades, is another new item, and is meant to give bold color while hydrating lips with jojoba and vitamin E.

Iman's other entrepreneurial enterprise, of course, is her booming HSN business. Comprised of clothes, accessories and shoes, Iman has two lines; Global Chic, a range meant to be representative of international fashion trends and Platinum, leather and suede outerwear. Known for being inclusive of various body types (the line includes extra small to 3X), the IMAN HSN business is one of the network's best-selling lines.

Iman's on-screen success has not only been due to the chic, fashionable product line, but also, to be sure, due to who she is. From the first moment I met her I was taken by Iman's strength of self, confidence, warmth, and ability to speak from her heart with true conviction. Pairing that with a direct-sale television platform that reaches more than 85 million American women, and you have entrepreneurial self-made magic.

In 2013 Iman expanded her reach by partnering with Joy Mangano, of Jennifer Lawrence fame, on Joy & Iman, a collection of affordable fashion accessories and apparel, that has only furthered the superstar's appeal to more women across the country.

"Working with a fashion icon like IMAN to bring this collection to life has been an amazing experience," said Joy Mangano, President and Founder of Ingenious Designs, a division of HSN, in a statement about the partnership. "She is the epitome of glamour and luxury, and her esthetic radiates throughout the entire line. I'm very proud of this new collection."

Although she's expanded her empire from modeling to beauty to fashion, Iman's message continues to be the same.

“Beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, skin tones, ages and backgrounds," she says. “The most beautiful thing about any woman is her confidence. We need to remember to celebrate each of our individual skin tones!"

3 Min Read

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.