by Amara Nwabor
I sit at my desk staring into my two-tone tabletop mirror feeling feverish for artistry. I zip open my suitcase-like makeup bag, primed for a successful bout of maquillage. I apply a pump of chestnut brown foundation to my cheeks and forehead. I spritz my makeup brush with setting spray and begin to pat the foundation into my face, just in time to stop it from running off. Blending it in seamlessly, as da Vinci crafted his Mona Lisa. The genesis of an opus.
My creative temperament guides me to both makeup brushes and fresh shades. It hasn’t been the most practical pastime, given that I have the vision of a bat and rely on prescription glasses on the day to day. However, I have always enjoyed the sly, mysterious result of a full face of makeup paired with sunglasses. It’s not an everyday look, since I’d likely get bored of it. Besides, wearing contact lenses every day to permit such daily wear is a hassle—as well as a financial burden.
I spritz my makeup brush with setting spray and begin to pat the foundation into my face, just in time to stop it from running off. Blending it in seamlessly, as da Vinci crafted his Mona Lisa. The genesis of an opus.
I survey my mother as she uses a skinny, dark brown pencil to fill in her eyebrows. She is also using a spoolie brush, taming her brow hairs to prime positions and angling her pencil to create a soft yet high arch. She continues with the brush, fading the inner corners to create a gradient of pigment. She tells me it’s to avoid the infamous “boxed brow look.” She’s focused but calm, like she’s done this a million times before. She isn’t a makeup artist, also called an MUA, but she might as well be. She finishes by using an angled brush with concealer to clean beneath the brows, defining the arch and sharpening the tail. She blends everything out producing an art that doesn’t look drawn.
Later, she screws open her fine tipped, black liquid eyeliner, somehow applying it perfectly above her lash line, creating a sharp wing in the outer corner that consequently elevates her eyes.
“Mom, how the hell do you do that?” I ask.
She justifies it with her first degree: chemical engineering — a career in which linear sketching is a requisite.
She always pairs her eyeliner with some elaborate eyeshadow look that matches the color of her clothes. Most recently, I remember her getting ready for a nursing gala (engineer to nurse? I know—she’s an icon). She wore a ruby red, sequined, custom-made dress with a train attachment that draped from her back, following her as she walked. Of course, for her eye makeup, she slayed a red and black ombre cut crease, coupled with rose gold glitter and topped off with a black winged liner; described like a dinner entre because she ate. In moments like these, I realize that I get my loud style and personality from her; doing things like wearing 23mm false lashes, wearing a prom dress to dinner at a museum, or showing up to lectures in makeup and sunglasses.
Feeling inspired by my mother, I’d lay in my bed at one in the morning searching up: “Makeup Tutorials For Black Women” on TikTok and Youtube, coming across MUA’s like Ore Otun. I would binge watch their seamless application for hours, taking mental notes of their tips and tricks. I started practicing with expired drug store makeup that had been collecting dust under my bathroom sink since middle school. I quickly realized these products wouldn’t cut it—I needed new, better quality products.
I’d sneak into my mother’s room, stealing from the bounty of makeup supplies she would have scattered around her desk. There were so many different products that she rarely noticed if things were missing—it was great. Eventually, I had to buy my own makeup, slowly filling up my bag with products from Maybelline, Juvia’s Place, NYX, Fenty Beauty, Elf, and of course, the finest miscellaneous selection from my mother’s room. I quickly mastered eyebrows then moved on to what’s called the “base.” But where I’ve been defeated is in my own attempts to learn how to do eye makeup.
On a typical Sunday, I arrive at church wearing an oversized, frameless pair of sunglasses with brown gradient lenses. A friend catches me before I walk in and I take them off.
“Hey Amara! You’re always wearing some cute, unique sunglasses. Where do you get them?” they say.
“Aw thank you! I’ll send you the link,” I respond.
My entrepreneurial alter ego yearned to change my default response to “I sell them.” And so, I did.
I started my business in the summer of 2021. I’ve used Instagram as a platform for promotion, but it’s never reached far beyond friends and relatives. My customer hotspots were my high school and church, because those were the only places I would typically go. I’d simply wear my sunglasses around and I would let people know I sell them if they asked.
I acted similarly when I arrived at college at the beginning of the semester; I would wear sunglasses whenever I’d go out. I’d also mention my business religiously on my Instagram story so that the UPenn students I had recently followed would come across it.
At my first New Student Orientation evening event, I wore “BIJOU,” a transparent pair of shades with orange tips and silver gems at the bridge and temples. I’d say they’re a boujee, UV ray protecting version of construction glasses.
A brown-haired Caucasian woman I had never met before first noticed them at the event. She was average height, mid-sized, and I could tell she was an upperclassman because I had overheard her telling other freshmen not to wear pants to their next event because of how humid it gets in the rooms.
“Your glasses are really cute,” she tells me.
“Thank you! I actually sell them. Can I give you my Instagram?”
“Oh my God, that’s so cool! Yeah! I’d love to check it out,” she says, taking her phone out of her back pocket. She opens up her Instagram search bar and hands me her phone to type in my username: @Shadesbyamara.
Hey Amara! You’re always wearing some cute, unique sunglasses. Where do you get them?
Later, I bumped into a friend of a friend who I recognized from Instagram—we are mutuals. He was wearing some cool silver rings and necklaces and a very in vogue tote bag. From his apparent style and choice of accessories, I could tell he was into fashion.
“Are you Amara? You sell sunglasses right? I think I follow you on Instagram. Those are super cute,” he said.
I got a lot of attention, but I can count on my two hands the number of sales I got.
I dare to dream about owning a large enterprise. With a logo and brand name known widely across the general public as SBA (Shades By Amara); it would be engraved into all of my products. I’d have business cards, thank you cards, and even coupon cards like the ones they give out at Bath and Body Works. I’d have logoed cases that come with each pair of shades and packaging so aesthetic and seemingly valuable that one would never consider throwing it away. I’d design the sunglasses myself, with a website for online shopping and in-person store locations. I’d have a warehouse where the sunglasses are kept and shipped out to online buyers. With such entrepreneurial dreams, you’d think I’d be studying at the Trump School of Business—sorry, the Wharton School of Business, where people spend thousands of dollars for studies to possibly create and or run their own enterprises. Instead, my studies are in the School of Nursing. How could I achieve such dreams as a broke college student following a completely different career path?
Successful business owners have at least one of three things: fame, fortune, or connections—and I have none.
Let’s take acquiring fortune out of the picture for now—the likelihood of me winning the lottery is little to none. As a UPenn student, I walk among people with influence and the children of influential people, often too busy and pretentious. I doubt any would be interested in a charity case.
I think it’s fair to say that both fortune and connections are a byproduct of fame or influence. So is that my solution? Trying to become famous for the sake of growing my business?
Dually defeated in two optic-related tasks, I’ve decided to battle both in one fell swoop. What if I use my poor eye makeup skills to attract viewers on social media, then cover it up with my sunglasses? I could do it on a platform like Tiktok that makes it easy for people to gain influence by showing strangers content on their “For You” pages. A marketing scheme, if you will.
desire to morph
Makeup feels embarrassing for me to wear in day-to-day social settings as it is a common conception that women do their makeup merely to appear more attractive to men. Surely as a consequence of heteronormativity and the patriarchy, but the thought of giving off that impression is humiliating to me. I consider the social rebellion of doing my makeup everyday, with no intent to impress men, to be one that is only socially impactful if my makeup style is edgy and alt, which it is not. Most often, I wear makeup to events where I know other people will also be emphasizing their appearance, so I don’t feel out of place or like I’m suggesting that I’m trying to impress someone.
People assume daily makeup wearers are insecure since makeup is known to cover up “blemishes” and “imperfections” and I like to appear confident; people like confident people. People associate insecurity with weakness and vulnerability and I hate to be seen as either. I don’t know if I am insecure—I don’t think I am. In an attempt to be a seemingly confident person, one of my mottoes has always been “fake it till you make it.” I have lived in that so much that I am not sure what my reality is. I’m not sure if I fake it so well that it has become reality or if I fake it so well I’ve convinced myself it’s reality.
Maybe it’s possible to be confident while still having insecurities. Am I delusional? I know that I care about what people think of me even though I don’t want people to know that. Does that make me insecure? I think it’s because I have always been a people pleaser. Am I delusional?
I find myself feeling confident without makeup too, but it’s one of those things where I don’t know if I’ve faked it or I’ve made it. When I do my makeup well, I feel great. I’m glittered with pride, like a middle schooler who just got an A on their art project. There are times I do my makeup just for fun and take photos of my work with no intent to share them. I definitely enjoy doing my makeup more than I like wearing it out; it can feel cringy to go out as a painted version of myself.
Makeup is therapeutic. It makes me feel like I can be whoever I want to be. I think that’s why I easily grow bored and love to change my appearance sporadically. It reminds me that I have the power to switch things up and that my situation isn’t permanent.
baddie in business
I sit nervously at my desk, trying to figure out how I can create a successful business by the end of the fall semester. I had already consulted a group of friends who gave me a few ideas to work with—like adding a larger variety of shades, making my products cheaper since I am just starting out, having sales during holidays, posting more frequently on social media platforms, revamping my logo. I agreed with all except marking down the price of my sunglasses—the newness of my business shouldn’t devalue my products. I know my problem is visibility. My prices are reasonable—somebody out there will buy them for the cost I have listed.
For further brainstorming, I start to list characteristics that bring about great businesses: a website, good marketing, a memorable logo… my mind wanders off.
“This is going to cost me so much money,” I think to myself. “But business is risk, business is investment.”
“Okay, a website!” I say to myself. “Let me start there.”
I begin by typing . “How To Create A Website For My Small Business” into the empty search bar of Youtube, hoping for effective counsel. The third result catches my eye, “How I Made My Online Store FREE,” uploaded by someone with the username Baddie In Business.
FREE?? Yes, please! I’m trying to grow my business, but let’s not forget that I’m an unemployed college student. And, Baddie in Business? Sounds right up my alley. Baddie in Business, take me under your wing!
I click on the video to view a gray-eyed, black-haired, Caucasian woman with impressively done makeup, most especially her eyebrows. They are dark brown, and look strategically blended. She is speaking into a black microphone that is placed very close to the camera. She starts off by mentioning that she owns TWO six-figure-earning online enterprises and my interest only fattens. She discusses a website called bigcartel.com that allows startup business owners to effortlessly create an online store—this is how she started. For the duration of the video, she provides a tutorial on how to create the store, specifying things about the website—such as the fact that the free version only permits five products to be listed at a time. This doesn’t feel like a huge issue to me. On the contrary, it gives me the idea of creating seasonal collections where I drop a select group of five sunglasses each season, at least until I can fund a website with product count liberty.
I don’t watch the full tutorial as my eyes keep reverting to a thumbnail in the upper right corner of my screen. It is another video of hers titled “How To Start Dropshipping with $0.” Despite my limited understanding of dropshipping, the advertisement of something else I can start up business-wise with zero dollars intrigues me immensely.
She describes a method of online business where I don’t have to invest any money upfront by stocking up on my product and shipping out orders myself. Essentially, my store would act as the middle man between my vendor and the buyer. She emphasizes that this is a great method for beginners. It conflicts with my aspirations of having more of an e-commerce online business where I package orders myself, have my logo somewhere on it and cute little thank you cards in the packaging—but I think this might have to do for now.
She captivates me with her explanation of what dropshipping is and how it works. She goes on to discuss how to make a free logo for a business, how to market through social media like TikTok, and how to design the dropshipping store.
At this moment, I feel exuberant; I’m washed in optimism that this could really go somewhere. Everything I need to know to get started is right in front of me. But imagine the irony of that: how people like Baddie in Business can really DIY a whole enterprise while people in Wharton are spending thousands of dollars in tuition to achieve it. And it’s only her side hustle.
I take some notes on Baddie’s marketing strategies—I also plan to advertise my business through Tik Tok once I get my website running:
- use natural light
- keep the video short and kid friendly
- keep videos frequent
Sounds pretty simple.
I continue to open up a graphic design platform called Canva, eager to design my logo. I’d had some experience with Canva back in high school making promotional flyers for the peer tutoring club I ran. I quickly find a template, type in SBA, add a sunglasses icon, and there it is—my professional logo for my even more professional business. Far from rocket science.
I begin to create my website, following Baddie’s instructions using bigcartel.com. After approximately thirty minutes and a bathroom break, I have my website up and running—I just need to create my fall collection so I know what products I’m listing for sale.
I quickly choose a collection of sunglasses that I have been considering selling, as well as sunglasses I currently sell or have sold. I choose ones that give more of a boujee, y2k, and/or futuristic look than a summer, beach house vibe to fit better with the autumn season. I name them based on their respective “vibes.” I am careful with my diction, making it seem more “upmarket.” And there we have it. Shades By Amara’s fall collection.
Now that everything is up and running, it’s time for the hard part. I need customers—it’s time to fulfill my marketing scheme.
amara the tiktok influencer?
TikTok is interesting. The social media platform permits people of all walks of life to go viral if they create “good” content and understand the algorithm well enough to acquire immense engagement. “Good” in quotes, because good content is subjective. Content is usually “good”—to a certain demographic. So I guess “good” content always caters to a certain group of people, and if it doesn’t cater to any group of people—then it’s bad content. Content can also be generally “good” in the sense that it has good qualities like great lighting, trendy sounds, and a “to-the-point” duration. Someone’s content can still be “good,” but not get enough engagement. TikTok likes to pick and choose the creators that get visibility. It is so random that you could spend half of your day creating a video that will get only a few hundred views, but the one that took you less than five minutes to create could gain millions of views overnight. TikTok is provoking.
So even with a bit of strategy, my journey to TikTok fame is one of pure luck. Nonetheless, I have to try—for the business. It’s all trial and error, at least for me.
About an hour before my biochemistry class, I open up TikTok to film my first video. I look for a trending sound to play in the background and stumble across a version of Drake’s “Teenage Fever.” I start to do my makeup at my desk, as I typically do, filming myself for short increments as I progress. I finish off the look with a terrible attempt at black winged liner, and quickly use a pair of my shades—silver “NOXED”—to cover my eyes. The video is what I envisioned—I executed the idea, it is short and to the point, the lighting is tolerable—but I feel as if something is missing. I feel as if the makeup did not look bad enough to permit high engagement, especially because I start off by doing my makeup well. TikTok likes comedy, and the whole idea is to sell the shades using the spectacle of a cover for poorly-done makeup. But the only way to find out is if I post it. So I do.
Before rushing to class, I rub off the crappy eyeliner, leaving my eyelids with a black cast; I am running late so I leave it as it is. Once I get there, I run into classmates who immediately compliment my makeup:
“You really serve FACE,” says one.
“Ouu, I really like your black eyeshadow,” says another.
I am warped with shock considering that my “eyeshadow” was completely unintentional. I respond with a “Thank you so much!” and follow with the funny story of how my “eyeshadow” came to be. We laugh, then move on with our class activities.
My TikTok video got a total of 140 views overnight and I gained three followers, all of which were friends I told to go follow me. But I plan to stay consistent. Trial and error.
I spend the next day making more videos that I can post throughout the week. This is so I can keep up with frequency, a strategy that should be useful to help me go viral. I had already spent a week gathering trendy TikTok sounds that I could use in the background of an “eye makeup tutorial” or as a means of advertising my business. For example, I plan to use the viral meme that goes “you should come over here and get one of these” — “what is it?” — “issa chicken salad” — as a way to tell viewers to buy a pair of ShadesByAmara. The plan is to do a mix of viral memes/sounds, as well as fake eye makeup tutorials, hoping one of them makes the cut for prime TikTok engagement.
Since I plan to post the various videos throughout the week, I change into four different tops so it seems like I filmed on different days. Starting with a fluffy, gray, spaghetti-strapped crop top, and ending with a black graphic tee, I endeavor to film about ten videos to post throughout the week.
For one of them, I decided to film a loud eyeshadow look. I take my fluffy eyeshadow brush and pat it into the dark magenta pigment titled “Zobo”’ from my Juvia’s Place “Masquerade” mini palette. I blend the pigment into the crevices of my right eyelid, purposefully blending it upwards, close to my eyebrows, as one should not do when doing eye makeup. On my left eye, I do the same, but with a shimmery fern green color titled “Mali” that insults the magenta color on the other eye. The final clip is of me quickly covering my eyes with a black pair of “NOXED,” leaving hints of magenta and green above the frame of the glasses because of how closely I’d blended the pigment to my eyebrows.
Why do people think this looks good? What am I doing wrong… or what am I doing right?? Are the sunglasses too distracting? Is it because I have my eyebrows done well? Do I need to make these makeup looks even MORE bluntly horrible???
Another video I film is of my genuine attempt at doing eyeliner. I use a sparkly blue eyeliner I “borrowed” from my mother’s room two years ago and create a subtle line above my eyelid. I then use the exterior of my bottom waterline as the angle to create a wing in the outer corner of my eye. The result is not super neat, but I kind of like it. Because the eyeliner is sparkly, it adds some subtle blue shimmer to my eyelid that looks intentional. I was hoping this attempt would go worse—at least for the marketing scheme. So I guess that means basic eye makeup isn’t as hard as I thought. Perhaps I just need practice. I end the video with a clear frame named “BIJOU”—this time not covering the eyelook.
amara in business
Posting my Tiktok drafts throughout the week, I do not get the engagement I desire—I am not getting any orders. Thankfully, I am soon visited by my favorite shopping holidays—Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Taking a break from my Tiktok marketing scheme, I plan to capitalize on this prime season of consumerism.
I open Canva to design three different sale posts—two for Black Friday and one for Cyber Monday. For Black Friday, I create a black and whited themed post. It has the SBA logo in the middle and “Black Friday” written above it in white, lovely may script font. Below is written “BIG SALE UP TO 30% OFF” with my website link underneath. I create the promo code “BLACKFRIDAY” through Bigcartel, which I then reveal in the post caption for customers to use at checkout.
The additional Black Friday sale is a pickup sale for Philadelphia residents only. I have a ton of “KARTIER” I had restocked back when I was planning to ship items to customers myself.
I create a post with my logo and a screenshot of the sunglasses from my website. I title it “Black Friday Pickup Sale!” and list other info at the bottom: “$6.50 each up until Nov 30th! Must be able to pick up in Philly!” The post on Cyber Monday is the same as the first Black Friday post, except I make the color scheme white and turquoise and the title is Cyber Monday and the sale is now 40% off.
I post the Black Friday sales and as the next twenty four hours go by, I receive four orders. On Cyber Monday I receive five, then more throughout the week. My order analytics are nothing close to Telfar, but I’m elated—I feel like a true businesswomen. This is how it starts. It’s only up from here.
I also make a TikTok to promote the sales, but it doesn’t attract much attention. Though TikTok isn’t favoring me, I feel content with the time I have spent creating them. My ingenious TikTok marketing scheme made me improve my craft—the art I love so much. I now feel more confident in my eye makeup skills. I don’t know what’s next for me in the entrepreneurial world. Maybe I will become TikTok famous one day, or maybe I won’t. Or perhaps ShadesByAmara will become one of those famous instagram shops. Who knows? But I plan to continue to promote my business with both platforms, reevaluating strategies and applying new ones along the way.
At my desk, I sit with my makeup bag in front of me, feeling prepared to make my mother proud. Not for TikTok, not for my business, just for me, a look that I love, a look that will serve.
I empty my makeup bag, bringing out my eyeliner, eyeshadow primer, palette, and brush. I start with my primer, squeezing the beige cream onto my fingertip and applying a thin layer onto my eyelid in a dabbing motion—a smooth base to begin. I pick up my Juvia’s place eyeshadow palette titled “Masquerade” and find a subtle nude shade to start. I choose one called “Burkina” and pat it into my eyelid with my eyeshadow brush. I then feather the pigment, diffusing and fading the color upwards, removing any harsh lines. Next, I unscrew my black liquid eyeliner and prepare for battle—may luck be in my favor as I attempt to do thick winged eyeliner. Looking straight ahead into my mirror, I take the liquid eyeliner and create a line at the hood of my eye, connecting it with a line from my lash line. I create another line from the most exterior end of my lash line, and extend it upwards, connecting it to the primary line I created. I then fill in the empty space with the black liquid and thinly line the rest of my lash line.
The result is not terrible but it’s not neat either. I use a damp Q-tip to clean up the little mishaps. I repeat the same on the other eye and finish the rest of my makeup. It’s not perfect, but at this moment I feel as mellow as a still ocean—I’m at peace.