Tristan Walker on building Walker & Company Brands

With so many health and beauty products on the market, it may seem like consumers have all their needs taken care of. But Tristan Walker, founder and CEO of health and beauty company Walker & Company Brands, noticed a lack of companies focusing on people of color. Walker studied at Stanford and took on roles on Wall Street and in tech, but his own frustrations led him straight to retail. We talked with Walker, a Disruptor on The List of People Shaping Retail’s Future 2017, about meeting the needs of people of color, his student-centered nonprofit Code2040 and what’s next for retail.

Tristan Walker CEO and Founder of Walker and Company Brands

Can you tell us about Walker & Company Brands and how you got started?

Walker & Company Brands’ mission is to make health and beauty simple for people of color. I started years ago with Bevel out of a frustration that I couldn’t find the right products for myself. At that time, the retail experience left a lot to be desired as far as personal care for people of color was concerned. I decided that people of color deserved better. Now five years later, Walker & Company consists of Bevel and FORM Beauty and we have scale and voice. This is my opportunity to not only educate the majority of the market but to also fill a void.

Last year, you added FORM Beauty to the Walker & Company Brands portfolio. What has it been like to enter the beauty market?

In launching FORM, we realized that it wasn’t going to be apples to apples. The biggest difference is that with FORM we launched at retail with Sephora, and for Bevel we launched online and then later went into retail stores. We launched FORM with 10 products, while when Bevel launched there was just one. But one thing both Bevel and FORM have in common is that every brand we have aims to solve a problem. With FORM, we had the opportunity to be the first and only brand to launch a line for curly and coily hair textures. We have an entire product line that serves that market with versatility, personalization and efficacy.

Creating products with people of color in mind is the cornerstone of Walker & Company Brands. Do you feel you have created more than simply a personal care brand, but also a community?

Yes, definitely. But we didn’t have to create it, it’s always been there. We just have respect for what’s always existed. Folks have been attempting to cater to this market for centuries — we just felt they weren’t doing the right thing for centuries. Our goal is to showcase empowering messages through our brands. We’re accomplishing that, and that mission will never go away.

You are also the co-founder and chairman of the Board for Code2040 — a nonprofit that works to build a bridge between black and Latinx students and career opportunities in tech. Can you share a bit about the work that you are doing?

At Code2040, the mission is to ensure the full representation of Black and Latinx people in the innovation economy by creating pathways to their educational, professional and entrepreneurial success in tech. We don’t have direct partnerships with retailers at this time, but the aim and mission for our Fellows Program is to support emerging Black and Latinx tech talent. We provide the students with all the tools to be successful. We’re in the innovation economy, and companies need to hire talent that understands that. They need to recognize the benefits of hiring a diverse talent base. I see the work that we’re doing here as the greatest opportunity of my lifetime.

Did you ever think you would be in the retail business?

I went from Wall Street to tech and now to retail. When I started Bevel five years ago, I never would have guessed that this is where I would be. The thing that I have come to realize is that no matter what I’m doing, faith has always led me and guided me. My destiny is already set. I just have to come into it.

What mentor influenced your career the most?

My answer takes a bit of a contrarian/controversial approach. I don’t like the word mentor. For me it’s more important to answer, ‘How can I be inspired or influenced by people who have the type of life that I can appreciate?’ Running a business is not easy. How do I find people who are content and happy with the life they lead? My advice around mentorship would be to put yourself around people who share in your values.

How would you describe your leadership style?

The first word that comes to mind is fair. I lead through my own personal values, all of which are defined by the values of the organization. I’m consistent, I don’t play favorites, I’m very fair.

What advice would you give to someone who aspires to launch a retail business or become a leader in the industry?

The first word I would have is start. With Bevel, I started it and it became what it is today. A lot of people say they won’t start because they need extra validation from others, who most of the time can’t see what you can see. And people think they that need to secure a certain level of funding before moving forward with an idea. How much has been left on the table because of people not simply starting? Just start.

What’s next for Walker & Company Brands?

We’re a brand that makes things, so we’ll be doing more of that. We want to continue to solve problems for people. The reason is because I try to think more thematically. There are shifts happening in my lifetime, opportunities to help economically empower my community.

And to touch on this whole idea of retail dying? I think it’s ridiculous. Yes, retail has to change. This idea of taking brands and distributing them through physical real estate and hoping people will find it, that will probably die. The key will be to deliver experiences for customers that aren’t just transactional — consumers want an experience. Apple retail works so well because it’s all about the experience, even if you aren’t buying anything. I love designing experiences and I plan to do more of that with Walker & Company Brands.

Finish the sentence:

Retail is… next. The reason I chose that word is because really, who knows what it’s going to be in the near future?

To learn more about the List of People Shaping Retail's Future and the other award categories, check out The List page.