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‘I am proud to have created a company … that is making space for women and people of colour’ – Ashley Harmon [Interview]

Article-‘I am proud to have created a company … that is making space for women and people of colour’ – Ashley Harmon [Interview]

© Vitafoods Insights Ashley Harmon_Women in Nutrition  interview
Ashley Harmon is the founder and CEO of Mela Vitamins, a wellness company formulating supplements to meet the unique nutritional needs of melanated people. She was a recipient of the 2023 United Nations 100 Most Influential People of African Descent Award for the innovative work Mela Vitamins is doing to help address health and wellness inequalities in communities of colour.

Prior to founding Mela, Harmon served as VP of the AfroTech brand at media company Blavity, Inc. and worked as a strategy consultant at PwC for Fortune 500 companies.

Your experiences with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) as a student inspired you to start creating your own supplements. What has changed since then? Is there more recognition of women-specific health conditions?

“After receiving my PCOS diagnosis, I started the long process of understanding and healing my body. I tried the prescription medication route, but they caused terrible side effects. I found that a mix of supplements worked best, but there wasn’t one multivitamin that had everything I needed. So I started researching and developing my own supplements as a way to heal my own symptoms, and have been doing it for over a decade now.

“The more PCOS and other women-specific health conditions are discussed and recognised, the more people are aware of their own symptoms and are talking about it with their doctors. So with more people being diagnosed, the more products will pop up on the market. Which in many ways is amazing! It means more options for us to better manage our health and address any symptoms we have.

“However, there is no one place that provides all the information and products related to PCOS or women’s health in general. Because the information and studies are constantly evolving, understanding PCOS requires a lifelong commitment to research and advocating for your health.

“There is definitely still a long way to go in terms of the proper research, development and recognition of women-specific health conditions, but I am happy to see that the conversations are starting and that women are feeling more empowered to ask questions and advocate for their health.”

You were inspired to set up Mela after realising that no companies were making supplements that addressed the unique nutritional needs of melanated people. How have other women from the industry responded?

“Since our launch, we have received an incredible response from consumers, healthcare providers, and other women in the industry about how they are excited and inspired to see products that address a true whitespace in the market. For too long, women and people of color have been overlooked and often dismissed by healthcare professionals and wellness corporations. We all want to be valued and have our voices matter, and Mela Vitamins is just another step on that path towards a more inclusive and diverse supplement industry. I hope that we can inspire others to create products that help make all of our lives happier and healthier.”

There is growing recognition of how the underrepresentation of women in research and clinical trials is impacting long-term health outcomes. What about the underrepresentation of melanated bodies? Is there any more awareness of this?

“The healthcare industry has a complicated and often harmful history with people of colour, which has led to bias in the healthcare industry, lack of representation in clinical studies, and a lack of trust of healthcare providers within communities of colour. These factors all continue to contribute to health disparities and disproportionate rates of chronic diseases like dementia, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

“I am happy to see that the conversation is shifting and that there are more discussions around the need for more representation of melanated people in clinical studies and in the health and wellness industries. However, there is still so much for us to learn about the role of genetics, the concentration of melanin in our skin, higher stress levels, and other socioeconomic factors in health outcomes.

“We at Mela Vitamins have created a new niche within the wellness industry that has been largely underserved, and we want to continue to be the leaders driving research, innovation, and conversation in this area – and hope to inspire others to do the same.”

What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a female entrepreneur? Are there any decisions you would go back and do differently if you had the chance?

“I absolutely love the work we are doing at Mela Vitamins, and the amazing community we have built, but it has definitely been challenging. It is difficult to create a new path and niche in a billion-dollar industry that does not prioritise melanated people. I do not look like most wellness company founders, and I did not start with a big financial backing. It was challenging to find business and manufacturing partners, but we pushed through. Now we continue to grow our community of supporters while changing the narrative and making space for people of colour in the wellness and supplement industries.”

You are a recipient of the Glossier Grant Program, which invests in Black beauty entrepreneurs ‘to address legacies of inequity, exclusion, and barriers to fundraising’. How important are initiatives like this?

“The Glossier Grant Program has had a tremendous positive impact on our company and the industry as a whole. There is starting to be a positive shift in the beauty and personal care industry, where brands focused more on products that catered to a more diverse audience through things like darker shades, melanin-focused skincare, etc. However, there are still a lot of unmet consumer needs that larger corporations are not willing to focus on.

“That’s why the Glossier Grant Program is so amazing, because it provides newer, founder-led brands the opportunity to invest in research and testing to develop purpose-driven products for underserved consumers. Glossier also has tremendous international reach, and has been able to bring awareness to, and drive the discussion around, the need for more equality and inclusion, as well as the importance of founder-led brands.

“I hope to see similar programmes offered by other companies, and I see it as an essential way to drive innovation and move the industry forward.”

What would you say to other women looking to follow in your footsteps?

“It is difficult to create a new path and create innovative products in an industry that often does not look like us. It was challenging to find the right business partners, to find funding, and to launch a successful business. But it is possible, and most importantly, it is worth it. Despite all of the challenges I faced, I am proud to have created a company and built a community that is making space for women and people of colour in the wellness and supplement industries.

“Throughout this process, I have learned that making supplements is relatively easy, but custom-formulating clean and effective supplements is a difficult, expensive, and slow process. There are always shortcuts, ways to reduce costs, and opportunities to white-label supplements – and this is what many other companies do. But it is so valuable to take the time to really learn the science and data behind what you are creating.

“Here are my tips to launching a successful supplement company:

Solve a problem and create value – There are countless multivitamins, sleep aids, and energy supplements. You have to find a problem you want to solve and create a product that has a unique value proposition that stands out in a busy market. Otherwise, you are making the same products as every other company, and you will end up trying to compete with large corporations with even bigger budgets. Consumer focus groups are a great, low-cost way to understand consumer needs and test your pricing and branding.

Build a foundation in science – I am proof that you do not have to be a doctor to launch a supplement company, but you do have to build a foundation in science. Work with healthcare professionals and scientists to conduct research and develop a formula that is safe and effective. If you have the resources, it is helpful to facilitate a user group or trial to receive feedback and make adjustments prior to a full launch.

Do it the right way, not the easy way – There are ways to cut corners, but it won’t pay off in the long run. Take the time to source high-quality ingredients, partner with registered manufacturers, and invest in testing and certifications. I also recommend starting with one product that establishes the brand, instead of multiple products that may not be the best quality.”