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AzTech: Black Dollar Beauty

by Neal Bloom

Alicia Burgess (left) and Don Turner are friends turned co-founders

By Sandy Athniel

Year Founded: 2019

Aztec Founders: Alicia Burgess (CEO), Don Turner (CFO)

Headcount: 4 team members

One day in early 2019, Alicia Burgess (‘20) was watching an episode of “Trigger Warning,” where activist Killer Mike attempted to buy entirely Black-owned products and services in the town he was in. “I just remember he had such a hard time trying to find somebody to cut his hair,” said Burgess. She was disappointed to see the lack of Black representation in the entrepreneurial world and decided to take matters into her own hands. A couple weeks after watching that episode, Burgess chatted with her dad about her idea to bring high-quality, Black-owned products to people, making it easy and convenient for consumers to support Black entrepreneurs. With support from her dad, she took the plunge into entrepreneurship, marking the start of Black Dollar Beauty.

The San Diego State University (SDSU) student was gearing up for her senior year while building a business with her hometown friend, Don Turner (‘20), who serves as the startup’s CFO. Today, the co-founders are recent grads preparing to officially launch Black Dollar Beauty in late August.

We chatted with Burgess about being an Aztec entrepreneur, the guidance she’s received from resources at SDSU, and her vision for the future of Black Dollar Beauty.

The BDB team sends you a box of the best products for your unique hair type

The Subscription Box Biz: When Burgess first started her business, she had the intention of helping people find and support Black-owned businesses via a mobile app. She and Turner have since pivoted to a D2C subscription box model that brings haircare products from numerous brands, including Black-owned businesses, to customers’ front doors. Black Dollar Beauty doesn’t produce any of the products, rather it curates packages for customers based on their needs and sends them the products. This process helps customers – of all genders – discover new haircare brands and it helps the businesses gain exposure and expand their customer base.

When it comes to hair care, there is a plethora of products and resources available to consumers with straight and wavy hair. However, those with curly, kinky hair, namely in the Black community, often spend years conducting their own research through trial and error to find the products and styling techniques that work best for them. To combat this, Black Dollar Beauty offers a unique feature. During the online shopping process, users are able to fill out a quiz to find the right products for their unique hair types.  

The startup refers to its customers as its #CurlyCrew.

From Idea to Incubator: Burgess initially got the idea for her business when she was wrapping up her junior year in college. She told her dad about her vision the day applications were due to join the Zahn Innovation Platform (ZIP) Launchpad. With his encouragement, Burgess submitted her idea to the on-campus incubator, which supports SDSU students, faculty, and staff in their entrepreneurial endeavors by providing guidance, mentorship, networking opportunities, and even non-dilutive funding. 

Although she hadn’t had the time to think through the entire business model – resulting in a partially filled out application – the ZIP Launchpad saw potential in Black Dollar Beauty nonetheless. Burgess was accepted into the incubator’s subsequent cohort, where she was able to learn the ins and outs of running a new business and build her network.

“The ZIP Launchpad has been a game changer for me. It gave me the guidance to start Black Dollar Beauty,” Burgess said. 

Another on-campus resource that helped Burgess start her business is the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center, which, according to its website, serves students, entrepreneurs and business leaders through its entrepreneurial curriculum, workshops, internships, resources and events. The center also provides startups with monetary support in the form of grants. 

“I’ve received a couple rounds of funding from the Lavin Center,” she said. ”They keep giving us more rounds of funding because we keep showing them our progress.”

The startup, which has raised $6,000, is currently seeking $20,000 in additional funding for web development, advertising, and inventory, among other things.

Black Dollar Beauty members are known as the #CurlyCrew

Assembling the Perfect Team: Burgess has assembled a team of four to build Black Dollar Beauty. Turner, her CFO, is someone she knew long before becoming an Aztec. 

“Don and I have been friends since freshman year of high school. We actually attended Winter Ball together,” she said. The duo, who attended Paraclete High School in Palmdale, both ended up enrolling at SDSU. When Burgess was searching for a CFO, she decided to reach out to Turner because he was a finance major and someone whom she knew would be up for the challenge.

Turner wasn’t the only hometown friend Burgess recruited to her team. “London was a freshman at SDSU, but in high school, I played basketball with her,” she said. London Scott, who is a business major, was recruited to help with marketing efforts.

Burgess found the team’s beauty specialist, Leticia Bruce, via Instagram. Bruce helps match customers to their ideal products by analyzing their quiz answers.

Being Her Own Boss: Although Burgess did not always envision herself starting a business, she always wanted to do something out of the box. “I always knew I wanted to do something that had to do with educating my community about finance or strengths that we had in numbers so that people who look like me could know that we have the ability to be greater if we put our minds to it. That’s all I wanted,” Burgess said.

Meaningful Mentorships: Burgess has a number of mentors who have helped her build her business from the ground up. One of these individuals is Cathy Pucher, the executive director at SDSU’s Zahn Center, which is home to the ZIP Launchpad. 

“She’s advised us the whole way, since the beginning,” Burgess said. 

Jenny Amaraneni from the Zahn Center has also been an early mentor for the startup.

The young founder also made connections at We Tha Plug, a global ecosystem of Black & Latinx founders and investors in tech. “They helped me out so much with reaching out to the community, getting contacts, entrepreneurship contests, and finding events in the Black community,” Burgess said.

Another mentor she was able to connect with is ShredLights co-founder Eric Birkemeier, a fellow Aztec entrepreneur. “He’s been helping us a lot recently because he’s familiar with e-commerce.”

Get Some, Give Some: Black Dollar Beauty is committed to giving back by donating 10% of all its proceeds to organizations promoting social change in America. “Right now, we are giving 10% of all proceeds to low-income education systems due to COVID,” Burgess said. The startup is currently donating to Computers 2 Kids, a San Diego non-profit, in order to provide laptops for children, enabling them to attend school from home. 

Burgess sees the giving aspect of the business as something customers can be more involved with. “Later down the line, we want to allow the customer to choose which charity to give to,” she said.

Launching Amid a Pandemic: The 2020 Burgess had envisioned for herself should have been full of graduation celebrations and face-to-face interactions with the Black Dollar Beauty team. Plans quickly shifted, but the startup was quick to adapt to the new business climate and make the most of it. 

“Before COVID, Don and I were all about getting out and meeting our customers face to face, talking to them, and building relationships with them. That’s how we would connect before, so now we are adjusting to connecting online instead,” Burgess said, adding that the team has also started creating content, similar to commercials, with one of their advisors. 

Black Lives Matter: Since the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, many consumers have been more intentional about their purchases, searching for Black-owned businesses to support. 

Burgess was initially reluctant to promote her business amid the movement. 

“I was simply just feeling what the community was feeling. I didn’t want to use it as a marketing platform, but at the same time, it was for the community so I felt that I had to push a little bit,” she said, adding that fortunately, the #BLM movement has helped Black Dollar Beauty get its name out and garner interest from potential customers.

San Diego Scene: Burgess’s experience building a business in San Diego has been a pretty positive one. “I remember going to San Diego Startup Week last year and just seeing the attendees and seeing their faces again throughout the year,” she said.

The overall San Diego startup scene has a great deal of resources for entrepreneurs to take advantage of, but it, along with other metropolitan startup hubs, could use more diversity, she said.

“Even with resources like We Tha Plug, it’s still very hard for entrepreneurs of color to get the funding, resources, and guidance they need,” Burgess said. She expressed feeling grateful that she’s been able to garner a lot of support, but still feels that the overall minority community can use more resources to have that same outcome. 

Looking Ahead: A year from now, Burgess sees Black Dollar Beauty becoming a successful e-commerce store and subscription service. In five years’ time, she envisions the business becoming the next Amazon for beauty products.

Taco ‘bout a Recommendation: When she isn’t working on her startup, you can find Burgess munching on tacos from Tacos El Gordo. “I don’t know how they do it.”


Keep up with what’s brewing at Black Dollar Beauty on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. And consider joining their #CurlyCrew!

Editor’s Note: AzTech is an original Fresh Brewed Tech series on San Diego State University Aztecs (students and alumni) who are building the tech startups of tomorrow. These innovative ideas born in the halls of academia are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond. Don’t miss these compelling stories of passion, hard work, and problem solving by the next generation of entrepreneurs.

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