Nyakio Grieco is one of the bold, determined women who are shaking up the beauty world. As a contemporary creative, she’s a force to be reckoned with, who checks all the boxes of a super-hyphenated mover-and-shaker: girlfriend-sister-for-life; do-gooder and queen-matriarch.
And, with every beauty entrepreneur, there is a lot of grit beneath the luster. She opens up to us at Makeup Madeover about her unique path to success, from re-defining the beauty industry to changing how we experience African prestige skincare.
1. Be You
Born in Buffalo, New York to Kenyan immigrants, Nyakio was raised in Norman, Oklahoma, where her father was the Professor of African Studies at a local university (her mother later became a dean at Harper College).
She was a child of academics — which meant curiosity and discovery were in her DNA. Yet, beautification rituals captured her imagination.
Nyakio had two beauty whisperers who put the beauty buzz in her ear. At a tender age, she was introduced to grooming practices by her mom who treated Nyakio’s skin and hair with shea butter and grapeseed oil.
And then, on a summer trip to Kenya, her grandmother taught her how to create an exfoliation cream by boiling down coffee beans, adding oil, and mixing in sugar from the sugarcane grown on her farm.
Mesmerized by the simplicity and power of indigenous ingredients, these two whispers would later inspire her to launch her skincare products and share her family’s beauty wisdom, using clean and green ingredients from around the globe.
2. Build a Community and Support System
Upon graduation from the University of Oklahoma, she set her sights on Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. During these formative years, she met lifelong besties, including budding Hollywood starlets who would become her ride-or-dies.
An Aries, she’s inherently a nurturer and connector to everyone she meets. However, her closest girlfriends hold a special place in her orbit because these relationships were cultivated during her formative years in Tinseltown when she did not know a soul.
It was with her girlfriends that she began to practice “circling,” in which individuals sit in a circle and share their genuine selves. This powerful and intimate exercise allows others a front row seat to bear witness to your intentions.
Even in moments of despair and discouragement, she internalized: “If I own the power of ‘what I deserve’ – saying it out loud and having the confidence to believe it, there’s a great chance those thoughts become reality.”
Thus, the sacred principles of safety, authenticity and trust are paramount: whatever is said in the circle stays in the circle. It is a practice she continues today, led by Andréa Bendenwald (of Suddenly Susan fame).
3. Work Hard (Excuses Are Just That)
Nyakio landed coveted jobs as the assistant to power agents.
The Hollywood grind included 12 hours at the office followed by reading scripts into the wee hours and even feeding a snake (owned by her boss, done while he was on vacation).
If feeding deadly reptiles was unsavory, sexism in the workplace was worse.
Despite her obvious competence and work ethic, Nyakio felt she was passed up for promotions over male colleagues even though she worked twice as hard, which prompted feelings of self-doubt. But thanks to her girlfriends, she powered through these trying moments and developed the tenacity to forge a career for herself.
4. New Beginnings Are Beautiful
In 2000, realizing her true passion was to share her family’s beauty traditions, she launched her eponymous skincare line, also named after her African grandmother.
Nyakio means “woman who works hard in the sunshine.”
“I felt many cultures were under-represented in the world of prestige beauty, so I set out on a path to share beauty secrets with all.”
Nyakio began developing products in her apartment with the help of her girlfriends. She became the manufacturer, shipping/receiving department, and customer service manager of her burgeoning business.
She was fifteen years early to the #She-E-O movement.
Dusting off an old business plan from college, Nyakio revised it for her new venture. It helped her to secure seed capital. She encourages any aspiring entrepreneur to do the same.
“Write a business plan or a pitch deck; it gives you a reference that you can always refer back to as your business grows, to stay authentic to the DNA of your brand and pay attention to your financial goals,” she says.
Glow Like Nyakio
Nyakio Kenyan Coffee Face Polish $32
"I learned this recipe from my Grandmother, a coffee farmer, on my first trip to Kenya when I was 8-years-old."
Nyakio African Black Soap $35
"Once a week I use African Black Soap Purifying and Detoxifying Mask to clean out my pores and re-set my skin for another week of love!"
Nyakio Maracuja & Yangu Soothing Face Oil $42
"I follow up with a few drops after the face polish and it helps rid my skin of redness, replenish hydration after sun, and balances out my skin."
Nyakio Chamomile Soothing Sleep Mask $35
"For an extra burst of hydration when I sleep, I leave this mask on which is packed with Egyptian Chamomile and great for aromatherapy to calm your mind and your skin. The products are packed with cold pressed certified organic oils sourced from around the globe. You’ve got to use oil to fight oil; skin is made up of oils so it knows what to do with it! Some of the greatest feedback we get on our products are from people with dry, irritated skin, prone to breakouts that tell us our products have saved their skin."
Nyakio Sweet Almond Cleansing Oil Balm $28
"Hydration is the key to younger looking skin! I love cleansing balms, so I always use my cleansing oil to melt away makeup and rid my skin of impurities. It doesn’t strip the skin of oil so you are hydrated after washing."
Nyakio Baobab Youth-Infused Daily Defense Crème $35
"I always moisturize with the Daily Defense Crème after the Maracuja & Yangu Soothing Face Oil. "
5. Know Your Limits
The skincare line was picked up by Jeffrey NY and Ron Robinson almost immediately and, within three years, Nyakio had secured distribution in 80 upscale boutiques across the country.
The brand’s visibility was heightened by Hollywood’s elite and press hotlists, causing her skincare products to fly off the shelves.
The brand was so popular, Nyakio became unable to meet the demands of retailers. Nice problem to have right?
Capital raising was completely out of the question in the Financial Crisis of 2008, so Nyakio decided to secure partners to help with distribution, manufacturing and the sourcing of ethical materials.
“Just because you are entrepreneur doesn’t mean you have to be good at everything.” she says, explaining why she teamed up for a licensing deal.
Ultimately, this was not the right fit, but this partnership proved to be a lesson in honing her vision while simultaneously weathering the turbulent economy.
As the economy began to recover and skincare sales became glowier, Nyakio sought a true business partnership.
After almost twenty years of hard work, her line was acquired by Sundial Brands. Its founder, Richelieu Dennis (of Liberian heritage), created the company to fill the needs of consumers who felt ignored by mass-market companies.
Sundial’s refreshing and almost-too-good-to-be-true manifesto is rooted in family, love and culturally authentic practices. (Um, have you ever heard of a for-profit company that values, love? Amazing and WTF?!) Other members of the Sundial fam include: Shea Moisture, Nubian Heritage and Madam C.J. Walker.
Needless to say, it is a partnership of true alignment and shared values.
In 2017, Unilever took notice of the company’s ethos and its commitment to multicultural and millennial consumers and acquired Sundial Brands.
6. Lift Up Others
Sundial is also involved with Girls Inc., a nonprofit that inspires young girls between the ages of 5-18 to achieve their highest potential.
Nyakio serves as hands-on mentor through their Operation SMART program, which encourages girls to explore a future in STEM (Science/Tech/Engineering/Math) careers.
“Girls are great at math and science” says Nyakio. “Having that knowledge from an early age can be so empowering.”
With her Operation SMART girls, Nyakio leads vision board exercises, mixes up body scrub formulations and helps create beauty lotions — which is always followed by discussions about science and chemistry.
The Sundial management team (which includes representation, accounting, R&D, and marketing) all sit on a panel while the giddy girls to ask them questions about careers and adulting. (Makes you want to sign up for anything science-related, right?)
According to ProjectDiane, which provides a snapshot of the state of Black women in entrepreneurship, the average seed round for all startups in 2016 increased by 500% from $50 million to $250 million within one year.
Sounds promising, right?
Not so fast. The median funding raised by Black female founders is $0 and have secured only .0006% of all venture funding since 2009. (Yes, you read that right and re-read if you must.)
In 2018, Unilever and Sundial created the New Voices Fund, a $100 million dollar fund that will invest in businesses owned or managed by women of color.
Entrepreneurship has risen among Black women by 322%, and the objective is to create access, capital and expertise.
“When I look back, I’m grateful for those ‘not-coming-easy moments’ because it gives me the drive and appreciation that I have for my career today,” she says, pausing while remembering some of those moments.
“That hard work gave me the confidence to know that I could one day start my own business and create something that I truly love to do everyday.”
She is a firm believer that “there is room for everyone — stick to your values, know that beauty will always be defined by who you are on the inside.
“You define your own beauty. Be you and only you.”
Having traveled her own unique path, Nyakio knows a thing or two about what modern day women are striving for: connection, impact and success.
While success is different for all of us, we imagine Nyakio’s success must taste and feel like coffee: bright, complex, warm and bold.
Additional Product Recommendations from Nyakio
Smith & Cult $18
"This is seriously the best nail polish ever! The colors are so much fun and it’s a non-toxic nail polish that seriously lasts for 2 weeks!"
Coola Suncare SPF 30 Sunscreen Spray $36
"I believe that SPF is a 365 day a year product. Their sunscreen is colorless, so as a woman of color I love it because it doesn’t turn purple on my skin like a lot of sunscreens do."
The Dry Bar Dry Conditioner $23
"I have extremely dry hair, and I only wash once a week so I’m a huge fan of dry shampoo. My new favorite is the Dry Conditioner by The Dry Bar. Dry Shampoo is great to remove the oils on your scalp between washes, but their Dry Shampoo is great for your ends that might get oily between washes. It helps to liven them up and give you the look of a fresh blow dry even if it’s been a few days since washing."