By: Shontay Lundy, as told to Alexis Jones
I’m Shontay Lundy, the founder of Black Girl Sunscreen, and I’m a millionaire—a title I never considered possible for myself.
I was born in the small town of Newburgh, New York. Today, it’s one of those places that people from the city migrate to because you get more for your dollar. And it’s undergoing gentrification. But when I was a kid in the 1980s, there was a lot of drug use and limited job opportunities in my hometown. If you were really doing something for yourself, you were taking the metro to Manhattan to work a better-paying 9-to-5.
I grew up having to work for whatever I wanted. I was raised part-time by my grandparents (my parents were both in the military). Eventually, I became the oldest of six kids, though the only child between the two of my parents. My mom and dad divorced and had children with their new spouses after they both came out of the service. Our age gaps span from a year and a half to 13 years.
Now, when I think about the meaning of leadership as a company founder, I realize this experience really groomed me from a young age to lead by example. I wasn’t afraid to be the first or take risks.
I got my first real job running a paper route at 15 years old. I took pride in it. I’d get up at 4 a.m. every day and make sure the paper arrived at my customers’ homes dry and secure. This job paid for things my parents or grandparents couldn’t afford—like a landline for my room. But it wasn’t part of my career goals.
I was raised to believe that education, and more specifically college degrees, were the key to success. So I got my bachelor’s and an MBA in business administration, management, and operations and started working for major corporations. That experience taught me how to run a business. I was in a high-level position where I was hiring, terminating, and training new employees as well as strategizing on how to beat our competition. I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty. And I would never ask someone to do something that I wasn’t willing to do myself. I’ve brought that same work ethic into my own business.
The corporate world taught me some important lessons, but I began to crave an environment with less pressure and more creativity. One of the companies I’d worked for was very conservative, to the point where you had to wear stockings if you wore a skirt. It was tough to even find a pair of pantyhose that matched my skin tone.
I spent nearly 12 years working at different corporations in Miami before finally realizing two things.
1. I needed to quit.
2. No one was talking to Black girls about protecting their skin.
After transitioning out of corporate America, I moved to Los Angeles. I’d been suiting up for so long, I knew I needed a break. So, when I moved to LA, I wanted to live more freely. For about three months, I just kind of relaxed—I practiced yoga, hiked, and reset.
As I started spending more time outdoors, I realized that I couldn’t find a sunscreen that didn’t make me look crazy with chalky white streaks or residue. I was tired of paying for the pricey $25 dollar umbrellas when I went to the beach or hotel pool. I was over going to events and looking for shade because it was too hot.
In 2016, I started Black Girl Sunscreen.
I came up with the idea while in Los Angeles, but I actually launched the business in Miami. At the time, it was just me and my website developer. But I knew I had a great idea because no one was speaking to Black and brown girls in this space. There were, and still are, so many misconceptions about Black skin. The biggest myth is that we can’t get sunburnt because our skin has a built-in shield, or melanin. But Black people suffer from sun damage, like melanoma, dark spots, premature aging, and hyperpigmentation, too.
My initial vision was to start and continue the conversation for brown and Black women on sun safety with a product they could actually use to protect themselves from the sun—and I did just that with Black Girl Sunscreen. My company also expanded to BGS Kids in 2019 because we know that, after talking to Black and multiracial families, education about sunscreen starts at a young age.
My company managed to hit $1 million in revenue within the first three years.
Black Girl Sunscreen is now in over 200 Target stores and has grown into a business worth $5 million dollars in light of a recent million-dollar investment.
But I’m still working hard as if it were day one. My team and I have had a string of wins recently, but running a million-dollar company is just as challenging as it is rewarding. Everything is moving at very fast pace. You have to understand what’s working, what’s not working, how to retain consumers, and listen to feedback. And then the next question is: How do you grow it?
My advice for other women looking to hit a million?
- Take risks: When I moved to Los Angeles, I drove there in my car with my dog, but with no set place to live. I found an apartment once I got there and took life day by day. We’re not talking about things that haven’t been done before. But these are big adult decisions that mean leaving your family and everything you know to start over. A change in environment might be exactly what you need. It was for me.
- Focus on yourself and your work: Don’t be concerned about what brand A or startup B is doing. Worry about what your business is doing. At BGS, we’re constantly asking ourselves if we’re doing our best to speak to and serve our customers, listen to their feedback, and then respond accordingly. That’s how you’ll create loyalty.
- Skip the 7 a.m. meetings: It’s not that serious. And it doesn’t make you any more productive. At BGS, we have our first Zoom call at 10 am and, by then, we’ve all been able to have breakfast, coffee, check our emails, and then kick off the day with a fresh and creative mind.
- Be humble: I’ve definitely packed orders before. I had to early on because my team was so small. As you grow, you’ll hire people to fill these positions. But you should know a little bit about everything and how it all runs.
- Don’t be afraid to be niche: That’s part of what makes Black Girl Sunscreen so successful. Most people are worried about excluding mass market. But what we’re really doing is just focusing on a certain group of people. We’re niche because I am my company’s target audience. I am that Black girl. So, if you find something that is close to you and you’re passionate about it, stick to that.