In October 2012, Polk was working in marketing sales with a side gig developing a men’s personal care collection. She was up for a promotion when her boss summoned her to his office. “He asked, ‘How do you like this job?’” she recounts. “I played the role, saying it was the best job even though I was planning to leave to leave at the end of the year when I had enough money.”
Polk’s boss’s response changed her trajectory. “He said, ‘Cut the crap. I know what you are doing, and I support you. When I started my company, someone helped give me a leg up,”’ she remembers. Her boss had gotten wind of her personal care endeavor because a coworker gifted him a few of her products.
He let Polk go, but paid her for the rest of the year. “It was a dream come true,” she says. “On my last day of the job, I showcased my products at what would be the first of many retailers.”
Using savings she accrued from stowing away 60% of her income and armed with an aesthetician degree, Polk officially launched men’s brand Solo Noir not too long after her job was terminated. While Polk didn’t comment on the brand’s sales, people familiar with it estimate it currently generates between $300,000 to $400,000 annually.
The concept for Solo Noir grew out of a business plan Polk crafted in while a graduate student at Tennessee State University, where she earned a master’s degree in e-commerce and logistics in 2009. Her assignment was to develop a blueprint for an overlooked marketing opportunity.
“At that time, men’s was an untapped market. I was also selling Mary Kay, and all the bottle caps on men’s products were pink,” laughs Polk. Mary Kay has since repackaged its men products with black and teal packaging.
“I know what I like on men, and women buy more product for men than men do.”
Polk’s vision was to introduce a lifestyle and clean lineup catering to men’s grooming. Despite initial pushback because she was a woman doing men’s products, Solo Noir took off. “I know what I like on men, and women buy more product for men than men do,” she reasons.
At launch, Solo Noir’s products included Dapper Face + Beard Wash, Refined Buff + Cleanse, Smooth Face + Beard Moisturizer, Sleek Preshave + Shave Cream and Brave Aftershave + Toner. The brand has expanded into beard oils and body bars.
Products are priced from $14.99 for Brave Aftershave + Toner to $85.99 for a complete grooming kit. Many beauty companies have raised prices to offset rising material costs, but Polk lowered Solo Noir’s prices in 2019 to amplify its accessibility.
Early this year, Walmart placed Solo Noir in 100 doors and recently enlarged its store footprint to 237 doors. Walmart has been interested in bringing in products for diverse customers. Polk describes the megachain as supportive, especially in ensuring brisk payments of 90 days versus longer terms that have become increasingly common.
The brand is also available on Target and Macy’s websites as well as its own and a network of smaller retailers. Solo Noir participated in The Workshop at Macy’s, the department store company’s program for minority- and women-owned businesses, in 2019. Solo Noir’s manufacturer doubles as a distributor for the pallets shipped to big-box merchants like Walmart.
The spotlight on Black-owned brands spurred by Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd bolstered the brand’s exposure that has continued to build, but it hasn’t been completely smooth sailing. Supply chain issues in the wake of the pandemic forced Solo Noir to find new bottle suppliers. Polk says, “In the end, I like what I have better now.”
“At this point, I’ve shown that I am tenacious. We’ve built distribution and have an infrastructure to prove we have staying power.”
In 2020, Polk, working with her daughter Ava, debuted a passion project called Zen Soul Apothecary, a range of wellness and personal care items such as Clear Quartz Bath + Shower Bomb, Good Vibes Chakra Bracelet, Aura Cleansing Soap, and Enlightenment, Will Power, Grounding, Self Expression, Focus and Self Love Tea. Products are priced from $8 to $55.
Zen Soul Apothecary was born out of Polk’s health struggles. At age 38, the once active Polk experienced severe allergies, eczema and difficulties moving. Medical options she tried only exacerbated her condition. She found relief through meditation, herbal teas, Reiki and further holistic avenues, and was prompting to create products to assist consumers dealing with health problems similar to the health problems she faced. The boss who previously let her go invested $1,000 in Zen Soul Apothecary.
Solo Noir and Zen Soul Apothecary are sold at L1 Retail Store, a residency that’s fertile ground for customer education. L1 is operated and managed by Arts & Public Life, an initiative of UChicago Arts at the University of Chicago to support entrepreneurship and economic development in Chicago’s Washington Park area. Polk is among three inaugural fellows who have free use of the retail space through this year. Next year, she says she’ll seek other physical doors.
Polk thinks the timing is right to boost Solo Noir’s big-box distribution and perhaps attract investors or execute a sale to take both brands to the next level. “At this point, I’ve shown that I am tenacious,” she says. “We’ve built distribution and have an infrastructure to prove we have staying power.”