Vanguard by Shopify Studios is a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment.
Patrick Boateng II is the CEO and founder of Ceylon by Anim Labs. When Patrick was working overseas in Asia, he had it all: a stable job, opportunities for travel. But when he started having problems with his skin, Patrick realized that most skin-care products weren’t made with black men in mind. Solving a problem for himself and in turn, others, he decided to leave his job and start a skin-care line for men of color.
Natalie Plourde, Emma Fedderson, and Anshuman Iddamsetty
Senior Supervising Producer
Patrick: I had this moment where I said, Look, I have this great job, it’s got a lot of prestige, great living situation, you get to travel, you have a great salary, you know, all the benefits. And here you are, the work that you’re doing, you don’t care about it at all.
There are a lot of people who’ll tell you starting a business is something that is extremely risky, but what’s the worst that can happen? You fail, you go home, you start over again.
My name is Patrick Boateng II, and I am the CEO and founder of Ceylon by Anim Labs. Ceylon by Anim Labs is a skin-care brand developed for men of color.
Anshuman (voice-over): This is Vanguard by Shopify Studios. It’s a podcast about how people from unexplored subcultures and unexpected communities make money today. I’m your host, Anshuman Iddamsetty.
Anshuman (voice-over): When Patrick was in undergrad, he was restless. He’s the kind of person who’s interested in...everything.
Patrick: For me, I had this feeling throughout school. I was a political science major in undergrad. I was doing public policy, but focusing on urban planning. Then when I jumped into urban planning, I was doing product design courses in engineering. So I was constantly shifting what I wanted to do.
Anshuman (voice-over): That’s when he got the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to study abroad in Japan. And the moment he landed, all of his interests came together.
Patrick: What was really exciting about spending time in Japan was getting a chance to see a lot of the visual culture that had made such an impact in my childhood. And a lot of the originating sources,the way in which a lot of the different areas—fashion, music, technology, design— were all kind of coming together.
Anshuman (voice-over): Patrick would eventually travel across Asia working for the US State Department. So when he decided to leave and create a skin-care brand exclusively for men of color, everything snapped into focus.
Patrick: And the only way to make that all make sense together seemed to be to build a company.
Anshuman (voice-over): Today, on Vanguard—I speak with Patrick Boateng II, of Ceylon by Anim Labs.
Anshuman: Patrick. I’m not going to lie to you. When I was a kid, like, I had apocalyptic acne.
Patrick: Oh man.
Anshuman: Honestly, it was all you saw or at the very least, it was how I felt. It was just such a situation. I still have the scars. Right? And I’m so curious, what was it like for you growing up?
Patrick: Growing up, actually, I had pretty clear skin.
Patrick: I didn’t struggle with much acne growing up. I actually—
Anshuman: Okay. Wow. Rude.
Patrick: [laughs] Yeah. I mean...I think this is what really pushed me into the zone of thinking about this. You know, when I was younger I was blessed to have great skin. My mom says it’s because of her side of the family. When you’re a young person, you expect that through your youth, through your teenage years, you’re going to struggle with it. And when you don’t, you’re like, “Okay. Once I become an adult, I’m in the clear.”
Anshuman (voice-over): After high school, Patrick went to Morehouse—a historically black men’s college. And then he went to Harvard, where he studied international relations and design. Eventually, he would end up working overseas for the US State Department.
Anshuman: Wait, so given your interest in design and everything from architecture to engineering to fashion, I’m surprised you entered skin care.
Patrick: So fast forward from design school three years. And in my first year, it is towards the end of my first year in mainland China, I was living in Guangzhou. And at the time I was a consulate officer at the US consulate in Guangzhou. And I was really struggling with my skin.
You know, I was breaking out every day. I had super oily skin. I mean, it was bad. I had breakouts I couldn’t get rid of.
I was totally self-conscious about the way my face looked. I was struggling because it didn’t stop me from going out. However, I did feel like, you know, I have this acne, I have this stuff going on in my skin. I’m at work interviewing people all day, and I’m wondering what are they looking at? Are they looking at the acne on my face? I think in dating and in going out and all these different things you’re just super self-conscious, and it’s hard to go out and feel comfortable in the world, feel comfortable in yourself.
You know, it was so bad to a point that I remember taking a day off one time from work and riding the train down to Hong Kong...and I buy a whole suite of products for myself to try to help with a lot of the issues that I was facing.
And you know, that moment I realized if I was really willing to sit there and do that, really go out of my way like that, I think I was having a pretty serious problem. And it was something that I should think about fixing, think about focusing on, and it wasn’t even at that point, me looking and saying, Are other people going through this? For me, it was just so severe and it really affected the way I felt.
Anshuman (voice-over): It’s not surprising that in our current moment, Western or European standards of beauty reign supreme. According to Patrick, that Eurocentric standard also affects how beauty products are developed, and worse, who suffers the consequences.
Patrick: Well, first, I think if we look at the research, what we found is that a lot of the studies of using different ingredients to treat specific skin conditions, to treat chronic skin conditions, most studies either entirely exclude black and brown people, or the people that actually get to be part of the study, it’s less than 10 percent. And so with that, you have this fundamental lack of knowledge and understanding of the impact of most of these things on people like us. One of the things that a lot of us encounter, especially if we look outside of the US, outside of North America, is that a lot of black and brown people are given products with bleaching creams in them or given products that are causing a lot of long-term effects that are related to cancer and exposure and, ultimately, are really degrading their overall health.
So you know there’s this enormous mountain to climb of inequality and disparity in the availability of treatments and products that can really help empower people to take better control of their skin health.
Anshuman (voice-over): Patrick was struggling with his skin and not finding the right products. At the same time, he was tired of his job. The endless reassignments across Asia were catching up with him.
Patrick: So as I was thinking about leaving, a friend of mine at State Department sent me an article by Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y Combinator. And I was going through his articles, and in one of them he said, Solve a problem for yourself and probably you’ll be solving a problem for a lot of people. That’s where the best businesses come from. And so when I thought about solving this problem for myself, I said, Odds are I’m not the only one going through this problem, especially with the concerns of finding the right products, not using things that can harm you.
Anshuman: So, how did you get to the idea of starting Ceylon? You often hear someone having this big eureka moment, right? So I’m curious, given your pretty interesting path, what was this moment like for you?
Patrick: The big moment that I knew that I needed to launch this brand, really, was a trip that I took to Thailand with a friend of mine. And we went around to a few temples and we got to this big white marble temple. And there’s a small hole that you have to crawl through and you get to this shrine.
So in front of the shrine, you know, I ask for an answer. I say, I’m at a bit of a crossroads, I’ve done quite a few things, what’s the next thing?
Anshuman (voice-over): And that’s when Patrick got a message from the universe.
Patrick: When I came out of the temple, I stand up, and I’m looking out. And as the blood is rushing to my head, you know, I lose my vision for a bit and as my vision kind of comes back it’s like this, this moment of clarity. And it’s in this moment that I kind of said, “Okay. I’m going to launch this company.” I’m going to be based here, and it’s going to all kind of come together. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but this is what I’m going to do next.
Anshuman: Wait, this sounds, and I don’t mean this in a bad way whatsoever, but this sounds too perfect.
Patrick: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I think that it sounds really out there. Really, truly, it was just too perfect. After the fact, for me to sit back and not to see this moment of clarity for what it truly was.
Anshuman: Okay, so what did you do next, once you received this moment of revelation, like how do you act upon it?
Patrick: I went back to my hotel that evening and I called my parents…. Naturally, I called my dad first. I said, “I’m going to quit my job, I’m going to launch a skin-care line, I’m going to move to Bangkok, and I’m going to get it made here.” And he says, “Okay. No problem. A new journey, great, I’m happy for you. Cool.”
With my mom, I called my mom and I tell her the same story. I say, “I’m going to quit my job and launch a skin-care…” and before I even finish she’s like, “No, no, no, no.” And then she’s just like, I don’t know what’s gotten into you and hangs up. And I’m like, well, even if she says that, it’s not going to change the answer. Five minutes later though, she calls me back and she says, “Okay. My dermatologist is one of the top dermatologists to treat people of color. She’ll help you out. You can make a lot of money.” And I’m like, Okay, I think I have her blessing.
Anshuman (voice-over): After that, Patrick quit his job at the State Department. For him, the decision was clear.
Anshuman: So now you have your parents’ blessing, you have the universe’s blessing.
Patrick: Yeah. And still I have to answer the question of, Okay so how are you going to make this stuff.
Anshuman: Yeah. So, I have no idea what the next steps are because in my mind, I think, “Okay skin care, that is a lot of chemistry.” I just imagine these climate-controlled all-white labs where everyone’s in, essentially, HAZMAT suits. How does one person with an idea, and a lot of blessing, how do they get to that stage?
Patrick: More blessings.
I had a neighbor in my building, in China, who was the only other black man living in the building. He walks by one day, I’m at the front desk, and he says, “Hey, black man.” It’s this guy from Chicago. He’s there with his wife, and we’re just having a great time, we’re getting to know one another, we go out a few times and we really connect.
And then one day I just say, “Hey, I’m trying to start this skin-care line, I don’t know what to do.” And he’s like, “Oh, that’s so crazy, you should talk to my wife. My wife is the director of a chemicals lab here in Guangzhou, maybe she’ll know something about it.”
One day, one morning in the elevator, I run in to her in the elevator, and I’m like, I just kind of give her the pitch, it’s elevator pitch, literally. Literally, elevator pitch. And she’s like, “Oh that’s so crazy, our company has an office in Bangkok that specializes in cosmetics.”
Anshuman (voice-over): And that’s when Partick started reaching out to manufacturers...
Patrick: And I make it clear, it’s just me. I’m one person. I don’t have a lot of money. I just want to see what I can do.
Anshuman: I’m curious where funding fits in. How did you fund the company?
Patrick: I funded it out of my own savings.
Patrick: I was really fortunate. I think this is something that...they just simply don’t tell these stories. I think most business owners…use their own funds, their own savings. So they’d take out a loan or family and friends help them fund their business.
I was really fortunate to have scholarships going to school. So, I didn’t have a really large student debt burden. I worked through grad school as a teaching assistant, a teaching fellow. When you’re a diplomat, you don’t pay for housing when you’re abroad. So I was very fortunate to have opportunities to just put a little bit of money away knowing that if I needed to ever have it as a rainy day fund or whatever, I’d be able to do it. And while this wasn’t necessarily a rainy day thing, I did have a sense that I wouldn’t be able to go out and raise some money. I didn’t even know how to do that. I didn’t know how to go out and ask for money for a business.
Anshuman: Wait, hang on. So you’re telling me that you didn’t raise any outside investment? Like, you didn’t pitch to, like, a VC or anything at all? What happened there?
Patrick: Nope. Nope. I raised zero dollars.
Anshuman: Wait. Why? How?
Patrick: But it didn’t really occur to me that it might be good to go and try and raise some money. On top of that, I have this sense that the VC world does not reflect my community, the community that I want to serve. It doesn’t look at opportunities like this and think, “Wow, let’s throw money at that.”
Anshuman: Do you think there’s anything else? Like what do you think that intuition came from that made you say, “Yeah, I don’t know if this is worth it.”
Patrick: Honestly, I think that the feeling about VCs and funders was partly informed out of what I’d seen, but also a place of fear. A place of fear of having to go and set yourself up and try to make this thing fit a model that they wanted to see, fit the culture, fit what they wanted out of it.
The reality is that most businesses, you probably need to prove them first before you go out and get money. And even if it’s an idea that comes off as niche or different. I thought to myself, like, “Look, you right now just need to prove that you can do this. Prove that you can actually make this thing.”
Anshuman (voice-over): And he did. Ceylon got up and running. It was pretty smooth sailing...
But a few months ago, Patrick was dealt with a setback. His business partner, a friend he made at Morehouse…decided to leave the company.
Patrick: Initially it was painful. I think that the dual loss of having a partner in the business, as well as having your friend with you, is something that was extremely painful. Being on the other side of it now, I think it was something that needed to happen.
I think we’re all drawn to different ideas and different visions for how we want to build our careers in our lives. And you know, that was a very difficult conversation that happened over several months. But ultimately just kind of came to a point where we said, you know, it’s just not working. It’s just not working.
I have to respect the fact that, at some level, this fledgling company is dragging you down.
Anshuman (voice-over): But the Ceylon of today is gaining momentum. Their products have struck a chord.
I’m wondering if you have any, I don’t know, customer feedback or reviews you could share with us.
Patrick: Totally, totally. “I just want to let you know that I am an extremely happy customer of this product. From the very first time I tried it, I’ve seen real results. I’ve suffered from embarrassing razor bumps and discoloring of my skin, medium/dark complexion for about four years. Since I’ve tried Ceylon, I’ve got my skin back to being as clear and smooth as it has been in years. Thank you and I’m happy to continue to spread the word and support. It is about time someone came out with a product for our skin type that works. Thank you very much. P.S., please never sell the business. We need this.”
Anshuman: Oh, man, that’s, that’s so sweet. Like, how did that make you feel?
Patrick: You know, it fills your heart. It fills your heart. There’s not a moment where I’ve ever thought of quitting. Not one second, which in and of itself is a sign. But when people talk about how much it improved their skin, I think it’s just one of those things where you know deep down that you’re on the right path. And this kind of reframes the way I even think about failure, right? I think that for a lot of companies out there that do consumer products, your idea is that if this doesn’t work out, if we don’t take off, if we don’t get funding, if we don’t become the next big billion dollar brand, we failed. And the reality is that for us, we’re serving a community that’s never had products like this before for them. And so if the company can’t function, can’t raise money, what am I going to do?
I can go get a job. But you can still keep making these products. You can keep selling these products because ultimately it’s not really about growing the biggest, greatest company that you can. It’s about serving your community. And so that really reframed my perspective on failure, because I used to think that failure was something where you would just say, Okay, we’re going to hang it up and we’re done.
But when you get messages like this, you realize you’ve already done it. You can’t fail.
Listen to more episodes of Vanguard by Shopify Studios, a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment.