By: Tawanah Reeves-Ligon
Tracee Ellis Ross is not new to titles or attention.
She is the second daughter of the legendary Diana Ross, a nine-time NAACP Image Award winner, a four-time Primetime Emmy nominee and a Golden-Globe recipient. She’s been recognized as a director, producer, philanthropist, social activist, fashion icon (for which she won the 2020 People’s Choice Award), founder of the haircare line, Pattern which caters to curly, coily, tight-textured hair, and, as of this past February, the Diversity and Inclusion advisor for Ulta Beauty. When it comes to owning her power, Ross has practiced what she preaches. “I am learning every day to allow the space between where I am and where I want to be to inspire me and not terrify me,” says Ross.
Diligent about Diversity in Workspaces
Due to her main career as an actress, many believed Ross would be limited in her desired business ventures. “When I told a member of my team some years ago that I wanted to start a haircare line, their idea was to start a line of wigs!” she told Fast Company this past January. She took many early rejections and was even told by another associate during her early planning stages that, since she is an actor, who would want to buy haircare products from her? Ross went on to offer some powerful advice for those encountering this type of criticism, doubt or rejection, “Be patient, and stay the course,” she counsels other entrepreneurs. “Take in the information. Take in the disappointments. They will come. They are important. They are part of the opportunity to clarify what you want to do.”
She continued to press forward despite roadblocks and inexperience. Last October, Ross talked more about this during the U.S. Bank’s Women and Wealth Summit, “I did not know how to negotiate on my behalf. I did not know how to talk about money,” which is still a common phenomenon, especially in American society. “Culturally, women are not taught to talk about money. It is thought to be gauche, to talk about money, to be ambitious,” she says. “Patriarchy, racism, sexism, all of these things, have given the very clear message that women are meant to not take up space and not rock the boat.”
Ross encourages fellow women entrepreneurs, especially BIPOC entrepreneurs, to not allow their lack of experience or outside pressures to deter them though. “No one wants to give you money; no one wants to give you all the things you should have,” Ross said during the summit. “I strongly believe in women and women of color fighting for equity, for having a stake in what they create, because historically we give up our names, we give up all these things, and we have no stake in what we make.” This sentiment is evident in how she brands her business. Pattern, available exclusively at Ulta Beauty, focuses on a celebration of Black beauty, which Ross believes is still uncommon, but necessary. “If our hair could talk, it would tell you of our legacies,” she says, “all those ways our identity pushed through spaces where it wasn’t meant to be, but is nonetheless.”
Since launching, Ross has put her naysayers to shame. On its first day, the site yielded nearly eight times the expected sales, and its Instagram following grew to 130,000 within a week. Ross saw how underpenetrated the Black haircare market still remains. According to a 2018 Nielsen report, the Black haircare industry made an estimated $2.5 billion, showcasing that there is considerable opportunity for Black-owned businesses like Pattern to enter the mainstream market. This is exactly what Ross hopes to see happen as the new Diversity and Inclusion advisor for Ulta Beauty. She told BusinessWire, “This work requires commitment and accountability from Ulta Beauty to ensure measurable goals are achieved. I am hopeful and optimistic our work together will create foundational change.” According to Ulta CEO Mary Dillon, the company is “deeply committed to leading purposefully with and for underrepresented voices across retail and beauty on our D&I journey.”
It’s Ross’s goal to support and uplift current and future brands, suppliers and companies created by and for people of color sold at Ulta as well as to assist the company in developing diverse and inclusive leadership as well as in their supply chain. They are committed to joining executive diversity and inclusion council summits quarterly. “For so many years, there had not been products for women who wanted to wear their hair naturally and didn’t want to put heat on it or hold themselves up to a white standard of beauty,” shared Ross with InStyle.
She also told them, “I walked into my relationship with Ulta as a person who always was looking to create a more equitable space for women, for Black people, for people of color across the board. It’s something that is my guiding force and mission in my acting career and my producing. That is how I move through the world, so it was no different in the beauty industry. And it’s one of the reasons I decided to go with Ulta. Mary Dillon has been focused on and fighting for inclusion and diversity at Ulta from when I started my relationship with them, and none of that has changed through all of this.”
Commitment to Personal & Professional Growth
The actress has had a stellar career from playing lawyer Joan Clayton in the critically-acclaimed show “Girlfriends” in the 2000s to Dr. Rainbow Johnson in the award-smashing “Black-ish” and most recently Grace Davis in her biggest film yet [that also showcased her singing debut], “The High Note.” However, it has not always been simple or easy. Ross had to find her own way in Hollywood without falling into the shadow of her famous mother. She’s also felt the challenges of being a woman (especially single and childless) in a ruthless, patriarchal industry still holding on to antiquated social ideals. As Ross explained in a past interview with Oprah, “My worth just gets diminished as I am reminded that I have ‘failed’ on the marriage and carriage counts,” adding she spent “many years waiting to be chosen” until it occurred to Ross that her power to be happy relied solely on her. “Well, here’s the thing – I’m the chooser,” she said.
Ross uses her platform and her projects to help other women feel comfortable with choosing their own power verses yielding it to others.
During her 2020 People’s Choice Award speech for Fashion Icon of the Year, she explained, “I spent years playing dress up in my closet as a way to find some freedom or some power, and the more that I discovered who I really was – the more I was able to hone my creative expression through clothing. I wear my insides on the outside, and if featuring Black designers at the American Music Awards helps someone see the power of Black artistry, or if joining the call to wear black at the Golden Globes led to solidarity with women saying time’s up on sexual harassment, then you heard me loud and clear…”
On an episode of the podcast, Can’t Stop Watching, she mentioned pushing back against outdated gender norms in her portrayal of Rainbow. “What I did speak up about from the beginning was, ‘Why am I carrying laundry?’ ‘Why am I the person in the kitchen cooking right now, when this has nothing to do with the scene?’…And I started coining them as ‘lady chores.’ ‘Why am I doing the lady chores?’ ‘Can’t Anthony [Anderson] do the lady chore?’” She was adamant that this role shouldn’t mimic the usual “sitcom wife” and that society can benefit from this kind intentionality in our programming.
“I don’t believe they’re ‘lady chores.’ I believe they’re house chores.
And I don’t believe that we should assume, because I believe every relationship is a negotiation between two people about what each of them feel comfortable doing, and I think the more that we portray that on television, the more that that becomes the reality out in the world, or matches the reality that the world actually is,” she said.
On Power, Politics & Progression
We connect to our personal power in so many ways and on varying levels. One issue that Tracee Ellis Ross advocates we should focus our power on is promoting positive social change in our government, specifically through activism and the vote. Ross was included in the 2020 Democratic National Convention lineup and spoke to Geoff Edgers, of the Washington Post, previously on what it was like when she was first asked to assist the DNC during the Obama administration as well as the relevance of her platform. “…I don’t think I knew at that time how personal politics were. They felt like something that was out of my reach. So for me, the  DNC felt like a sort of an evolution from where I already sit. The career I have is about storytelling, but I’m more than an actor. I’m a producer and a founder of a hair company and a CEO. I’m an American citizen. I’m a black woman,” shared Ross.
These different, but inclusive, identities drive her pleas to other black and women voters to harness their powers and use their voices to bring about necessary changes in this continuously discriminatory and marginalized society. “It takes a lot of courage to advocate for yourself. As a woman, and as a Black woman, advocating for yourself is actually a form of resistance. It is how each of us push the world, to make sure that the real estate matches the reality of who we are and what we deserve,” Ross said in a chat with fellow Golden Globe-winner Kerry Washington for Elle this past August.
“And every courageous act that a marginalized person takes opens up a space for somebody else,” she continued. “…The system is mirroring back a powerlessness. That’s not the truth, but we so often believe in the system—because how could you not?—and you think that’s the truth.” She went on to discuss the value of power in community. “That is one of the ways that the system keeps you powerless. The system says, you’re alone in this, it’s only you. The more that you link arms and realize the fellowship that occurs in the same feelings, the more power you have.”
As for her haircare line, Ross to InStyle she believes her company to be “inherently political, because the celebration of Blackness in the face of racism in and of itself is a political act of resistance.” Pattern supports multiple related initiatives such as the Crown Act, the African American Policy Forum and United Way Worldwide, specifically as it relates to their programs helping Black communities which have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Ross told Yahoo Finance this past December, “Particularly during this pandemic, it was a little scary. And I think so much of what’s happened in this very unprecedented time has really reinvigorated my mission for the company, my intention and my promise of the brand.” Ross, with her tenacity and graceful perseverance, reminds us to be unapologetic with how we acknowledge and use our inner power. It is our own. Without our permission, our power cannot be taken; it cannot be shaken; it cannot be broken.