Eritrean twins Feven and Helena Yohannes were born in a house made of mud, grass and sticks in a refugee camp in Africa. Today, their Los Angeles- based black-owned beauty business and cosmetics line is an Oprah favorite and during Covid-19, sales for 2.4.1 skyrocketed.
LOS ANGELES- based twins and beauty entrepreneurs Feven Yohannes and Helena Yohannes are no strangers to life’s struggles. In fact, struggles preceded their birth.
The story they have heard their parents often say is of their long months journeying from their home country Eritrea to Sudan as refugees in search of a better place during the uncertain years riddled by conflict in the eastern African country.
And along the way during this perilous trip, the twins were conceived.
What was this long walk like, they once asked their father.
“And my father said with that bright African smile, that it’s like walking from Los Angeles to San Francisco. He said ‘it took us a few months, but we got there’. That had such a profound impact on me,” says Feven.
Their father, a respected political leader who was a freedom fighter in the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, embarked on the journey after sustaining injuries when his comrade stepped on a landmine.
It was a close call, and that was the first “miracle” for the family.
The second was the twins’ birth and survival.
Several mothers died during childbirth given the lack of proper healthcare in the refugee camps. Having twin babies was almost certainly seen as a death sentence. Initially, it was believed the girls’ mother was having “a big baby boy” because there was no technology on hand to discern the nature of the pregnancy.
“So, we were born in the camp. I came out first and then 15 minutes later, my sister came into the world. It was the biggest shock in the refugee camp…. Our house was made out of mud, grass and sticks,” recalls Feven of those early years.
After a while in the camp, their father decided there had to be a better life for the family and actively began to look for opportunities elsewhere. One serendipitous day, their mother overheard a conversation about the United States (US) Green Card lottery system and soon after, their next miracle began to unfold.
Helena offers a graphic description of that hot day in the African sun when things started to change: “So, our mother waited in the hot sun with twins in a queue that was almost a mile long and she sees a tree and walks over to the tree for shade. She sees a white guy who looked out of place standing by the tree but she wanted the shade. The white guy asked her ‘are these girls twins’ and my mum couldn’t understand English so someone explained it to her and my mother said ‘yes’ and she says that the man walked us all the way to the front of the queue because twins [were not known to] survive at the time. So, we were like a miracle in the camp.”
And that is when the family got their first big break. After winning the Green Card lottery that gave
them the opportunity to immigrate to the US, the family relocated to Memphis before moving to Rochester, New York. Even though they were now finally on greener pastures, the struggle continued.
Their father worked as a janitor while their mother labored as a cleaner for the Presbyterian Church that had sponsored their American dream.
From those early days, they learned the power of family.
“My dad got his masters in Green Public Policy and my mother became a nurse and we always used our struggles as a way to motivate us. Our mum would work night shifts as our dad would go to school during the day and they would almost take turns building a family unit and really showing us what it looks like to have a healthy marriage and a healthy relationship. Our struggles were an opportunity to grow,” says Helena.
And that growth has led them from being political refugees to becoming hardcore businesswomen, creating 2·4·1 Cosmetics, a line of hypoallergenic lip and eye makeup, which made it to Oprah’s Favorite Things list in 2020.
The twins keep their Eritrean roots as a key philosophy in their new business. Product names like The Red Sea are all nods to their heritage.
“We initially chose 2.4.1 because growing up as twins, people would always ask us ‘are we two for one’? My father would have a look of confusion on his face. Then he said to us one day that ‘there is no discount on your self-worth, you are Feven and you are Helena’ and that lesson never left us. We still instill those lessons through our brand ethos and are blessed to have a father who is a feminist in a way,” says Feven.
The company was launched in 2019 after four years of incubation.
“We started looking at the beauty industry and how the people who are heavy-hitters and who are making the decisions about the kind of makeup we are wearing don’t really understand our experiences. They are making decisions not valuing us and more valuing the dollar,” says Helena.
The twins discovered along the way that ultimately the whole essence of beauty was giving women a sense of affirmation.
But no sooner did the brand launch than Covid-19 wreaked havoc across the world.
“The company was building up and gaining momentum. There was no PR team, it was just the two of us. Then, March 2020 and Covid hit,” says Feven.
Their product’s biggest competitors unexpectedly were toilet paper and hand sanitizers. Covid-19 restrictions meant that people were now wearing masks and beauty seemed to take a backseat. Luckily, the Black Lives Matter movement which gained global attention brought in some relief as consumers decided to actively seek out black-owned businesses to support.
“People decided we can vote with our dollars and decided to support us and we got media and press and decided to support us and we got media and press and we went from zero to sales of 600%,” says Feven.
From trying different entrepreneurial pursuits, ranging from a failed wedding app to a fledgling fashion and lifestyle blog, it seems the Yohannes twins have now finally found their calling.
And their past failures have taught them two invaluable lessons. First, about the power of execution. They use social media and storytelling to constantly engage with their loyal following who are growing daily.
Secondly, the power of believing enough in yourself to self-fund your own ideas. And the reason they had to go that route? “Funding is really hard for people of color; 0.2% of venture funding only goes to people of color. Investing in black women is really good business. When you look at the beauty landscape, we outspend by nine times more than non-black women but yet
we are overlooked and overshadowed and that is ridiculous.
“We didn’t take the venture [capital] route, so we are 100% owned and we put our own money into the business. It’s okay to start small. We think the fastest way to get to where you are going is to start slow. We may not have all the funds but we have a loyal customer base,” says Feven.
The long-term goal after cracking the US market is to expand their beauty offering across Africa and give back to their motherland. They are shaping the beauty industry and new thinking for other entrepreneurs too on the cusp of change.