Podcasts   //   July 28, 2022

‘It’s not just something that we put on our website’: Prose’s vp of social impact Helen Nwosu on keeping a scaling company ethical

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Prose is a hair care company in growth mode, but it’s also laser-focused on remaining a responsible brand. One of the people behind this push is Helen Nwosu, the company’s vp of social impact.

On this week’s episode of the Modern Retail Podcast, Nwosu spoke about how she juggles the needs of a scaling brand while maintaining Prose’s core values which include being transparent about its sustainability efforts, providing a safe and equitable workplace and making its products accessible to more people around the world.

“My role is really tied to the fact that my founders… all wanted to have social impact and business as a source for good clearly embedded in the business from the get-go,” Nwosu said.

That doesn’t mean that Prose, which was founded in 2017, isn’t riding a rocket ship, business-wise. The company, which sells custom hair products, has seen revenue grow 3x for three years in a row. It brought in $80 million of revenue in 2021.

According to Nwosu, who has spent her career working at the intersection of social impact and business at companies like Louis Vuitton, the way to keep a company honest is to work beyond a marketing lens. For example, Prose has been a certified B-corp since 2019 — which means that company has to prove certain elements of social and environmental performance. What’s more, Prose is also a public benefit corporation.

“What’s interesting is that it makes our public benefit a mandate to our board,” said Nwosu. That is, Prose doesn’t have to just write nice-sounding marketing copy about why it’s acting both sustainably and ethically, but it was to report on all of its initiatives to its board and external organizations. “It’s part of our legal charter,” she said. “It’s not just something that we put on our website.”

With that, some days she’s working on front-facing activation and other days she’s poring over technical documents.

“It’s really technical,” Nwosu said, “I do like that aspect of the job because that’s where the magic is.”

Another part, she said, is making sure the entire company is in lockstep with its values — including how the products are made. For example, all of Prose’s manufacturing happens in Brooklyn. “In this day and age, where most manufacturing companies — specifically for consumer good — are moving outside of big urban areas, we’re allowed to provide really great jobs,” Nwosu said.

Right now, Nwosu is working on many projects — including trying to cater to wider swathes of customers as well as keep Prose’s many sustainability efforts up to date. For example, the company has sharing resources with other beauty B-corporations, allowing them to “really talk about transportation, logistics and ingredient sourcing.” Those, she said, “are probably the three biggest challenges for a company of our size.” So far, Prose says, it has reduced its carbon intensity by 67%.

“At the end of the day, three times growth means we’re making more product [and thus] we’re using more of the planet’s resources,” Nwosu said. “So that has to be something that I mold the company to do mindfully — let’s build each product that we build better. So that’s where my focus is really.”

Here are a few highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

Why Prose is so focused on external certifications
“We became a certified B Corp in 2019 — 2022 marks our recertification process, which is already started. And B Corp. Certification is really ab environmental and social governance matter. And it allows us to really look int our internal systems — to have an audit of how we treat our people, how we’re treating our planet, how we’re treating our communities. And have a check system not only for what we’ve done, but where we want to go, and make clear goals about not only our people, [but our] our DEI initiatives, clear goal about climate change and our carbon impact; clear goals about our community involvement. So yeah, there’s that. And there’s also [the fact that] we’re a public benefit corporation. And that’s something that we started last year. And a public benefit corporation, what’s interesting is that it makes our public benefit a mandate with our board. So it’s part of our legal charter. It’s not just something that we put on our website, I actually have to report to the board at some point and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve done. This is what we’re planning to do. This is the way that it benefits the community.'”

On juggling both the front-facing and invisible parts of the role
“Speaking with you that’s super front-facing and super nice to be able to kind of speak to some of the work that we do in the community. But insofar as sustainability and our carbon footprint, it’s really tedious, to be honest with you, because we’re going to the all the teams looking at our invoices for all year, measuring our electricity, finding where the red flags are, where we can start to reduce. So it’s really technical. I do like that aspect of the job because that’s where I think the magic is; that’s where the reduction is because we really see what’s the impact of our business. Juggling both, I think it’s just how you wear different hats.”

Prose’s multi-disciplinary approach to social impact
“I am able to interface with everybody that’s involved in that growth — whether it’s from the finance team [to] the operations team, and be able to input what my thoughts are. When we get together as an executive team, we’re really carrying this company from a startup phase to as we grow to this next stage that we’re in. The thing about having 10 people in a room together, you get different thoughts and opinions. I’m going to come with a different angle than the finance team or the COO or the CMO. And we’re able to kind of take all of our ideas together and move the ship forward in the most mindful way. And I think when we say we’re a certified B Corp, I think that at least signals that when we’re at the table talking about how to move this company forward and grow this company, that we’re hearing the voices not of just one person saying ‘grow grow grow’ ‘numbers numbers numbers,’ we’re hearing the voice of multiple people saying, ‘hey, let’s think about ur packaging, maybe we can develop it in a different way; Let’s think about our offering, are we making sure that we’re making products for all types of hair?'”