Keta Burke-Williams has a new vision for the future of the fragrance industry. The Harvard Business School grad started Ourside, a luxury fragrance company with an ethos of connection and empowerment, after a simple conversation with her sister. She was reminded that space can be made for Black and Brown entrepreneurs and their unique ideas, despite what they’ve been told in the past. Ourside is a place for everyone, but particularly for those who feel like they don’t quite fit in or don’t belong in any particular box—the misfits, dreamers, and pioneers of the world. Read on for Burke-Williams’s journey into entrepreneurship, her biggest challenges when starting her business, and how Ourside is moving the fragrance industry fully into the future.
I’d love to start by hearing a little bit more about your background and what drove you to create Ourside.
I live in New York normally, [but] I grew up in Ohio. My mom is Jamaican, and my dad is [also] Black. I grew up kind of feeling like I was always that kid who never quite fit in. I grew up in an all-white suburb and [had this] this multicultural upbringing, so I sought escapes. That escape, at first, was figure skating. I still remember the way that the ice rink smelled—like a combination of Zamboni gas, cold air, and the Trident Tropical Twist gum that I would always chew. Later, that escape came through reading and through scent, whether it was going to Bath & Body Works and smelling the cucumber melon lotion or burning candles with my mom on the weekend.
For me, scent became this thing where I could escape, close my eyes, and be transported somewhere different just for 30 seconds. But I didn’t do anything with it. I followed more of a studious path. I went to college. I worked for a big Fortune 100 company—Kraft, Heinz—after school. I lived in Chicago doing sales and analytics, and then I went to work for Carnival Cruise Line in Miami. I then started applying to business schools, and I ended up going [to Harvard Business School]. And again, I thought I was going to follow a typical path. I lined up a management-consulting internship and a part-time early-stage venture-capital internship because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do.
My first year at school, I was visiting my sister, and we were just chatting and catching up, and she was telling me how she had gone into a Credo store and made a lot of swaps for skincare and haircare. She was also looking for a new fragrance. She said, “These brands haven’t really changed their values. All the brands that I want to support don’t seem like they’re in this new place with me. I don’t feel like they care about supporting women who look like me, and quite frankly, I’m over it.” She’s a few years younger than me, so she’s all about the “I can demand more from everyone” phase, but she was so right. That was when I had the idea that somebody should be doing something about that, and then we felt like maybe we could do something about that. I started working on the idea with a grant from Harvard between my first and second years. I still did the internships because I had already agreed to do those, so this was the thing I did at 2 a.m. every day in the summer, but I loved it! I continued to work on it in my second year, after school as well, and now full-time. So that’s the path of how Ourside came to be.
The first year that Amy Liu did Tower 28’s Clean Beauty Summer School, we got to participate in that. I think we were the only company that didn’t really have a product at that point yet [laughs], but that really helped validate the vision. I felt like I was crazy for trying to do it because, Why hadn’t it been done? It was nice to have somebody say, “I see where you’re going, and I think that there’s something there.” We also did Credo for Change a few years ago, and ever since, Annie Jackson from Credo has been this incredible mentor figure for me. This [past] fall, we also did Ulta’s Muse Accelerator. Through those programs, it was really helpful to shape and guide the brand as it came to debut in January, which is kind of crazy.
I love that! I think there needs to be more space made for brands owned by Black and Brown folks like you were saying earlier. What else did you learn from Annie Jackson, and how has that helped your journey into entrepreneurship?
Too many things to list! I feel like she has this incredible wealth of knowledge because she’s been in the beauty industry for so long. What I learned from her is that starting small isn’t always a bad thing. Have a big vision, but tackle problems in small pieces. I also learned that generosity goes a long way. She has opened her doors and her connections to me in ways that I really just didn’t expect. That’s how I aspire to be as a leader. I think the last thing that I learned from her and the different programs that I was in is that it’s not enough anymore to be a clean brand or to rest on the laurels of the product formulation, especially with fragrance. I think we’re doing something really special and different, but we’re not reinventing the wheel. There had to be something more that we stand for behind that. Through her and through the programs that I did, we did a really good job hashing out why we want to exist and where we see ourselves going as a brand.
What would you say is the core of the brand mission and ethos? What do you really want people to take away from it?
The idea of scent connecting us. I love fragrances because I think that they can create this single moment of connection that can allow us to see each other as humans. I think that’s really important and really needed in times like these. That’s what we’re trying to do within fragrance, and we’re trying to do it for people who felt like they never belonged or never quite had this place. Oftentimes when you think about seeing yourself in a brand, you think that all of you needs to match the entire DNA of the brand. Instead, … whatever piece of you resonates with us, we’re here to welcome that, and I think that’s something different that we’re trying to do and then doing it in a way where we bring conscious formulations. We formulate in the U.S., we manufacture in the U.S. in New York, and we try to do things in a more conscious way, which I think hasn’t happened a lot yet in fragrance.