16 July 2021 • Alums • Entrepreneurship FEVEN YOHANNES '04: Divine Messages
Feven Yohannes ’04 and her identical twin sister Helena have always seen beauty as a way to connect with other women. For the Eritrean refugees born in a camp in Sudan, makeup was a way to form relationships in their predominantly white neighborhood in Rochester, N.Y., and how Yohannes built friendships on the Hobart and William Smith campus.
Connection is at the heart of the twins’ new company, 2.4.1 Cosmetics, which works to empower women by enhancing their natural beauty. And two of those connections — in the form of tweets, posts and online direct messages, or what Yohannes calls “divine messages” — have allowed the twins to form mentor relationships with two of the biggest names in beauty: Diane von Furstenberg and Bobbi Brown.
In 2015, Feven won the “How I Became the Woman I Wanted to Be” contest sponsored by House of DVF, a reality television show that followed the life of fashion icon von Furstenberg. Entries were accepted in the form of 140-character tweets and a recent photo posted on Twitter; the prize was a new car, painted in bold colors reminiscent of von Furstenberg’s iconic wrap dresses, a style that had long been one of Yohannes’ obsessions.
Her winning entry read: “From Eritrea to a refugee camp in Sudan, I carry the pride of my people & the strength of my mother,” and was accompanied by a photo of Yohannes in a geometric-print dress standing in front of a backdrop with a strikingly similar print, taken at the DVF Journey of a Dress Exhibition the previous year. The dress may have looked like a DVF original, but it was one Yohannes had made from fabric purchased at the Makola Market in Accra, Ghana.
von Furstenberg awarded Yohannes the car, along with shoes, a signed handbag and one of those iconic dresses. After their meeting, Yohannes struck up an email relationship with her idol, and eventually formally asked von Furstenberg to be her mentor. They now have monthly check-ins, where von Furstenberg has counseled her to be intentional and to speak from the heart. “Diane reminds me to be authentic, to always remember the story of where I came from and to share that story,” Yohannes says. “I carry that lesson in everything I do.”
The second mentor connection for the twins began in 2018, when Yohannes’ sister Helena tagged makeup maven Bobbi Brown in a post on Instagram after listening to Brown on an episode of the NPR podcast How I Built This with Guy Raz. “We realized we look at makeup the same way, which is a practical solution to enhance natural beauty,” Yohannes explains. “Hearing Bobbi was an affirmation of what we already believed.”
Soon after the Instagram post, Brown reached out to Helena through direct message, and Helena began cultivating the relationship. “We thank God for Twitter and Instagram,” says Yohannes. “This is where social media is amazing.”
The twins had been communicating with Brown through Instagram messages for about a year when they launched 2.4.1 Cosmetics, at which point they sent her samples of all their products. Brown subsequently posted about them on her account, resulting in a wave of new customers for the sisters.
The relationship was taken to the next level during the Black Lives Matters protests when Brown — whose makeup ventures have always focused on inclusivity — asked Helena to jump on a call, part of an effort to connect with entrepreneurs of color working in the beauty space. At the end of the call, Brown said she would like to mentor the twins.
“Bobbi is a breath of fresh air and a wealth of knowledge,” says Yohannes. In the summer of 2020, when their lip gloss collection was selected as part of Oprah’s Favorite Things annual holiday gift list, they reached out to her. “We were worried about what would happen if we couldn’t fulfill certain orders, if we had an avalanche of sales,” Yohannes explains. “Bobbi was very firm: ‘It’s okay, just create a wait list.'” The lip glosses quickly sold out, the twins created a wait list and six weeks later, they were able to fulfill those orders, just as Brown predicted.
Today, the sisters communicate regularly with both von Furstenberg and Brown in an organic way. “When we’re experiencing something with the business, we reach out,” Yohannes explains. “Because they’ve already been there, they provide us with perspective and advice. It’s so important to ask the people who’ve made it and are coming back to give us a lesson.”
When it comes to establishing mentor relationships with successful people, Yohannes suggests having specific questions to ask. “Any time you have the opportunity to connect with someone who has achieved in their career what you’re hoping to achieve, write down three goals or three questions,” she says. “This helps you focus the conversation and won’t waste the mentor’s time — especially if you have that one shot.”
As 2.4.1 Cosmetics continues to grow, Yohannes hopes to connect with, and perhaps establish a mentor relationship with — another of her idols, Oprah. In the meantime, she looks forward to being a mentor herself. “I want little Black girls to look at me and say, ‘I can do it, too.'”
This article was part of a special feature in the latest issue of the Pulteney Street Survey, which profiled seven HWS graduates who reflected on the role of mentorship, formal and informal, in facing the unknown — and achieving success.