December 3, 2023

As political refugees from Eritrea growing up in Rochester, New York, in the 1980s and ’90s, Feven and Helena Yohannes, identical twins and best friends, often found themselves enduring stupid questions from strangers. “Which one of you is the nice one? Are you the smart one? Are you two for one?

They could shrug off most insensitive comments, but that last one struck a deeper chord. “We knew there was no discount when it came to our self-worth,” says Feven, “but then we thought, why can’t we be two equally powerful attributes in one? Both smart and nice?” Their parents made sure the girls knew that combo wasn’t only possible but true about each one of them—they were born blessed with these attributes, but what they did with them mattered more. “They taught us the importance of leading a life of purpose,” says Feven.

Their mom—and first muse—also taught them an early lesson about beauty: that makeup could be a source of strength, not simply something to mask imperfections. “We were born in a refugee camp. My mother worked night shifts as a nurse to help pay our way in this country. But she never left the house without her red lipstick on,” says Helena. “ Every night, when she’d hug us goodbye, her red lips were like her armor of courage. For us, they signaled that everything was going to be all right.”

Flash-forward to 2017, and the two now 30-something sisters were living and working in Los Angeles. Both were frustrated when shopping for makeup. Remembering their parents’ advice to lead a life of purpose, the twins created their own line of cosmetics, dedicated to the things that mattered to them: colors and palettes designed for all skin tones, and formulations that are hypoallergenic, non-comedogenic, and cruelty- and paraben-free. They launched their company—named 2.4.1 Cosmetics, natch—in 2018, and by 2020, their holiday lip gloss collection was one of Oprah’s Favorite Things. This year they’re back with another awesome lip kit. Here, we talk to them about the power of lipstick, the impact of words, and the “God moment” they had with Oprah.

2.4.1 Cosmetics Classic Lip Gloss Collection

Classic Lip Gloss Collection

2.4.1 Cosmetics Classic Lip Gloss Collection
Credit: Gregor Halenda

In what ways does your past play out in your work and company?

Helena: The first few years in America were hard. We had a front-row seat to our parents’ struggle. They did their best to shield us from the fear and frustration of raising four children with little money in an unfamiliar country, but we could feel it. Our father eventually graduated with a master’s degree in public administration, and our mother became a nurse. Seeing our parents’ path from struggle to triumph completely influenced us as people and as founders. There have been many hurdles along our entrepreneurial journey, but we’ve found that when we focus on what we can control, the obstacles become the opportunity. We understand the meaning of teamwork.

How has the beauty industry changed since starting the company?

Helena: When we first started, we felt most people making beauty products for women didn’t do it from the lens of how we, as Black women, felt. Inclusion in the beauty industry should not be an afterthought—it’s good business practice. The industry has made some progress since then. But there are founders, like us, who continue to be underfunded. We’re 100 percent self-funded, which means Feven and I are both still working other jobs in order to follow this dream. I work in real estate now, and she’s an interior designer.

You have said that makeup is transformative, meant to enhance, not to conceal. How can makeup empower?

Feven: We believe makeup is a meditative process. The names and descriptions we wrote for each product were intentional because words are powerful. Words become thoughts. And the stories we tell ourselves can hold power over us. Our makeup comes in names like Queen, Honor, and Class Act because we want those stories to be part of everyone’s daily affirmations.

With our line, every product is meant to enhance your natural features—sorry, but you won’t find bright pink eyeliner on our site! Instead, you’ll find essentials, like black eyeliner, mascara, a nude- or pink-toned lip gloss. We want you to feel great just the way you are. We think confidence is the best color.

Helena: Beauty is confidence, poise, authenticity, intelligence, curiosity, and kindness. One of our favorite product descriptions is for Queen, our plum-berry velvet lipstick. We write: “To be a Queen, you must know your value. You must move with integrity, grace, and grit. You choose faith over fear. You choose hope over cynicism. You empower those around you, and you encourage others to use their voice.” That’s our definition of beauty.

What was it like to be told by Oprah herself that you were chosen for this year’s list?

Feven: We were shocked. We started crying. Oprah said to us: “This is a God moment,” and boy, did that resonate. Oprah has been in the forefront of our minds and the 2.4.1 Cosmetics brand ethos since the start. We read all her books, but the one book that really spoke to us was What I Know for Sure. This inspired our decision that every product description would have a positive affirmation and not just a list of clean ingredients. WWOS [“What would Oprah Say?”] became our inside motto.


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