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From Refugees to CEOs: the Story of the Yohannes Twins

Updated: May 12

Refugees encounter many challenges from fleeing violence in their home countries, migrating to a safe third country and resettling in their new home country. When they do resettle in their new home country, some refugees struggle more than others. Some refugees struggle because they don’t speak the local language in their new home country or don’t have marketable job skills. Some refugees find success in their new home countries by starting their own business. However, this success did not come without its challenges which the Yohannes twins experienced first hand. This is the incredible resettlement journey of the Yohannes twins.

Feven and Helena’s journey began in 1982. Their parents were political dissidents who fled from the violence of the Ethiopian Civil War. At this time Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia before gaining independence and official recognition as a country in 1993. The twins’ parents arrived in a refugee camp in Sudan, after a couple of months by foot, where Feven and Helena would eventually be born. Life in the camp was not easy, the Yohannes family lived in a makeshift dwelling made from mud, grass, and sticks. There was also a lack of proper healthcare in the refugee camp, the twins’ mother was pregnant with them and many women had died during childbirth at the time. Despite the risks to them and their mother the twins were born healthy. Feven and Helena lived in the refugee camp for the first four years of their lives with their parents and two older brothers.

In 1985 the twins’ parents obtained Green Cards through the lottery system which enabled them to resettle in the United States. First the Yohannes family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee and finally resettled in Rochester, New York. However, it initially wasn’t very easy for the Yohannes family to make it in their new home country. Feven and Helena’s parents financially struggled to support them and their brothers. Their parents' struggles taught the twins the important lessons of family strength and perseverance. It was during their teenage years that the twins discovered their life-long passion for makeup, Feven and Helena would give makeovers to their mother and girls they knew in their neighborhood and high school.

After four years of incubation, the twins launched their cosmetics brand, 2·4·1 Cosmetics, in 2019. However, Feven and Helena faced daunting challenges to make their company a reality. The creation of 2·4·1 Cosmetics came from the twins’ passion for makeup but more importantly, from their realization that the cosmetics industry is not representative of women of color. At first, Feven and Helena wanted to pursue a venture but were confronted with the reality that Black-owned businesses and start-ups receive very little venture funding compared to businesses owned by white individuals. The twins were also frustrated that existing cosmetic companies, primarily run by white men, did not take the voices of Black women and women of color into account when it came to creating makeup. After multiple rejections from investors, Feven and Helena decided it was best to create and build their own company that affirmed women of color.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world. Feven and Helena were worried about the viability of their company, which had just begun gaining momentum and recognition. The twins found themselves having to compete with companies selling PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), toilet paper, hand sanitizer and masks. Makeup was not a top priority purchase for many individuals. However, there was a stroke of luck for 2·4·1 Cosmetics. In the summer of the same year, the Black Lives Movement gained global attention. During this time people examined their beliefs and actions, or inactions, regarding anti-Black racism. More people showed their support for Black-owned businesses, including 2·4·1 Cosmetics. Also that year, Oprah Winfrey chose 2·4·1 Cosmetics as an addition to her “Favorite Things” list which brought even more attention, and customers, to the company. Today the Yohannes twins continue to shape the cosmetic industry to become more inclusive and representative for women of color.

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