“I have left Detroit a million times, and I keep returning to it,” says Melissa Butler, The Lip Bar founder and CEO. After residing in cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami and New York, the beauty entrepreneur brought her booming beauty company back home in 2019.
At that time, the company had bounced back from rejection on the Shark Tank in 2015 to negotiating its first major distribution deal with Target just three years later. Known for its vast array of bright colors, the vegan brand was already a massive success through online and outsourced retail distribution. When it came time to open her first (and she says, only) physical location, however, Butler knew there was no place she’d rather be.
“I was living in New York at the time, and I just felt like New York didn’t need me, but I could add a lot of value to my city,” Butler recounts. While it might have been a coded inclusion that only some recognized automatically, she explains that Detroit has always been a part of the Lip Bar brand. Her product line is inspired by the city’s unique fashion and beauty aesthetics and the thriving hair culture surrounding Butler since childhood. Much of the marketing campaign around the Lip Bar’s 2022 collaboration with fellow Detroiter Mia Ray – aptly named The D Girl Collection – was drawn from her experiences as a teenager getting to know the city and figuring out what to adopt into how she would present herself to the world.
But while each trip home filled Butler with hope for the city’s future, especially in creative and entrepreneurial spaces, she realized outsiders often only spoke of Detroit’s past, as though the city had peaked with glory days so far behind that they might not ever be reclaimed. “I wanted to remind people that we can admire and appreciate our past, but we also have the ability to carve out our future,” she adds. “So I was like, ‘I’m moving back home. I’m going to open up a store at home. I’m going to remind Detroiters of the possibilities because everything is possible if we let it be.”
Whether on a conscious level or not, Butler is pouring back into her city in the same ways that it’s poured into her. She speaks of Detroit with a fondness that speaks directly to the nurturing environment she’s evolved in here since childhood. And for her, one of the greatest attributes of that environment has been its ability to center Blackness, she explains.
“It just feels warm and fuzzy,” she gushes. “It feels like a safe haven for Black people. I’ve always said that coming from Detroit, I’ve experienced Black privilege. We always talk about white privilege, but there is a Black privilege in a city like Detroit because we are the majority. And we grow up understanding that like you have successful Black people, and then you have some not so successful Black people. It allows you to see both sides so that you are not believing what the media says about Blackness, because you know what it’s like to have a Black mayor and a Black police chief and a Black everything. So you don’t have to feel othered in your Blackness.”
Butler adds that the confidence built in that environment has been bolstered by the city’s insular nature, which breeds a spirit of collaboration and support. Still, despite the city’s “Little Big Town” feel, as she describes it, she points to the fact that Detroit’s influence on the world simply cannot be discounted. “This is a space where creativity is really held in a very high regard. Like, we built cars, we built pop culture, music as you know it. We have so much influence on the world. Sometimes we don’t get enough credit for it.”
To that end, Butler has set her sights on becoming the city’s next globally renowned entrepreneur, following in the footsteps of Berry Gordy and Henry Ford. That is one of the main reasons she doesn’t intend to open another brick-and-mortar Lip Bar location. She wants to keep the root of her success firmly planted in Detroit. But Butler’s success should also serve as a point of hope and encouragement for many whose childhood was impacted by the perils of inner city life, especially in the ’80s and ’90s, because hers is a tale of triumph that happened despite the adolescent trauma of having to navigate the world with incarcerated parents.
Contrary to what some might expect, she does not begrudge her parents for their decisions, which ultimately affect their lives. (“Pick the things you’re gonna hold because you don’t have that much space,” she shares on forgiveness.) But it has inspired her to forge her path in the world.
“You are not your childhood, you are not your environment, you are not the experiences,” she offers as parting advice. “Every day, we have the ability to wake up and decide the life we are going to live. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy. And it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be overnight. But if you see greater for your life if you know that you have this burning desire in your belly that says, ‘I’m gonna go after this,’ you have to trust yourself. The decisions that my parents made, the mistakes that my parents made, or the lessons that my parents had to go through, do not have to be my same lessons.”
Aside from her recent announcement that she owns the largest Black-owned makeup brands sold at Target, Butler continues to elevate her company to new heights, most notably with the release of TLB’s latest superfoods skincare collection. The collection offers three beauty staples: The Clean Up Gel Facial Cleanser, the Snap Back Skin Serum, and the Dew Me Daily Moisturizer. According to the company, all of these are enriched with powerful ingredients like Blueberry extract, Reishi Mushroom and more.
While much of her success is due to her grit and unwavering confidence, her ability to define success on her terms is what continues to further her horizons.
“You have to figure out what does success mean to you. Not every business is going to be a billion-dollar business. Not every business is going to be a million-dollar business. But that doesn’t mean that those businesses aren’t valid… We’ve gotten so caught up in the hype of business that we forgot that business is very much like beauty in that every one of them is unique.”