Wilma Mae Basta seeks to make change through DRK Beauty, her digital community for women of color. Her new initiative organizes clinicians to donate their time to those most in need.
Wilma Mae Basta grew up with a distinct feeling of otherness. The daughter of Philadelphia civil rights activist Stanley Branche grew up on the city’s Main Line. On moving to suburban Villanova, where very few people of color lived in her neighborhood, she felt that she didn’t fit in. Growing up, she heard the stories of her father’s activism from her mother. His relationships with such civil rights leaders as Dick Gregory, Gloria Richardson, and Malcolm X are well documented. Basta’s career began in public relations in London before she decided to fulfill her goal of working for herself. Her road to entrepreneurship has not been a straight one, but it’s brought her to her latest venture, DRK Beauty, a company that focuses on beauty inside and out by creating a safe space for women of color.
Entrepreneurship was in my blood, because my father hopped from business to business. He was never an employee and ran several businesses, though he later got in trouble with the law. He always called himself an entrepreneur. I disliked the word back then because he never succeeded in any of the businesses, and I didn’t want to be like that. But I also had the drive to run my own business. My father was one of those people who would fight your corner, and he would stand up for the small guy. He didn’t carry fear. He wasn’t afraid of being arrested. He never had any anxiety or fear about approaching anybody about racism or anything that was disrespectful to people in his community.
My mom was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, in the ghetto. She was a dark-skinned Black woman who was raised around gambling and prostitution in her home. She got into Pennsylvania State University, which was almost unheard of for a Black woman in the 1940s. She’s always displayed a sense of strength and determination, which I definitely got from her. I was taught not to be fearful–and that I, despite the challenges, I should go for it anyway. To be an entrepreneur is to embrace fearlessness.
In the early 2000s, things were changing in my life. My first marriage was ending. I was burnt out from more than 10 years in PR. I started a business called the Gathering Club. It was before social media. It was for people in their 30s who wanted to meet new people but not date. How do you add to your friendship network? If you’re not hanging out in the bars and clubs, how do you meet people that you would like to invite to a dinner party that you’re hosting?
I had to close down the Gathering Club because I didn’t know how to build it. It was still pre-Facebook. It was pre-social media. And I’m a Black woman, not a White guy in Silicon Valley, so there wasn’t anybody raising their hands to help me figure out how to grow this business.
Around the time that I was considering my next chapter, I was with my family on holiday. My daughter and I got to talking about beauty, and our poor retail experience in the U.K. I was saying how frustrated I was that to buy hair products, I have to go to a beauty-supply store that’s not owned by people who look like me, that is staffed by men only, almost 98 percent of whom don’t look like me. And when I go to these stores, they follow me around to make sure that I don’t steal anything. And they are also checking my ass out while they’re making sure that I don’t steal anything. And that’s the best option I have.
This is where DRK Beauty came from. How can we create real, true community that helps people to thrive as individuals? How can we then help brands to understand that we’re not a monolith? That we are diverse. It’s not just Black women. It is Latinas. It is South Asian and East Asian, and Indigenous women. It’s LGBTQ. There wasn’t anything that leads with women of color as the first and foremost. We wanted to create a community for women of color, across the board. We wanted to work with brands to not just market to us, but also to build longer-term relationships, to understand and learn about us as a community–and as niche communities of color. It goes beyond beauty–it’s about the beauty of who we are inside as well as outside.
In April, I woke up in a state of anxiety about the pandemic, and its impact on Black and Brown communities. No one was talking about it much in the media at that point, but I knew instinctively it was going to impact our communities. I thought, “Well, let’s see if we can give away free therapy.” I had no idea how to do that, but I like to figure problems out.
I started speaking to therapists, and what we learned very quickly is that therapists are encouraged to give away about 20 hours a year pro bono. I thought: Great. Can I get 10 of those hours for my initiative? To my surprise, they said yes. We want it to be a directory where people can come on and find a therapist in their state.
By the end of July, clinicians in about half of all states had donated about 2,000 hours of free therapy. We have over 100 clinicians in about half of all states on our platform, and we’re adding more every day.
Our goal is to raise $500,000, so we can start paying our therapists and continue this initiative to give away free therapy. This effort is the first step in our mission to support women of color and help them thrive in the world as individuals.
Mental health is important to me because I went through mental health struggles and suffered from severe depression and was hospitalized 10 years ago. When you’re hospitalized, you get to see the cold, hard truth about mental health, how it manifests differently in different people, and how it’s treated. It doesn’t discriminate, no matter what your socioeconomic level is.
I feel hopeful because I predicted three years ago that the way that brands market to women of color needed to change. Now brands finally are understanding that change is needed.