Photo by Justin Milhouse
Deirdre Roberson is a Black entrepreneur, chemist and STEM education advocate. A couple years ago, she added an unlikely project to her resume: clothing designer.
Though fashion might seem like the one that doesn’t belong, the idea for Eumelanin, her line of clothing and accessories, was inspired by Roberson’s education work — and it’s grounded in passions she’s had since childhood.
In 2018, as Roberson and her partners pitched Motor City S.T.E.A.M. at a Michigan Women Forward competition, she came up with the idea to put the chemical structure of melanin on her T-shirt. They swept the competition. Afterwards, she posted the image online, and was immediately flooded with requests.
At that moment, she knew she was on to something.
“I went back to the drawing board and thought, how does this brand embody who I am and what I stand for?” Roberson told Detour.
She designed shirts using the melanin chemical structure image paired with melanated shades, from the lightest to the darkest spectrum. She named the brand after the most prominent type of melanin found in black and brown skin and hair.
On March 22, 2018, she released her first shirt online, selling out of preorders and making over $1,000 in just four hours.
“I knew it was a thing at that point,” Roberson said. “The mission and the brand has been building from there.”
In the early stages of Eumelanin, Roberson created one of the brand’s trademarks — The Melanin Wall. Not just a cute photo-op, the wall at Fairlane Mall emphasizes what Eumelanin is all about: allowing people of color to feel empowered and beautiful.
Keep reading for more about Roberson’s leaps between chemistry and fashion, the personal activism that permeates her different projects and what kinds of support she thinks Black-owned businesses need right now.
Detour: As a Detroit native, what pushed you to head back after college at Xavier University in New Orleans?
Roberson: I grew up in Southwest Detroit and came back in 2008. I didn’t want to be back, and then I slowly began to fall back in love with Detroit. I knew whatever I was going to do, it’s going to be here. I’ve seen a lot of depression, so I wanted to make sure I could contribute to that story when everything started to change. And that’s when I decided I was going to start putting my roots down in Detroit.
Your career path has taken a lot of twists and turns — what did you start out doing, and what are you focused on now?
I thought I was going to dental school. So when I came home, I shadowed my dentist for a year, and was like, this isn’t for me. So that’s when I decided to go to grad school at the University of Detroit Mercy. My emphasis was in Medicinal Chemistry and Biochemistry — I’ve worked in labs and I also worked for the City of Detroit as an environmental scientist for about three years. I’ve been overseeing the STEMinista Project at the Michigan Science Center since last April.
In the midst of that, I helped found Motor City S.T.E.A.M. with two other women with advanced degrees in STEM, Dr. Alecia Gabriel and Chinonye Akunne. We also launched The Lab Drawer, an education subscription box for youth.
Eumelanin is my main focus now. We had a lot of big wins when I founded Eumelanin, so it just shot off. The skills I learned building Eumelanin as a solo entrepreneur I brought back to Motor City S.T.E.A.M.
How did your love of fashion come about?
I’ve always been really big into fashion. I started sewing at age 13 and started making skirts and dresses. I remember my mom’s friend wanted me to take in her Versace pants — I was so nervous! I remember feeling so accomplished after I did that.
For so long I was told, you have to either be a chemist, or you have to be this creative in fashion. I chose what was best for me at the time, not knowing how this would pan out. But reflecting and growing as a woman, I learned that I’m all these things. So that’s why the development of Eumelanin is just that special to me. I can speak through all my talents in the brand and showcase a whole picture of who I am.
Tell us about how your devotion to activism ties into your work.
Growing up as a dark-skinned woman, you’re told a lot of things based on your skin tone. Being told things like, “You’re cute for a Black girl,” I thought, how do I challenge these ideas? How do I be a voice for people and be a brand that celebrates exactly how God made us? And there’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s empowering to celebrate exactly who you were created to be.
I was always very passionate about the Black community and the Black Lives Matter movement. I am a proud auntie to a niece and a nephew, and when Tamir Rice was shot, he was the exact same age as my nephew. That really shook everything in me and changed how I spoke up. I decided, next time something like this happens, I am going to use my voice and power and skillset. My work is impacting these populations, and now I feel like I have a responsibility to speak up and use my power — so that’s what I’m doing with my brands.
How do you feel about protests happening in Detroit?
They’re necessary. People and companies need to start advocating for the communities they exist in. Detroit is dealing with a lot of gentrification issues, and people of color, specifically Black people, are feeling left out of the story. We need to build dialogue, we need real conversations, but more than that, we need real people on board.
Black entrepreneurs face extra challenges and have been particularly impacted by the pandemic. What kinds of support do they need?
Of course shopping is always needed, but it’s so much harder to get a loan or funding if you’re a Black person in business, especially as a Black woman in business. There need to be more resources deployed among Black businesses in the city, specifically ones that have been there and operating. We need to have more understanding of how many Black businesses are here and the work they’re doing, and how other businesses that are not Black-owned can be a voice on their behalf. I think there is so much work to be done in that space.
Where do you see Eumelanin going next?
I’m dropping a swim line that’s going to come in the next month. I’m also working on creating some high-fashion pieces. I’m planning on growing the brand and keeping in mind that it’s okay to go slow — I’m allowed to roll out my ideas in an effective way. I’m a stylish person, so it has to be fly, too!
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.