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February 01, 2023 10 Questions

This Latina lawyer launched a makeup line inspired by her culture and community

By Jenny B. Davis
Regina Merson

Regina Merson

Photo by Elizabeth Lavi.

Thanks to the Great Recession, 2008 was an epic year for lawyers specializing in economic fallout. As a BigLaw bankruptcy associate, Regina Merson was soon consumed by bank failure filings, requiring her to log double-digit hours every day, seven days a week, often for months at a stretch.

Mornings became Merson’s only consistent downtime, and she devoted those quiet moments to her makeup routine. The careful application of cosmetics allowed her to refocus and recharge for the day ahead, but it also gave her the chance to indulge in her always-expanding collection of color-filled compacts, jars and tubes.

Merson’s obsession with makeup began when she was a child in Guadalajara, Mexico. She loved watching her mother’s daily beauty routine and the dramatically painted faces of the telenovela actresses. Over time—from her family’s move to Texas when she was in elementary school, to her undergraduate years at Yale University, and then to law school at the University of Chicago and the launch of her professional career—Merson’s makeup passion only intensified.

But Merson wasn’t the only Latina invested in the beauty industry. The Latin American market represents nearly 20% of the U.S. beauty industry’s revenue and spends more per year on personal care products like cosmetics than the general population, according to statistics from research firm NielsenIQ.

Merson didn’t know these numbers at the time, but she did know that she didn’t feel represented—or respected—by the brands she was buying. That realization eventually led the Dallas lawyer to launch her own cosmetics company called Reina Rebelde—Rebel Queen—in 2013, to celebrate the depth, diversity and beauty of the Latina culture and community.

From colors to concepts, Reina Rebelde caters to the Latina customer. Was this your intention from the get-go?

The genesis of this entire project was my frustration. I am an immigrant from Mexico, and I grew up with a very ambicultural, bilingual life here in the United States. By the time I began practicing law, it was abundantly clear how confusing it was to be a Mexican woman navigating a very American way of being in a professional setting. When you are a Latina, your sense of culture is embedded in who you are, but I felt like I had to separate my professional life from my community, and that was frustrating. Then there was the frustration I felt from how the beauty industry treated us as a community. Despite our buying power, no store or brand was taking the time to cater to our preferences. Our beauty rituals and techniques have been copied a million times, and we’re never given credit.

That makes me think of Hailey Bieber’s infamous “brownie glazed lips” TikTok tutorial from last fall, when she got credit for a look popularized by Latina and Black women in the 1990s that has roots in LA’s Mexican-American community.

Yes, that’s the most recent one. But there are also eyebrow trends, eyeliner trends and the chola lip, to name a few, that are consistently appropriated. Every major couture designer at some point or another has appropriated something for a runway show that originated from Latina culture. This is why I was so intentional in writing the narrative for Reina Rebelde to make sure that the community is seen and heard.

Thinking about your entrepreneurial origin story, I think the concept of makeup as a self-care ritual is one that resonates with a lot of women.

Those mornings, I very much felt that doing my makeup made me feel like I had some agency over myself amid the chaos around me. That was something impressed upon me at an early age by my grandmother, my mother and my aunts: No matter what’s going on in your life, you always put yourself together and your makeup is part of that. It was never performative. I wasn’t putting on my makeup for my boss; I was doing it for me. At the time, I was hoarding a lot of beauty products, and I realized that I shared this obsession with a lot of other women from the community. We were buying beauty products all the time. At some point, I had this moment when I realized that I am giving all my money to these brands—and it’s not just me, it’s my cousins and all my Latina friends—and no one is really catering to us. They’re taking our money without understanding what this is all about for us.

Sounds like the classic aha moment!

That was the beginning of the aha moment, followed by a lot of research into the industry. Through the research, I confirmed my suspicion that we were all buying a lot more makeup than everyone else. That’s when I decided to leave the practice to start a business.

How did you go about doing that?

 I signed up for a class on starting a business. I think it was just my way of doing one thing to organize my thoughts and figure out how to get my ducks in a row. This was a risky thing I was entertaining, so I wanted to learn the steps to launching a business rather than jumping from a stable career into a random idea. Every Wednesday night for six months, I would sneak out of the office for two hours and then go back to finish my work. It was an iterative process of doing one thing every day or every week to further that goal while I was still practicing law.

When did you make the break?

I filed the paperwork in 2013, but it took three years to develop the product and the brand. I actually had been out of law since mid-2012—the bankruptcy cycle was over, and a bunch of us who were more senior were laid off. I had been planning to leave anyway, so when I started getting calls from recruiters the next day, I told them I wasn’t going to keep working in law.

Did you get any flak for leaving the law to start a beauty brand?

There were a lot of people who commented, “You’re dabbling in paint now?” Um, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Right! I don’t think enough people appreciate that beauty and personal care is a $500 billion market. They just assume it could never be as prestigious as practicing law.

Well, I don’t think practicing law as an associate working on a never-ending Chapter 11 as a small cog in a big wheel is doing anything earth-shattering per se. The intellectual aspect is significantly overstated. Sure, it could be academically challenging at times, but it was mostly an issue of stamina—how many hours can you work? Are you willing to sacrifice your life and your health? I think people conflate the practice of law with the academic study of law. In my experience, they weren’t necessarily aligned most of the time. Having said that, starting a business is incredibly intellectually and emotionally challenging. But like most professions, it’s 10% sexy and 90% repetitive work.

Did your legal background help you in any way?

I used a lot of resources that I developed during my practice, like having the discipline and self-confidence to figure hard things out. There’s a work ethic inherent with being an attorney that translates very well to other professions, and of course, I knew how to trademark my brand and negotiate all my contracts correctly. Bankruptcy taught me a lot about cash management and leverage as well—which has been very helpful. But I also had to train myself out of a lot of risk-averse thinking that is part of being an effective attorney. When you’re running a business, you have to get out of your own way and just do it most of the time, and of course, be willing to fail.

What’s next for your brand? Do you have a five-year plan?

We used to have five-year plans, but then the pandemic hit, and everything went out the door! Now, we take everything quarter by quarter. We’ve learned to be really nimble in order to survive these unpredictable times; 2020 was actually one of our best years—but many of our challenges were due to supply chain issues and manufacturing changes. Currently, we are in the process of rolling out at JCPenney, and we will eventually be in about 600 stores. We are also resuming in-person events, which we are excited about. Our pandemic supply chain issues are close to being resolved, so we will be able to restock our sold-out products. Personally, I am excited about the Coqueta blush, bronzer and highlighter trio—it’s one of my favorites that I use every day, and we’ve been sold out of it for awhile. Our community likes to experiment with makeup looks daily, so we like to create fun but ultimately wearable shades that enhance these rituals. We’ll be launching five new categories and 17 new shades, and I know I’m going to have a lot of new favorites. They’re all products I’ve been working on since early 2021, and they’re all finally starting to arrive.