At the turn of the 20th century, after experiencing a scalp condition causing hair loss, a black female entrepreneur known as Madam C.J. Walker created a line of haircare and straightening products specifically for African American women. First selling the items door-to-door in the South, Walker went on to build her own factory in Indianapolis, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. Serving a historically underrepresented market, her business flourished, and Walker became the first female millionaire in the U.S.

Leading up to Walker, almost no haircare brands served African American women’s interests or needs, many too harsh for proper health and cosmetic purposes. Although the white-dominated industry considered this market niche, in reality, millions of African American women lacked the right products. The market wasn’t niche—it was underserved.

Walker’s success remains relevant, even for the newest crop of digitally-native, direct-to-consumer brands. While many of these brands attempt to democratize luxury in one way or another, they still overwhelmingly attend to young professionals in urban centers like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But in their quest to become the next billion-dollar brand, a shift in perspective would make a big difference.

Take, for example, plus-size apparel. “Startups see lucrative niche in plus-size clothing,” reads a headline from The Wall Street Journal in November 2017. In actuality, two-thirds of Americans are plus-size—including 100 million women who have been sidelined from fashion for the majority of modern consumer history, relegated to plus-size sections in department stores, and handed endless tunics and leggings without concern for ongoing trends.

A market composed of millions of people is not a niche—especially if its consumers are already underserved. These demographics—whether it’s the 125 million non-white Americans residing in the U.S., the 44% whose shared household income lies below $50,000, or the 30 million men under five-foot-eight—have a massive amount of purchasing power left untapped and as time goes on, their numbers will only rise.

A few brands are capitalizing on the opportunity to respond to the needs and interests of these markets. Carol’s Daughter, a multicultural beauty brand, was acquired by L’Oréal in October 2017. The menswear brand Peter Manning provides for the under-five-foot-eight market. Walker and Company, founded in 2013 to cater to people of color, currently includes Bevel, a shaving brand and FORM, a haircare brand, much in the legacy of Madam C.J. Walker. Larger companies like Stitch Fix and Ulta Beauty are evolving to provide a mix of luxury and mass market products in apparel and cosmetics, returning agency to customers on how they want to spend their money. Hollar, an online dollar store, provides for the typical American consumer—80% of its customers hail from outside New York and California.  

But largely—and despite the digital era’s sharp rise in new brands—the dearth of those that cater to African Americans and other minorities, to plus-size shoppers and to petite shoppers, and to lower-income customers, maintain deep gaps in the consumer economy. To overcome it, brands need to break out of their coastal echo chambers and recognize that these demographics are far from highly-specialized pockets of the economy, but rather ecosystems in their own right. Most of these direct-to-consumer brands are serving niches—not the other way around.