Sephora is betting on incubating its own influencers.

Though the beauty retailer has worked with influencers through gifting, events and campaigns in the past (both unpaid and paid),  Sephora in mid-February announced its #SephoraSquad program to find “unique, unfiltered, sorry-not-sorry storytellers,” according to SephoraSquad.com. Through the Squad partnership, ambassadors will receive peer and professional coaching, content and networking opportunities, product collaborations and early access to products at Sephora in exchange for content support on their platforms. This is similar to the coaching beauty brands receive within Sephora’s Accelerate program, in regards to professional development, coaching and networking.

“We see social behaviors constantly evolving and, in order to stay relevant, we felt it was time take influencer relationships to the next level. We wanted to amplify the beauty community in a larger way and expand the number of voices and perspectives we were using in our work,”said Deborah Yeh, Sephora chief marketing officer. For example, Yeh said the Sephora hair merchandising team was looking for beauty creators that could represent diversity in hair type and texture, while those in skin care were looking for ambassadors that fell in older age demographics.

Other beauty brands and retailers have been trying to create more transparent and authentic influencer relationships in an attempt to combat the #sponcon backlash existing in the space. Benefit Cosmetics recently tapped five brand ambassadors for its social good efforts and Ipsy has long used influencers to talk about the products in their monthly Glam bags. Ipsy’s beauty creators also have access to the company’s content studio to create assets. Similarly, Sephora’s Squad will have those opportunities with the retailer.

Over the course of six weeks, Sephora received approximately 16,000 finished applications, which included questions around diversity and inclusion in beauty, to join the Sephora Squad. The company also collected more than 250,000 testimonials delivered via Instagram from the respective applicants’ existing social communities. Participants gave their social audiences calls-to-action to foster a “two-way dialogue,” said Yeh, so that Sephora could look past follower counts or conversion data as measures of an engaging platform.(For example, when an applicant asked for testimonial, many influencers reposted followers’ Stories onto their own accounts.) Sephora worked with influencer platform Fohr to link applicants’ Instagram accounts to Sephora Squad using its new community technology to track engagement. According to Fohr founder and CEO James Nord, the application process garnered over 70,000 Instagram Stories and more than 10,000 in-feed posts about the program.

Twenty-four Squad members were selected, including Latino beauty influencer and makeup artist Erick Glam, who has a smaller Instagram audience of around 6,000 followers, and Maryam Remias, a 47-year-old beauty influencer with 118,000 followers. The influencers were also largely known by mega-influencer Nabela Noor, who is serving as a Sephora Squad launch partner and mentor for the ambassadors throughout the next year.

Last week, the Sephora Squad members finally met with the retailer’s corporate team in Los Angeles, as part of the Squad’s first activation. They also met with Sephora Squad’s four launch partners, Noor, Shalom Blac, Mama Cāx and Ryan Potter, who are all mega- and macro-influncers.

“As a smaller influencer, the opportunity to network and learn from Sephora and these other bigger content creators was huge,” said Glam. “I have done some brand collaborations, but I won’t lie, not that many because most brands only care about numbers. You only get noticed if you are much, much bigger.”

Next up for the Sephora Squad is that a select group of four will be engaging with cohorts of the beauty retailer’s 2019 Accelerate program, which kicks off in San Francisco May 5 to 11. Participants will sit in on Sephora’s “boot camp sessions,” where brands conduct sessions with the retailer’s cross-functional teams. “It’s a cool mashup of pairing emerging brands in beauty with influencers, who are experts in creating beauty content,” said Yeh. “At Sephora, we are all about incubating talent, and this is a way to co-mingle that.”

Outside of that, the Sephora Squad will be posting content and attending events in other Sephora-centric campaigns from its Clean at Sephora program to its annual beauty festival, Sephoria. They will also post about new brands coming to Sephora in an exclusive capacity.

“There will be moments of intersection across Instagram and YouTube, but we want this Squad to have a voice and to use it in the way that they are already doing — the way that their audiences love and find engaging,” said Yeh. “There is a reason we picked these people. We want to use them to help consumers discover new things in beauty.”