Women at the top: 7 women leading beauty companies

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Women at the top: 7 women leading beauty companies

By Seth Mendelson - 12/03/2019

Women account for 80% of mass market shoppers, but for many years, it was men calling the shots.

That’s all changing. Women executives are ascending the ranks, especially in the beauty industry. Female founders are bringing innovation to the industry, often filling voids in the marketplace. 

As part of Drug Store News’ celebration of top women executives in retail, we are profiling seven women who either founded or are a top executive at their burgeoning brands. From a pioneer in CBD to one of the first females to launch a cosmetics brand, these are some of the women who are making an impact in mass market retailing.

Nancy Duitch 
Founder, Sera Labs

Nancy Duitch is leveraging her experience as a serial entrepreneur to establish a leading brand in the budding CBD industry. Duitch, who founded the Los Angeles-based Sera Labs in 2018, sees parallels to other businesses she’s nurtured. 

“I have had the good fortune of being involved in the infomercial industry in its infancy, which was an amazing roller coaster, educating the retailers on the power of direct response TV, driving traffic to their stores. Once they had a taste of the high sales velocity DRTV could generate, the retailers were on board,” Duitch said. “I believe the same is happening with the CBD/hemp category. As time passes and the buyers are more confident in their supplier choices, we will all work together to create products that bring great health and wellness benefits to the consumer.”

Her plans include continuing to grow her brand’s targeted problem/solutions selection. “We are rolling out a very aggressive advertising campaign, which will continue to help us move product off the shelf,” Duitch said. “Our goal is to be a brand that sells through and gives the consumer confidence in their choice of Sera Labs.”

Duitch acknowledged the confusion swirling around CBD, a challenge she is tackling with education. “This is a very crowded category with a lot of bad actors and only a few great companies. As leaders of an industry, we need to be responsible for consumer education, top quality products and third-party testing, all of which will weed out the bad players and help us all overcome the trust factor,” she said.  

Accustomed to being a trailblazer as a woman in a male-dominated business world, Duitch said she sees advancement. “I have seen major improvements in the respect men have given to females in the past 20 years,” she said. “Women are better multitaskers and can make better decisions on what the female shopper is looking for, as well as what they will look for in terms of packaging and pricing. Men have finally come around to understanding we are the bosses, so get ready for the next generation of female warriors who will have female mentors and the confidence of the teams they lead.”

Personally, Duitch has stepped up to mentor other women. “I have worked tirelessly to mentor young women starting out in the business world, as I have found there was a lack of women in positions who had risen to levels in the business world where they could or would take time to mentor me when I was starting out in the business world in the late 1970’s.” she said.

Donda Mullis
Co-founder and chief marketing officer, Raw Sugar Living

Donda Mullis and her partner, Ronnie Shugar, founded Raw Sugar Living, a plant-based lifestyle brand with a mission to promote clean and healthy living through their products, in 2014. Mullis already had amassed 20 years in the business, building big-box brands when she saw the opportunity — ahead of many brands just coming to the market now — to bring natural, premium, vegan and eco-friendly personal care products to a wide audience. 

“I’m dedicated to the belief that natural and healthy personal care products should be more accessible and affordable to all — it’s that simple,” Mullis said, adding that she  also wanted to create a “brand with a heart” that connected consumers with a cause, so she developed the Raw Sugar Initiative. 

“For every product purchased, we donate a fresh bar of soap to a person in need,” she said. “To date, we’ve donated millions of bars of soap to families and communities alike. It’s the simplest things in life that make the biggest difference, and for us, it’s one seemingly simple bar of soap at a time because each bar represents a special story.”

Raw Sugar products are consciously crafted with plant-derived ingredients, are PETA certified, and are easily recognizable by their packaging, which features bamboo tops and white bottles. They are free of sulfates, parabens, phthalates, dyes, gluten and animal cruelty. “Key differentiators are that we deliver premium clean products affordably. And we process our ingredients through ColdPress Technology, which means preserving more of the whole plant to nourish skin,” she said. 

Her story is resonating with consumers and retailers alike. The product is now sold at Target, Walgreens, Meijer and Harmon Face Values.

“Our future plans include an aggressive growth strategy as we strategically leverage our retail partnerships to identify the white spaces within core natural and deliver with purpose,” she said. “This will help us expand our product line into more lifestyle brand categories, while keeping with best-in-class retailers, growing social channels and exponentially drive sales, which means more bars of soap donated to those in need.”

She cited her mother as one of her biggest mentors. “‘Learn from adversity, it’s part of life,’ she would say,” Mullis said. “‘When you don’t like something, change it, and if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Most of all, if you’re going to do it, do it with love. Own yourself, respect yourself, you are entirely up to you.’ She also instilled the notion that we help ourselves by helping others.”

Nora Pearson
Founder, Nora Pearson Naturals and Nora Pearson Natural Beauty

Nora Pearson brings a special skill set to her two companies, Pearson Naturals and Nora Pearson Natural Beauty. The women-owned company, based in St. Augustine, Fla., is comprised of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians with vast experience in pharmaceutical compounding.

“We develop, design, formulate and manufacture all of our own products, using only the highest-quality, U.S.-sourced ingredients and supplies,” Pearson said. “We aim to provide natural alternatives to protect and nourish the skin, hair and whole body. Our multipurpose products are free of such chemicals as propylene glycol, parabens, sulfates and phthalates.”

The natural beauty division offers unique and effective natural cosmetics and personal care products. “We currently offer over 500 stock keeping units to fit every individual, and we bet you can find a perfect product,” she said. The range consists of boutique quality products that people already use, but with a lessened chemical load.

“Because we personally develop all of our formulas, it is important to note that everything we create can be further customized to meet the specific needs of your company and customer base.”

Pearson worked as a compounding technician for more than 20 years. She married her husband John, a pharmacist with Haggen Pharmacy, in Washington State. In the fall of 2008, they moved to Florida, but within a few months, her husband was diagnosed with an advanced form of melanoma and was forced to stop working. 

“It became necessary for me to try to creatively help make up for his loss of income,” said Pearson, who already had been making lotions and cosmetics for friends and family as gifts. 

She tiptoed into the business with an Etsy shop, offering her products, which she carefully researched, to provide natural alternatives to conventional products. 

“Over the years, my customer base slowly grew and became more and more loyal,” Pearson said. “Many of my customers were also battling chronic illness, were cancer survivors, and suffered from autoimmune disorders and diseases. Everything we produce has multiple health benefits, and because we understand the chemistry behind everything we formulate, we are able to produce a very appealing product. Our products don’t work like, feel like or look like what people sometimes expect from ‘natural.’”

Pearson sees tremendous untapped potential in the mass market for her line. “I feel like there are a lot of products being marketed as natural that aren’t actually very natural at all, or natural products that are not effective or cosmetically elegant,” she said. Her vision is to strategically expand distribution, which also will help bring down production costs.

“Too often, these types of products are priced above what many people can comfortably afford. They are expensive because they are expensive to produce when you eliminate the cheap, toxic ingredients and replace them with higher quality and healthier alternatives. Still, we would love to bring down production costs and then pass those savings onto our loyal customer base,” she said.

Psyche Terry 
Owner and founder, UI Global Brands

Psyche Terry spent 12 years in corporate America at Whirlpool Appliances, but always had a passion for creating personal care solutions. In fact, she would use items from her kitchen pantry to make her own products, focusing on items that could treat her own dry skin and hair issues. “I’d try potato flakes in my bath, oatmeal on my face and eggs in my hair — all to naturally build a better, healthier me,” she said.  

Her pivotal career change was prompted when she was sitting as a board member for a nonprofit that needed help designing personal care items for a fundraiser. “With that, my love for beauty was erected,” she said. “A year later, I found myself pitching what I had later crafted into Urban Hydration to a mass retailer. Today, Urban Hydration is working hard to be the No. 1 natural care brand for dry skin and hair.” 

Proving to consumers that natural products can be as effective as other products remains one of Terry’s goals. “We are very instinctive in the ingredients we use because we want to create not just fans, but people who LUHV our products,” she said, using her term to incorporate the “UH” from the brand name. “We want people feeling the way we feel, realizing that natural products are not only as effective as chemical-based products, but they are healthier for you, too.”

Building a business has not been without its challenges. While pregnant with her daughter Faith, Terry received orders that required her to ship 75,000 units out the door of a small manufacturing plant within six weeks. “Then, the factory went out of business and left us high and dry with orders to retailers like Target to still be fulfilled,” she said. “I had worked for five years to build my name in the industry, and by God, I wasn’t going to allow any other small business or anyone to take that away from me.”

The solution was to open and operate a 40-person sugar scrub manufacturing facility. “I delivered Faith three days after we delivered every pallet,” she said. “I reeked of lemon extract in the labor and delivery room.” 

Beyond her commitment to good-for-you ingredients, Terry, who founded the company along with her husband Vontoba Terry, is dedicated to giving back. “Our brand gives back with every product we made,” she said. “We service families, kids and college students around the world.” 

Raised by her great-aunt and “a lot of community-based groups,” Terry’s humble beginnings taught her to care about the value of a dollar and giving back. “Our most developed endeavor is our clean water drinking well in Kenya, Africa,” she said. “We’ve serviced 300 children that otherwise wouldn’t have clean water. We know that we are in the business of saving lives. It is why I am inspired to get up and give my best every day.”

Mentors have been influential in her life, including a Whirlpool colleague, Diana Seaman. “She’s been helping me since my first day as an intern with flip flops on and a wig literally turned backwards,” she said. “She’s steered me, guided me and like many other women, she’s taken time to help me realize what my gifts are and how I can continue to develop and share them with the world.”  

Terry’s devotion to building her brand has paid off. “Four years ago, I realized Urban Hydration was going to have a breakthrough,” she said. “I realized it when it was just me and an assistant on staff almost reaching $1 million in revenue, and that only 2% of women-owned businesses actually ever even reach $1 million in revenue every year — I knew I was on to something. When more and more people would tell me that they ‘love our formula’ and that it worked and helped with various issues they had, I knew we were on to something.”

Ashley O’Rourke
Co-founder and creator, Lique Cosmetics (Duncan Enterprises)

Raised in South Africa at a time when it was a very male-dominated society, Ashley O’Rourke had a desire to spread her wings. She moved to the United States and worked her way up the ranks in the garment industry, eventually creating her own clothing company that she led for 11 years.

After the loss of her brother, she joined her father, Michael O’Rourke, who founded the brand BigSexyHair, and discovered a new passion in the beauty industry. “I realized that beauty was the new fashion,” she said. She  launched Lique just two years later.  

O’Rourke said her competitive edge is offering prestige lip care and color products that give a high quality lip solution at a masstige price. “We made certain that each natural ingredient was vetted, and each component was molded to offer the best possible formula and product delivery to the consumer at under $14.” The brand will continue to push for innovative formulas, offering prestige solutions at an affordable price. 

“We began with lips, the fastest-aging area on a woman’s face, but are always focused on the future and providing solutions that make tackling your daily to-do list and truly doing-it-all with an easy and natural lip solution easy and attainable for every beauty enthusiast,” she said.

She’s hit upon a sweet spot in the market. “We align with the consumer that is in the height of her career, focused on juggling family and a little time with friends, all while seeking out lifestyle and beauty products that are high quality at a budget friendly price,” she said. “We are also working on a Lique Lip line that is formulated for men.”

Emboldened by success in lip care, the Oxnard, Calif.-based company will expand outside the category in the future.

Seeing the brand fill a need in the market, Kohl’s added her line to its beauty shelves, giving her a jump start. Now Lique is gaining traction at Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Kroger and other major mass retailers.

Naturally, her father has been a mentor, who she said taught her to “fight for my dreams.” Those in the garment industry also showed her the importance of building a strong and supportive team. Although she doesn’t know him, Richard Branson also had a big influence on her business and personal direction. “I know it seems that most of my influencers in my life are men, but I like taking pointers from influential men and putting a modern twist on it — a female twist,” she said.

Standing out in today’s noisy beauty world is a challenge, she said, especially against such powerhouses as Kylie Beauty or megabrands. The Lique team, led by Kristin Bibb, whom O’Rourke calls her voice of reason, is her secret weapon. “They all fight the battle with me every day. I could not do this without them,” she said of her team and the backing of Duncan Enterprises. “We believe in our mission to be the best lip care-to-color solution in the market, all at an approachable and attainable price point. We combine our passion for the brand and products, along with our love for each other as a Lique family, to keep pushing for growth and space in the industry.”

Courtney Adeleye
Founder and CEO, The Mane Choice

In 2013, Courtney Adeleye was a nurse who had a hair-coloring incident that left her locks brittle. She decided to wean herself off relaxers and allowed her hair to return to its natural texture. 

The only problem was that she had a hard time finding products she liked, so she began making her own and documenting her solutions on YouTube. 

As a registered nurse, Adeleye was able to combine her passion for health and wellness with a background in science to document, develop and disseminate her product line. The result was The Mane Choice Hair Solution, and now, six years later, the company’s healthy hair products have become a mainstay on store shelves and bathroom counters around the world. 

The brand started with $500 and has amassed over $100 million in sales. To say she has taken the industry by storm might be an understatement.

She’s continued to build The Mane Choice into a major contender in the mass market, even against the power of multinational players. Social media helped build awareness from loyal consumers, who helped The Mane Choice build traction. “If you start something, you may not be sure where’s it going to go, but if you are authentic about what you do, it makes everything easier,” Adeleye said. “Trust what you have to offer. The only thing big companies can’t do is be you.”

Today, Huntsville, Ala.-based The Mane Choice consists of hair vitamins, shampoos, conditioners, treatments and other items sold at Walmart, Walgreens, CVS Pharmacy, Rite Aid, Target, Publix, Kroger and Sally Beauty. In total, more than 100 products across 15 different collections in the hair, body, men’s care, baby and accessories segments exist. It also particularly pays close attention to its booming hair growth vitamin products.

“My focus is to keep everything as natural as I can and incorporate science into everything that I do,” she said. “It’s about making everything that we create a healthy hair product.”

Though Adeleye has created a beauty empire, which includes other brands like Foolproof Body that is steadily growing, there is much more to the legacy she will leave. As a philanthropist and champion of women, she said nothing fulfills her more than giving and positioning people to propel forward.

That’s why Adeleye launched the BAW$E Conference in 2018. The weekend-long conference enables female go-getters to be among women with similar goals, learn from industry leaders, and make their next big connections. The event, hosted in a different city each year, draws women from all over the world.

Marsha Martin
Founder, president and CEO, Onyx Brands

Marsha Martin always had an eye for beauty and a creative flair. She harnessed her knack for knowing what women desire into launching Onyx Brands almost 30 years ago, way before the current crop of female entrepreneurs, many of whom point to her as giving them the inspiration to create their own lines. 

Onyx began by meeting retailers’ needs in the nail care industry, but, following Martin’s intuition, broadened into a resource for everything from LED makeup mirrors to bath bombs. Her goal always has been to keep prices affordable to all.

Now, the Little Rock-Ark.-based company’s products are sold at such major retailers as Walmart, Walgreens, Ulta Beauty, H-E-B, London Drugs, Five Below, Fred Meyer and Meijer. 

Being a female-owned company with a predominately female team has helped Onyx pinpoint emerging categories. For example, Martin noticed women seeking relaxation with baths and launched a luxury collection called Onyx Bathhouse in 2018. The bubble bath, packaged in a champagne bottle, especially resonates with women looking to luxuriate.