They Created Natural Ways to Heal Burnout

Stressed. Sad. The solution? These women found joy (and money) by making their own organic beauty creams

by Liz Logan
sharon hackney robinson image
“My biggest obstacle was being a beauty industry newbie,” says Hackney-Robinson, shown here in the Philadelphia neighborhood where she was raised.
Photograph: Morgan Rachel Levy

Sharon Hackney-Robinson

Before: Neonatal intensive care nurse
Now: Owner of an organic skin-care company

It’s mid-June 2012, and hundreds of beauty companies have descended on the Javits Center in New York to woo buyers from bigwig retailers like Bloomingdale’s. The trade event, HBA Global Expo, is the industry’s largest, and for Sharon Hackney-Robinson, just being here is a major achievement. From a booth adorned with birds of paradise, hydrangeas and flowering ginger, Hackney-Robinson, then 52, founder of the organic-skin-care company Me & the Girls, hands out gift bags filled with mini samples of her six products. “Where does your passion come from?” a buyer asks. “I’m a critical-care nurse,” Hackney-Robinson replies in her gentle, girlish voice, “so I know the importance of safe products.” The three-day event marks the official launch of her company: Yahoo News stops by to interview her, she receives her first major order (from the e-commerce site Truth in Aging), and her Moon night moisturizer and Limonum body scrub win awards. “I guess we were the darling of the show!” she says.

Seven years earlier, Hackney-Robinson could not have imagined this glamorous scene—or this exhilaration. In 2005 she hit the lowest point in her life. She worked long hours in the neonatal intensive care unit at two hospitals in Philadelphia (Temple University and Lower Bucks). After 24 years of tending to very sick newborns, she was exhausted. On top of that, her marriage was unraveling. One evening, she says, “I was driving home from the hospital when I thought it would be easier to drive off the interstate bridge than to repeat another day of being unhappy and scared.” Distressed that her thoughts had turned so dark, she realized she had to take action. That night, she told her husband that the marriage was over.

He eventually moved out, and once he did, she discovered a renewed zest for life. “I started to think about doing something different,” she says. Within a year of the breakup, after reading a column in a nursing journal that referenced a study on the kinds of chemicals commonly used in commercial personal-care products, Hackney-Robinson checked the ingredients in her own beauty creams. “I was horrified by what was in them,” she says. Deciding to make her own face and body moisturizers, she did some research online, then spent $200 at her local health food store on plant oils and exfoliators like oats and sugar.

Hackney-Robinson had always had faith in plant oils. In the 1980s, she’d slathered vegetable oil on preemies and then swaddled them in Saran Wrap to prevent them from becoming dehydrated. “I’m not a premature baby, but I have mature, sensitive skin,” she says. “I thought, Let me try some liquid therapy on myself and see if the same principles apply. And they do!”

Working at her kitchen counter on her days off, Hackney-Robinson began to experiment with different ingredients. She tried a mixture of pomegranate seed oil, cocoa butter and refined shea butter, and after using it for a few weeks (minus the Saran Wrap), “I started glowing,” she says. “People asked me, ‘What are you putting on your skin? Can you make some cream for me?’ ”

 She read studies of butters and oils in hundreds of clinical abstracts and holistic publications. She poked around the website of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a nonprofit advocacy group that compiles research about personal-care products.

For a while, she gave away her creams to her family, friends and coworkers. By 2009 “the girls,” as she calls them, “started telling me, ‘This is really good. We’re addicted.’ I thought, If I can make addicts of 20 people, how about 200?” That was her aha moment, when she knew she wanted to turn her hobby into a business. She named her company Me & the Girls in honor of all the important women in her life and those she supports through charities.

She attended Natural Beauty Summit America, an industry conference in New York, hoping to meet suppliers and distributors. But she felt nervous and out of her element. During lunch, she sat at an unoccupied table. Suddenly, a woman plopped down next to her and said, “Hi, I’m Gay. Do you mind if I have lunch with you?” The woman turned out to be Gay Timmons, president of an organic-product distribution company and also an expert in organic-product standards—“the grand pooh-bah of the conference,” says Hackney-Robinson. “She made me feel that I was smart enough to do this and that anytime I stumbled, she would be there—and she has been.”

Over the next few years, while still working full time at Temple University Hospital (and earning about $92,000 a year), Hackney-Robinson funded her business with $120,000 from her savings and $40,000 from a bank loan. She converted two rooms in the back of her house into a lab and an office and rounded up eight volunteer friends—nurses and therapists—to come in on their off days to help her develop her formulations. She also stepped up her research and experimented with cupuaçu-seed butter (similar to cocoa butter)—“the loveliest pure white butter ever,” she says, harvested in Brazil’s rain forest. With its clinically proven moisturizing properties, it became the key ingredient in all her products.

Hackney-Robinson needed a manufacturer willing to produce her creams in small quantities, but most weren’t interested. Some encounters were humiliating. “You’re small fish,” said one rep. “Your formulation won’t fly. Nobody’s going to like this.” He tried to talk her into letting his company adapt her formula, which would have meant she no longer owned it.

She persevered, and today Me & the Girls creams, scrubs and serums are sold in spas, at online retailers and at Launching the business “took a lot of 16-hour days, a lot of courage and a lot of money,” says Hackney-Robinson. “It wasn’t easy. The beauty industry is extremely competitive, and it involves the fast and furious development of products.” Hackney-Robinson still works as a nurse (only two days a week now) and expects to gross more than $100,000 in 2014. The company has attracted several investors, and she has hired a part-time assistant and a bookkeeper. The pleasure she derives from growing her new business has helped her enjoy nursing again. “If you have some happy in your life, it kind of spills over,” she says.

Kari Gran and Lisa Strain

Before: Managing real estate brokers
Now: Owner of a company that makes natural beauty products

Noon on a Sunday in early September 2013. Lisa Strain, 55, gazes out over a lush greenbelt near Seattle’s Lake Union for a brief moment before continuing to handwrite expiration dates on small, black bottles and pack them in simple jute bags. The sun streams in through a 12-foot window and reflects off the white brick walls of the rehabbed 1920s distillery. Behind a heavy door, her business partner, Kari Gran, 45, is in the industrial laboratory making a batch of her natural moisturizing serum, which she sells online and in a loft showroom four floors up. Gran adds a few drops of rose oil (precious at $500 for 30 milliliters) to a mixture of camellia, lavender and sunflower oils. “True oil of rose is so amazing, so beautiful,” says Gran. “There’s nothing like it.”

 Three years ago, Gran and Strain had much less serene professional lives: They were hustling to sell real estate during a recession, often working 50 hours a week.

Only when tragedy struck did the two friends realize they needed to slow down. In 2008 health troubles in Gran’s family left her and her husband caring for their nephew, then nine years old. Around the same time, Strain’s father was killed on his way home from church by a drunk driver. Not long after, Strain’s adult daughter fell into a prolonged, life--threatening crisis. The two friends began pulling away from the demands of the real estate business and looking for something that would bring pleasure into their lives.

Gran, who suffers from an auto-immune disease affecting her thyroid, began reading about the ingredients in her beauty products. After years of making her own lip balms, she decided to mix her own skin-care creams. In 2010 she gave Strain a Christmas gift of her creations: a lip balm, a hydrating tonic (called Everything’s Coming Up Roses) and a moisturizing serum made purely of oils (Beauty Rest). Strain loved the smell and feel of the oils on her skin. “The serum was herbal and earthy in a sophisticated way,” she says. “It was complex.”

One morning after a 6 o’clock yoga class, Strain said to Gran, “Let’s make this into a business.” All the color drained out of Gran’s face as she realized, for the first time, that she could have a career doing what she loved. Within days, the two had hatched a plan to get the business off the ground. Gran, who has a bachelor of science degree, would develop formulations and run the lab. Strain, who had an advertising background, would lead the PR and marketing efforts. To make it all happen, the pair lent themselves $200,000 from their savings.

Gran took classes with a natural-ingredients formulator in California, studied the industry textbook Milady’s Standard Fundamentals for Estheticians and signed up for a weeklong course at Bastyr University near Seattle, a school that specializes in science-based, natural medicine. Their first product samples went out to friends and family at the end of 2011. 

Today the company, Kari Gran skin care, is on track to gross more than $500,000 in 2014. Gran writes a blog dedicated to educating people about beauty products. The business is still in the start-up phase; the co-owners barely pay themselves the minimum wage. (“Our husbands are totally OK with it. Us, not so much,” Strain says.) But “there’s a solid profit to be made,” Gran says. “The margins are very good, even though natural products usually involve more expensive ingredients. For a long time, using anti-aging products, I bought into the belief that I needed to be fixed. We’re encouraging women to think about beauty a little bit differently.”

LIZ LOGAN is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

Next: Reinventing After You Lose Everything

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First Published Wed, 2013-10-30 14:14

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