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.