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

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.

First published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue

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