The Founders Who Are Redefining Beauty
From science-led formulations to products with purpose, beauty's current crop of leading founders are forging a new path for the industry.
WWD - Sixteen of the brightest and best beauty founders are gathered together in a photo studio in Midtown Manhattan for a Beauty Inc cover shoot and the first-day-of-school vibes are in full effect.
There are shrieks of excitement, hugs between long-lost friends, oohs and ahhs over outfits and a quick sharing of upcoming projects, before the group is called to order by the principal — in this case the photographer whose assignment is to shoot a class picture, so to speak.
It’s no wonder that the room crackles with energy. This is the most dynamic group of founders the beauty industry has seen since the OG indies back in the ’90s. They are connectors, many of whom had established careers in and out of beauty, who understand the art of connection on a level that transcends just product.
“The beauty industry is truly being democratized, in a way that’s never been seen before,” said Tina Chen Craig, who had a successful career in fashion and beauty before founding the skin care line, U Beauty. “It is founders with a voice, a vision, a passion, who are able to create and reach a community.”
The creation of that deep bond with consumers is one of the key components of success today, a period when the barriers to entry in the beauty category have never been so low, yet the hurdles to success so high.
“The ability to engage with consumers, to build community — that all leads to the ability to create organic demand,” said Rich Gersten, cofounder and managing partner of True Beauty Ventures. “That notion of building relationships with consumers and building a community of brand evangelists is really important.”
Ilya Seglin, managing director of Threadstone, notes the gravitation toward “working founders,” citing makeup artists Gucci Westman of Westman Atelier and Mario Dedivanovic of Makeup by Mario, as examples. “In a world that is so filled with product, how do you break through the noise?” he asked. “You do with with a massive following and/or a really differentiated narrative and you drive that home and grow your audience.
“When there is so much clutter, the consumer goes back to authenticity,” Seglin continued. “Ultimately, you want someone to tell you what is good and you want it to come from a place of authority.”
Such is the case with cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson, who founded his brand, BeautyStat, with more than two decades of industry experience under his belt. “A lot of brands have good product. The bar has risen,” he said. “Today, it’s the other pieces, the emotional connection. The fact that I have this knowledge that not a lot of other folks have in a public way is our secret sauce — that authority and willingness to educate.”
To wit, Robinson has become an expert adviser for his community not just on his brand, but on all brands, products and ingredients. “Customers are shopping everywhere — multiple brands, drugstore, specialty, luxury. I understand that consumers are curious,” he continued, “and when they see that we are objective, it drives their engagement with us.”
Such depth of knowledge also drives engagement beyond the category and ties into a deeper purpose than product for many founders. Before cofounding Dieux Skin, Charlotte Palermino was a successful journalist, whose entrepreneurial foray was inspired when she saw how engaged people were with her in-depth skin care tutorials focused on efficacy, ingredients and the science behind many of today’s most popular products. “Beauty can be considered frivolous, but how it makes you feel and how it helps you be perceived in the world has enormous impact,” she said. “Not only that, I see people becoming interested in science through beauty. We use it as a tool of education, a way to empower people through information, and also as a way to have fun.”
Like Palermino, Ami Colé founder Diarrha N’Diaye had a decade-plus of experience in the industry, including at L’Oréal and Glossier, before she started her brand. That perspective has given her not just an understanding of consumers today, but a key operational strategy, too.
“There are so many different tools and mediums to reach your audience — which is great, but also challenging,” said N’Diaye. “Today, everyone can create a story, find their niche audience and connect, so the challenge as a founder is how do you drive home why you need to exist and what impact do you want to drive.”
For N’Diaye, her purpose is clearer than any social media moment. “My focus is how can I make a 10- to 12-year-old brown girl living in Harlem who is the child of immigrant parents, how do I make her feel proud, seen, celebrated,” she said. “That means creating a safe space, whether digitally or in-store, being able to have conversations that feel authentic or going to a shelf and seeing something that works for you at first swipe.”
Just as N’Diaye named her brand after her mother, who emigrated to the U.S. from Senegal and opened a hair-braiding salon in Harlem, Babba Rivera, the founder of Ceremonia, was highly influenced by her childhood. She grew up in Sweden as the child of political refugees from Chile, with one foot in each culture. Rivera’s father was a hairdresser, and she headed to tech after graduating from university, becoming part of the team that launched Uber in Sweden and scaling it from a company of 120 people to more than 12,000. It was when she started a brand marketing agency that Rivera became interested in hair.
“Beauty is the new tech industry — it’s booming and everyone wants in, which means it’s highly competitive and new brands are popping up every day,” she said. “To succeed as a founder, you have to dare to think differently.
“For a little while, I had imposter syndrome, being in beauty and not having beauty experience,” Rivera continued.
Now, she considers her outside-of-the-industry experience a key superpower, both from an operations point of view, as well as buyer. “Beauty has been driven by men in suits who are disconnected to real-life hair problems and skin concerns, and that has opened a huge wave of opportunity for founders who can really represent their customers.”
That dual track — of mission and makeup, or purpose and product, if you will — is a key differentiator for today’s generation of founders. “This is a representation of what America looks like. It is more diverse,” said Carolyn Bojanowski, Sephora’s executive vice president of merchandising. “They are also founders who are clients. They get tactics. They get digital. They’re on TikTok personally and with their brands.
“It’s the first generation that’s grown up where specialty is the dominant channel,” Bojanowski continued. “That makes our lives easier. There is an implicit understanding of our stores and our loyalty program. There is an ease about it.”
There may be an ease — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Palermino, who has parlayed her background as a writer and deep curiosity about the science of skin care into a highly engaged community who follow both her and the brand she cofounded with product developer Joyce de Lemos and creative director Marta Freedman, remembers with a laugh how glamorous it all seemed when she was a journalist in her 20s. “It may be perceived that way, but the reality is not very glamorous,” she said. “So much of your job is puzzle solving. You’re running a company on so many different levels. My background is media, and not only do I work in media — because I have emails to write, social media, my blog — but I’m also working on production supply chains, trying to understand our carbon footprint, doing stability testing on product development.
“There are so many moving pieces,” she continued. “I love it because I need a lot of projects to stay stimulated, but it’s like there’s a massive puzzle you have to solve and there’s always a missing piece.”
“Being a founder is for a specific personality,” agreed Laney Crowell, who launched Saie in 2019 after working in editorial and brand communications. “Yes, you have to have that entepreneurial spirit, but you also have to be very comfortable with highs, lows, extreme speed, acceleration. My job changes every three months and I’m super comfortable with that,” she continued, ticking off the roles she plays — founder, chief executive officer, chief purpose officer, chief sustainability officer.
“I am chief storyteller,” Crowell said. “Currently I’m the protector of the Saie way — our culture, which I’m passionate about and making sure that everyone is involved in it, engaged with it and executing it.”
Such values matter today — both as an expression internally, to align teams, but outwardly as well, particularly at a time when consumers want to know much more than just what goes into a bottle or tube.
“People want to know what the company’s ethos is beyond the efficacy of the product. They want to know who the founder is and their values,” said Craig.
“People say, ‘the bubble is going to burst,’ but there is always more room,” she continued. “The bubble is not going to burst. People want to feel they have equity in what they’re buying and will spend money with brands they believe in that align with their values.”