Reading: 3 Indie Beauty Brands Built by Late-in-Life Reinventors

Reinvent Yourself

3 Indie Beauty Brands Built by Late-in-Life Reinventors

These beauty business owners want to revolutionize the industry

By Deanna Utroske

Beauty Business All Stars

Many an iconic beauty brand is named for the woman who built it: think Estée Lauder or Bobbi Brown. Today, however, there are numerous women around the world who are developing products and leading businesses in an effort to better the lives of other women and be their own boss at the same time.  And many have come to beauty from entirely different professions.

So while you have likely not yet heard of Chey Birch (from Sydney, Australia), Nicole Sullivan (from Los Angeles), or Wendi Berger (from New York), these three women have created personal care, wellness, and fragrance brands that are currently altering the course of beauty history.

Don’t Accept Breakfast Meetings

Chey Birch goes swimming every AM — because she loves it and for the physical and mental health benefits.

“Some of my greatest ideas come after a swim!” says Birch.

“I swim in the morning because it gets you ready for the day, and I don’t accept meetings before 9:30 because of that….People work around it. It’s important to do what you love.”

Now 55, Birch has been swimming since she was three years old. Her father was president of the Port Kembla, Australia, swimming and surf clubs in the 1970s. And not only did she swim daily, she surf-raced too. She did it alongside the boys’ surf team (regularly coming in 3rd or 4th) despite the fact that girls were prohibited from competing.

“I was like a little torpedo,” says Birch. “It’s unfair because you’re a woman you’re not allowed to surf in the race. So I was determined to win…It made me even faster.”

Birch seems to have learned everything she needed to know about passion, tenacity, and high personal standards from the water. Oh, and the importance of good skin care too. “If you swim every day you get very dry skin,” Birch tells me.

But her founder story is not exactly a quest for the perfect moisturizer.

Though Birch studied aromatherapy formally, she started blending up remedies for herself and friends as a hobby. All along she was blending her essential-oil remedies in a little bowl with a picture of a black chicken painted inside, which had been a gift from a friend, decades ago. When a spa professional contacted Chey to order her body oil, she (cleverly) replied that she happened to be out of stock. Birch turned to her team — at the financial database marketing firm she owned and at the advertising company she had invested in — for help building a brand.

Chey Birch
Chey Birch, Founder of Black Chicken Remedies

Birch had no intention of leaving her well-paying clients (such as big Asian banks) to sell body oil. But as her new hobby grew,  Birch met monthly with a friend of hers who owns a vineyard and was trying to get a wine business off the ground. After every meal, they resolved to continue their little ventures for just one more month until both women had viable businesses on their hands. Today Black Chicken Remedies is a multimillion-dollar international skin care and wellness brand that offers a full range of skin care, hair care, body care, and aromatherapy products, individually priced between $7.99 and $119.00, and sold sold in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and in the US at Neiman Marcus and jet.com. Her friend Sharlene’s wine business (Optimiste Wines) is doing well too.

“Yeah, we still have lunch,” Birch says. “But we talk about other things now.”

There Are a Lot of Sisters Out There

When Nicole Sullivan decided to return to work after having her first child, she knew she couldn’t go back to film production.

“The hours are really intense,” she says.  “I was never really comfortable doing that work because of how insecure it was. And it didn’t let me do anything else.”

When Sullivan simply couldn’t settle on a next career idea, she told her aesthetician flatly, “I’m 45 years old, what am I going to do? How am I going to start over?” The answer was right there, Sullivan says. Her aha! moment came after her facial that day. “Beauty is the perfect thing,” says Sullivan.

Putting questions to the universe worked so well at the start of her new career that she’s been asking questions ever since — and finding answers in friends, family, and the details of her everyday life. After studying to become an aesthetician and opening a spa in her own home, Sullivan started “running the idea of an organic skin care line for kids past friends.” People really responded to it and “validated my belief,” she says.

Nicole Sullivan
Nicole Sullivan, Founder of SkinBuzz

A friend who happens to work at Sephora suggested the name SkinBuzz. And when Sullivan decided that the brand should contribute to a charity that supports the bees making the key ingredients (royal jelly, propolis, beeswax) in her skin care products, she reached out to a friend in Washington State who works in philanthropy. “I don’t know how to vet a foundation,” admits Sullivan. But there was no need; the friend emailed her the very next day, pointing her toward the Planet Bee Foundation in San Francisco.

While the SkinBuzz brand (which offers skin care and sunscreen products priced from $19.00 to $38.00 and is available online) is very new (Sullivan, now 51, launched her business at the Indie Beauty Expo in LA this January), she credits her success thus far to “being a little older and having so many friends.” That, “and waking up in the middle of the night” with a lot of good ideas and trusting herself to follow through.

“It’s certainly the most passionate project I’ve had in my life…it saved me in a lot of ways,” says Sullivan. “It just feels right, like everything is in place.”

I’ve Built a Whole New Network

“People I knew said a 100% natural fragrance couldn’t happen, or if it did it wouldn’t smell good,” recalls Wendi Berger.

Berger exhausted her professional contacts from years in magazine publishing, and it seemed no one could help or would even encourage her to develop and launch a truly natural perfume brand. Still, “I had been advised not to wear fragrance while pregnant,” she says, adding that in 2013 “green beauty was very limited.” So her idea that has since become Pour le Monde 100% natural perfumes (with three scents — Together, Envision, and Empower priced from $23 to $82 and available at clean beauty shops and sites around the country and at Macy’s.com) was a logical and viable business opportunity.  

Wendi Berger
Wendi Berger, Founder of Pour le Monde 100% Natural Perfumes

“I really thought I knew what I was doing,” says Berger, whose roles in publishing and management included Beauty Manager at Vanity Fair, Executive Beauty Director of InStyle, Associate Publisher at Elle, and then publisher of Fitness and Child magazines.

“My biggest surprise was that I had to start fresh….I knew marketing and sales,” she says, but everything else Berger learned on her own or “with other beauty founders.”

When Berger (then 43) founded Pour le Monde, there weren’t as many resources (such as online graphic design tools and social media groups for entrepreneurs)  as there are today for people starting a beauty brand. Now, says Berger, “I’m a member of at least four different Facebook groups for beauty founders. I’ve built a whole new network….The women in my network, we all share, we all help each other out. We’re really passionate about what we’re doing and [are] transparent.”

“I mentor a lot of other up-and-coming beauty brands,” says Berger, reminding them “that you’re going to be constantly evolving your brand.” But the one thing that hasn’t evolved since day one is her conviction to make fine fragrances 100% naturally. Her perfumes are indeed 100% natural, vegan, and cruelty-free.

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