Great Barrington’s largest employer: Jane Iredale, Cosmetic Entrepreneur

By Christine Bates | christine@mainstreetmag.com

It was a surprise to me that the creator of my favorite brand of mineral makeup was Great Barrington’s largest private employer and also a driving force in the town’s economic development.

How would you describe your business?

We are a comprehensive line of makeup developed with quality minerals and skin care ingredients that are good for the skin. They blur the line between skin care and makeup. All of the jane iredale products adhere to the highest standard of integrity. Each product is subjected to rigorous sensitivity and safety tests to ensure it is as good for the skin as it is beautiful to wear. Our mission statement contains these words, “We pledge to provide a product line that has the utmost integrity and the ability to enhance the lives of women through its effectiveness, simplicity and beauty.”

Rather than center our business in traditional counter sales or department stores, we work largely through aesthetic industry professionals. Our makeup is a top choice of skin care professionals and is recommended by plastic surgeons and dermatologists worldwide. Our core distribution is through fine spas and salons, resorts, apothecaries, and medical offices.

The aesthetic industry is different from general cosmetics in the sense that products are considered tools in order to help the client achieve results. It isn’t enough to look pretty, they have to perform as well.

We think of ourselves as a wellness company and a large part of that is promoting the health of the skin. The skin is our window into the body and the spirit. So, every product I develop is designed as a true extension of skin care. I have always had one goal in mind – to enhance the lives of women. So products and ingredients are scrutinized to make sure they serve a purpose and contribute to beauty and wellness.

Tell me about your background before starting the company?

I had a career in the entertainment industry as a casting director, producer, and writer, but eventually got showbiz burnout. What I’d always wanted to do was to be involved with something that would enhance the lives of women and have some healing aspect to it. I’d seen the bad effects of makeup when I worked with actresses and models, so it suddenly occurred to me that there was a place for makeup that was good for the skin. I’d spent so many years working with women whose careers depended on having a flawless complexion, and the heavy makeup they were using to cover up skin problems was actually aggravating their skin concerns, instead of improving them. I started thinking about a solution – a makeup with true skin care benefits. I have always been interested in fashion, in wellness, in beauty, and in personal expression, so the leap into makeup was a very natural one for me to make.

Why are minerals so great for your skin?

Mineral makeup is a healthy, skin-friendly alternative to traditional makeup.

Women frequently seek options to cover what they consider to be visually frustrating conditions like acne, rosacea and hyperpigmentation. Regrettably, they often make choices that are not effective and potentially make the problem worse. So when I was developing the first product, our Amazing Base Loose Mineral Powder, I took out all of the ingredients that are used in traditional makeup and was left with mineral pigment, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide among others. These are usually found in the “May also contain” part of the label, but we used them as the foundation of our formulas. We immediately found that we got great coverage with very little product; the minerals soothed the skin; gave broad-spectrum sun protection; provided antioxidant properties and felt weightless while wearing them. People with makeup sensitivities were able to wear them. We actually tried them on chemically sensitive people and they were fine.

Did you have a business plan when you started? Do you have an annual budget or strategic plan?

No, I didn’t have a business plan and, in fact, have never had one. We began quite organically. We incorporated in March 1994 and started with five shades of Amazing Base Loose Mineral Powder. They were a few sample pots of mineral powder that I’d worked on with a chemist in LA. I had one product and one customer. Gradually word of mouth took over and required more financing and more people. I’m told that most female entrepreneurs start by maxing out their credit cards and that was true for me. I borrowed small amounts from friends and family until I could get credit from a bank.

Of course, today it is a different story. We have since expanded the line to include more than 400 products, we are a major privately owned business with hundreds of employees and partners worldwide. Now we have a detailed annual budget and strategic plans for the future.

How quickly did your business grow?

We knew we were on our way to making it when we got our first mention in Vogue! Impacting women’s lives began almost immediately. In those days, they let us know by phone; now it comes from all directions, including social media, texts, emails, reviews. And it isn’t just about the products, it’s also hearing from single moms who’ve been able to keep a family together by selling our products in their place of business. There’s nothing like the satisfaction in that.

Growth was fast and exciting. We had very few competitors and early on got physician endorsements, which added enormously to our credibility. But I’ve always said that it doesn’t matter how many wonderful ingredients you have in your products, if makeup doesn’t look good then there’s no point. The most important thing for us has always been that our makeup looks so good on the skin, but it doesn’t look like makeup. It looks like your skin, only better. The person who understood this and helped so much in the beginning was a makeup artist at The Oaks at Ojai, Linda Winn. She took us on with a vengeance and it all spread from there.

Starting a new business is always a challenge but I never doubted myself because I had such faith in the product. Honestly, it never occurred to me that we wouldn’t make it.

How do you test your product to make sure that it’s good for your skin?

We go through extensive testing for sunscreen efficacy and sensitivity. For example, our products are tested on 50 people to gauge sensitivity. This test requires dermatologist sign-off, which enables us to say “dermatologist tested.” We also test for comedogencity (does it block pores?), heavy metals, and photo toxicity. All ingredient information and safety is contained in MSD Sheets – Manufacturers Safety Data.

We do far more testing on our products than is required. We are also a certified cruelty-free cosmetics brand, recognized by both Leaping Bunny and PETA for our voluntary commitment to no animal testing at every stage of product development and manufacturing. I’ve always felt that animals contribute so much to our lives and that we owe them respect, especially the ones we domesticated who are now completely dependent on us. Nobody asks them for permission to perform unspeakable experiments on them. Like children, they are completely vulnerable. This pledge to cruelty-free makeup and skin care has always been at the core of our brand. We believe it is an essential element in our holistic approach to creating responsible, healthy beauty. We have a strict quality control process that begins in the laboratory and carries all the way through to the consumer.

How do you sell your product?

We distribute mostly through the professional channel – spas, salons, plastic surgeons, dermatologist, makeup artists, and specialty boutiques and independent drug stores like Bigelow – my favorite apothecary in Greenwich Village. An important part of our business is now e-commerce, which is seeing fantastic growth. We’ve also recently expanded our distribution in exciting ways. For example, we sell through Evine Live, Amazon Luxury Beauty, and just opened a flagship store in collaboration with fashion boutique Louisa Ellis here in Great Barrington.

How important is international to your business? Was it difficult to develop?

We create our products here in the United States, and manufacture and distribute jane iredale products in about 52 countries worldwide, currently!

Distribution is similar to our US distribution, they’re available via retail partners or online. Our international business is very important to us. Currently, we ship half our SKUs overseas. Canada and the UK are neck and neck for number one distributors and have been for years. International business is very rewarding but a high degree of patience is required. It takes time to build a country. Regulations differ – some are stringent, some more lax. We have a very capable department that exclusively deals with our international business.

Are beauty bloggers important to you? How do you cultivate them?

Thanks to bloggers, editors, and reviews, we have so much contact now with consumers – more than ever before. We’ve always known the importance of bloggers and were one of the first brands to hold events for them. The energy in the room is always incredible. They are so interested and engaged in our brand. We obviously keep them apprised of anything new and hold events each year when we can all get together and chat.

What are the trends in your industry?

Right now there’s a large movement in “beauty from the inside out.” It’s not a trend, per se, but it’s an all-important and innovative advancement for the beauty world. It’s now understood that you can effect just as much change in the skin, if not more, by feeding skin from the inside as well as the outside. This means eating well and supplementing your diet with food that the skin loves. It will reward you in many ways: clearer, smoother skin at any age; reduced breakouts, irritation and sensitivity; the skin will strengthen its protection from UV damage and it will glow with health. We can help this entire process with our nutritional supplement, Skin Accumax, which contains vitamins and plant nutrients in a synergistic blend that targets the skin. We’ve already seen incredible results with this breakthrough. I think this is a trend that’s going to get bigger and bigger. In fact, we’re adding to our nutritional line-up later this year.

How important is introducing new products?

It’s an important part of keeping up with the needs and desires of our customers, whose interests evolve as makeup trends are influenced by fashion, pop culture, seasons, and by the introduction of new innovations and techniques. We introduce new product collections seasonally and pride ourselves on being a holistic brand with fashion-forward colors and wide shade ranges for all skin tones.
At the same time, there are products that remain evergreen. Our mineral foundations were our first products and are still what we’re best known for – holistic, clean, high-performing makeup will never fall out of style.

How do you differentiate yourself from competitors?

There are a lot of brands on the market now using “mineral” as a marketing term. The misconception is that all mineral makeup is created equal. The mineral makeup category has been one of the fastest growing and almost every major player has some sort of mineral offering. And while I love what some brands have done, some of the other lines have talc, chemical sunscreen additives, synthetic preservatives, etc. It’s important to read the label to see if the brand you’re about to buy fits with what you want from a product. Our mineral makeup formula hasn’t changed much since we developed ours in 1994. The only change we’ve made to our original formulas is to add some beneficial ingredients like botanicals and antioxidants. We were the first to use liposomes in makeup like encapsulated algae extracts and antioxidants. Everything we do is based on making the skin as healthy as possible. We use a lot of plant extracts – most of them are certified organic. Their benefits, taste, and smell are in my blood because I’m an avid gardener. Many of them, like pomegranate extract, have active antioxidant properties and help to reverse sun damage. Because our brand is rooted in science, I love it when I find botanicals that combine the natural and scientific worlds. We source most of our plant extracts from Europe where there is a long heritage of appreciating and understanding their benefits. I think this is what differentiates us. In a very real sense, all makeup brands are our competitors but in another sense, I don’t believe we have one in our niche.

Can you talk about the importance of branding?

For us, it’s very important, especially internationally. Consumers associate quality and integrity with our brand. That didn’t come easily. We’ve had to reinforce that year after year, day after day. But it’s been worth it. When people see the name jane iredale, they know what to expect.

What do you know about your ultimate customer?

More and more I’m realizing that demographics don’t mean much and in a very real sense are less and less important. In today’s world, the consumer can shop where she wants, how she wants, and when she wants. This makes pinning her down a thankless task. We don’t make products for an age group, a color or a socio-economic class. We make good products that appeal to women (and men) all over the world.

Have you had any product bombs?

Yes, but it was never the product itself. It’s always the componentry – the case, the applicator, etc. I used to try to engineer our own, but now I look for something that’s already been tried on the market. Much fewer problems that way.

How important is your website, blog, social media, etc.?

All very important and getting more so by the hour. We have inside teams devoted to the website or social media and they each work with outside companies. We’ve been lucky to find highly qualified and excellent people locally.

Are there any supportive industry groups or entrepreneur groups that have been important to you?

We are proud members of The International Spa Association (ISPA), and have found mutual support and collaboration with this organization since the beginning of our journey as a company. I had the great honor of receiving their ISPA Visionary Award in 2014 – one of my proudest moments.

I also sit on the boards of the Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors (ICMAD) Association, and the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC). Both are nonprofit trade associations that offer support and education for all types of businesses in the personal care world.

What is your favorite part of the business? Any dislikes?

I love the fact that my job doesn’t feel like work to me. I find it satisfying, inspiring, challenging, and fun. Not that I don’t like to go to the beach once in a while, but I’m at my best when I have something to do. Something where I have to solve problems, move things forward, create something. I can feel my juices flowing and I love that. My job is so intertwined with my life in general that it’s hard to separate it. I really don’t like sitting in budget meetings and looking at spreadsheets. My eyes start to swim. The financial side of the business is always a burden to me and that’s why my husband is such an asset. He had a career at Citibank.

What would your suggestions be to anyone starting their own beauty business?

My advice for future entrepreneurs is:
1. Keep it to the “why.” Why do you want to do it in the first place?
2. Maintain employee trust. Don’t be someone outside of business and someone else when you come to work.
3. Be emotionally attached and love what you do.

Who has inspired you?

I haven’t had a business mentor except for my husband whom I would consider more as the Rock of Gibraltar. When I need a balanced point of view, he never fails. He threw his lot in with me after I’d been in business for a year. He’s our COO, my business adviser, sounding board, and stress reliever.

My personal mentor convinced me years ago that I could manage to get a degree while working full time. So I was able to complete my BA at New York University and then my MA. Having that incredible experience gave me so much confidence. Going back to school was one of the most important things I’ve done. And my proudest moment was when my mother flew from England to see me graduate in my cap and gown. I suppose I would say that all women are my inspiration. I see them balancing families and careers, tragedies and challenges, and sometimes I wonder how they can continue to be so strong.

What are the pluses of having a business in Great Barrington?

Being part of a community where we can make a meaningful contribution. Being surrounded by beauty, fresh air, nature in all its aspects, peace and quiet, farm-to-table restaurants – a literally, vibrant cultural scene from the Boston Symphony to Shakespeare & Co, writers, singers, and artists. Organic farms, outdoor life (the Appalachian Trail runs right by our house), world-famous spas like Canyon Ranch, interesting shopping – no chain stores. On and on, and it just gets better.

Many years ago, I was working in Manhattan, cursing my fate that I had to spend another hot weekend in the city when I got invited by a friend for a weekend in the Berkshires. I didn’t know where the Berkshires were, but it sounded better than First Avenue and 74th Street. The next evening, I was on a deck, smelling the fresh air and listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra drifting over the lake at Tanglewood. It felt like heaven, and it was.

Now I live full-time in Great Barrington, and our bustling company headquarters is right off Main Street. We recently restored a 19th century schoolhouse to serve as our 20,000-square-foot main building, called The Bryant. It’s now a sustainable Gold LEED-Certified building, and we were able to preserve ninety percent of the original structure. We have gardens at every building, even an organic fruit and vegetable garden. We have four buildings in all and 180 employees.

What are your favorite pastimes?

I love to garden and the garden has become an inspiration for our makeup line. From colors, to smells to taste, it’s an important part of what we do.

I love to renovate old buildings. As I mentioned, we just moved our company into a renovated school building, built in 1889. A great labor of love.

I love to cook and entertain.

I also keep bees! They are the happiest bees alive foraging on flowers, veggies and fruit right outside their hive. We jar the honey as gifts.

Is politics important to your business or just something you personally like to be involved in?

Politics is important to me personally, but I try to keep it separate from the business. Not always successfully. The Lieutenant Governor has visited us twice. On both occasions it was to see what she could do to help business in the Berkshires. I admire what she and the Governor are trying to do for areas that don’t always get a lot of attention.

What are your plans for the future?

Keep doing what I’m doing and growing the company.

2017-04-03T14:13:26+00:00 April 3rd, 2017|