I had the pleasure to interview Sarah Kelly. Sarah has always had a passion for natural, sustainable products since starting her career 17 years ago with Tom’s of Maine. In 2010, Sarah completed her MBA from Simmons College in Boston with a focus on sustainability in business. In 2015, she was diagnosed with Stage 3, Triple Negative Breast Cancer while 32 weeks pregnant. Realizing her cancer was not hormone-driven or genetic, Sarah started to examine her environment. Her ‘Aha’ moment came when she began researching the ingredients in her beauty products. This led to her developing SaltyGirl Beauty with her sister Leah. SaltyGirl Beauty has been featured on Allure.com as a ‘New Green Beauty Brand You Should Try in 2018.’ Sarah lives in Kennebunk with her husband Chris and three kids.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Leah and I started SaltyGirl Beauty in the fall of 2017. But what led us here happened in 2015. In March of 2015, I was 36 years old and 8 months pregnant and was diagnosed with stage 3 Breast Cancer. My sister Leah is also an oncology nurse, so I was so thankful to have her expertise while I was going through my treatment. After cancer, I knew corporate America was going to be hard to go back to.
My cancer was not genetic. I have no family history of cancer, so trying to figure out how this happened became a focus for me. I started looking at what I ate, what was in my environment and what I put on my body. I became overwhelmed when I learned about all of the ingredients that are in the products that we put on our bodies each day, especially as women. One day, Leah brought over a bright color lipstick to me. I had lost my hair, my eyebrows, eye lashes and was feeling pretty down. But when I put that lipstick on, I immediately brightened. I felt a little bit more like me again. It was then that Leah and I started talking about creating a clean beauty company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Last year Leah and I started thinking about planning a conference for women with cancer that focused on beauty, wellness and education. We were planning it with our friend Cynthia. Our goal was to have it in NYC, but we were having a hard time finding a place to host it. Through our network we became connected to The Urban Zen Center owned by designer Donna Karan. The space was donated to us and we launched our first conference called, “The Cancer Wellness Expo,” with 100 women. It was a magical day. We’ve since taken our concept of The Cancer Wellness Expo to build what we are now doing with Warrior Revolution in workshops and retreats.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not sure how funny this was since I was crying at the time, but we ordered boxes for all of our products and they finally arrived. I was so excited. I began to open the boxes, starting with our Concealer. YAY they looked amazing. Then the lipstick boxes…OMG what are these, they were WAY too big! Then the Foundation boxes….YAY these look amazing and then the mascara boxes… OMG, what did I do??? Two of the five boxes were ordered in the wrong size. A $600 mistake. $600 felt like $10,000 or a million dollars at the time. It was devastating. I didn’t double check the dimensions when I received the proof and realized after that fact that I had ordered the wrong boxes. That set us back financially, and then we had to wait three weeks for the new boxes to arrive. Lesson learned!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think what makes our company stand out is the education part of our brand. We provide green beauty education, as well as education to help women going through cancer feel empowered and beautiful. We travel all across the country providing this education. Having the ability to connect and create community has helped us grow and gain a strong brand loyalty between us and our customers.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We recently partnered with our friend Cynthia Besteman and founder of skincare line Violets are Blue to launch our Warrior Revolution program. Warrior Revolution focused on community, empowerment and education for the cancer community. We talk about body issues, green beauty, self-esteem and transitioning from cancer to life. We work with organizations like Dana Farber, Dempsey Center and New England Cancer Specialists. And we are hosting our first Retreat on October 25–27 in Kennebunkport, ME.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I think what has helped us grow and thrive is the partnerships we’ve created. We’ve made mistakes, but for the most part we’ve carefully decided what type of organizations we want to partner with for promotions, events and key partnerships. Working with like-minded organizations helps us tap into similar customers and community. We are a self-funded company so our growth and choices for growth have to be very thought out because we don’t have any extra to spare. So, finding like-minded partners is a very strategic part of our growth. And as women, fostering relationships and building community are strengths we want to focus on.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Build a community and culture that others want to be a part of. It’s very important to Leah and me that we build a community that our team believes in and wants to build with us. We try to create a very transparent and open culture where people feel empowered to own their part.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Our biggest fans of SaltyGirl have been our parents since we began this journey. We’re lucky to have parents who have always supported our dreams. My Dad is a consultant and has owned his own company for years, so it’s always great to get his opinion and advice. He takes risk and looks at the big picture. Our Mom has been the director of social work for her organization for years. A compassionate leader is how I describe her. She makes time for everyone and makes every person she comes into contact with feel valued. I think Leah and I take parts of both our parents’ leadership styles to building our business. They’ve shaped us as people and have had a big influence on building SaltyGirl.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
A huge part of what we’re trying to do is bring good products to people that are looking for beauty products that are good, feel good and look good. But we also aim to be more than that. We donate 10% of our profits to our non-profit Foundation4Love which gives experiences to adults with cancer. Plus, we’re really growing the education part of our business — -with workshops on green beauty and cancer education and empowerment and our retreats for women with cancer. In 2019, we have the one Warrior Revolution Retreat, but we’re in planning mode for two retreats in 2020 and three in 2021. We want to be able to bring our retreats to women across the country.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Give yourself time. Success does not happen overnight. It is a grind and a lot of hard work.
- Stay focused. You can easily get distracted trying to get a big success to hit. But sticking to your plan and staying focused will get you to success the fastest.
- Weather the storm. Leah and I have wanted to throw in the towel several times. Getting a business up and running and then to keep up with growth and scale is hard and can seem impossible at times and I about 6 months ago almost game up. But we regrouped, pivoted a bit and things have really started to click.
- If you can, go in with a partner. I don’t think I could have done this without Leah. Starting a business is hard, but having Leah by my side makes all the difference. We have each other to keep in check. When I want to go forward with a crazy idea, Leah encourages me to think through the details and how they tie into our plan. In turn, I help push Leah out of her comfort zone. We have a good team. And it helps to have someone to vent to and celebrate with!
- Be able to pivot. I think it’s important to be focused like I said in #2. It’s easy to get distracted by a shiny object dangled in front of you, but it’s equally important to be able to pivot when it makes sense. Last winter, Leah and I were struggling with sales and messaging and weren’t sure what to do. We made a strategic decision to focus on education as a key driver for our business and it has made all the world of difference in how our business is growing.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
When Leah and I started our business, we wanted an element to give back. That is why we started Foundation4Love. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I had a 15-month-old son, my husband and I had gotten married 5 months earlier and I was about to give birth to our second child, my daughter. Life was hard. But our friends, family, co-workers all came to our aid and helped in some way. I would have cousins come watch the kids the day after chemo when I wasn’t feeling well or friends drop off meals, or gift cards for a massage or dinner out for Chris and I, or my Mom would come over to do my laundry. These small things made a huge impact. Foundation4Love is our way of paying that love forward. I wish as a society we did these small acts of kindness and generosity not only during times of need. It’s nice to pay it forward.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Today is a good day for a good day”. No one is promised tomorrow so make each day your best
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
It would be a dream to have a private meal with Oprah. I’ve been watching her since I was a kid when she started on TV years ago. How she has grown, built and taken her influence for the good is incredibility inspiring. She built what she has from the ground up and she continues to take risk and build new ventures. Having the opportunity to speak with her, ask her advice on what we are building and just share our story would be the ultimate experience.