Leadership Lessons With Brianne West, founder of Ethique
“I always wanted to use my passion for environmental conservation to create positive change. Ethique was founded to rid the world of plastic waste, and is driven by the hashtag #giveupthebottle which is a growing movement we started on social media to spread a message that extends past cosmetics to plastics in general — particularly plastic water bottles. To date, Ethique has prevented over 500,000 plastic bottles from ending up in landfills. Our goal is to save 1 million bottles by 2020, but we actually expect to hit that this year which is very exciting. The next goal for us is 10 million by 2025.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Brianne West, founder and formulator of New Zealand-based company Ethique, the world’s first zero plastic, zero waste personal care brand. As a biochemist, Brianne developed Ethique to impact the 80 billion plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles being sent to landfill each year. It’s the first entirely solid range of hair, face, body and household products, sold in compostable sleeves to eliminate all packaging waste. Her innovative contributions to sustainable beauty will save the manufacture and disposal of more than 1 million plastic containers by end of 2018.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory?”
My backstory is long and very windy with lots of dead ends and wrong turns. I’ve always wanted to do something science-y but alongside that I’ve always wanted to try and save the world, even from an early age. I was always rescuing birds and hedgehogs, as well as creating slime and other strange creations in my parents’ kitchen. I never really grew out of either habit and the spark for Ethique came about 6 years ago while I was studying at University. I had had two other businesses, which were just tiny hobby companies in the cosmetic and confectionary industries. They taught me a lot, but mainly that business as normal bores me rigid. I wanted my next business (there was never any question there would be another) to do something tangible towards creating a better world, with my passions being environmentalism and science. The idea of the world’s first 100% solid, waste-free cosmetic company was quite obvious at that point as a way that I could reduce the horrific amount of plastic we use every day.
Ethique came about as a combination of my passion for the environment, knowledge of cosmetic chemistry (and the waste the industry creates) and the desire to create a business that had far more at its core than just making profit. It seemed so obvious to remove water, and therefore plastic, and just send customers the concentrated ingredients that make up a product so they can add the water at home.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Every day is full of laughter, but one of the best days was the day Britney Spears shared us on her Facebook page. My mum is not super tech savvy, and I’m a bit mean to her about it. A couple of years ago we were going through a huge spike in interest (started by a Forbes article) and we were besieged with orders, emails and messages from all around the world. Friends and family were helping out in every possible capacity and we were all pretty stressed. I woke up to a text one very early morning from my mum saying ‘Britney Spears has shared us on Facebook.’ I’m not a morning person and I do give her a hard time at times (she works with me in the business too) and I responded pretty condescendingly, assuming it was some unofficial page, if not just something she’d imagined. I have always been a Britney fan as I grew up with her music so it seemed more than a little unlikely. Turns out she was right though and we spent the rest of the week dancing around the office, listening to Britney’s old songs and enjoying the afterglow.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The product line is probably the obvious answer, but a product is easily copied. What makes us stand out is our values and rigid adherence to them, our transparency and authenticity, innovation and our customer service obsession.
There are lots of products out there that tick a few boxes, but very few companies can tick all the boxes we can: palm-free, plastic-free, BCorp, products made using only sustainable, naturally derived ingredients, compostable packaging, fair trade, living wage certified, 20% of profit to charity and accessible. I’ve been told countless times I’m challenging and difficult to work with because of our total lack of compromise with these values, but without them we would just be another cosmetic company (and also because I’m just challenging to keep focused)!
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
I love developing new products — it’s one of my favorite parts of running my own business! We have about eight new products scheduled for this year, with a very exciting new range coming out early next year. It will be a bit different to what we currently offer, but a natural progression that I know our customers have been seeking. No more hints until then! We do have hair masks on the way, due out in September and a shampoo/conditioner range for those with coloured hair later on too.
We are of course continuing on our march towards ‘a bar in every shower’ by expanding into Japan and Europe and furthering our penetration into Australia, the USA, Taiwan and Hong Kong. We are embarking on a very large capital raise over the next few months as well which is very exciting — I am looking forward to taking on a new partner and expanding even further.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Listen, don’t assume your life experience and reactions to them are the same as theirs and treat them like family. When you get the right people alongside you, it’s fantastic; going to work and tackling challenges becomes a joy and anything is possible. We have an amazing team, whom we look after paying a living wage, free breakfasts and lunches, generous contractual terms and an amazing culture in a company with real purpose! The more we support our team, the more passionate they are about what they do, so the more we support them — it’s a great circle to get into!
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?
Many, many people, ranging from the Ethique team (who make coming to work such a pleasure), my parents ( who told me I could do anything if I put my mind to it), mentors, my business partner (who believed in the company enough at a very early stage to finance it) and friends across the board. My greatest hire has had the biggest impact on the company — my current COO started with us about eighteen months ago when we were a four person company operating out of a 200 square foot unit with no real idea what we were doing. Down to his organization, experience and never-ending advice (and patience), Ethique is now found around the world, expanding ever more rapidly and in a much more solid position from an operational standpoint. We were chaos personified when he arrived, now (whilst it’s still a bit chaotic) there is more structure and a great team working towards the same goal.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I always wanted to use my passion for environmental conservation to create positive change. Ethique was founded to rid the world of plastic waste, and is driven by the hashtag #giveupthebottle which is a growing movement we started on social media to spread a message that extends past cosmetics to plastics in general — particularly plastic water bottles. To date, Ethique has prevented over 500,000 plastic bottles from ending up in landfills. Our goal is to save 1 million bottles by 2020, but we actually expect to hit that this year which is very exciting. The next goal for us is 10 million by 2025.
We also have a charitable partnership scheme where we donate 20% of profit to various charities, particularly focused on the environment, animal welfare and conservation. I am excited about this as we grow because it means we have more money to support organizations doing big things!
Our ingredients are another area in which we create change. We work directly with producers of many of our ingredients, such as our coconut oil, to ensure they are paid a fair price for their product which means they can look after their communities and environment.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. People may have much more experience than you but that doesn’t mean they know better in every situation. I used to have a habit of second guessing myself if what I thought was at odds with a mentor and it cost us time and money. If I wasn’t on board with a decision but was too unsure to speak up, it affected the business. This has cost the business a bit of money and now I know that it is so much better to discuss something until everyone at least feels comfortable with a decision, even if they don’t totally agree.
2. Money is finite. I have so many ideas (most are probably rubbish, some might be worth looking into and the odd one might be feasible) and the fact that we can’t always explore each one frustrates me a lot internally. Patience and practicality are very important and something I need to learn a little more about.
3. Developing a great team is really, really hard. People are great in an interview but sometimes don’t work out as well in reality. One person with a negative attitude totally affects the culture and brings everyone down. We learnt the hard way. Now we hire super slowly and promote internally as much as possible. It’s a great way of seeing if people think smaller, day-to-day tasks are beneath them starting like that too. We hire on attitude, rather than experience and so far, it’s working much better.
4. It’s hard and quite lonely. Very few people understand what it’s like growing a business that you founded. It’s an extension of you, your personality, your hopes, dreams and values. I imagine it’s like having an actual child, but eventually a child lets you sleep through the night. It’s not like working for someone else, as much as you may love your career. It’s all consuming and for a while nothing else matters. I always dreamed about being a globetrotting businesswoman, but the reality is significantly harder and lonelier than I expected. Thankfully, I have some amazing friends who have stuck with me throughout the years where I had less than no money and still stick around now I have even less time. Find the good ones.
5. It’s also the most incredible fun. I get to come to work with people I adore, with all of us working towards the same goal. I would never want to do anything else and even though sometimes I didn’t think it would survive, I wouldn’t change anything.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson” quote?
You could lie on the floor and let people walk over you and some people would just complain that you were not flat enough. In other words, you will go mad trying to please everyone.
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?
Oof, that’s hard to choose! I have learnt over the past few years that everyone is human and there is certainly no silver bullet for success. But learning from others who’ve built something is so interesting and you can definitely take tidbits back to your own business. I can’t pinpoint one, but we are looking for impact investors at the moment, so if there happens to be someone reading who is interested in joining us in saving the world from plastic waste…
Originally published at medium.com