Gregg Renfew, Beauty Counter, Woman Entrepreneur
There have only been a few women that I wish someone had introduced me to when they were out there raising their first round of capital. Gregg would be one of them. The second we started talking I was blown away by her energy, smarts and vision. Gregg built Beauty Counter because like all of us these days we are wondering what is in those products that we put in our skin. She wanted to create products that consisted of organic products with nothing hidden from the consumer so you can feel good about putting Beauty Counter products on your skin.
Gregg was born in NYC and moved to the suburb of Bedford when she was 4 years old. Her parents were divorced when she was 7 and her father moved back to the city so her ties to the city continued. Both her parents were of the mind set that you work and so she began at 12 as a mother’s helper.
After graduating from Miss Porter’s high school, Gregg went to University of Vermont to major in English with a minor in art history. She thought these majors were great for a universal skill set. The importance of writing is number one. I couldn’t help but ask the question of anyone who goes to school in Vermont, “are you a skier or boarder?” and Gregg was neither. During her summer months of college she waitressed at a cafe but in her junior year she started a cleaning company in Nantucket with friends to make money for a semester abroad. She cold-called real estate agents and built up a small business paying kids $10 an hour to work for her.
Gregg put away money for her senior year where she did her semester at sea. That semester was life changing. The trip began in Vancouver, went around the globe and ended in Miami. She went to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Turkey, Malaysia and Egypt. There were 700 people on the boat. It looked like a cruise ship without the amenities. On this trip she fell in love with Hong Kong.
After graduating her Mom gave her a check for $5k to cover first month, last months rent and a briefcase and said you are on your own. She moved to NYC for a brief stint with an advertising agency and worked on Ann Taylor and Conran’s accounts. Having racked up some debt in a job that appeared to be sexy and exciting but wasn’t paying the bills made zero sense. Her Moms advice…get another job.
Gregg got into the Xerox training program were she learned to sell, another life skill. She covered the jewelry district selling to orthodox Jewish men who did not need copiers and fax machines but somehow she learned to sell it to them anyhow. She became the top sales person and after two years she was able to pay all her debt back. She could finally live within her means.
Just like many women I have spoke to over the years, Gregg met some guy and moved to Richmond, VA. It did not work and she decided she wanted to go abroad. She had wanted to conquer the world and then live in an idyllic house with a white picket fence. She interviewed with a securities firm that got her to London and would eventually get her to Hong Kong where she really wanted to be. She was essentially selling research. Companies could pay their bills in exchange for research. It was really gaining traction at that time. They would unbundle the package deals from Merrill Lynch so trades could buy specifically what they needed. Gregg was covering the pacific rim. She stayed for a year and a half before moving back to the states.
She got a job offer from the woman in Nantucket she lived with while she ran her cleaning company. It was 1995. She went back to help them figure out their information company, NText, that they had bought. They wanted to move into selling PC related information online. The business never got off the ground but Gregg learned how to write a business plan and became intrigued by the internet.
When Gregg was 23 she had started a bridesmaid business on the side where she made about 50 dresses. Her entrepreneurial spirit pushed her to call a woman she had met in London who had a business called the Wedding List which was a registry platform for high end brides and grooms. Gregg thought she could bring the business to the states and it would be an interesting platform for her bridesmaid dresses too. She started those conversations in 1997 and brought it to the states in 1999. It was a gift registry for showrooms. She told it to Martha Stewart in 2001. It was the perfect fit. Gregg stayed the year that was stated in her contract which was plenty.
During her short jaunt back to NYC between Hong Kong, London and Nantucket she met her future husband. After selling her company she began to work with him on consulting projects in the fashion world. They worked with Intermix and Best and Co who then asked her to come in and be the CEO. She was fired by Susie Hilfiger after a year. Tommy had brought her in to cut burn, increase margins, etc. She was caught in the middle. It was a great learning experience.
Fast forward Gregg’s husband gets a job in LA. They went out there in 2008. The first year she spent working for Jessica Alba. During that time she saw the Inconvenient Truth and it made her start looking at everything different. Her business mind started churning. Women are having a harder time getting pregnant, young people are getting cancer and Gregg started to do a deep dive looking for the answers. She came to the decision that there was a real opportunity to create a movement around better beauty products. Personally she could not find the personal products she wanted to use. She knew the products had to be high performing and safe for your health. What is interesting is in the US most of the ingredients used in the self regulated market of beauty products are banned in the EU. She wanted to educate people. Your skin is your largest organ and most of us do not realize that the products we are using are harmful. She wanted to build a company where health and performance were first.
Beauty Counter launched in March 2013 with a celebrity and a health environmentalist. The platform allows women to also be empowered about what they use. They have gone from zero to 10,000 sales women and are adding 1,000 a month. The business is a direct sales business, the next Avon. She has created a movement.
Gregg started teaching at Stanford about four years ago. She talks about women entrepreneurs and runs workshops. She said she still thinks about what her Mother told her years ago. You are the cake and everything else is the icing. Gregg is making lots of icing in multiple flavors.