Jane Wurwand, the co-founder of skincare brand Dermalogica, came to the United States in 1983, saw a gap in the market for skincare education, opened a training company called the International Dermal Institute, and then launched her skincare line to serve her students. Decades and 106 countries later, she sold the company to Unilever and is now focused on forthcoming FOUND/LA, a group that will fund and incubate local entrepreneurs in Los Angeles while connecting them with political and educational resources. She wants to build the blueprint for helping small business and then take it to other cities.
This week on Eaterâs business podcast, Start to Sale, hosts Erin Patinkin (CEO, Ovenly) and Natasha Case (CEO, Coolhaus) talk to Wurwand about the trajectory of Dermalogica, the plans for FOUND/LA, her philosophies for leading with empathy, kindness, and emotion, and her disinterest in people-pleasing.
On the importance of kindness: âI know that you can be a strong and effective leader, and you can also be kind. Kind doesnât mean weak. I think that oftentimes people feel you have to be unkind in order to appear strong, I think itâs the exact opposite… you can be terminating somebody, and it doesnât mean you have to be unkind.
âI think itâs important to always lead with empathy, and … I think if you love what you do, especially as an entrepreneur, you better be emotional about it, you better show it. You should bring yourself big authentically every single day, because thereâs only one of you. Someone else has got another cleanser, but thereâs only one of you, so you must lead distinctively.â
On company culture: âWithout the culture embedded in the business, you start veering off, you lose focus, youâre not quite sure what you stand for. âMaybe this sounds good, this is the new best thing, we better jump on that,â youâll lose it. And you must protect the culture of your company with everything you have…We called it visioneering, and we said, âWeâve got to visioneer everyone that comes in.â Sure, youâve got your HR training, but youâve got to be visioneered. This is the Dermalogica DNA, this is how we develop the packaging, this is what we were thinking about, this is why we teach, what the early students … We really built those, itâs almost like, I think Disney does a great job of this, where you really understand youâve not joined just a company that makes movies or content, youâve joined a place that promised the happiest place on earth. Thatâs a helluva statement to make.
â…Youâve got to write down everything from the language you use, to right down to the color, the font style and the color that you use, everything you can think of that conjures up your culture.â
On the 80/20 principle: âWeâve got to be prepared to be polarizing, weâve got to be prepared to piss off 80 percent, and turn on 20 percent. We canât try to people-please, because if we do, we will end up as mediocre. Weâll please everybody a little bit, but no one is starkly attached or detached to the brand. And we took that as our marching orders.â
On launching a company with her spouse: âThe point that we always joined on was this value system. The purpose, the mission, the culture, the value system, we always knew that was our common ground, and we reached it every time. But my god, we would have a thrash-out back and forth about what we thought was the best way to get there.
â…Thatâs still there for us, and itâs the thing that built the business. And of course, the culture of the business. We used to say to the team, âWeâre not fighting, weâre having a fierce conversation, and you better be prepared to have one too. If youâre sitting at this table, you are expected to have an opinion and defend it. And if you are not prepared to do that, then you are an audience member, and you can go and take a seat in another room.ââ
Listen to the show in full in the audio player or read the full transcript of the interview below. And please subscribe to hear entrepreneurs from various sectors tell Case and Patinkin about their struggles and victories of business-building in the weeks to come.
Jane Wurwand: My name is Jane Wurwand, and I am a professional skin therapist. I immigrated here to the United States in 1983, saw a gap in the market for professional highly trained skincare techniques. Not enough skincare salons were successful, and Iâd come from Europe where it was a huge industry. Spotted the pain, decided the opportunity was education, and started a training company called The International Dermal Institute. Three years later, because my students told me they had no products to sell, I launched Dermalogica. As simple as it sounds, it was just about that simple, and a ton of hard work.
Natasha Case: Where can we buy the products now? And also, tell us your favorites.
JW: Itâs like naming my favorite child.
NC: Thatâs easy to do, right?
JW: Exactly, but we donât say. Dermalogica is available in over 42,000 doors, salons, every single one has a professional skin therapist there ready to advise you. But it could be your neighborhood skin center, it could also be somewhere like Ulta or Bluemercury, which we also supply, and they have skin therapists.
Erin Patinkin: How many countries?
JW: We make every single product here in Southern California, and ship it from Los Angeles, so we havenât outsourced anything.
NC: Amazing. And favorite product, weâll assume like you said, you canât, it depends on the day of the week.
JW: The one I couldnât live without, if I had to pick one that I canât live without, itâs probably Special Cleansing Gel, which is one of our first products. Itâs a great soap-free cleanser, it removes all of your makeup, mascara, you can also wash your hair with it, and body in a pinch. And if you ever need to wash out your underwear in a hotel room, I know from experience, you sloosh it around in a sink, hang it up, and itâs all good.
NC: Amazing, like a life hack.
EP: That is actually the one I travel with, so those extra tips from the source, really good to know. What are the hacks you can do with the Daily exfoliant, because thatâs the one that I use, the powder.
JW: Daily Microfoliant? Thatâs fantastic in the shower to use it on damp hands to exfoliate your skin. And then when youâre going out and wearing a sleeveless top, you just use it on the backs of your arms to give a really silky smooth finish to your arms.
EP: I wish I could do that right now.
NC: But I thought you were, no one can see us, itâs the beauty of radio. Weâre all just exfoliating and chatting.
JW: This was clothing optional, right? I was told that, I wanted to make sure.
NC: Iâm actually gonna go do my laundry now as weâre talking, based on your tip.
EP: Early in your career, I read that there was an older woman who came in every two weeks for treatment. When you told her that she didnât need to come in that often, she basically said, âNo, I want to, because this is the only time I get touched.â I actually just get chills just thinking about that. How did knowing people needed that human connection guide you as you built your business, was that a pivotal moment for you?
JW: Yes, it was everything. Her name was Mrs. Herd, and I see her right in front of me now. She was coming every two weeks, as you said, EP, and I felt bad, I felt so guilty in a way. I was 19 years old, I didnât have any money, maybe I was falsely judging her, but I thought, sheâs coming on two buses, I knew she had a bus pass because I saw that, and she would give me a very small tip. It just made me feel, she was coming in every two weeks, maybe she felt like somehow sheâd been told this, and I felt awkward about it. I said to her she didnât have to come, and she just hesitated for a really brief moment, and then she put her hand on mine, which is critically important.
She touched me, and she said, âIf you donât mind dear, Iâd like to keep coming as often as I do. This is the only place anyone touches me.â It was so powerful, because she was saying it in a very kind way. She wasnât self-pitying, what she was revealing to me was that she was lonely. At 19, I didnât really understand exactly what she was sharing with me, but I knew it was powerful. And then very quickly after that, I immigrated to South Africa. I actually was staying in a small little cottage, and I didnât know anybody in Cape Town. One evening I was really feeling lonely and so homesick, I didnât even have enough money even to buy a magazine or anything. So I plucked up the courage to just walk next door, I didnât even know who lived next door, and knock on the door, and just say, âI just moved in and I havenât unpacked everything,â which was a lie, I only had a suitcase.
Maybe they had a magazine I could read, and I did, and the woman was very kind and sweet and gave me a magazine, and off I went. I went back, I was home within three minutes, and I just sat there, and I thought, âThereâs no one I have to talk to, I have to get connected.â I just realized really quickly, then I was 20, what Mrs. Herd had been saying to me. Itâs guided my whole career.
NC: Wow. So powerful.
EP: It is so powerful. In what way, how has it affected your leadership style, and the way you connect with people?
JW: I know that you can be a strong and effective leader, and you can also be kind. Kind doesnât mean weak. I think that oftentimes people feel you have to be unkind in order to appear strong, I think itâs the exact opposite. Bullies are unkind, and theyâre very rarely strong. Kindness is a great leader, and Raymond and I, heâs my life partner, my husband, we started the business together, we both share that point of value system. You can be letting somebody go, you can be terminating somebody, and it doesnât mean you have to be unkind.
I think itâs important to always lead with empathy, and I also think itâs a mistake when we hear, as women leaders … I started the company in 1983, there were very few women, lots of women entrepreneurs, but very few successful CEOs who were women then. I would be on panels in later years, and Iâd hear people say, âYou know you mustnât cry at work, and you canât be emotional, youâve got to be …â And I completely disagree, I think if you love what you do, especially as an entrepreneur, you better be emotional about it, you better show it. You should bring yourself big authentically every single day, because thereâs only one of you. Someone else has got another cleanser, but thereâs only one of you, so you must lead distinctively.
If you are a crier, and youâre doing it in a way thatâs truthful to you, I honestly donât have any problem with that. I think itâs fine.
NC: You could have allergies.
JW: Exactly, you could. And you could just say, âIâm a crier, Iâm sorry, that really touched me,â or whatever. I think itâs fine. Empathy, I try to lead every conversation, I constantly think to myself, âEmpathy, be kind. You can be strong and lead, and be kind.â
NC: Just to elaborate on that, are you suggesting in some way that this is something women really bring to the table in particular? Do you think that as hopefully the face changes of leadership, that this element will become stronger, that human connection that brands have?
JW: I donât think itâs gender specific, I think however, women are often told that we are more emotional, and therefore donât bring that to work. That might be fitting maybe in a corporate structure, but I know as an entrepreneur, and especially in an industry which is all about touch and human connection, itâs inappropriate. Youâve got to bring yourself, and youâve got to bring your kindness.
EP: I personally have found the times Iâve connected most to my staff, to my investors, are the moments that I am just the most vulnerable and really clear, talking about my needs and how I feel, and how that affects me in a real way thatâs not demanding. I think especially in the leadership context with staff, explaining why a certain thing needs to happen, those are the moments I feel more connected to what Iâm doing. I think itâs so important to success.
NC: And I think itâs a comfort for people to hear what youâre saying, because I think if you identify with kindness as a characteristic that is how you want to operate at work, and thatâs your professional identity, I think some people fear that they will have to become jerks to get to the top. I know personally, seeing some examples of big time CEOs that you grow up, I always felt like, âBut I donât want to feel like I have to do all these terrible things to do something great.â
JW: I donât want to be that person, and thatâs not who you are as a person.
NC: Right, you just thrive as who you are.
JW: Right. What have you gained as a leader, if the entire time youâre actually pretending youâre someone else? That doesnât feel successful to me, that doesnât feel like you have a personal accomplishment. I think we have to just keep ourselves on task. Just a couple of weeks ago, I believe in the power of apology too, a couple of weeks ago I was looking at something, and it was a packaging piece at Dermalogica, and our head of marketing, VP of marketing came into the room, and I had it in front of me. I said, âIs this out in the market already?â And he said, âYes.â And I said, âOh my god.â And he said, âWhy?â And I said, âBecause itâs bloody ugly.â
I saw as I looked to him, I saw in his eyes, he felt stung. He just said, âOh well, people like it,â and he left. And I thought, âThat was so unkind of me, nevermind rude.â I thought about it for a moment, and then I went straight to his office, and he wasnât there. It was a couple of hours later, I saw him in his office, and I walked in, and I said, âI have to tell you, Iâm apologizing for what I said.â Not that I donât believe it, because I do, however thatâs a different conversation. âI wasnât my best self, it was unkind. And Iâm sorry.â And he nodded, and I could see he was nodding to say yes, he accepted, and yes, it wasnât my best self. Heâs worked with me for over 20 years, so he knows that.
You have to hold yourself accountable to it, and you know when youâve done some and you think, âI donât feel really good about that.â Then do something about it.
NC: I love that.
EP: How do you think this human connection and empathy and even human touch has helped you to build, at first, that training business? You were training other skin therapists first, before Dermalogica, people were flying to Los Angeles, they would come and learn from you. Was there a community piece that developed after making these types of connections with people?
JW: Yes, my students would come in, and basically the plan was, we were up-skilling them. They had already achieved a license, a state board license to do skincare, and it was a 600 hour training, which is four months. I had gone through a two-year full-time training and a one-year apprenticeship, so I knew that they didnât have the skills to be successful. It wasnât that they didnât have ambition or desire, they just simply didnât have the skillset. So I would say them to them, âOur job here today in the classroom is to give you the skillset you need to be outrageously successful. Iâm gonna tell you, Iâm a really firm teacher, Iâm a tough teacher, itâs like teaching ballet, you canât almost be on point. Youâre either on point, or youâre off point.â
âIâm gonna tell you, and Iâm telling you, because I want you to be a prima ballEPa, I want you to be a great skin therapist, I want you to be able to provide for yourself and your family. Iâm gonna drag you kicking, screaming, and biting if necessary to your optimum level of success. Let me tell you, this is not just a purely altruistic endeavor, Iâm doing it because if you are more successful from taking classes, youâre going to come back. And we both have a win-win, and you know who wins ultimately, your clients. Because theyâre going to receive a skin treatment that gives them incredible results, and they will feel your humanity in your touch.â
And it was, honestly my students were so fantastic, they were like, âYes, weâre on board.â And I would say to them, âIf what I just said doesnât fit with why you came here today, weâre gonna take a five minute break, get some water, go to the restroom, and if you leave, you can leave now.â I only wanted people in the room that were on a mission, so I was purposefully being a bit polarizing. I never had … I had one person leave once, and the reason was, we were located, cheap rent, next door to the Social Security Office in Marina Del Rey. And after I finished speaking, in the five minute break, they asked if this was where they could get their benefits. âOh no, thatâs next door.â And they said, âGood luck.â They were completely into what I was saying. Thatâs the only time anyone-
NC: Very inspired before they got their Social Security.
JW: Yeah, it was all good.
EP: Thatâs amazing.
JW: Definitely, I think that itâs always informed my teaching. Thereâs an expression, itâs a Buddhist expression, or Chinese, I donât know who the heck said it, but I was told it many years ago, which was, if you back a person into a corner, you better make sure thereâs a window there for them to jump out of. In other words, you let someone save face, you donât back someone into a corner that just belittles them, whatever it is. So anytime Iâd have a student that wasnât really doing as well with the technique, and they needed a bit more help, I always took it upon myself to say, âYou know what? Let me rephrase how we spoke about this, because I donât think Iâve explained it properly. I can see a lot of you are struggling with it, so let me just think of another way of saying it.â
And I would always take it upon myself to accept that responsibility, because itâs not the student who doesnât learn, itâs the teacher that hasnât figured how they learn. I would share all those things with my students, and they got it, they were on board. Then when we came to launch the product, of course they were ready. They would say they were our tribe, they would say, âWe bleed gray.â Thatâs the color of Dermalogica packaging, then that became a watch word.
NC: Itâs beneath the skin, even.
EP: I understand that a lot of these skin therapists are entrepreneurs themselves, they have their own clientele, theyâre building up their own businesses. Did you see any of your students go off and create business partnerships with people that they had met at these classes, or go off to launch really big companies?
EP: Tell us about a few of those.
JW: This was the very beginning of the whole industry in the United States, and California was leading, but there was still only seven states out of 50 that you could even get a license to be a skin therapist, it didnât exist. In some states, you had to be a veterinary assistant to be able to do skincare. It was crazy, they were bundling up these licenses-
NC: Wow, those pets will have the best skin.
JW: Exactly. And in the lot, you had to be a nail technician, or a manicurist, so they would bundle up these licenses. The training wasnât good. There was only seven out of the 50 states that even had a license. These early students were all wanting to have their own business, that was it. 98% of all skin therapists are women, this is an industry dominated by women, and women own 64% of all the salons in the world, that includes hair, nails, skin. This is a women entrepreneurial industry. So they were coming, and Iâm thinking of one student I had, one of my very first students, her name was [Berel Gosling 00:21:46], and she was a hairdresser and she wanted to do skincare.
So came to me, she said, âI want you to train me, and I want to be the best I can be.â And I said, âYou got it, weâll work together.â She trained with me all the way until she retired, which was about five years ago. Her first thing was, she said, âIâm gonna start giving skin treatments to my clients,â which she did over the back portion of her salon. She then said that she was going to rent a room in a hairdressing salon, which she did. She then got creative, and said, âIâm gonna rent an ex-dressing room in a clothing boutique,â which was called the Dutch Door. She was doing all this in a little town in the foothill area called Glendora, this was not Beverly Hills, this was not New York, she was in Glendora.
She went on to open a 16-room multimillion dollar day spa, as it was then called, she employed about 30 to 40 people. And retired selling that business, she also bought the building that the Dutch Door was in, she took over the Dutch Door, took over the whole building, and bought the building. She then sold that to a plastic surgeon, who took those premises and made it into a med spa, because she was ready to retire. I can think of people, like Marla Beck from Bluemercury, whoâs of course an incredibly successful entrepreneur, started Bluemercury because she couldnât find Dermalogica when she was living in Boston, I think it was when she was attending Harvard. I can give you that story, and the stories are equally important to me, are the stories like [Berel 00:23:21].
I see them in class, and I saw that journey all the way through, and I could repeat that story tens of thousands of times with different people.
NC: Itâs incredible to empower this many others. Speaking more about the therapists, because itâs so interesting within this, your trajectory in the story, there are so many other stories really baked into that. You talk a good amount about the therapists really being magic for your brand, and how in so many ways thatâs allowed you to grow and scale the way that you did. I think, when I read about your story, the more I think just how much it was ahead of its time. In terms of even this idea as therapists as magic, how we think of todayâs brand ambassadors in consumer brands.
But I think that was such a progressive mentality, Iâm just wondering if you can speak more to that magic and what that magic really meant for the brand. And also, how do you scale that? Because itâs interesting hearing how personal your connection was with the students, but as things are getting bigger and bigger, and thereâre more and more therapists who are using Dermalogica, how do you maintain that level of intensity.
EP: 42,000 clients.
JW: I think the key thing is, in any business you build, your culture of your business is absolutely critical. The business drivers of any business, usually sales, education, marketing. For us, education, but slash-communication, fill that in for your own business. But without the culture embedded in the business, you start veering off, you lose focus, youâre not quite sure what you stand for. âMaybe this sounds good, this is the new best thing, we better jump on that,â youâll lose it. And you must protect the culture of your company with everything you have. Very quickly, when we got to about 35 people, enough people that not everyone was at our house for spaghetti every night and boxed wine, which was the early days.
EP: Way ahead of its time, too.
JW: Exactly. You realize youâve got to start embedding this, youâve got to start making it concrete. We called it visioneering, and we said, âWeâve got to visioneer everyone that comes in.â Sure, youâve got your HR training, but youâve got to be visioneered. This is the Dermalogica DNA, this is how we develop the packaging, this is what we were thinking about, this is why we teach, what the early students … We really built those, itâs almost like, I think Disney does a great job of this, where you really understand youâve not joined just a company that makes movies or content, youâve joined a place that promised the happiest place on earth. Thatâs a helluva statement to make.
How do you bake that in, youâve got to write down everything from the language you use, to right down to the color, the font style and the color that you use, everything you can think of that conjures up your culture. The kindness, the empathy, the how we serve the student and the customer. So if youâre walking through Dermalogica, you might be on your way to meet somebody that you think is important in the company, if you see a student thatâs looking a bit lost, or eating lunch on their own, you go over and speak to them. Because without them, we donât have a paycheck, we donât have a company. So we just embedded that, and we kept driving it forward.
If I heard somebody make a comment, which had happened along the years, a disparaging comment about skin therapists, because of the training, they didnât go to college, I didnât go to college, they were out. If you donât understand the power of our culture in the brand, if you donât understand whoâs making it all happen, you canât be here, because you have no ability to articulate what it is that weâre doing. The skin therapists brought us to the party. When I was 16 years old, my mom, who was widowed at age 38 with four girls to raise, a great example of providing for your family, she said to me, âWhere you going?â I said I was going to a party, and she said, âJust remember, you leave the party with the person you went with.â Okay, I didnât really know what she was talking about