Corner Office: Gregg Renfrew of Beautycounter on Toxic Chemicals and Getting Fired by Messenger

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You left Martha and went to work for Susie Hilfiger at Best & Company.

I’ve had the pleasure of working for some very strong-willed women.

Any commonalities there?

Businesses are successful when the business side and the creative side have good checks and balances. When one side of the business has too much power, it can be really challenging. And those two companies tipped more toward creative than the business side of it. When the creative could always trump business decisions, it made it very difficult to do my job.

So what happened at Best & Company?

Susie flat out fired me by messenger in front of my entire team when I was C.E.O. in the fall of 2006. The messenger came and said, “Are you Gregg Renfrew?” And I opened up this package, and it said: “You’re fired. You’re out of this building right now.” I was in the middle of a meeting in front of the entire team. So that was a humbling experience.

What did you learn from Martha and Susie?

One of the challenges that we face as women leading an organization is there’s this desire to be liked, and this desire not to be considered a tough bitch. Women who are powerful are often considered to be tough, as opposed to strong. I try to be strong and confident, as opposed to tough and abrasive.

How did Beautycounter get going?

I watched “An Inconvenient Truth” and had become impassioned with the environmental health movement. I was washing my children with a natural foaming oatmeal body wash by a name brand, but when I went on the Environmental Working Group’s database, it rated it an eight out of nine for toxicity. I thought I was using natural oatmeal body wash, and in fact I was putting toxins on my babies. I was just outraged. And I became truly obsessed with this.

At the same time, I was looking at where direct to consumer was going, and where I saw the biggest white space was in beauty. No one had pioneered meaningful change in that industry. It took me a couple of years to concept the idea, the selling model, create the products from scratch. I went in thinking that we could just use white-label products and change a few ingredients. That was certainly not the case.

You’re very focused on bringing more regulation to your own industry. That’s unusual.

Most people still believe that the Food and Drug Administration is protecting them in terms of personal care products. And most people believe that the products on the market are safe. But the F.D.A. is not necessarily screening ingredients for safety, which is very different from the food industry. The F.D.A. can be protective of the consumer in certain industries, but in our industry, we are woefully underregulated, and they don’t have the power to recall products. And this is one area where you have bipartisan support. Everyone agrees that we need to update the laws. It’s been 80 years now.

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