How Juice Beauty’s Karen Behnke radically transformed the chemistry of beauty

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Photo: Karen Behnke

Welcome to Fit for Business, a new column from Well+Good’s co-founder and publisher Alexia Brue. Each week, she’ll take you behind-the-scenes with the most successful healthy-living entrepreneurs around the world, so you can learn what inspires them, what challenges them, and what it’s like to work in the (booming) wellness space.

This week she’s sitting down with Karen Behnke, founder and CEO of the Gwyneth Paltrow-approved clean skin-care and makeup brand Juice Beauty.

Karen Behnke has always been ahead of the times. In 1980, she started Get Fit Aerobics, one of the first aerobics companies in the country. A few years later, Behnke launched one of the first corporate wellness companies in the country, which she sold to United Healthcare in 1991. Between all this entrepreneurial activity, she somehow managed to complete Harvard’s three-year executive training. She lives in San Francisco with her cardiologist husband and their two children—oh, and she manages to compete in triathlons too!

Juice Beauty, which she founded in 2005 (well before “clean beauty” became a buzzword), now has 125 team members and is available in 1,200 stores. It has evolved into one of the leaders of the ever-growing natural skin care space, convincing women to forgo their prestige moisturizers and lipsticks in favor of something just as powerful—only without the toxic chemicals. And she just teamed up with another ahead-of-the times tastemaker, Gwyneth Paltrow, to co-create skin care and organic makeup.

What prompted her beauty aha moment—and how does she handle taking risks while keeping her to-do list under control? Here, Behnke opens up about it all.

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juice beauty makeup
Photo: Instagram/@juicebeauty

Where did your inspiration to start Juice Beauty come from?

I had never paid much attention to the ingredients in beauty products, even though I had been an entrepreneur in the health and wellness field for 20 years.  It wasn’t until I became pregnant with my first baby at 40 that I became more aware of what I was putting on my body and actually read the ingredients on my beauty products labels.

I couldn’t believe the amount of potentially harmful ingredients that were in both high-end and drugstore beauty products. As my ingredient research continued, it was even more alarming when I found out that these products contained some ingredients that had been banned from our food.

“Knowing that our skin absorbs over 60 percent of what is placed on it and that our body was being exposed to toxic ingredients, I was determined to radically transform the chemistry of beauty”

Knowing that our skin absorbs over 60 percent of what is placed on it and that our body was being exposed to toxic ingredients, I was determined to radically transform the chemistry of beauty. I set out to grow the Juice Beauty brand with a mission to create luxurious formulations, made with certified organic ingredients that perform just as well, if not better than conventional chemical beauty.

Entrepreneurs always see the opportunity, and I saw plenty of opportunity in the beauty world—despite this crazy crowded prestige marketplace!

What differentiates Juice Beauty from everything else out there?

High-efficacy skin-care formulas and vibrant plant pigment makeup that performs as well as conventional chemical makeup. And we do all of this with certified organic ingredients. Juice Beauty is still one of the very few beauty brands that meet the 70 percent-or-greater “made with certified organic ingredients” government regulations. Instead of fillers or added water, Juice Beauty products contain a proprietary blend of organic botanical juices—aloe, jojoba, grape seed, shea, infused with citrus juices—with added powerful age defying or blemish clearing ingredients.

Many “natural” products can range from not-natural-at-all to some pretty great naturals, but since there are no real regulations in the natural arena, it’s tough for consumers to understand and sift through all the marketing hype.  Juice Beauty’s goal has always been to definitely pass natural efficacy and to meet or exceed conventional chemical beauty efficacy.

juice beauty
Photo: Instagram/@juicebeauty

Attracting talent is always a challenge. How did you convince people to join Juice Beauty when it was little more than a dream?

Patience—and getting candidates to use our products! It takes great patience to achieve the highest efficacy yet most pure products. It takes years and years of scientific trials backed by a competent and passion-fueled team.

Entrepreneurs are not known for their patience, so I sure got frustrated along the way. It takes a bit of scale and notoriety and great products to recruit amazing leaders and a world-class team. At the start of 2011, Juice Beauty really began to escalate when we recruited a professional product development and in-house chemist team, as well our first top managers and our amazing team began to form.

“I encourage our team members to find their passion and focus on our mission and work in an area they believe in”

I encourage our team members to find their passion and focus on our mission and work in an area they believe in. I think most of Juice Beauty’s employees would say that they are doing more than working in beauty; they are building a sustainable, mission-driven company that is hopefully creating additional and significant meaning to their lives. We are win-win-win: win with highly effective results oriented products; win with healthy ingredients absorbing into your skin; win with helping a sustainable company support organic farming and sustainable suppliers.

How did you decide whether to bootstrap the business, seek angel investors, or take VC money?

I bootstrapped my first company, a corporate wellness business, in my twenties, so I wasn’t about to go that route again. Juice Beauty started with myself and other close business friends investing in the concept, and for the first nine years, although we didn’t “bootstrap”, we grew step-by-step by $1-2 million a year [in revenue] and remained profitable. Juice Beauty is now 11 years old and at year 9, I decided that it was time to buy out some of my original investors, providing them with a great return ,and bring in a professional private equity company that could help us strategically so we could greatly escalate our growth. We partnered with the Invus group, which serves as great a strategic partner and is helping us fuel our growth at a high and steady rate.

juice beauty karen behnke gwyneth paltrow
Photo: Instagram/@juicebeauty

Can you tell us about a key decision you made that was a turning point for Juice Beauty, but that frankly could have gone either way?

Well, partnering with one of the biggest celebrities in the world, Gwyneth Paltrow, was certainly a key decision for Juice Beauty—and deciding to launch almost 80 makeup products made with certified organic ingredients and plant pigments, for a small business, was a tremendous feat.

When we first met with Gwyneth about the early formulas of the collection, she literally gave us her favorite conventional products as a benchmark and said we would would have to match or beat them with our new formulations made with certified organic ingredients.

“When we first met with Gwyneth, she literally gave us her favorite conventional products as a benchmark and said we would would have to match or beat them”

Gwyneth strives for excellence, and we all agreed that if we could not create a Juice Beauty product that could meet or exceed conventional chemical benchmarks, we would not launch it. We knew going into this huge launch that concealers, mascaras, and primers were going to be particularly difficult to formulate with certified organic ingredients and plant pigments.

It took a lot of work with our in–house scientists and creative team, but we were able to achieve amazing formulas that not only were made with 70 percent-plus certified organic ingredients but also met Gwyneth’s—and the entire Juice Beauty team’s—expectations. This was a pretty high-risk process, as we told the world we were launching a makeup collection radically transforming the chemistry of how makeup is made—and we did it!

juice beauty karen behnke
Photo: Instagram/@juicebeauty

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Someone once told me to follow my passion. I can’t remember who said it to me first, but that’s what I’ve done and that’s what I tell everyone to do, as it’s served me well. If you are following your passion, you will be excited to go to work to change the world…or radically transform the chemistry of beauty! Start or join a company in which you are passionate, as this drive will get you through all the ups and downs. Then surround yourself with fabulous people who share—and can reinforce—this passion.

A business owner’s to-do list is always long. Please share your favorite efficiency hack!

No kidding! My list is crazy long, but that is one of the challenges as I have to try to focus on the top, top priorities every day despite the regular pull of getting dragged into details. So, I try to have my top five priorities, literally written and in front of me daily. That, however, is probably the only piece of paper I have, as I really don’t print anything. I keep all my notes electronically filed and organized.

Everyone wants to know: Does Juice Beauty have any open positions?

Actually, we do have open positions in our San Rafael, California office as we are growing quickly! We currently have a newly created position of Marketing Manager to work with our VP of Marketing on exciting projects. We’re also searching for our subsidiary brand, Juice Organics hair care—we’re looking for individuals who understand the mass/value sector of hair care in the marketing/general management role.

Missed the first iteration of Fit For Business? Catch up with last week’s installment, featuring Peloton’s John Foley.

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