Female Disruptors: Irene Forte On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Years back, I helped develop a training program with the School of Life to help our Rocco Forte Hotel team with emotional intelligence. What I learned in creating this program from the School of Life team was the importance of empathy; empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Essentially, it‘s putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they must be feeling. This is vital to deliver good service to guests in a hotel, but also incredibly vital for business and life more generally.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Irene Forte.
Irene Forte is the founder and driving force behind Irene Forte Skincare, and a renowned leader in wellness. She is the daughter of Sir Rocco Forte, Founder and Chairman of Rocco Forte Hotels, where she is the Wellness Consultant, and she serves as an Advisory Board Member of the Global Wellness Summit. In 2018, Irene debuted her eponymous skincare line, which was initially launched into all Rocco Forte Spas and as hotel in-room amenities. Irene Forte Skincare is a line of 26 clean, natural products with formulations guided by science. Each of the approximate 75 active ingredients have been chosen to work in harmony with one another and complement the body’s natural biochemistry.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Thank you for having me!
I had been working at Rocco Forte Hotels (my father’s luxury hotel chain) for the last nine years, overseeing their spa/wellness offerings, amongst a number of other things, and I only recently became a consultant for them to focus on my line. During that time and through my experience working with the spas, I saw the opportunity for natural and experiential formulations to be improved by scientific insight. I was also itching to do my own thing and really felt a need to prove myself having spent the majority of my working career in my family’s business. I had the perfect base from which to start a natural line with our organic farm in Sicily, but I knew that I needed a brilliant scientific mind to help me formulate. After a lot of research in Italy (I wanted to create an Italian skincare line given that I’m 100% Italian and our hotels are predominantly in Italy), I came across my formulator in early 2014: Dr. Francesca Ferri, who started formulating cosmetics and food supplements with an organic-cosmetic matrix 35 years ago. She leads EffegiLab that has been discovering effective natural skincare solutions for decades. This includes: working to develop a technology to extract active substances from red grapes to treat psoriasis and dermatitis; the discovery of vegetable melatonin, phytomelatonin, as a ‘super anti-ager’; as well as a focus on genetic studies and epigenetics to treat common skin concerns. Her philosophy lined up with mine, and I thought that she was the perfect fit to help me bring a ‘natural skincare line made better by the guidance of science’ to life. So together, over a number of years (and after trying and testing them with elite spa professionals at Rocco Forte Spas), we created: natural, plant-based formulations that are guided by science and clinically proven, using ingredients grown at our organic farm in Sicily; formulas that have outstanding fragrance and feel with low allergenic potential; a brand with sustainability at its core.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
It’s definitely an oversaturated market, so it’s difficult to completely disrupt the way beauty products are created.
I think we were one of the first beauty brands to do ‘sustainable luxury.’ We really wanted to create luxurious products with truly sustainable packaging, 100% made in Italy, that didn’t skimp on price, and achieved control on provenance and quality from farm to formula.
Also, when I started formulating I felt that the natural category was often unsubstantiated, and I wanted to create a transparent and proven natural range. Aptly characterized as ‘Natural Science’, our collection moves beyond naïve natural formulations to rely on the power of proven science. Our clean, natural products are guided by science in both laboratory and clinical trials, ensuring that the collection delivers outstanding benefits with a gentle touch and low allergenic potential.
We also understand that not everything in nature is friendly, and that natural extracts, and in particular ‘essential oils’ used for their fragrances are complex blends with unpredictable allergenic effects. Most natural brands fragrance their products with essential oils. There are, however, natural brands that attempt to minimize the allergenic potential of essential oils by excluding fragrance from their products; however, for me, and given my spa heritage, fragrance is a key component of the spa experience as it stimulates the psycho-cosmetic emotional impact. So, we created lab-formulated fragrances that have been allergen-screened, ensuring that our products have beautiful organoleptic properties and low allergenic potential. Indeed, to prove that this is the case, we have clinically approved our products for sensitive skin.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’ve made so many mistakes!
One of the biggest mistakes I made was when I first launched the brand. The production of our lids were so behind schedule and we were in such a rush to launch, so I didn’t ‘quality check’ them before the product was filled; they went straight to my lab. We went out with products to all of our spas, and also sold a number of pieces online, and quickly realized that our supplier had forgotten to top coat the lids. Paint from the lids was coming off on everyone’s fingertips/ skin the minute the lid had any product on it or was damp. So, I had to recall all the products — and had to manually change over 5000 lids at our fulfilment house in Glasgow (in Scotland) two days before Christmas.
There are challenges every day, especially with a start-up. I have learned to persevere, be resilient, and never give up. I have also learned to adapt!
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
My father has always been an amazing mentor. He has always told me that the business world is tough and without working hard and giving it your all, you will never succeed. He founded a very successful business of his own, Rocco Forte Hotels, where I started my career. Though it had never been my set plan to join Rocco Forte Hotels, I nonetheless fell in love with the hospitality when I did a development program at our hotel in London (Brown’s Hotel) after graduating from Oxford University. I wanted to go into Management Consulting, but my father convinced me to do this program. Following this experience, I joined the central Rocco Forte’s Head Office team. Here, my father let me get my teeth into all sorts of projects for the company, as well as allowing me to sit on the Executive Committee so that I could understand all aspects of how the business was run. He allowed me to be very entrepreneurial. I initially helped determine the brand standards, which included a new service philosophy and values. I was then awarded £250k in government funding to create a careers and development tool for the hospitality industry, leading to the “Map My Future” app at Rocco Forte Hotels. While still overseeing elements of learning and development for the hotels, I also noticed that there was no unified approach towards the spas and so I was allowed to create Rocco Forte Spas, which included a new spa philosophy, as well as fitness and nutrition offerings. Work for the spas then led me to start working on my skincare line. I really learned a lot about business during this time and obtained many skills that are indispensable to me today; this is all thanks to my father!
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Disruption isn’t unusual — the way business is done is constantly changing with technological advances and fresh, new ideas. Whether you view the disruptions as negative or positive normally depends on what side you stand on. For example, if you’re in the movie theater industry, you may not be a big fan of streaming services, but the average consumer is thrilled with the convenience of watching movies at home. There is a sense of nostalgia — although digital cameras and camera phones disrupted the photography industry, many young people now purchase disposable cameras and Polaroid cameras because it reminds them of their childhood! Overall, disruption of industries normally aims to benefit consumers, but can harm certain businesses in time.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1. Empathy. Years back, I helped develop a training program with the School of Life to help our Rocco Forte Hotel team with emotional intelligence. What I learned in creating this program from the School of Life team was the importance of empathy; empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Essentially, it‘s putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they must be feeling. This is vital to deliver good service to guests in a hotel, but also incredibly vital for business and life more generally.
2. Resilience. My father taught me that the business world is tough and that you need to be resilient. I saw him go through the financial crisis in 2008 (where hotel sales dropped by 40% overnight) and now Covid (where he has had a year and a bit of almost zero revenue). He is incredibly resilient and doesn’t crumble when something goes wrong, but instead quickly adapts and takes considered decisions to make the best out of a bad situation. This is incredibly important to be a successful entrepreneur.
3. Passion. Many have told me that to be a successful entrepreneur you need to be passionate about what you do. Hence, I always knew that I was going to get involved with something that I was passionate about and loved. When days are tough at work, it doesn’t matter if you love what you do.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I’m not sure I’m going to shake things up, but given that I haven’t been travelling over the past year and a bit, I’ve really had a lot of time to work on new developments.
First and foremost, I have focused on clinical testing, as I believe that this is what ‘Natural Science’ is all about. We have clinically approved our products on sensitive skin. From new laboratory trials, we know how well our Hibiscus Serum and Hibiscus Night Cream fight free radicals. From new clinicals, we know how well our Hibiscus Serum, Prickly Pear Face Cream, and Hibiscus Night Cream visibly reduce wrinkles depth when used in combination. We also know how well our Aloe Vera Face Cream and Pistachio Face Mask improve hydration.
Responding to new scientific insight, 2021 also sees the roll out of a series of new products; five will launch in the next six months alongside the brand’s first travel kit, containing six hero products.
Following our guiding principle of sustainability, we’ve tweaked the aesthetics of our packaging and made it even more green. All packaging is 100% made in Italy and the boxes will continue to be made out of 100% recycled fibers with vegetable-based inks. Each bottle and jar will be made of recyclable glass with a stone finish inspired by Mount Etna’s volcanic stone. Most will be refillable with components that can be recycled via our recycling scheme. First Mile, a leading sustainability company, will be our official recycling partner. They will recycle the refillable components, as well the ‘hard-to-recycle’ non-refillable product lids and pumps, shredding them into flakes, which are then converted into plastic pellets to make new plastic products for things such as car parts and pipes. There will be a pre-paid address so that customers can easily recycle items. We’re introducing an olive wood spatula made by a carpenter in Puglia, Italy. We’re also integrating more zero waste upcycled ingredients, made from nutrient rich plant-based leftovers. I believe that sustainability is a journey and I’m constantly finding ways to improve. We already keep all aspects of production in Italy, grow ingredients on our organic farm in Sicily, use some upcycled Italian ingredients, support local farmers and artisans, and are certified for sustainable excellence by Positive Luxury, as well as newly certified vegan.
More generally, we’re really excited to properly be expanding in the US. We have had an amazing first retail partner with Shen Beauty in Brooklyn, and now are launching our dedicated direct to consumer in the US, as well as launching with Nordstrom.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I’m lucky that I work in an industry that is dominated by women, so, I haven’t necessarily faced a lot of the same challenges as other female disruptors. I haven’t had to work my way up in an industry dominated by men.
Either way, I think the biggest challenge facing female disruptors is the role in the home/children. Unfortunately, society still expects women to be more present in the home than men. Mothers are deemed ‘bad mothers’ if they aren’t spending time looking after their children, while men are never challenged or questioned on this front. I strongly believe in equal care, such as parental leave, and would love to see this change!
While this is a generalization, amongst older generations, I think there is still quite a patriarchal view. Women are not expected to have careers. And due to this, I’ve noticed that women often have lower expectations. The problem with having lower expectations is that we end up getting lower outcomes, as expectations drive behavior.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
Shoe Dog! I love biographies, and I particularly love this one. I find it incredibly reassuring that it was not an easy road or journey. This is an example of how preserving and pivoting can often pay off.
Zero to One. Thiel is a bit contrarian but he has a very interesting and quite a unique perspective on how to build a successful business.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
There are so many.
I mentioned equal care, such as parental leave, above. This is something that would make a huge difference to women and to helping them have successful careers.
Another thing I really believe in is reading. Reading can transform a person; I think it gives someone a phenomenal advantage as it makes their mind more sophisticated, building experience, and an understanding of the world. A book is not something that is unobtainable; anyone can pick up a book. However, it’s not attractive to a lot of people (especially in today’s digital age). I would love to create a movement to ‘make reading cool.’
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Treat people how you would like to be treated.”
I really believe that we should be empathetic, kind, and respectful of one another — and that this is the most important thing in life.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!