Female Founders: Kari Gran & Lisa Strain of Kari Gran Skincare On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
It’s OK if people don’t like you, it’s not personal. I figured that one out pretty quickly as it was easy to get so happy when something nice was said about your company and to be devastated when things weren’t so rosy.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kari Gran and Lisa Strain.
Kari Gran is the Co-Founder & President of Kari Gran Skincare, and Lisa Strain is the Co-Founder and CEO. Kari formulates the line and oversees operations and Lisa is the CEO and keeps the business humming along.
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?
[LISA] I had entrepreneurial parents, so we worked in the family business, starting with pushing a broom. I also had a car-washing business with a girlfriend, then tons of babysitting, eventually being hired at Nordstrom when I was 15 and worked there through college (steeping me in customer service). Early in my first real career, I worked in two of Seattle’s biggest/most creative advertising agencies, developing brand and promotional campaigns. After my ad stint, I wanted to travel less for work, so I switched to selling real estate. I then spent 20 years as a managing broker, becoming a top-selling agent of luxury real estate in the Seattle market and really honing my marketing chops. I met Kari while doing real estate, we were at the same office and really got to know each other when we began working together on the company’s giving foundation.
When we met, Kari was a beauty junkie. Me, I’m the opposite. She would drag me to every beauty counter in Seattle and tell me what to use. She would even have me test things by putting them on only half my face. I would groan but Kari loved it. She also made lip balm every year and would pass it out as gifts.
After her diagnosis, she started to really dive into cleaner options and started formulating her own skincare. She gave to me as a gift to try. After a few days my husband turned to me and said, “wow, you really look great.”. He was talking about my skin. I spent many years battling acne, so for him to call out my glowing skin, I was in awe. I knew Kari had done something special. We were both burned out with real estate and looking for what was next, and it turned out to be starting a skincare company in 2011. Kari was in her early 40s and me in my 50s. We joke that Kari is the inventor and I’m the instigator.
[KARI] Prior to Kari Gran Skincare, I worked in the Nordstrom accounting department then spent 15 years as a successful real estate agent in Seattle. At 29, I was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Disease, with are two forms of auto-immune diseases. I started looking into everything from what I ate to what I was putting on my face, and I dove into tons of research within the beauty industry due to my illnesses. With so many preservatives and toxins out there, I began formulating beauty products that fit my skincare needs and didn’t include ingredients that could potentially disrupt my already confused endocrine system. It was Lisa who presented the idea of starting a skincare company, it was a risky leap to start a company from scratch in a fiercely competitive industry. We were actually one of the first pioneers in the clean beauty world. It’s been hard work but also very fun.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
[LISA] What a loaded question. Too many interesting stories to narrow down to just one, everything from two ex-real estate agents trying to launch an eCommerce website to getting a cold call from Sephora to launching a crowdfunding campaign.
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?
[LISA] Kari and I were in New York making some sales calls and at the end of the trip we had leftover product and thought it would be fun to make an in-person visit to our first online customer ever and gift it to her. She lived in NYC, so we looked up her address and showed up at her very fancy building, looking very earnest and excited. We could not get past the doorman. We talked him into taking the gift we had for her to deliver to her later. She never ordered again. Clearly, an online relationship is not the same after you think you’ve been stalked.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
[Kari] The clean beauty/indie beauty industry was very supportive in the early days. We were all up against conventional beauty that dominated the category. We were all willing to share knowledge and help each other. But top of this list for me would be Gay Timmons, founder of OhOh Organics, a company committed to only sourcing sustainable ingredients and fairy godmother to all of us in the indie space. She has been incredibly generous with her time and knowledge from the minute we started this company, and I couldn’t have asked for a better person to set me on the path. Gay also runs NOHBA-a nonprofit that took root after years of frustration regarding regulation and standards in the personal care industry. We still work with her to this day.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
[LISA] Two things.
- Ourselves. Women, as a whole, are just still not allowing themselves to think big. Maybe it’s a generational thing, because I’m in my sixties, but I still catch myself getting caught-up in self-doubt. It’s a real trap.
- And money. Access to real money. I’ve heard it said that women don’t need more mentors, they need more money.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
[LISA] A sobering fact, women-owned businesses attracted only 2.3% of venture investment dollars in 2020 and that was down from the HIGH of 2.8% the year before. This is wrong on so many levels.
We just launched a crowdfunding campaign and have been overwhelmed by how many of our customers have invested (over 70% of our investors so far). We are finding that if women believe in a company, they will invest. The outpouring of support has been phenomenal. Several new women investors have said that this is their first investment they’ve done on their own. Another today wrote and said that she invested because she wanted to support other entrepreneurial women. It’s about presenting these opportunities to woman and making the investment entry levels approachable.
We’ve also been contacted by some women-led companies on LinkedIn asking how we are doing and letting us know they are watching, hoping this is something that could grow their business.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
- Women owners, hire more women, which is a good thing.
- We really do have quicker access to our intuition.
- Women are wired with kindness, which needs to be brought more to business.
- Women try harder. Seriously we do.
[Kari] Women are pretty darn creative and resourceful and speaking for ourselves, can think outside the box and have a true appreciation for building relationships and helping others out along the way. I also believe in the philosophy of all ships rising with the tide. The more we support our fellow women founders, the more there will be. Not to say I haven’t had any help from male founders, because I have. It’s nice to be able connect with like-minded people and even pick up the phone for help with a problem.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
[LISA] That we are super confident people. We’re not. We’re just able to push past our fears.
[KARI] That you have to have a specific educational background or training. There’s no “founder” school and you just have to have the stomach lining for it. Let go of the belief that a founder manages all the big thinking and decision making. I think most successful founders understand that every job within the business must be done, nothing is above or below what their “title” dictates.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
[LISA] Nope, this life is not for everyone for sure. My Gramma Margie would say it is not for sissies. You have to love “the win” but still be able to pick yourself up after a real trouncing and try again. Yes, we can certainly learn from our mistakes, but you can’t keep your failures a secret, because that will eat away at your confidence. Own it and move on. If you can’t do that, then go for a regular job — you’ll be happier.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Some days are going to be so great you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world and can do anything-others, not so much. It’s ok. Have a moment.
- Productive failure. I’m a recovering type-A perfectionist and let fear of failure hold me back from speaking my mind or trying something that wasn’t going to be a slam dunk.
- It’s OK if people don’t like you, it’s not personal. I figured that one out pretty quickly as it was easy to get so happy when something nice was said about your company and to be devastated when things weren’t so rosy.
- Don’t keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome. We turned ourselves inside out trying to find a model that would work for our Amazon business. On our 4th iteration, we found a winning combination.
- You don’t need to hire “experts” for everything you do. Often, with some thought and common sense, you will find the answer. We learned this the hard way, over and over. I just wish we could get back the money we wasted hiring “experts”.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
[LISA] Kari and I still answer customer calls and emails daily. Every interaction I have, whether it be on the phone with a customer, vendor or cold call, my goal is to be kind. Kindness goes such a long way. Also, if there’s a way I can be of service and helpful to anyone, I’m in.
[KARI] From the beginning we’ve practiced giving back to the community and sustainability before it was trendy. We were approached a few years ago by a large retailer to sell our Lip Whip. We were excited but learned that the company required us to package our already boxed lip whips into individual poly bags. We tried working with the company, offering shipping alternatives but it was a rule they wouldn’t budge on. We’re small and turning away business was a hard decision, but we couldn’t condone what they were asking. But now, watch other indie companies succeed and push back on larger corporations have been validating.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
[LISA] Righteous kindness. Everyone has a back story, and they are not all pretty. Let’s just be nice to each other.
[KARI] Do one thing that matters imperfectly. I think that is where we all get hung up, trying to be perfect so we don’t do it at all. For me, stepping away from anything that is single use plastic, like a water bottle.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
[KARI] Martha Stewart! Come on, this is a woman who has been there and done that. I learned how to make lip balm over 30 years ago from an article in Martha Stewart Living. She continues to work hard and is a major force as a female founder. I’d like to have dinner with her and Snoop Dog, their show was pretty great.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.