Young Change Makers: Why and How Ashleigh Cortes of The Stay Beautiful Foundation Is Helping To Change Our World
Knowing your weaknesses is a sign of strength. When I first started Stay Beautiful I thought I had to know everything. From social media and marketing to production and finance, I realized the mentality I had was unsustainable, and it was hurting my business. It’s so easy to want to feel like you’re good at everything, but it’s even better to let go of that mindset and hire someone better than you. Build that dream team to help you succeed.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashleigh Cortes.
Ashleigh Cortes is the founder of The Stay Beautiful Foundation, a nonprofit organization that delivers free boxes of clean beauty and skincare products to women undergoing cancer treatment. Ashleigh was inspired by her grandmother, a Black Chicago entrepreneur in the beauty space who passed from cancer. Ashleigh saw first hand the effects of cancer on a woman’s self-esteem. Since her grandmother’s passing, she has made it her mission to help these women “glow through what they go through,” providing them with an exciting, fun, unboxing experience of clean beauty products for them to enjoy.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in the south side of Chicago with my two parents until they separated when I was five years old. Having your parents separate at a young age can be difficult for many, but looking back, my parents did an amazing job co-parenting so that I never felt the distance between them. They were both always front row at my ballet and ice skating classes, cheering me on from the sidelines, and any other event or life moment. I always felt very loved and supported by my parents — any crazy idea or dream I had (I always wanted to be a professional ballerina or ice skater!) they were fully in support of. Their kindness and selflessness always inspired me. They both held jobs where they went to work helping others. My dad was a special education teacher and my mom was a paramedic. Witnessing them make a difference in this world inspired me to want to do the same — be kind and give back. That’s how I always lived my life and continue to do so today.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I am proud to say I am the first woman in my family to graduate college. It was a huge accomplishment and life moment that required help from Chicago Scholars, an organization that helps first generation students apply and prepare for college, and serve as a mentorship throughout your four years and beyond. Navigating the admission and loan process was challenging as a 17-year-old (as you can imagine!). I remember worrying about the expenses associated with school and wondering how I could afford my dream school. Chicago Scholars provided me with financial aid resources to help me get set up with loans. They made the process so easy and stress-free to pay for college. The amazing experience I had with Chicago Scholars left me wanting to help others in the same situation. During all four years of college, I worked at the financial aid office and helped students apply for scholarships and grants. Without this organization, I may not have been able to walk across that stage and I will forever be grateful for their support and guidance.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Making a difference to me means showing up for those who can not show up for themselves. It means choosing courage over comfort every time you are witness to injustice and to speak up for those who are marginalized.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
The Stay Beautiful Foundation is a Chicago-based, nonprofit organization delivering free boxes of clean beauty products to women undergoing cancer treatment. At The Stay Beautiful Foundation, we are on a mission to make women feel beautiful while undergoing treatment, providing them with a fun and exciting unboxing experience filled with leading beauty products. To date, we have a community of hundreds of women who have been affected by cancer and have delivered thousands of free beauty boxes since we started delivering in 2018.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My grandmother owned a beauty spa in downtown Chicago and I always remembered as a child going to her spa to help out with little tasks that always excited me. My grandmother loved taking care of others and making them feel beautiful, hence why she opened her own spa. When my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, she always had my mom and I bring her beauty products from the spa because she didn’t love the options provided to her at the hospital. My grandmother always said, “when you look good, you feel good”. Beauty was her form of therapy. I wanted to carry out her legacy and help others feel good about themselves when undergoing cancer treatment so I started boxing up some of her favorite products and giving them to family and friends who were or knew of someone battling cancer. Fast forward to today, we now have more than 500 monthly subscribers who are part of our community of women who are conquering cancer with beauty.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
When I was reminiscing with my mom after my grandmother passed, I started to think about all my recent interactions with her since they were so fresh in my mind. One memory that was really difficult to experience was when we went with her to check in on the spa after not being there for so long. We walked in and were stopped by a security guard. My grandmother had looked so different from treatment even her own employees did not recognize her. I felt so many emotions in that moment. I felt sad and embarrassed, but most of all, I felt angry. I felt angry because in that moment I felt powerless and I believe my grandmother did too. Nauseous from chemotherapy, mentally exhausted and barely recognizable, my grandmother found herself having to prove who she was because cancer had taken that from her. It was that memory on my walk with my mother that fueled me. I wanted to make sure every woman battling cancer would not have to feel what my grandmother felt, and that’s how The Stay Beautiful Foundation was born.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I wouldn’t say I knew the steps to take, but I knew I had a powerful network that could help me identify those next steps. So that was the first step, reaching out to my network and sharing my idea with those I trusted and knew could connect me with the right people, specifically those who have started their own organization. You hear it all the time that networking is so important, and although it can be intimidating and challenging, it really is one of the most valuable pieces of advice I have ever been given. So I encourage anyone who is thinking about starting their own business or nonprofit to get out there and network. You never know who you may come across that can help you succeed.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
All of the products in our beauty boxes are generously donated by brands — some of those brands reach out to me, but most of the time I’m pitching them. There was one meeting in particular that made me realize the work we do at The Stay Beautiful Foundation goes beyond those diagnosed with cancer. While I was explaining our mission on the call, the person I was meeting with became emotional because she had been affected by cancer through a loved one and was totally moved by the work we do. It was a revelation that what we do also brings joy to the support system of those diagnosed with cancer, which is something I never thought of before.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
In 2018, I hosted a fundraiser event to support the efforts of The Stay Beautiful Foundation. With such a long to-do list and a small team, I found myself scrambling to get everything done before the event. One of those tasks was to print collateral. I quickly whipped up a flyer to spread around the community, wanting to get it out as fast as possible as a last minute marketing push. 500 printed flyers later, I realized our website was missing a letter. Lesson learned: slow down. Take your time to do things right the first time because you end up wasting more time fixing your mistakes. Oh, and always use spell check.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I’ve been fortunate to have many mentors along the way, but one particular person that’s helped me substantially in such a short amount of time is my business coach, Britney Turner from The Boss Up. I hired Britney for business advice, specifically around social media and marketing, and was blown away with how quickly I saw immediate growth. I encourage everyone to spend the money on professional help if there’s an area in your business you’re struggling with or lacking knowledge. It will help in the long-run, which is always how you should be thinking.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
We receive thank you letters from women everyday who receive our beauty boxes. Oftentimes we get many questions around how to deal with side effects and challenges that come with a cancer diagnosis. One of our beauties reached out to us for advice around how to deal with hair loss. Thanks to our ambassador program we were able to connect this person to other women for support. While we send beauty boxes as a way to uplift our beauties, our community is truly where we are able to make an impact in the lives of women fighting cancer.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Advocate for clean and safe ingredients in products. Whether that be makeup, skincare, household products and more, it’s so important to demand for safer products to live a healthier life for yourself and others.
- Spread awareness on the mortality rate of Black women diagnosed with breast cancer. Studies have shown that Black women are 40% more likely to die of breast cancer. Advocate for more resources towards preventative health and early detection programs for Black women
- As a society, everyone with a voice should speak up and act against the innumerable health disparities that affect the nation’s most vulnerable population.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
- Progress over perfection. I started The Stay Beautiful Foundation in 2016, but didn’t actually give my first box until 2018. During those two years, I was less focused on the progress I had made and more focused on what’s not working and the flaws, which ultimately set me back. Don’t get me wrong, I think you should always strive to do your best work, but don’t get lost in the hustle trying to achieve impossible goals/standards. Celebrate the wins and the progress because that means you’re moving forward.
- Starting a business or nonprofit is a marathon, not a sprint. In the early days of Stay Beautiful, I was constantly stepping back and reminding myself to be patient during the process. Impatience is self-sabotage — you end up creating an artificial timeline and unrealistic expectations that lead to failure. I remember constantly comparing Stay Beautiful to other organizations who have been around for years and it left me feeling discouraged. All good things take time and it’s important to remind yourself that businesses can’t be built overnight if you want it to succeed long-term.
- Being flexible is a must. When things don’t go as planned, you have to learn how to adjust and not be married to one solution, idea or method. When we first started we had only 20 beauties and had to quickly adjust as we began to scale by upgrading to new systems and technology. We were forced to evaluate new processes that at the time were challenging to adjust to. However, these new systems in place allowed us to expand and grow much more quickly because of our decision to be flexible and embrace change.
- Knowing your weaknesses is a sign of strength. When I first started Stay Beautiful I thought I had to know everything. From social media and marketing to production and finance, I realized the mentality I had was unsustainable, and it was hurting my business. It’s so easy to want to feel like you’re good at everything, but it’s even better to let go of that mindset and hire someone better than you. Build that dream team to help you succeed.
- Always ask for feedback. I used to get so embarrassed when my work was critiqued. At the time, it felt like constructive feedback was equivalent to failure. However, it was when I started to take that feedback and apply it that I started to notice positive change in my business. It’s important to understand that feedback is not meant to hurt you, only make you better.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Any small change can make a difference. Whether that’s simply smiling at a person or volunteering, you never know what someone is going through, and your small gesture could truly make the world of a difference. Do something, no matter the size or amount, anything helps.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I would love to have a private breakfast with Jhene Aiko. Personally, Jhene’s music helped me grieve the loss of my grandmother which allowed me to heal and give my all to The Stay Beautiful Foundation. I would love to share the work we are doing at Stay Beautiful with Jhene given she is a cancer advocate after losing her brother to this terrible disease.
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can stay up to date on The Stay Beautiful Foundation by visiting www.thestaybeautifulfoundation.org and by following along on Instagram at @staybeautifulfoundation and my personal page @ashleighmariec.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!