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Meet Karen Behnke, Founder and CEO, Juice Beauty. Serial Wellness Entrepreneur. www. juicebeauty.com
Tell us a little about yourself and your childhood.
Born to modest means and surviving a serious childhood illness, I have overcome many obstacles to enjoy where I am today. My passion for wellness and the environment began in high school when I noticed that cattle were dying all around my small southwestern Michigan town resulting from the historically largest PBB spill disaster: A few years later, this toxic fire retardant was discovered in the bloodstream of Michigan residents at toxic levels. This disaster, the largest PBB spill in history, eventually caused PBB to be banned, but several chemicals were produced in its place. This PBB spill and struggling with my personal health during childhood ultimately led me to my lifelong eco-mission and my personal pesca-vegetarian, athletic and eco-conscious lifestyle, which has been incredibly fun by the way! Upon graduating from college, I moved to California to pursue my business and lifestyle dream. I’ve dedicated my professional life to health and wellness as well as my personal life. Today, my home is as green as possible with all electric cars and our house powered by the California sun, and our solar powered refrigerator is filled with organic food. And yes, I drive my friends crazy with my mission!
When did you decide you wanted to start your own company?
Three companies! At the age of 22, and immediately after graduating from college and moving to California, I started my first company, Get Fit Aerobics, providing aerobics classes for several major US Army sites in Northern California. Think back to Jane Fonda leotards, leg warmers, and serious shin splints because the shoes weren’t so great! My aerobics company provided my start but I quickly realized I wanted to expand from fitness to a broader scope of wellness. So, at the age of 25 in 1982, I started one of the first corporate wellness companies in the country: Execu-Fit Health Programs, which grew to provide corporate wellness programs to major corporations throughout the Western U.S. My worksite wellness company provided onsite medical fitness screenings, health risk appraisals and wellness educational programs for employees to enhance morale and reduce corporate healthcare costs. I might mention that given the fact that “wellness” hadn’t hit the radar of anyone back in the early 80’s—I literally lived off juggling 17 credit cards, which was noted multiple times by Inc. Magazine over the years! Despite the tough early years, the company was successful and I eventually sold it to Pacificare/United Healthcare (subsequently named PacifiCare Wellness) and became one of the giant healthcare provider’s first female executives. I was 40 when I left my company and merged it into a department that still exists at the giant healthcare provider. I then turned my attention to being newly married to my handsome cardiologist husband, Howard! Now Juice Beauty—my third company! Throughout these wellness and fitness years, I had developed a keen interest in personal care products and with my first pregnancy at age 40, I started paying more attention to ingredients. Experiencing hormonal changes and the beginning of fine lines in my skin, I set out to find healthy skincare solutions that delivered visible results. I was shocked to learn that, although the skin absorbs over 60% of what is placed on it, there were very few available healthy personal care products that worked well. Years after my second child was born (I was 48 years old at this point), I subsequently bought the name “Juice Beauty” and launched the company from scratch in 2005. I then set out to do the impossible: to pioneer luxurious organic formulations that perform as well as conventional beauty products.
Was there a specific moment when you knew this was what you wanted to do?
Juice Beauty’s revolutionary formulations started with a basic premise: I believed that by formulating with an antioxidant and vitamin-rich organic botanical juice base, rather than petroleum derivatives or added water, and combining it with powerful skincare ingredients, it would yield equal or better results than conventional or natural products. Multiple clinical testing proved that this premise was right on target.
After you made the decisions, what steps did you take?
An initial 5-year journey to solve complex organic formulation challenges working with PhD chemists, physicians, and microbiologists to perfect Juice Beauty’s chemistry was challenging! It was tough in the early years as it was incredibly difficult to get scientists to work with organic botanical juices, to believe that there was a market for organic beauty products and so on. For example, working with zinc in 2005 was brutally hard as the suppliers were providing much heavier and less refined zinc that often turned blue - it was all hard but since I was mission driven, I was committed to the process and all the ups and downs.
What was the best thing you did to grow your business?
Dream up great products, partner with ULTA Beauty and all of our amazing retailers, and surround myself with an amazing team.
Do you feel it was more difficult because you are a woman?
Sometimes. But not nearly to the degree of difficulty as in the 80’s and 90’s. Keep in mind, I remember as a young woman when leading banks asked me if my husband would sign for my loan---even when I was single! So it’s much easier now.
How did you fund this project?
As the major investor, and since I had already successfully built two companies, in 2005 I raised $5mm within a few days after my business plan was complete. I raised the initial round of capital from top business people that had the following three characteristics: 1) they shared my wellness drive to some extent 2) they were successful so the money raised provided minimal risk to them (so I could sleep at night!) 3) we already had a long term working relationship so there was mutual trust. In 2014, the next large round of capital came from the Invus Corporation as I wanted to have a larger partner to rely on for advice and strength as we grew the company. The Invus team has been an incredible partner providing advice and supporting Juice Beauty every step of the way.
What were the hardest hurdles?
Initially, the largest hurdle was finding scientists who were willing to go out on a limb and test formulas utilizing organic juices as the base instead of petroleum or water (why pay for this and dilute the formulas?)! The early scientists all thought I was crazy when I approached them with my idea. Then it became challenging to find the right large retail partner, which we eventually found with our partnership with ULTA Beauty. Eight years later, Juice Beauty ranks nicely as one of their top ten skincare brands. Finally, getting the best people for growing the company in the beginning was extremely difficult. Juice Beauty turned several corners with recruiting the right people including our head of product development who professionalized our in-house chemistry team, our sales and marketing executives, and more.
What made you keep going?
You know, I just have an inner engine that I have to try to calm down all the time. The drive to change an industry and to make a difference in the wellness/organic/sustainable beauty world is a passion for me. Passion is what drives my entrepreneurial spirit and I get up every day enthusiastic about moving the needle on our business. My personal wellness habits also keeps me going. I run, bike, or swim an hour almost every morning about 6 days a week and then take yoga about 1 day a week. These exercise habits calm me and help keep me centered.
What is the happiest memory from this journey?
It’s a series of happy moments including years ago when I was in a rural Midwest ULTA store and I asked a woman why she was buying Juice Beauty products and she said, “Because they work”. I then asked her if she knew they were made with organic ingredients and she was shocked—that was very cool because in the early days it was a struggle to get people to understand that our products would work as well or better than conventional chemical products.
Then, at about year 5 when many of our Clinical studies showed that Juice Beauty products performed as well or better at reducing the appearance of wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, etc as the conventional chemical leaders.
When Jonathan Joselove, SVP of Neiman Marcus, said that he was very interested in Juice Beauty coming into Neiman’s because we were known as the “clinical organics”. Since that was what we had been striving for I almost jumped out of my chair to hug him! Of course, the multiple celebrity fun times along the way included when Kate Hudson mentioned that Juice Beauty’s Green Apple Peel was one of her favorites and then the two of us had some fun subsequent meetings including one where I cleaned out all the conventional chemical beauty products from her bathroom! Partnering with Gwyneth Paltrow has been a serious highlight given her incredibly beautiful taste that helped us tremendously in developing our Phyto-Pigments makeup collection.
Where do you see your company in 5 years?
Leading the organic beauty movement worldwide. Hands down.