Sarah Kugelman

April 30, 2014

One of the first things you notice about Sarah Kugelman is her absolutely perfect skin. It’s the kind of skin we all dream about: smooth, spotless, blemish-free. Once you learn that she’s a 20-year veteran of the beauty business and the founder of skyn Iceland, a skincare line specifically designed to address the effects of stress on skin, everything falls into place. In creating the company, Sarah says she hoped to “create a line that I could use as a tool to create a dialogue with other women about stress: how to identify their stress, how to manage their stress, how to alleviate their stress, and how to do it through beauty, which is a topic that people feel positively about. It’s very personal and very important.”


Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your background, and about the story of how skyn Iceland came to be?

I worked in the beauty industry for my whole career. I did marketing and product development, first at L’Oreal, then at Bath and Body Works. I also worked at Banana Republic in their fragrance division. In 1999, I came up with the idea for a beauty website, and I started a company called I grew the company to 100 employees and then sold it to Estee Lauder in 2002.


Why did you sell it?

Basically, they came after us and wanted to buy it. There was a lot of transition going on in the segment at the time. There was a lot of competition. We were the first site, but there ended up being about 300 competitors.


You were way ahead of your time, though.

We were. I was in Silicon Valley in the middle of the first Internet boom. I saw the bust coming, so we sold in order to avoid being part of it. I stayed at Lauder for a couple of years. I was really interested in the whole area of health and wellness. I dealt with a lot of health issues related to stress, and I decided to leave Lauder and start researching stress and skin. I wanted to understand the whole connection between the two. I worked with a team of doctors and experts in the field—a dermatologist, a cardiologist, a nutritionist and a Pilates teacher, a bunch of women who were all very focused on dealing with patients and clients who were really stressed out.


Wait a second. You hear a lot about yoga and stress. Talk to me a little about Pilates and stress, which you don’t hear that much about.

The instructor I worked with is actually a dancer, so she’s very interested in her physiology and health and her body. She also teaches Pilates. I felt like fitness was an important part of the whole equation in reducing stress, and I wanted her to explain physiologically how exercise could really help you reduce stress. Quite honestly, yoga isn’t the only thing that can reduce stress. Pilates can, and even cardio can, it just all depends on the person. I do a mixture of everything because part of me likes the endorphin high, part of me likes the relaxation and meditation of yoga and part of me likes the focus of Pilates and the emphasis on your core. A lot of the women that collaborated with me were friends—my Pilates teacher was a really good friend, and the cardiologist I worked with was a friend. She had a very interesting perspective. She deals with women and heart disease all day long, and she’s totally tuned into women’s health and wellness, yet there are so many women that won’t listen to her and won’t take her advice. But when she says to them do this, it will get rid of your wrinkles, they listen to her.


That’s hilarious. Sort of.

And you can imagine that being the truth. So she said, “If I can tie together what I’m doing with what you’re doing and get people to think about beauty and health and wellness and their hearts, then we’re going to be a step ahead.” So it was all of these amazing women talking about their experiences and their perspective on stress and what it does to the way you look and the way you feel. The dermatologist was able to substantiate the way stress affects your skin. I synthesized all the information and categorized it into five symptoms: accelerated aging; irritation and redness; adult acne, dullness; and dryness and dehydration.


Were these new symptoms?

They were new symptoms, but I think in a lot of ways these were things that women were already dealing with, but they didn’t know why it was happening. That was what happened to me. I’d always had really good skin, and then when I was in my early 30s, I developed cystic acne. And here I was developing beauty products and marketing beauty products and my skin looked like hell. So I was going through this, and some people were like, “Oh, it’s your hormones,” and I thought, “How is it my hormones? I’m 32. That doesn’t make any sense.” And it turned out that it was the whole stress response in my body. Of course, what I what I wanted to do was use as many products as possible, which made it worse. Your skin freaks out. It’s like this self-perpetuating cycle: the products irritate your skin, and then you overcompensate and overwhelm your skin, and then you look in the mirror and you’re even more stressed. You have to learn how to break the cycle and get healthy from the inside out. You can treat the outside, but you have to treat what’s happening on the inside too. That’s really what I wanted to do. There’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in the subject.


What’s the connection to Iceland?

As I was on this health journey I became very interested in places that were healthy and things that were healthy and eating organically. I happened to mention to my sister that I wanted to go to Iceland, and she wanted to go too, so we decided to take a vacation together. I fell in love with it, because it’s the most amazing place on Earth.


I’ve never been.

Seriously, you’ve got to go. You feel like you’re on another planet. I noticed that everybody there has amazing skin, and I wanted to know why. It turns out that they all bathe in glacial waters and thermal waters that have these amazing minerals. The waters don’t smell all that great, but they do amazing things for your skin and your hair. I made some connections in Iceland, and I imported the waters to use them in the products in the line. We also started finding all of these incredible plants that were really rich in bio-nutrients that replenished what skin loses when it’s stressed. For example, the berries that come from Iceland are super-rich in omega fatty acids, which help repair the lipid barrier, which gets damaged by stress. So I sourced a whole bunch of botanicals and herbs and berries and algae and mosses and incorporated them into the products. We just celebrated our 9th anniversary.


That’s awesome. Congratulations.

Thank you. We’re now in about 300 stores all over the world, and we’re in about 11 countries.


So why beauty? Where did that passion start?

From the time I was a little kid I was obsessed with fashion magazines. I used to do makeovers on all of my friends. I was always the girl that people came to for beauty advice.


I want to go back to, and how you were able to see the appeal of creating an online community around your passion. That’s very visionary. How did you get the idea?

I was living in New York, and I got a job working at Bath and Body Works in Columbus, OH. I was getting divorced at the time, and I wanted to start over someplace where nobody knew me. So I took the job and went to Columbus. There wasn’t a lot going on, like in New York, but what it showed me was how disconnected women were from beauty. There was no Internet then, and a lot of the beauty brands were not accessible from there. You could barely find an Allure magazine. I went there in 1994, and people were just starting to talk about this thing called the Internet. I remember asking the IT guy at work if he could help me get on the Internet. There were two beauty brands on the Internet, Paco Rabanne and Clinique. I was like, “This is the coolest thing.”


It was a whole different ballgame.

I remember thinking, “If this is coming, imagine what it could do.” People could be sitting in Columbus, OH, buying MAC cosmetics. It would level the playing field. A small brand would have just as much ability to market and get exposure as a big brand. So I started writing a business plan for this concept, and I started coming to New York to find people who would go into business with me. Some people didn’t totally get it. I couldn’t really afford to quit my job and do it full-time, but I really wanted to leave Columbus, so I ended up taking a job with Banana Republic in San Francisco.


Which was the place for Web stuff.

Yes. And I was working in beauty and running the fragrance business for Banana Republic. I was like, “Oh, well, I’ll work on my business plan,” but I didn’t really have any time to work on it, so it sat in a drawer for three years. In 1999 I was at a dinner and a friend who was a banker overheard me talking about it. He said, “Is anybody doing beauty on the Internet?” and I said no. He was like, “I think you’re on to something,” so he made me call in sick to work and took me to Silicon Valley to meet with investors. I raised five million dollars in one day. I quit my job and started Gloss.


So tell me, given your background in tech and community, how are those things playing a role in skyn Iceland?

It’s a very important part of our business. We have a very aggressive social media strategy. We’re very present and engaged with our customers, and we’re able to do things that the big companies can’t do or don’t want to do because they can’t move quickly enough or don’t know about it. We’re able to get to the customer with content that’s unique to our brand. I was asked speak at the Women’s Wear Daily Digital Conference in February, which was so full circle for me. It was amazing—I started Gloss fifteen years ago, and there I was still talking about digital and hearing people speak about technology in a way that people dreamt about when I went out to San Francisco in 1999. I think you’re always on a pathway or on a journey. You don’t always know where you’re going, and you’re not sure that the choices you make are going to be the right choices, but when you look back you realize there was a kind of logic to it. And it’s all pretty crazy.

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