Carol's Daughter Founder Lisa Price Talks Success, New Heights

News & Views | Gerren Keith Gaynor | 11/26/2014 | 10:00 AM EST

Price clears up bankruptcy reports, L'Oreal acquisition and reveals secret to a happy work-life

Lisa Price is practically royalty when it comes to Black women in business. Her Carol’s Daughter empire is not only a household name, but it became the go-to brand of choice for all things beauty care related.

From concocting her natural goods in her Brooklyn kitchen in 1993 to helming a multi-million dollar company, Price’s story has inspired business hopefuls and her products have been the premier choice for African-American women.

These days, however, a lot of changes have been made in the land of Carol’s Daughter. Though previous reports of the company’s stores filing for bankruptcy would leave some to believe the brand is in trouble, in an exclusive interview Price tells Centric that could not be farther from the truth. After being acquired by the biggest beauty company in the world, L’Oreal, Carol’s Daughter is now poised to grow to exponential heights.

But don’t worry, the company’s acquisition will not impact the integrity of the brand. Price still serves as founder of Carol’s Daughter, and has adopted a new title as creative director. Not to mention, the beauty brand now has a distribution deal with Target, and is currently participating in a product promotion with the retail chain for the new “Annie” film remake starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx.

It’s safe to say that business is going quite well for Price and the company she affectionately calls her “baby.”

In a sit-down interview, see what Price tells Centric bothered her most about naysayers who criticized her recent business moves, and what former investors Jay Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith think about it all. Also, the 52-year-old boss lady and mother of three touches on tapping into your passion and divulges her trick to balancing family and work life. How did Carol’s Daughter distribution deal with Target come about?

Lisa Price:
The Target launch was March of this year. It was something that was in development since 2013, but it launched Mar. 2 of 2014. They had actually approached us in 2010 and we just weren’t ready from an infrastructure perspective to handle a chain of stores quite that large. So in 2013, I sort of felt like we had a group of products that could do well there. Our products have ended up being divided a little bit where there was a line that was very popular, selling well, that was within a certain price point and then we had another line was a little bit more expensive that was also doing well--but they did well in different areas. There was this thought of what we take those products that are at the lower price point and make them even lower and put them in distribution at Target and keep the prestige products where they are, and that way have access to more people? We went back to [Target] and said ‘we think we’re ready for a conversation and they were open for it.

This year there have been reports of Carol’s Daughter filing for bankruptcy and being acquired by L’Oreal, and it seemed some Black consumers took issue with it. Could you explain?

The bankruptcy was a Chapter 11 bankruptcy and it was a bankruptcy to close stores that had not been productive for four years. The perception was that it was an overall bankruptcy for the entire company or that the company is going out of business, which was a misconception. We had seven stores. Five of the seven had not really been productive, and we needed to close those stores. Part of the reason that traffic was down in those stores was traffic being down in malls and people shopping differently. Our online purchases are much greater than our retail purchases and I think that’s just a sign of where retail is today. Now that the products are available in Target it makes it easier for someone to purchase them and they don’t have to necessarily go to one of our locations.

With regard to L’Oreal, I understand the fear that a lot of people have when it comes to that. There aren’t a lot of things that, as a people, we own. So when we do own something we covet it and I felt honored and blessed that people were so invested in me and the brand that they were upset that this was happening. At the same time, I was disappointed that they were upset because it was actually a good thing. If you took away the color of my skin and said ‘hey there’s this woman and she started a business in her kitchen and her initial investment was $100 in that business and after 20 years she built it into a multi-million dollar company and L’Oreal, the largest beauty company in the world, just bought her’ everyone would be like ‘yay that’s so great!’

I think it’s because people love the brand, love the products and their fear is that the big bad corporation is going to come in and mess everything up. That’s reputations that corporations have unfortunately, but it’s not the case. I’m still involved, my office hasn’t changed, my team hasn’t changed, we’re keeping our offices. We already have our 2015 calendar done, we’ll develop 2016 with the support of L’Oreal, but really things aren’t going to change, and we have access to more resources than we did before. Just stay with us, I’m not going anywhere!

The natural hair movement has become increasingly popular among African-American women. Some may consider you a pioneer in the creating a brand that made women of color proud of their natural beauty. Do you consider yourself a pioneer?

It’s interesting because I feel as if I started at the time at the time [the natural movement] started and I was fortunate to be in the conversation early. I feel like to be a pioneer, I would’ve thought of the idea and I never felt like that. I’m 52, so I’ve been around for several iterations of hair and so I was a person in the 70s who was cornrowing and wearing braids and people looked at me like I was crazy. Today you don’t pay [people with braids] any mind. For it me it had been around for a long time, but I understand that role and responsibility I have and I’m very grateful that when I did start, that second wave of natural hair began. We had one in the late 70s and then another in the early 90s. Now it’s much more of an option for people than it is a trend. I think the other two were more trends, even though there were some of us who stayed [natural]. Now we have heat tools, ceramic flat irons, ionic blow dryers, weaves, all of these things that can help us be who we want to be when we want to be it.

Do you think the natural movement is here to stay?

Oh absolutely. I think there’s always going to be people who choose to relax and maybe somebody will come up with some innovation that will make relaxing safer, and maybe there will be those who use it out of convenience, knowing that it is truly safer. But having natural hair is not a trend anymore. It’s been around for too long and there’s too many people learning how to do it and teaching their daughters how to do it. There isn’t a necessity for a relaxer the way that it used to be. I don’t know that it will be a radical Black power, fist up kind of movement in 20 years, but it will be a choice. People before had no options. Women relaxed their hair to get a job. They didn’t have a check if they tried to walk in with an afro. That’s not the case today.

Because of the natural movement’s popularity, there’s more competition out there. Does that affect your business at all?

I think there’s room for there to be more than one. When you look on the general market side, there’s tons of brands and they all survive. I’m sure Garnier does compete with Pantene, but I don’t think Garnier feels like they’re going to go out of business tomorrow because Pantene or vice versa. But controlling shelf space is what
businesses do. I think having more voices in the space is a good thing because it makes it very clear to buyers that it isn’t a trend. It’s not just three companies that are doing this. What’s important for all of us to do is figure out how to be as innovative as possible so that our products have staying power.

Everyone knows that Jay Z, Will and Jada Smith and Mary J. Blige invested in Carol’s Daughter years ago and made the brand very mainstream, are any of them still involved? Do you keep in contact with them?

I definitely keep in contact with them. They’re not investors because of the acquisition, but to me they’re always a part of the family. Will and Jada have been using Carol’s Daughter products since 1997 or 1998, and didn’t become investors until 2005. I sort of feel like they’ve always been with me. Jay was not familiar with the brand but when he went to ask people in his family he found out that his mom’s loctician was using my loc butter on her locs, so she was familiar with it. He also had a cousin that was familiar with it. He liked me and he liked the brand, and one of the reasons he gravitated toward it was because we came from the same neighborhood. To me, they’ll always my people, my family and people who believed in me when no one knew who I was and wrote a check. Not just wrote a check but said ‘hey I’ll help you out. I’ll do interviews and talk about it, we’ll plug it.’ They’ve been incredibly supportive and stuck with me for a long time. They’re happy, I’ve gotten the congratulatory emails and things. It feels good to have them invest in me, be able to give them their money back with dividends--to do my part and say thank you because I wouldn’t have been able to write checks like that by myself.

Where do you think you got your business sense from? Did anyone influence you?

It was really me going as I went. I didn’t have business people in my family. A lot of the people in my family were hard workers with really strong work ethic but not entrepreneurs. But my family raised me to believe anything is possible if you work hard and you put your mind to it. What I didn’t know I figured I could learn. Because my business has been like my baby I’ll do anything for my children, you know? If I didn’t know how to do it, I had to learn how to do it. If I got knocked down I had to get back up. I’ve been a working progress, learning as I’ve gone along.

What advice or foundation tools would you provide to people, particularly women of color, who want to start their own business?

When you’re starting, know what it is that you want to do, and know that you are really passionate about it. You have to know that if someone woke you out of your bed in the middle of the night and said ‘come, do this’ that you would get up and go do it because you’re going to have to work when you’re dog-assed tired in order to be successful. I knew I would get up in the middle of the night and put some cocoa butter in the pot and stir it up with some almond oil and stand there and enjoy myself. I knew I would make perfume in the middle of the night.

That was my first clue that I was on to something, and that has resonated throughout the 21 years. The only thing that would have pushed me this hard is really loving what I do. There isn’t enough money to push that. If we went back 21 years and worked out how much money it is per day?! (laughs). It wasn’t about money. And when you know what that thing is that you do that fuels you in that way, really hone in on what it is that you bring to that market and that craft that makes it uniquely you. I never thought my story or personality would manifest in a package. You don’t think that far when you’re really tiny. But when you hold on to those things that’s what makes it difficult for someone to copy who you are, because you’re authentically that person. And that’s what we have to try to figure in our businesses.

A recent Harvard Business School study said that women tend to put their careers to the back seat for their husbands careers. What advice would you give to women in balancing family and work life?

I think it comes from having open communication and dialogue and really being honest, and not falling into a trap of ‘well I need to figure out how to smooth for everybody because my kids needs this and my husband needs this so let me figure out how to get them everything that they need and I’ll figure out my stuff later.’ Because over time you’ll develop a resentment that they’re not even aware if because you didn’t let anybody know that you put yourself on the back burner, and that resentment can manifest in your interaction with your family. If you have a conversation, and believe me I didn’t have this figured out I learned it throughout the years, but what I learned to do it bring everybody together and we have a family meeting and I let them know what’s going on.

If someone has something for school that comes up after I’ve scheduled to do something else that I can’t move I’ll have a conversation with my child like, ‘I know you have this thing but unfortunately I was booked HSN three months ago, we’ve already sold in merchandise, I can’t cancel it. But dad can go and he’s going to tape it and I hope you can understand.’ My husband and I are open with each other as well. I don’t spring things on him at the last minute, I don’t forget to tell him stuff. There’s a chalkboard in the kitchen. Every week the schedule is there; if there’s travel, if there’s a late dinner, if there’s an early meeting. You can’t decide what everyone else needs and then say I’m going to figure out how to give it to them. It won’t work. If you can’t do at your job, don’t think you can do it at home.

Did you think in 1993 that Carol’s Daughter would be what it is today?

No, no (laughs). For me at that time success would have been that my husband and I didn’t live in a one bedroom apartment anymore, that we had a home and that maybe we had a garage where I could run the business from, and would profitable enough where it would pay me a living but still enable me to work from home so that when we became parents, I’d be able to be there for my children but still bring income into the house. I knew we didn’t have the type of lifestyle where he could just work and it would pay for everything or I could just work and it would pay for everything. So to me that would have been success. I didn’t envision all this...not in a million years.

(Photo: Courtesy Carol's Daughter/135 St Agency)

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