Stephanie Lee is not your average brand owner. Instead of relying on precalculated answers, she speaks with vulnerability, relatability, and honesty. Rather than Zooming from a corporate Manhattan high rise, her backdrop is a small town in upstate New York so rural that it still sounds an alarm to alert its firefighters. Lee conducts the interview with a welcoming smile and relaxed body language. In short, she portrays humanity in an industry focused on poised perfection.
A former director of the office of Michelle Obama, as well as holding senior product development roles at Estée Lauder and MAC Cosmetics, Lee created a brand which shines a spotlight on one of our greatest vulnerabilities: our mental health. SELFMADE isn’t simply a personal care brand, but a tool for driving communication around subjects such as relationship attachment styles or resilience, both in physical product form, as well as digital chatroom and toolkit incarnations.
Founded in 2019, the company launched with the Secure Attachment Comfort Serum+, a soothing and hydrating formulation with aloe vera, hyaluronic acid, and Helichrysum italicum (an ingredient which is proven to lower the stress hormone cortisol in the skin) in November 2020. Its successor, the True Grit Resilience Scalp + Body Scrub, is a fine bamboo powder and fruit enzyme scrub, as well as an attempt to define resilience. The corresponding CommonRooms for each product launch (21 days of curated programming) provide expert insight and proven techniques for positive change. The company recently landed $1 million in pre-seed funding, proving angel investors believe in its mission as much as its founding team does.
Lee sat down with BeautyMatter to reflect on the personal journey that led to the creation of SELFMADE, mental health in times of a pandemic (and beyond), and consumer respect.
What inspired the launch of this brand?
Managing the teams for Michelle Obama at the White House, I learned that leadership is about people who care and take action around that. Working at Estée Lauder Companies, I learned how to take an idea from your head into a beaker, retail, and customers’ hands. While I was working there, I actually had a mental health crisis. As a woman of color, I didn't know that I didn't have tools, resources, or a community around me to support my emotional well-being. I couldn't even recognize when I was really sad, or what to do with anxiety, and kept it inside. During that time, I had the privilege of having a great practitioner and health insurance. It was interesting to come to this realization that, in experiencing life as a woman, I'm marketed to buy beauty in a way that’s focused on my “flaws” and that exploits my worth. At the same time, I’m paying $250 an hour to recognize and embrace my own inherent self-worth. Those two things were in direct conflict.
I went, “Screw this, I'm going to travel around the world for a year.” I spoke to folks across the globe about their relationship to their own mental health, emotional well-being, and self-worth. I was nowhere alone in those feelings. Recognizing the fact that we feel the whole spectrum from sadness, to excitement to fear to joy, whatever it might be—is exactly what connects us to each other. I held that question in my head: how do you take the therapeutic lessons that live in the four walls of therapy and make that a lifestyle that is livable and habitual? That's how SELFMADE was born. The first thing I did was vet this idea by about 20 mental health experts, because if this doesn't actually make an impact in a real way, then it's not worth doing.
What was that path from conception to launch like?
Very freaking hard. Being a woman of color fundraising during this time of Black Lives Matter, people are saying that they support and put black squares up, but where's the operational and financial backing? I would not recommend fundraising during a pandemic [laughs]. When we kicked this off in early Q1 of 2020, it was with great enthusiasm. We do have angel investors who are really fantastic. They come from e-commerce, apparel, influencer marketing, long-standing beauty families within active and raw ingredients. That's been really great, but it's been difficult because what we're doing is conceptual. In times like this, investors go back to what they consider tried and true: serial founders, ones that look not like me, white, male, hoodie-wearing. Fortunately, we have had fantastic investors come to the table that are investing in us because they believe in the power of women of color and the importance of mental health. Given the fact that COVID is a global emotional trauma that we're all going through, it's only accelerated the need for accessible tools and resources around mental health that appear in your everyday.
After launching with the Secure Attachment Comfort Serum+, how has your feedback been, both from customers and the industry?
Really fantastic. We're talking small numbers here though, because we're still a baby brand. In terms of customers, we've had zero returns and zero complaints, which has been amazing. Because we're speaking to a new generation, primarily Gen Z women and non-binary folks, there is a level of education that we need to do around mental health, and real self-care using product.They all are so skeptical, very rightly so. The world is burning down. They know marketing is bullshit, they're calling out racists on Twitter no matter what. So when they look at something like clinical claims, they want to know what it actually means. For the longest time, beauty has had these beacons at the head of it, telling consumers what they want and what they should buy, whereas for us, we're building a business and a brand with our consumers. Those are collaborative conversations, it's much more community driven and grassroots. While we have gotten great press, does it actually resonate with people we want to speak to the most, who are very, friend-, conversation-, and community-oriented?
How do mental health and your products tie in together?
Mental health is the foundation of how we create product ecosystems. We have two mental health experts that we work with and a holistic product developer. She and I have a combined 24 years of product development experience between us. It's fun to connect these products to psychological concepts. The first part of an emotional awareness journey is learning your vocabulary, collaborating and understanding the conversations that are important to our consumers. Are they talking about perfectionism, attachment styles, what's important from an emotional needs point of view? Rather than, “Oh, you need a new face wash.” You can meet a need—that means you can add value deeply in people's lives. Once I'm able to connect the product to the psychological concept, that's when the research starts. We look into data, and also kick off with our mental health expert briefing about diving deep into what this concept is. Once we can understand what the concept is from that perspective, it's natural to connect some of the benefits and concerns of an emotional concept to a physical product.
The way we buy and use physical products are already inherently emotional: when we feel stressed, we go take a shower, and wash the day off. Each product ecosystem is two parts, because we don't live our life just in the physical or digital world. It's about how these two things interact.
True Grit lends itself to exfoliation, but it’s about redefining what individual, societal, and communal resilience means. It's expected that we just “man up,” that emotions are weaknesses and we grin and bear it. True emotional resilience is when you stumble, you are vulnerable enough to ask for help, get back up, and try again. How do we create discourse around that and make that feel acceptable, to just be a human rather than the societal story?
It's so fitting for the times we find ourselves in. “Man up” is in itself such a gendered term and a lot of the traditional ideas around resilience are very “do it yourself.” How does SELFMADE support this new idea of resilience?
It's recognizing that there are baby steps to resilience. It's not like you show up one day and all of a sudden, you're resilient. It's also having conversations about what resilience looks like in different communities, from an AAPI to a Black community to a Latinx community—looking at those nuances versus a blanket statement about resilience. The next part is understanding the danger and impact of forced resilience: when you expect a person, without them saying where they are, to “man up.” And while we have these two physical products, what really ties the brand together is the community and discourse around this.
For our launch of True Grit, we did a roundtable with Michelle Obama's stylist, who has been an ally to Black and Brown creatives and designers; the lead organizer for the CROWN Act, a law that protects Black people from discrimination against their natural hair; and Darian Harvin, a Black journalist at the intersection of pop culture and politics. We are thinking about our consumer as that unbucketable person: you can love beautiful things, but you can also care about activism, politics, neurology, whatever it might be. Creating those spaces where the politics of beauty and our mental health intersect, that's where we sit. That's the type of conversations we want to have.
Speaking of politics, it got me thinking around the timing of this launch, and the recent rise in Asian hate crime. I was wondering if you had any thoughts around that?
That's something I've personally been reckoning with myself. My community has always been quite silent [about it]. It's a very silent pain that I haven't had the opportunity to dig into, but because it is so prevalent right now, I have no choice but to confront it. We're in the age where we must take up space (this is actually a big part of resilience learning). There's a lot of great resources to donate to, and that's fantastic in terms of our awareness, but I also know from my experience and speaking to other people that when we feel shame, that's when we inflict pain on others. What this tells me is that my community, and the general community at this time, is in pain. Part of it is our responsibility to invest in our emotional well-being. How do I show up in this world and interact with other people?
When the shooting in Atlanta happened, that’s the first time my partner and I had a conversation about how people may hate me because of the way that I look. Those were really tough conversations, and what prevailed to be the most powerful through that was sharing my story around racism. I have endured it since the moment I was born as the kid of immigrants. The only thing that is different between myself and those women who were shot was privilege, period. Speaking from my experiences and encouraging those who are in the Asian community to speak out about their experiences, was our first baby step. We haven't had a long history of marching and protesting. Although it has been an awful time, the silver lining has been to see more voices come out that have never taken up space, or even knew how to. It starts with each individual.
It feels like a lot of the things within the beauty industry that needed to shift are getting acknowledged more as well. Were there any challenges or road blocks?
This is the stuff that I care about the most, the change and impact. It's hard for me to say challenges, because I think, if we can have a Black president, I as a woman of color can raise a lot of money. To be completely real, less than 2% of venture funding went to women last year, and even less than that to women of color. When I look at the reality of statistics, it feels like a mountain, but luckily, I have such wonderful people on my team. It was not difficult recruiting, because of the compelling proposition of emotional well-being and the mission to democratize access to mental health in creative ways. I'm proud to have that as the driver. We have folks that come from many different backgrounds: behavior strategists, the music industry, tech, all of the above. I remember a beauty industry mentor of mine, when I was experiencing all these hurdles and obstacles, told me: “If you can't change it from the inside out, maybe you have to lead to change it.” I love challenges, so it doesn't feel difficult to me. It happens every day, nonstop, but I'm extremely comforted in the team and the response to SELFMADE. And that response isn't, “Oh my God, I love this serum,” it’s “This is needed.”
I'm curious about your thoughts on how this ties into that shift around a more conscious consumerism.
I've even seen it over the past couple years in different facets of consumerism, like greenwashing, finding a plastic bottle inside paper ones. With the tide of Gen Z being much more outspoken, they are not afraid to call out a brand's bullshit. Then you have these brands apologizing for being called out, not because they screwed up, but because they were called out. If an active ingredient is proven clinically at 1%, you have to use it at 1% in order to make that claim, right? And consumers called out brands for fairy-dust ingredients for marketing. The Gen Z consumer’s knowledge is so much more connected, and if you do that, you're basically saying you do not respect the consumer. What they want are brands that respect them. The main message that comes across [with SELFMADE] is that we respect you, so we're not going to bullshit you. If there is something in the product, for instance, fragrance, which isn't bad, but there's a whole anti-fragrance thing going on. We're going to say that it's a fragrance blend, even if it has essential oils, and not just say it has just essential oils. It boils down to: how much do you respect the people you're selling to? How much do you want to create a relationship with them, rather than dupe them into buying your shit?
Corporate karma, isn't it?
Going back to resilience, what would you say are the biggest misconceptions?
That you need to do it alone. Huge misconception. At the core of this brand is that we develop products with emotional well-being and healing at the center. There is data out there that even perceived support from another or a community helps to make the healing process faster. It is not a solo sport, whatsoever. Resilience looks different for different people in different communities. The way that I show resilience cannot be expected of somebody else, because you never know what generational trauma they're coming from, what happened that that resilience stems from. Also, “What doesn't break you, makes you stronger” has always been tied to resilience, but it’s not actually true resilience. Resilience is when you can call upon yourself, your energy and effort in order to cope. In this hustle culture, we feel like we have to do 10 things [at once]. That resilience factor isn't productivity- or strength-focused. It's coping-focused, and especially now, we just need to survive, and that's more than okay.
That old saying of “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” it's neglecting all the nuance of personal experience.
It eliminates the space to say shit is fucking hard, right? Even if you said that, I'm like, “Girl, tell me about it.” Those connections and validation points are so powerful. For any little thing, the moment you're self-validated, it helps to increase your self-trust, self-worth, all those things. That's what we can do for each other, is not fix anything, per se, or give advice, but just be there.
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