Welcome to Byrdie's new series, The Hustle. We're profiling diverse, interesting women and female-identifying folks in the beauty and wellness industries who are usually behind-the-scenes. From the cosmetic chemists formulating your holy-grail serum to CFOs driving the biggest beauty companies forward, these women are the definition of career goals, and they're getting real about the journeys that led them to where they are—the highs, the lows, and everything in between.
Today, get to know Robyn Watkins, the founder of Holistic Beauty Group. For over two decades, Watkins has been championing the beauty industry’s adoption of clean, sustainable, and safe ingredients. She is behind the ingredient policies of some of beauty’s buzziest brands like Estee Lauder, Smashbox, and Arbonne. With her work at the Holistic Beauty Group, Watkins spends her days helping brands develop innovative and effective beauty and wellness products. Ahead, learn about her experiences navigating the beauty industry as a Black woman, her day-to-day duties, and more.
Tell us about your background.
I'm a Southern California native. I grew up with two extremely smart and hard-working parents and learned my work ethic from them. I'm the youngest out of five, and my mother worked overtime and sold Avon as a side hustle to send my siblings to college after my dad passed away. My first job was assembling my mom's Avon orders, and that was the beginning of my love of products. I got paid in product samples that I would share with my friends, and there began a never-ending love affair with product in all of its forms. My great-grandmother was a rootworker, and I inherited her love of herbal plant medicine for healing. In my work, I bring together my love of product and healing together through formulation concepts.
I attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and was fortunate to be mentored by Irene Cotter. I had exposure to the industry's biggest brands, such as Estée Lauder and Avon, under her tutelage. I began my career doing more technical research and development in natural fragrance and have since worked across nearly every category in beauty, from cosmetics to clinical skincare to wellness for some of the biggest and most disruptive brands in beauty, from mass to luxury.
What made you decide to found The Holistic Beauty Group, and how did your previous experiences prepare you for it?
I had a feeling. When I was in corporate beauty, I was always pushing for clean, pushing for fair trade, reviewing consumer complaints about ingredients, and working with various packaging engineers on sustainability. I felt like everything connected for me when I walked into the first Indie Beauty Expo. I saw brands doing the things that I believed in, and I knew that what is now called "clean beauty" was really the intersection of beauty and wellness—and it would blow up. I wanted to be a part of that wave. Hell, I was the wave. I was a part of that wave.
So I took my corporate experience and became the product developer for a community of mindful brands. After my 15th or so year in corporate product development, I started to imagine what this could look like. I didn't always receive the titles, the salaries, or the recognition that I deserved, but I was the talent. I knew that I was the talent and that I had the vision. Like most corporate dropouts, I had a hard time answering the call, so instead of figuring it out, I decided to redesign my life. In a journal entry, I pinned down all of my desires: I wanted to work from home, be more present as a mom, eat breakfast and dinner with my family, still make the same amount of money that I was making in corporate, and work with brands aligned with my personal values. Within two weeks, that opportunity came knocking. I got my first client in the wellness space, and my employer transitioned me into a consultant. So off the bat, I had two major clients.
You are a champion for clean beauty and wellness products. What do you want people to know about the clean beauty industry?
The first thing to note about clean beauty is really where we've been, where we've evolved, and where we've arrived today. This will be an ongoing conversion and expansion as our values, lifestyles, and priorities change. We are going forward. That means it's ever-changing and still relatively new. Ingredient suppliers are getting caught up on the latest standards, and the packaging suppliers are getting up to speed on sustainable options. And together as an industry, I think everyone is genuinely trying their best to deliver safe, consistent, and effective products that have a positive impact on people and the planet.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities as the founder of The Holistic Beauty Group?
I oversee formula development, packaging development, and ingredient sourcing along with lab iterations. My right-hand person, Hannah Henry, handles a lot of the organization, project management, and communication with the brands and suppliers. I'm 100% all-in with the formula development and strategy work with brands.
What's one thing people would be surprised to learn about being the founder of a product development consultancy?
I don't indulge in every product known to man. I'm a recovering product junkie. These days, I just use oils, bath salt, butter, rose water, aloe gel. I'm very simple. I don't get caught up in all the stuff out there. Many people also assume that I want to launch my own brand—wrong! I know all of the hard work and effort that goes into launching a brand, and that isn't something that I could ever see myself married to in the current beauty landscape.
What's the most fun or fulfilling part of your job?
Seeing brands win and reading positive reviews that a product I developed has been life-changing in some way. It's so fulfilling to see the impact a product can make.
What's the most challenging part of your job?
Selecting the right brands to onboard and setting realistic launch expectations with those brands. Often, brands will want to develop a very complex product and launch it within three months. That is just never going to happen. It takes one year to develop a custom product. In my role as a consultant, I often have to become the teacher and fully explain the process, the testing, and the lead times associated with launching a product. I'm also getting better at this every day.
What are some of the most well-known brands you've worked with, and in what capacity?
- Smashbox Cosmetics: I worked as the Director of Product Development and then later as a Product Development Consultant. I helped bring to life some of their newest primer and complexion product innovations.
- Pattern Beauty: I worked as a product developer consultant. I helped bring to life the final touches of the launch and developed all the products for the styling launch that happened earlier this year in 2020.
- Arbonne International: I worked as Sr. Product Development Manager. I delivered on multiple big-box launches, including the CC Cream and the Ingredient Policy Committee
- SpaRitual: I worked for this brand earlier in my career and developed the Handprint Hand Serum, a hero product that is still in the assortment today
- DayNa Decker: I was a part of her original Research and Development team, who tested and patented the original wood wick for candles.
What's a typical day in the life of your job?
Creating formula concepts, writing briefs, a ton of research, responding to emails, attending webinars, and bi-weekly calls with suppliers, labs, clinical labs, and brands to streamline projects. We spend a lot of time looking at innovation, new trend reports, new textures, and packaging every week. We get multiple shipments every day!
What's the project you're most proud of doing in your career?
There are so many. I love my CC Cream launch for Arbonne International. It was hell on wheels and just being able to deliver on a $40 million empire is very fulfilling, even to this day.
What's the most interesting story from your career?
I pitched a new brand franchise concept to a former employer in 2014 called "The Clean Beauty Project"—I kid you not. I defined clean beauty. I created a product assortment and formula concepts. A couple of people at the brand believed in the project, and everyone else thought it was a complete joke, including Research and Development. Now, clean beauty is the most important claim in beauty and is the fastest-growing segment in beauty. Fast forward to 2020, I've built my consultancy focusing on that—so who's laughing now?
What has your experience been in the beauty industry as a Black woman?
Growing up in the beauty industry, I've often been the only Black woman of color on a given team. For years, I worked as a middle manager because I knew how to manage others and still produce. That led me to become pigeonholed as the "trainer." I trained all the newbies and was passed over for director roles repeatedly until I finally landed a dream role with Smashbox Cosmetics. I know for a fact that I was underpaid the majority of my career compared to my white peers, which really hurt and left me confused about my own self-worth, all the while still outperforming my peers and contributing hundreds of multi-million dollar launch success.
How did you overcome that and do you have any advice to anyone who may be experiencing the same thing?
At the time, I managed this by keeping a positive attitude. I kept my head down, worked really hard, and ultimately knew that if I ever were to be valued, I would have to step out on my own as a consultant. I honestly never saw myself in the C-Suite of beauty. It was too political. Being overlooked and undervalued forced me to reckon with myself and ultimately bet on myself. If I could go back, I would have advocated for myself more. I would encourage others to do the same. Times have changed. Use your voice, get what you deserve, or take your talents somewhere where you will be respected and valued.
Use your voice, get what you deserve, or take your talents somewhere where you will be respected and valued.
Have you had any mentors or anyone who has helped you get to where you are?
Yes, Dr. Peter Matravers, retired Chief Scientific Officer formerly of Aveda and Arbonne and Douglas Little, master perfumer of Heretic Parfums. He was an early mentor of mine.
How do you stay motivated, grounded, and positive during stressful times at work?
Breathwork, intentions, aromatherapy, and stalking reviews on past launches. I happen to have a lot of five stars. It keeps me sane.
What does beauty mean to you?
Beauty is nature, ritual, creativity, self-expression, and authentic self-acceptance. Beauty is your inner glow, your sparkling eyes, your radiant presence, your kindness, and your power. Beauty is grace and mindfulness. Beauty is wisdom, a knowing, old-age, and the full self-realization of who you are. All of these qualities emanate beauty physically. It's the beauty that can be felt by all.
What advice or words of encouragement do you have for anyone looking to break into your field?
Be intentional about your career path by working with brands that align with your values. Put in the work, a lot of it. This work takes time to cultivate fully, so enjoy the ride, earn your stripes, and soak in every lesson. Seek a mentor whose career path inspires you.
What are your five favorite beauty products of the moment?
I've been really enjoying the essentials. I adore Undefined Beauty Glow Elixir ($48), Doterra Frankincense Essential Oil ($91) for baths and my diffuser, Sun Potion Solar Rose Water ($37), Versed Skin Guards Up SPF ($22), and Selfmade Secure Attachment Comfort Serum as my night cream and eye cream.