One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a single mom who persevered through a series of major setbacks to her health and career, and turned her struggles into something positive. While balancing a full-time job on Wall Street and parenting two children, she developed a line of skincare products that combat wrinkles and protect from skin cancer. Today, she is speaking with major retailers and equity investors about Scalisi Skincare. What an inspiration! -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
Sitting on the cold exam table in her dermatologist’s office, Jill Scalisi believed she was facing strike three. She had watched two planes crash into the World Trade Center, from her Wall Street office window, terrified her building would be next. Then she faced a breast cancer scare and a painful diagnostic procedure -- all the while thinking she’d made it through 9/11, simply for this to be her fate.
The good news was, the lump they found was benign. The bad news was, that the one thing she’d never given a second thought -- a spot on her chest -- was where the cancer was.
“On 9/11, I knew exactly what to do,” Jill remembered. “I’m good in a crisis. I helped my colleagues make it down nine floors and then threw my heels off and ran for my life -- straight up the West Side Highway. But after the skin cancer was removed and I was changing the bandage on this gaping chest wound, I kept thinking, I did something wrong. I’m a Mom. How could I have ignored this? I was supposed to be taking care of myself."
Jill had been taking care of herself her entire life. She was the first in her family to go to college. And when Chase Manhattan Bank was recruiting on campus, she memorized the entire commodities market -- to show them, that even as an English major, she was a good bet. She beat the odds and she was determined to beat them this time as well -- which she did -- just in time for strike four.
It was now the Fall of 2008 and her employer, Lehman Brothers was filing for bankruptcy -- the biggest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history, which left her without a job and without the savings she’d been building up in stock. By October of 2008, everything Jill had built was wiped out.
“I felt like the world was ending,” she explained, “but I tried to calm myself down. I’d always figured it out before. But the financial market was having violent swings and I thought I’d better use that time to figure out if I should do something else."
“People say major change can be positive, that it can open new doors. They kept saying to follow your passion. The problem was, outside of trading, I didn’t know what mine was.”
But everyone else did. It was the subject Jill talked about all the time. She was 40, and from the moment she was diagnosed with skin cancer and told she had to wear SPF 30 everyday, she had been obsessed with finding a sunscreen with anti-aging properties -- a solution that would protect her beauty and her life.
“All the doctors could offer me was something that felt like paste,” she said, “and the ingredients were all written in French, so I had no idea what was in it. Finally after hearing me talk about nothing else, a friend said 'if you can’t find what you need, then you should create it.' Sometimes the answer is so obvious, you can’t see it.”
But Jill was a single mom with two children. As obvious as her passion had become, she couldn’t just throw caution to the wind and take a chance on figuring things out -- especially since she had never worked in the cosmetics industry.
“So I worked my tail off to find another Wall Street job, and thought maybe I could just fund this little project on the side. I thought I’d just create a product in my spare time."
And that’s exactly what she set out to do. But Jill didn’t just fund the project. She connected with one of the largest cosmetics manufacturers in the world and sold them on her concept -- without as much as one in-person meeting.
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It was a simple introduction, made by her make-up artist. And through phone calls and emails done on lunch breaks and late at night, Jill convinced them to partner with her on developing a new skincare solution. Her idea: An anti-aging moisturizer made with synthetic peptides, that would trick the brain into believing it was healing a cut and in turn, produce collagen -- reducing 45% of visible wrinkles. And of course, it would be combined with SPF 30 to block harmful UVA and UVB radiation -- which Jill had learned can even penetrate glass.
“They told me they have major celebrities that can’t get a meeting,” Jill said, “but because I had a clear proposal and thoughts on how it should be created and goals that needed to be met, I got their attention. Maybe my twenty years on Wall Street made them take me more seriously. I don’t know, but somehow I got their top chemist.”
Together they created a formula. And then, before Jill did another thing, she hired an independent regulatory scientist. She wanted to guarantee that the promises she was making about the product were true and that it would be safe for even her teen-age daughter to use.
“The cosmetics industry is not regulated. That’s why you have people making stuff in their kitchen sink. You can’t cook sausages in your kitchen and sell it on the street in Manhattan, but you can sell cosmetics that are made that way! I wanted to know that every single ingredient I included was safe.”
Next, she wanted to be sure other women would like it as much as she did. But as Jill puts it, she didn’t have a money tree growing in her front yard. So rather than hire an expensive market research firm, the way major cosmetics companies do, she asked 50 people to try the product for two months.
“I didn’t give it to friends who would feel like they had to say they loved it,” Jill recalled. “I gave it to strangers and asked if they liked the smell, the texture and the packaging. I spent three and a half years getting it right, before I did my first manufacturing run.”
And when she did do that run, she did it in a state-of-the-art facility in New York, where some of the most well-known beauty brands in the world are manufactured. But by that point, the “little product” Jill thought she could create on the side, had grown into an entire skincare line: an anti-aging moisturizer with broad spectrum SPF 30, a cleanser and exfoliator, an advanced wrinkle cream and an eye cream. And she did it all on nights and weekends -- while raising two kids.
"I did this slowly,” Jill explained. “I felt like I needed to create a superior product before I could build a company. People told me all the time that Bobbi Brown began in her apartment and that Essie began her nail company from home, but still -- I couldn’t believe it when I saw my first little bottles come down the production line. I literally started crying.”
And today, Scalisi Skincare is selling not only on Jill’s own website, but at the famed Fred Segal store in Santa Monica. She’s been nominated for a Rising Star award by Fashion Group International, she’s in the midst of conversations with major retailers, and now the skincare entrepreneur is even being approached by major equity investors.
“I know that most people aren’t going to go out and hire a scientist to help them create a product. But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. It can be a new concept for cupcakes. You just want to be sure you’re filling a hole that’s missing in the market. Then focus on making the best product possible. If you don’t have the foundation, you won’t have a company."
“And stick with your existing job until you know exactly what you have,” she said firmly. “Be sure to bust your butt everyday at your full-time job, because that’s what’s affording you the opportunity to pursue your passion. Your full-time job gives you choices, and choices are great.”
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