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Women in Business: Q&A with Jane Iredale, president and founder of Iredale Mineral Cosmetics, Ltd

06/24/2014 01:48 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2014

Jane Iredale was born in England and moved to the United States as a young woman. She first attended New York University, then obtained her master's degree in English and Philosophy at the University of Albany-SUNY. During her undergraduate studies she started her career in the entertainment industry, working first as a casting director and then as a writer and producer in both New York and Los Angeles. She moved on from film, television and theater to create her eponymous makeup line, jane iredale. With the launch of the mineral foundation Amazing Base, in 1994, she introduced a makeup line that would nurture skin, not irritate it; a makeup line that she could feel good about producing, and women could feel good about wearing.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I tried a lot of different things including a long stint in the entertainment industry. Along the way I picked up all kinds of unrelated experiences that finally came together to equip me for my present career. I don't consider anything I did a waste - even working in the toy department of my local store over Christmas when I was 16. When I look back on the satisfaction, or lack thereof, that I got from my various jobs, it had very little to do with money but more to do with a sense of accomplishment and being recognized and appreciated. I don't believe in competitive environments that are supposed to get people's juices running. I think a team spirit is what brings out the best in everyone. When we're hiring, we look for people who possess enthusiasm, compassion and a supportive nature. Then the hard part of my job is done because it's easy to lead people who want to learn and are happy in their jobs. You can teach skills but you can never teach someone how to be a team player.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Iredale Mineral Cosmetics, Ltd?
I had a career in the entertainment industry but eventually got show-biz burn-out. What I'd always wanted to do was to be involved with something that would enhance the lives of women and have some healing aspect to it. I'd seen the bad affects of makeup when I worked with actresses and models as a casting director and as a producer, so it suddenly occurred to me that there was a place for makeup that was good for the skin. I'd spent so many years working with women whose careers depended on having a flawless complexion, and the heavy makeup they were using to cover up skin problems was actually aggravating their skin concerns, instead of improving them. I started thinking about a solution - a makeup with true skin care benefits. I have always been interested in fashion, in wellness, in beauty, and in personal expression, so the leap into makeup was a very natural one for me to make.

We incorporated in March, 1994 and started with five shades of loose minerals. Over the past 20 years, we have expanded the line to include more than 400 products and we're now available in 43 countries around the world.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Iredale Mineral Cosmetics, Ltd?
Our biggest challenge has been dealing with growth when we were massively under-capitalized. I used to think that growing was easy. When you sold more product, you made more money and, therefore, could buy more raw materials. How naïve was that?! I had no backers, no mentors, but I did have a boyfriend, now my husband, who was a banker. We used to strategize every waking moment on how to get more capital into a business that was a lowly start-up. We'd grit our teeth and go to friends and family and pull together enough money to get us through the next phase and on it went. We kept hearing the same refrain, "It's hard when you're a start-up." After ten years and exporting to 25 countries, I asked my accountant, "When do we stop being a start-up?" Finally we got big enough to obtain a Small Business Loan and then finally a bank took us seriously.

Another challenge has been sticking to our mandate of producing as natural a makeup as possible and at the same time satisfying the consumer who wants variety and innovation. Sometimes it's really hard to give her what she wants without compromising our formulas. It's easy if you're free to use anything that's out there but we're not. Our consumers vet our ingredients with a magnifying glass. And they ask question, for example, I was asked once if the green tea extract we had in one product was caffeine-free. Once you declare your company's intention, then you will be held to it because today we don't own our brands, the consumer does.

Highlights? Having those same consumers telling us how much they love a product we've agonized over. Hearing how we've changed women's lives. Hearing from single mom's who've been able to keep a family together by selling our products. Watching our growth and the growth of the people who work for us. There's nothing like the satisfaction in that.

How has the beauty industry changed since you started your company?
I think it would be very hard to start a company today the way I started mine. You really need to have substantial capital and come to market with a well-designed product line and marketing plan. (I've never even had a business plan.) Building one product at a time, one customer at a time today would be almost impossible. When I started, there was no such thing as the Internet, now if you don't have a sophisticated website, e-commerce and a flourishing social media world, you can't compete. When I began, all the power lay with the beauty editors, now bloggers are so important. It's that direct-to-the-consumer factor that has changed all our lives. My company has always sold business to business and had very little contact with consumers. Now, we're having a discussion with them all day and every day. Sometimes it's a challenge but in the end it makes our brand more relevant and complete

What advice would you give to women who are looking to start their own business?
My advice for female entrepreneurs is:
1. Keep it to the "why". Why did you want to do it in the first place?
2. Maintain employee trust. Don't be someone outside of business and someone else when you come to work.
3. Be emotionally attached and love what you do.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I'm not sure I do. I don't have children so I'm not divided the way a lot of women are. I tend to pour everything into the company which includes our employees. My feeling is that if they're happy in their jobs, they'll do a better job for our customers. I do have some diversions. I love to garden and feel that it's very therapeutic. But, for me, a garden has to produce something so we started a company garden where we grow organic fruits and vegetables. Anyone in the company is free to share the harvest providing they did some of the work, like weeding! I love to see our staff bringing their children to see the garden. Sometimes it's the first opportunity they've had to see how a tomato really grows. Last year we started a bee hive which actually survived our brutal winter.

I believe strongly in community so I'm involved in a number of local organizations, but always the company comes first. That's unless my dog needs a walk, of course.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Credibility. We have to prove ourselves over and over again. Years ago we hired a wonderful woman who came from Citibank. She wore navy suits, cut her hair very short and carried a briefcase. After she'd been with us a few months and it was clear she was going to be with us for a lot longer, I said to her, "You know, it's OK to be a girl around here." Now you should see her. And she actually allows herself to giggle.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I haven't had a business mentor except for my husband who I would consider more as the Rock of Gibraltar. When I need a balanced point of view, he never fails. My personal mentor convinced me years ago that I could manage to get a degree while working full time. So I was able to complete my BA at New York University and then my MA. Having that incredible experience gave me so much confidence. Going back to school was one of the most important things I've done. And my proudest moment was when my mother flew from England to see me graduate in my cap and gown.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
The women who work with me. They put in full days, do their jobs extremely well and then take care of a family when they go home, sometimes as single mothers. I can't imagine that kind of responsibility. They never have any down-time. They inspire me every day with their passion and loyalty and creativity.

What are your hopes for the future of your company?
We're going to continue doing what we're doing but hoping to get better and better at it. We're very engaged with spreading the word internationally and learning about markets that we haven't yet opened. These are exciting times with new ingredients, new technologies and new ways of marketing them.