Three decades ago, Lisa Price began concocting body care recipes out of her Brooklyn apartment. What began as a hobby for making fragrances morphed into body moisturizers and butters “because I always had dry skin,” says Price. Friends and family started asking for the formulas, and eventually, Price’s mom, Carol, convinced her she had bonafide business on her hands. “I spent the summer of 1993 selling at different craft fairs and outdoor markets. People would call me wanting to refills of products they had purchased and that began the unofficial store in my home.” For 10 years, she ran the company from her kitchen before landing on Oprah in 2002 and opening her own store in Manhattan. “It was a slow build,” she recalls. “It was not an overnight catapult.”
Soon after, Price scored screen time on HSN with a partnership between Sephora and the home-shopping giant, which led to Price being featured on Tyra Banks’ talk show in 2006 alongside guests (and future business partners) Mary J. Blige and Jada Pinkett Smith. “My then-website, which perhaps saw $20,000 in sales on a very good day, saw over $100,000 in sales in one day,” she remembers. “It was crazy.”
Despite this success, the self-described “shy” Price had no roadmap for being an entrepreneur—especially a Black female founder navigating emerging growth; so she created her own. Price took out her first loan for the business in 2001 before bringing on investors in 2007 for a three-to-five-year plan to scale and sell the company. But the recession hit, sales struggled, and she had to adjust the plan. Here, the 58-year-old opens up about how she built her company out of her kitchen, eventually sold Carol’s Daughter to L’Oreal in 2014 in the face of backlash that the brand was no longer Black-owned (a backlash that has resurfaced since George Floyd’s death in May last year), and why she never entertained retirement after her business was acquired.
What was the tipping point for you in starting Carol’s Daughter?
Before I began to sell anything, I would share different concoctions with family and friends. Once I had perfected a body butter, my mom said, “You should sell this at the church flea market.” That was the beginning of people giving me money for my products, and I began to see its potential. Then people started asking for hair care and my offerings grew. I experimented; I gave my products to stylist friends, asked for feedback, and altered the formulas. In a lot of ways, it’s still like this today, just in a more streamlined, professional kind of way, but it has always been a dialogue between myself and the customer about what she may be looking for, what she wants to make her life easier.
Did you formulate the products on your own? Where did you learn to do that?
I had some books on essential oils with very rudimentary recipes and learned about their properties—like if you’re making massage oil, you need this much base to this much of the essential oil so you don’t irritate the skin. There were basic recipes for balms, so I took those recipes and used them as a skeleton. Maybe the recipe said to use lanolin, and thought, “I don’t want to use lanolin, because it’s sheep fat and kind of smells like it; what if I tried beeswax instead?” or “This says to just use oil, but what if I put cocoa and shea butter in with it?” I was familiar with shea butter because I had traveled to Senegal when I was 19 and encountered shea butter there. I was able to bring home a lot of it. It took years for me to use all of it. In its raw form, it’s pretty heavy and sticky, so I wanted to blend it in. I always loved cocoa butter. I loved that it naturally smelled like chocolate, but the texture, you have to melt it in your hand to use it on your skin.
It was the same as if you experimented with your mother, grandmother or aunt’s cooking recipe, but you wanted to update it for today: make it non-dairy, less fat, less salt. You have this framework, and then you manipulate it accordingly.
Did you raise money for the launch?
In the beginning, it grew organically: first I sold at a flea market, then at another craft fair, then at an expo, and then people began coming to my home. I never thought about getting a loan back then. I didn’t have good personal credit at the time and I didn’t want to do anything that involved taking on debt until I got my personal finances together. I said, “Let’s just see how this goes.” I didn’t plan or even think “in two years, I will be here; in three years, I will be there.” I said, “Okay, I am going to do this as smart as I can, as long as I can afford to, and as long as there’s demand.” The demand continued to grow.
Because I worked in television and film production, I had non-traditional hours which helped me work on the two things at once. I was also yet to have children, so I worked, came home, and worked more. Things changed when I had my first child. It didn’t make sense to go back to work outside the house and hand that paycheck to a babysitter; the business had grown to the place where it seemed like it could support itself, so I took that chance.
I didn’t borrow any money until 2001, eight years after I started selling at the flea market. I didn’t take on partners until 2004, and then equity partners in 2007. It was an organic build; it wasn’t intentional from the perspective that I chose not to have investors. I was just learning and allowed it to grow the way it did; I was growing with it as a business person.
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Why did you eventually decide to take out a loan and bring on investors? Were there any signs it was time to scale?
There was a moment in particular when I knew I needed to be more efficient with my production. I used to order jars from an Italy-based glass company, and one day the salesperson over the phone said they had some beautiful jars leftover from a food company’s custom order. They were selling them inexpensively but you had to buy an entire palette. A jar that would normally cost $2 with the lid was 50 cents—it was a beautiful glass jar. I agreed to buy the palette, but I’m in a house; I have a backyard, not a loading dock, so I’m trying to think where I’m going to stack all of these boxes. Eventually, I found a space in the backyard where I could put the boxes under a tarp. But when the jars arrived, they were not in boxes, they were on sheets of cardboard stacked on top of each other, and then wrapped in plastic; it was an entire palette of 2,000 loose jars. It took six hours to completely unload the palette into the backyard, into containers where they wouldn’t get broken and dirty. Everything else that was happening for the business that day stopped, and that was a moment where I thought, “Okay, I can’t do this. We lost a whole day of production.” It was a lightbulb moment before I took out the loan in 2001. It was a realization that I needed help.
Do you remember how much revenue you were bringing in before you quit your job?
I don’t remember exactly what we were making, but I knew that I wasn’t dipping into my finances to pay for things. I would sell something, and then from the money I got, I could buy new materials, a new printer, fragrance oils. The only time I ever had to dip into my personal finances was if I was gearing up for something—say, a festival happening in the summertime and I needed to put a deposit on the table. There weren’t necessarily reserves within the company back then.
What feedback were you getting when you realized the hobby was actually a business?
I had a number of moments. One was having total strangers show up at my house to shop. Well, at first they are strangers. You meet them at a street fair or something, and then they come back to refill with a regular cadence and suddenly you’re like, “Hi Anne,” “Hi Deborah, good to see you again.” But then it’s someone ringing your doorbell at 7 a.m. saying, “My friend Shirley gets shampoo from you and I’m on my way to the salon, so is this the place where I buy the shampoo?” And I’m like, yeah, but it’s 7 a.m. on a Saturday, you know? [Laughs.]
Then, there was the woman who used to shop with me by mail, because she was from Connecticut. One week she called me and said she was coming up to New York to see a play with some friends from church and could they come up and shop on Saturday? I said sure. She didn’t tell me they were on a chartered bus and there were 47 of them. They came up in groups of 10 and waited to come up to my apartment. At that point, you start to realize you’re onto something because that’s just not normal.
You lived through the 2008 recession and other major cultural shifts. Did you make any changes to the business to survive?
Absolutely. Not to the extent of what we’re going through right now with the pandemic because this is just otherworldly, very different, and new for everyone. But the common denominator in all of it is that you have to try and find your center, which can be a difficult thing to do. Some people need to take a walk to find their center. Some do yoga. Some meditate. Others take a spin class. Whatever your thing is, you need to find the thing that helps you find your center. You can’t figure out what you need to do with your business in a state of confusion, when you are worrying, panicking, not thinking properly, not breathing well, and operating from a place of fear.
If you can find a way to be still, you can think clearer on how best to navigate a situation for yourself. I can tell a founder what I did to get through 9/11, or what I did after the blackout, but it’s not the same as what someone is going to do for the pandemic. What would be the same is finding that stillness, that centering, and then formulating what your plan is going to be.
For women founders, in particular Black woman founders, we tend to blame ourselves for things that have gone wrong.
I also find that for women founders, in particular Black women founders, we tend to blame ourselves for things that have gone wrong. Earlier this year when Kanye [West] made his ludicrous Presidential announcement, someone tweeted that his actions were indicative of how men will go for positions for which they have no experience, and the lesson learned is: “Women, apply for all the jobs.” We tend to not do that. We say, “Well, I don’t have experience. I’ve never done that before.” Men don’t think that. They think, “I’ll learn later; I’m going to go get this job.” In businesses, with women founders, we often think the problem is happening because we didn’t plan for it. “I should have known this was coming,” “I should have been prepared,” “I don’t have the rainy day fund,” “I messed up,” “People told me I was going to fail and look what’s happening.” All of that is noise. It’s fear, it’s insecurity. It is not the truth. You are human. You are going to make mistakes. You are going to fall down, you are going to screw up, you are going to fail, you are going to run out of money, you are not always going to know if you’re going to make payroll. All of that is normal; it’s called business. You have to give yourself grace and recognize, especially with the pandemic, it is not your fault what’s happening. The only thing you can control is how you react.
Women are often under this harsh glare of criticism, working twice as hard for the same recognition as their male peers. Do you have any advice on how to combat this?
You have to do exactly what that tweet said; you have to go for it. It doesn’t feel good, it feels uncomfortable and scary. You can feel like a fraud. But then you begin to realize there are things you know and skills you have that others do not. You also realize that not everybody in the room knows what they’re talking about.
Also, know what you know and what you don’t. For example, I’m not an accountant. I did not do my own taxes, I still don’t do my own taxes. That is not my forte. I have always had someone do my personal taxes and taxes for the company because I learned early the mistake costs more than paying someone else to do it right. I used to do the sales tax for the company, years ago. One year, there was a certain day it needed to be filed on, and I ended up having my baby three weeks early. I was in the hospital getting a C-section and I missed the deadline. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I didn’t procrastinate, but I didn’t think it was the end of the world; I mean, I had a baby, right? So, I called to let someone know what was going on. I said, “I’m getting my paperwork together now. I’m back home, I’m healed, but this is why I missed the deadline.” I was informed that they would let it go this time, but normally the penalty for not filing on time is 10 percent of your average monthly sales. At that time, it was probably about $3,000, which was an astronomical amount of money to me. It’s not small potatoes today, but 24 years ago, when I’ve just had a baby and given up my job—which I did four weeks before my son was born—and I’m making a go of this business, the thought of having to send someone a $3,000 check at the time was insane. That was three months of rent for me.
That is something that’s really critical: you need to engage the help you need and not try to do everything by yourself.
You sold to L’Oreal in 2014 after sales were down in stores. Did you always intend to sell Carol’s Daughter? How did the acquisition come about?
That was something I knew would be a part of the future of the company when I took on equity partners. My business partners (Steve Stoute was the first, followed later by Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Jimmy Iovine, Jay-Z, James Lassiter, and Mary J. Blige) and I took on equity investment in December 2007, and the goal was to ultimately sell to a strategic partner, like L’Oreal or Estee Lauder. Everyone would hopefully get their money back in multiples. But the recession hit and we had a rough two years sales-wise. Unless money magically fell out of the sky or I found someone who wanted to buy out all my partners, the only way everyone would recoup what they put in was through a sale. I wanted it to be the right place; a company that understood what we had built, respected our consumer, respected the work I had put in, and would want me to stay on so I could keep running the business. That is what we found with L’Oreal. I was able to be a part of the transition, come with my team, and operate within L’Oreal. So technically are we Black-owned? No. But are we Black-founded and Black-led? Yes.
After selling to L’Oreal, you received backlash from people who were champions of the brand as Black-owned. How do you handle that pushback as a founder?
Honestly, I’m still learning how to deal with it. Because of the #PullUpOrShutUp challenge, and with other articles that have been published [since George Floyd’s death], that focus has come up again six years later—almost as if I’d never told anyone about the sale. It came up in the context of, “Look who’s lying to you; this brand is not Black-owned.” It’s a difficult thing to deal with as a founder. The things you are writing on social media, people are coming back and saying, “You don’t have the right to say this anymore.” And it’s like, what are you talking about?
I understand where the unrest comes from, and where the anger comes from, but I don’t like how it feels. As a founder, I think the only way you deal with it is to just keep going. It’s the reality of where we are as a country. I could never tell a founder, “Oh, yeah. Stay Black-owned as long as you can and don’t sell because people are going to come after you.” You have to make the decisions about your company that make sense for your company, you, your family, and your plans for building wealth. Black people right now do not have the economic infrastructure of our white counterparts. We don’t have the same wealth; Black wealth is one-tenth of what white wealth is—we’re going to have to build businesses and sell them to build wealth. It is going to take us generations to do that. It may be uncomfortable for those of us who do it now, in an era where it hasn’t been done and we’re not accustomed to it. We may get backlash, especially given that we, as Black people, feel that things get taken from us, so there’s an assumption that you conspired with the enemy when that is not actually what’s going on. It takes a lot of education and conversation to change the narrative. Eventually, we will be able to build our own wealth, and have more Black VC firms, and maybe there will be an acquisition where an African American company acquires a smaller African American company. That would be great, but it’s going to take time to get there.
It’s common for founders to hang up their hat after an acquisition. Did that ever cross your mind, or were you committed to continuing to run Carol’s Daughter?
The only break I took was a very long vacation at the end of 2014. We did the deal in November, and then two days before Christmas, I left with my family for a trip to London, Thailand, and Tokyo. I had never been away for three weeks before, ever. That was all I really needed. I needed to get away, unplug, go to these amazing, different places and literally take my family around the world. But I did not have a desire to retire or leave Carol’s Daughter. My team was very special, we had done a lot of work together, and I wanted us to keep working together. I felt the nuance of the brand—and the nuance of our consumer—required the founder to be present through the transition and into the future.
After the sale, did your role as founder change?
For the most part, things stayed the same. I was still the face of the brand, the voice of the brand, the person who writes copy for the packaging, weighing in on what gets posted on social media, casting sessions, everything consumer-facing, developing products, developing all the fragrances we use; all of that was me and is still me. Where it differed after the sale was that I didn’t have to worry about finances in the same way. Now you are part of this larger company, so you’re not worried about the rent on the office space, the insurance payment so everyone’s medical insurance stays intact, chasing the company that was supposed to pay you but didn’t. There is a finance department at L’Oreal doing finances for multiple brands. Yes, you have to pay attention, for instance, to what your package costs. But it’s not all your responsibility. You can focus more on the parts of the business that you love. I feel that I get to focus more on marketing, vision, and product development, and you just kind of check in on finances; as long as you’re hitting your sales targets, everything stays in line.
Black people do not have the economic infrastructure of our white counterparts.
At this phase of your business, what are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the person I have become through being an entrepreneur. I’m shy. I’m sensitive. I’m an introvert. I was very afraid to do a lot of things in my life. But being an entrepreneur, protecting my company, and doing what I needed to do for it to grow—and not grow for my own personal success, but so I can pay my employees and manage my responsibilities—forced me to do things I was afraid to do. When you are forced to be courageous, you realize you are. I have a lot more confidence today than I did 27 years ago when I began, and I don’t think I’d be where I am as a person if I hadn’t chosen the entrepreneurial path that I did.
The path to success as an entrepreneur is not an easy one, especially at the moment. Why do you think you were able to do it?
You know, a long time ago, in 2004, I wrote a book. The publisher of the book sent me an email and says, “I think I know what the title of the book should be: Success Never Smelled So Sweet.” I remember being really uncomfortable with the title because I felt that I wasn’t really successful yet; I was still working so hard. I had this assumption that success meant you had finished. But I was still up at 2 a.m, labeling things by hand, stirring pots. I kept thinking, “I’m not successful yet. I’m working too hard!” I’ll be successful when I can relax.
While I was struggling with the title of that book I had a conversation with someone who asked what my secret to success was. I said, “What do you mean that I’m successful? My company is really small.” She said, “Well, I get up every day and go to a job that I hate. And I’ve read interviews you’ve done, where you talk about how what you do is your passion. I’d love to have a job where I do what I love every day.” At that moment I realized that I was successful. I got to do something every day that I loved. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have money, or that I had to work really hard—that wasn’t what success meant. Having that perspective shift helped me a lot in appreciating what my company was, what it meant to me, and what it meant to other people.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity