Beautycounter’s founder sold the  billion business and lost her job—now she’s back as CEO: 'Failure is not an choice'

This story is a part of CNBC Make It’s The Moment collection, the place extremely profitable folks reveal the important second that modified the trajectory of their lives and careers, discussing what drove them to make the leap into the unknown.

Gregg Renfrew constructed a billion-dollar model, solely to finish up on the outdoors wanting in after traders introduced in a alternative CEO.

Renfrew, 55, based clear magnificence model Beautycounter in 2011 with the mission of disrupting the cosmetics business by solely selling products made without “questionable or harmful chemicals.”

Beautycounter began out promoting make-up and hair care merchandise on to customers on its web site, as properly as via a community of gross sales representatives, or advocates. Today, the model has roughly 65,000 advocates, in keeping with an organization spokesperson, lots of whom plug the firm’s merchandise on social media and obtain a fee on ensuing gross sales.

Beautycounter has two brick-and-mortar places, one in New York and one in Denver. A partnership with Ulta Beauty final yr put its merchandise in the retailer’s 500 places throughout the U.S.

Along the method, Renfrew and Beautycounter raised greater than $93 million from traders, in keeping with Crunchbase. Then, in 2021, personal fairness large The Carlyle Group purchased a majority stake in the business. Carlyle did not disclose how a lot it paid, however the agency mentioned the deal valued Beautycounter at $1 billion

Under a yr later, the personal fairness house owners knowledgeable Renfrew that the job of unlocking Beautycounter’s future progress ought to go to an outsider: longtime cosmetics govt Marc Rey, who replaced Renfrew as CEO in February 2022.

Though Renfrew remained with Beautycounter as govt chair and chief model officer, she took the information laborious. A serial entrepreneur who began a home cleansing business as a 19-year-old faculty pupil and later sold an on-line bridal registry to Martha Stewart, Renfrew was used to calling the pictures and nonetheless felt she was the finest individual for that job. 

She did not have to attend lengthy for an opportunity to show herself proper.

Rey lasted simply 16 months as CEO. Carlyle appointed an interim CEO in June 2023 with no detailed public clarification. Earlier this month, the personal fairness agency introduced that Renfrew would return as CEO. (Carlyle declined to remark when reached by CNBC Make It.)

When Carlyle approached Renfrew, she tells CNBC Make It, she was simply “loopy sufficient” to simply accept. She goals to proceed shepherding Beautycounter via what she hopes might be a brand new stage of progress, whereas burnishing her personal legacy as its founder.

“At the finish of the day, I consider in the firm. I consider in its mission. I got down to change the world [and] I actually imply that,” she says.

In a statement announcing Renfrew’s return to the CEO role, Beautycounter board chair and senior advisor at Carlyle Roberto Marques mentioned that Renfrew “has a confirmed monitor document at the firm for driving outcomes and participating each advocates and associates who work alongside her to make significant change.”

Here, Renfrew discusses what it was like dropping management of the firm she constructed from scratch, why she nonetheless does not remorse promoting a majority stake, and the dangers of stepping back into her outdated job.

CNBC Make It: Carlyle requested you to step out of the CEO position of the firm you based. Was {that a} robust capsule to swallow at the time?

Renfrew: It was actually, actually troublesome. [Carlyle and I] had mentioned me bringing in an working accomplice from the starting, in order that I might be extra centered on our group of impartial advocates, and be the face of the model and give attention to our advocacy efforts in Washington. But it is all the time laborious for any founder to lose management or to be not making all the selections. 

It’s simply laborious if you’ve had management over your child. … It’s your imaginative and prescient, and it is your model, and it is your identification. Of course it is troublesome to separate. I do not assume there is a single founder that may inform you it was straightforward. It simply is not straightforward for anybody.

It does not imply that it is the fallacious resolution, essentially. But it is not straightforward for anybody.

Do you might have regrets now?

I do not remorse promoting the business. The work that we do is necessary. And I wished to make it possible for the work and the firm would final the size of time.

I sold the business proper earlier than the world opened up with Covid and a lot was altering and swirling round. Could we have now made higher selections in moments? Sure. Have we made some actually good selections? Yes.

I consider in the firm. I consider in its mission. I got down to change the world [and] I actually imply that.

Gregg Renfrew

Co-founder and CEO, Beautycounter

So it is a mixture of each and I am unable to reside in remorse with any of those selections as a result of they’re already made.

You can solely look to do higher in the future as a result of you’ll be able to’t give attention to what occurred in the previous.

What went via your thoughts if you first realized returning as CEO was an choice?

There was unresolved and unfinished business that I wanted to return back to do. I really feel accountable to hold this torch ahead, understanding what I do know and having achieved what I’ve achieved. I do know that I’m the finest individual to do that job.

The future for Beautycounter is not solely brilliant, however there’s monumental potential for this model [and] this ecosystem that we have created with impartial sellers and an omnichannel strategy with a stronghold in Ulta Beauty and our ecommerce platform. There’s alternative inside the business mannequin, there’s alternative to proceed to serve our mission, [and] there’s alternative to economically empower ladies primarily. 

I’ll do my finest. I haven’t got all of the solutions, however I do have the imaginative and prescient and the dedication. And I consider that we are able to proceed to guide and disrupt.

Did you weigh the dangers of returning to the CEO, each to your legacy as founder and to the firm total if this stint is not profitable? Did you take into account saying no?

Yes and sure. I undoubtedly thought of not returning as CEO. It’s an enormous enterprise. And, sure, after all, I fear about my legacy. I all the time fear. Everything retains me up at night time, when it comes to this business. 

But I’ve mentioned this from day one: Failure is not an choice. 

All I can do is encompass myself, which I all the time have, with the finest and brightest, to lean into the group of those who have constructed this motion, and to be curious, to ask robust questions, to consider the place issues are going, to be prepared to flex and to alter. 

All I can do is … be curious, to ask robust questions, to consider the place issues are going, to be prepared to flex and to alter.

Gregg Renfrew

Co-founder and CEO, Beautycounter

We have an monumental alternative. And I’ve no intention of getting a dialog with you, two years from now, about how my legacy is tarnished due to Beautycounter. I’d a lot reasonably you [say], “They’re speaking about you want they had been speaking about Steve Jobs. He was out and then he was in, and take a look at what Apple appears to be like like right now.”

That is my intention at Beautycounter, to blow this factor out in the most optimistic method. 

What do you assume a founder can carry to a business as a pacesetter that may’t be replicated?

At the finish of the day, the founder has the imaginative and prescient. And I believe that executives can take over from founders in the event that they respect the unique imaginative and prescient — the DNA of the model, the core tenets of why the model exists.

One of the issues that I believe is necessary for us on this second is to actually give attention to why I began this business in the first place. Who are we, what will we stand for? That’s one thing that solely a founder can actually impart to the workforce. 

I believe that this is a win for founders in every single place, as a result of generally founders, particularly feminine founders, are ignored or underestimated. People say founders are loopy, or no matter, however they’re simply passionate individuals who see what appears inconceivable and know that it is attainable. They are drawback solvers.

This interview has been edited and condensed for readability.

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