‘I wouldn’t have started Dermalogica if I’d stayed in Britain,’ says the skincare brand’s founder Jane Wurwand, who was born in the UK but emigrated to the US via South Africa in her 20s. ‘I’d have got a great job in a great salon in London – and that would have been enough for me.
‘But I moved to Cape Town with no family, no friends, no money and no plan B. I was hungry – literally and figuratively. I had to make it work. Immigrants tend to spot gaps in the market because they ask, "What can I do that isn’t already here?" They bring a different perspective.’
Wurwand was born in Dorset and credits her mother – who was widowed at the age of 38 and left to bring up four daughters single-handedly – with teaching her an important life lesson. ‘She said: "Girls, learn how to do something." Those words have always stuck with me. My mother had trained as a nurse but gave that up when she married my father in 1944. When he died suddenly from a heart attack, she had that skill to fall back on. She had grit, determination and she could bloody well put food on the table.’
Aged 13, Wurwand started a Saturday job at the local hair salon, initially sweeping the floor and cleaning the kitchen. ‘By 15, I’d progressed to shampooing hair,’ she says. ‘I loved working, meeting customers and making money. I thought "I’m home".’
She went on to train as a beauty therapist in Bournemouth before moving to London to work as a make-up artist for fashion icon Mary Quant. Aged 21, she decided to escape the miserable British weather and emigrate to South Africa, which was offering assisted packages to trained beauty therapists. Armed with just enough cash to fund three nights in a hotel, she quickly found a job as a beautician before landing a job with Revlon, where she met her now-husband and business partner Raymond, and getting her training qualification.
Seeing ‘no political future’ in South Africa, the pair then upped sticks to Los Angeles. Having borrowed $15,000, they set up the International Dermal Institute to train beauty therapists, and went on to launch esteemed skincare brand Dermalogica, which sells more than 28 million products globally each year.
Wurwand admits that the journey was far from easy. ‘We were naive and we made plenty of mistakes along the way. We were so excited when we signed a distributor in Taiwan – our first market outside the US – but they told us our "ugly" grey and white packaging would never sell there and convinced us to change it. They marketed Dermalogica as a pretty, pampering, beauty product. That’s just not who we are – and it was a massive flop. A similar thing happened in Malaysia; they wanted Miss Malaysia to be the Dermalogica spokesperson. This time we had the guts to say "no way!" Your brand has its own personality. Don’t change it for anyone.’
In 2015, the Wurwands sold Dermalogica to Unilever for an undisclosed amount – but remain involved in advisory roles. ‘I was 57, Ray was 66 – quite honestly, we thought, "Do we still want to be doing this when we’re 80?" We’d already made the decision that our daughters wouldn’t come into the business – we wanted them to pursue their own dreams, not be burdened with our dream. We decided to sell up and chose five big companies we wanted to have dinner with. In the end, it wasn’t just about the money on the table, it was about chemistry and vision. Paul Polman [chief executive of Unilever] just got us.’
Wurwand says she has ‘zero regrets’ about selling up. ‘It’s like when your kids leave home. You feel proud that they’re flying the nest.
‘We didn’t rush out and buy a flashy car or house. The biggest luxury for us has been more time. The responsibility has been lifted. I don’t have to keep track of daily numbers. I can laze around in my pyjamas all morning if I want!’
Having made her fortune, Wurwund wants to help other women succeed. As part of its Financial Independence Through Entrepreneurship (FITE) initiative, Dermalogica has been offering financial support to women to launch or grow their salons since 2011. So far more than 62,000 women have benefitted from the micro-loan scheme. ‘The best way to achieve equality and empowerment is through financial independence,’ says Wurwund. ‘In Kabul, the first business to open after the fall of the Taliban was a salon. Now there’s one on every street corner; it’s one of the few ways for women to earn an income as most men will not allow their wives to work in a job that involves contact with other men.’
Wurwand also supported the Unilever Young Entrepreneur Awards earlier this month, and will now mentor the winner Sabrina Natasha Habib, co-founder of Kidogo – a social enterprise which provides high-quality, affordable daycare to low-income families living in East Africa.
She also wants to see more women in senior positions. ‘I’ve watched so many women step out of their careers to have kids; when they’re ready to step back in, they’ve lost momentum and ground to their male counterparts. The US is far worse than the UK; there’s absolutely no institutionalised childcare.
‘It’s our responsibility to encourage women to go for the top jobs, to pull them up with us, to call out inequality and to raise those tricky conversations.’
Come and meet some of Britain's most successful businesswomen at MT's Inspiring Women conference next week. Speakers include activist Gina Miller, Bake Off judge Prue Leith, Piccolo founder Cat Gazzoli, and TSB's COO Helen Rose. Book your tickets here. Get a 50% discount with the code IWIB50.