Inspiring Leaders – Laura Rudoe, founder and CEO of Evolve Beauty
Linda Walmsley is a professional interviewer and business owner of UK executive and management recruitment firm, Walmsley Wilkinson Associates. During 2021 she continues a series of interviews with Business Leaders who have innovated within their field of expertise and have warranted the description of being an inspiring leader.
Laura Rudoe set up Good Ventures in 2008 as an ethical development company with the mission to create new organic personal care brands that make a difference. A former Management Consultant and Venture Capitalist, Laura holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and was a founding employee of NUDE skincare - so was well equipped to face the challenges of starting a skincare business.
Laura is a passionate advocate of ethical and environmentally friendly business as well as natural and sustainable living. Her deep appreciation for nature is at the heart of everything she does. She launched Evolve Beauty in 2009 with the aim of making organic beauty desirable, affordable and accessible to a wider audience. Evolve is a modern apothecary-style brand for skin, body and hair, made with the purest and most effective organic oils and natural superfoods. Each product is vegan, cruelty free and handmade in small batches by a small team of artisans in a studio in Hertfordshire, England.
The Evolve Beauty range consists of 28 products for skin, body and hair and is retailed in John Lewis, Holland and Barrett, Feel Unique and is available worldwide in over 20 countries.
What was your first employment?
My first employment was when I was about sixteen years old, I worked at WH Smith on Saturdays in the stationery department, advising people on buying fountain pens.
What were your career aspirations when you were younger?
When I left university, I didn’t really have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. My Mum was an IT Consultant and running her own business very successfully, so I was quite keen on going into consulting. I ended up going into strategy consulting working for one of the blue-chip companies called Bain & Company, I worked for them for four years and I learned a lot about business whilst I was there. I didn’t have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do next, but what I realised was that I was really interested in the ethical and charity space.
I went to Harvard Business School and one of the reasons I chose to go to Harvard was that they have a very strong social enterprise programme. I spent a lot of time when I was there exploring roles, I could do at all the types of organisations that sit between business and charity, for example: a social enterprise that is run like a business, ethical investing, or a business that has a corporate social responsibility programme. I did lots of projects to see what type of role might be a good fit for me, for example I did a project with a charity which was employing disabled people to make things in factories.
I learned a lot about business whilst I was at Harvard and really enjoyed it and I realised when I finished that one of the reasons, I hadn’t got really interested in for profit business before when I’d been in consulting was that I hadn’t worked in many consumer facing businesses. I’d done financial services, I’d done polyolefins. I ‘d worked in quite a lot of industrial businesses and away from consumer facing businesses. I realised that consumer facing business was something I really liked. I really liked marketing, strategy and thinking about customer needs.
I came out of Harvard knowing that I wanted to work in a for profit business, but it had to be an ethical business. I worked out that working in a charity didn’t really suit me. I’d spoken to lots of charities who spent their whole time fundraising. I wanted to work in a business with a sustainable, profitable model, where goodness was built into the actual product so we could do good by selling more products and everything would be aligned. I didn’t go through the normal milk-round process when I left Harvard and everyone else already had their jobs before I managed to get one.
I was doing a networked job search which means I was trying to get a job directly via contacts. I had made a Top 20 wish list of companies and I was speaking to contacts in those companies to find out about their roles and if there were any opportunities I could apply for. The careers service at Harvard is amazing and they were so helpful. They gave me support and coaching on how to do a networked job search.
On my list were big ethical companies such as Whole Foods Market and Patagonia as well as ethical financial companies. I also did some internships in my middle summer between my two years of study and one of them was to work with an entrepreneur, who had set up an organic ethical supermarket chain in the UK called Fresh & Wild which was later sold to Whole Foods Market. I ended up working for Whole Foods for the summer helping them to develop their UK market entry strategy, and I also worked for an ethical venture fund called Bridges Ventures, the sister company of Apax Partners, helping to set up a social venture fund which would support businesses that have a social impact.
When I finished Harvard, I was still in touch with the same entrepreneur, and he was setting up a beauty business with a group of high net worth investors including Bono. So, when I came out of Harvard, I ended up helping to set up an ethical beauty brand for them! That was a real learning curve for me. I was the founding employee of the business and it was a fascinating journey to be on as we were trying to make a more ethical and eco friendly product and change the industry. I worked with them for a couple of years, helping them to set up a brand called NUDE skincare and fell in love with product design and development and helping to research ingredients.
We were working with specialist labs on formulation and manufacturing, but because at the time we were trying to do something a bit different and we didn’t just want the same as everyone else, we really had to challenge the labs on which ingredients they were using. We had to educate ourselves on what we wanted to use, and what might be a questionable ingredient to avoid. My research skills from management consultancy came very handy here! I became an expert on ingredients and sustainable packaging in that project.
Once that range was launched, I realised I loved development so much I wanted to do more. I spent a year working with Bridges Ventures again helping them to invest in ethical companies. I realised that I preferred being in a small business to being an investor as I enjoyed the freedom of being entrepreneurial. I decided to set up an ethical product development company to create ethical personal care brands. I would continue the journey I had started at NUDE and get my next range certified organic and made with eco-friendly packaging and I would price it accessibly to help to make eco friendly and organic products available to everyone.
I created a range of products working with a friendly family owned lab and one of the other founding members of the NUDE team, Violaine, came on board too and she still works with me to this day. With a small seed investment from my parents and a bank loan, I created a brand which I managed to get stocked in John Lewis nationwide and also into Whole Foods and Planet Organic. I’d just had a baby at the time and was driving around the country, trying to breastfeed while going to train staff in different stores around the country in all these John Lewis’s and I didn’t have a team and I didn’t have the help of a nanny - I’m not sure how I managed to do it!
Some things were successful and other things weren’t successful. The packaging was recycled and very innovative - made from recycled milk bottles which, as the tops get mixed in with the white bottle the end result is a bit grey, so we coloured the plastic in pastel colours which ended up looking quite youthful. But it wasn’t quite what our customers were looking for, our older customers liked buying Neals Yard and similar products so that first packaging design didn’t work, and the business stayed small for several years and wasn’t growing. We tried lots of things to grow the business and found it hard. I think that the real problem was that the packaging and the positioning didn’t quite fit with what the customers were looking for. We did have some core customers, but it wasn’t a big business. We also lost some of our key accounts like John Lewis. We had to completely reboot.
In 2015, we decided to bring the manufacturing in house. We had been trading for about five years at this point. We didn’t have much money left and I nearly stopped doing Evolve. I was just going to concentrate on a different brand that we also had at the time called S5 but I decided that I would give Evolve one more go. We started making small batches of products in our own studio. At the same time, we changed the packaging design to a brown glass bottle or jar with a very simple label. I asked our designer to create a very simple design we could edit ourselves. We had a label printer to print the labels off. So, with that very simple design and small quantities of plain packaging, we re-launched the range.
I reformulated the products and they were all quite simple initially when we relaunched. We had lots of oil blends and balm based products as well as existing formulas we’d had in the range before that we learned how to make in house. Evolve started growing at this point and we haven’t been able to keep up with demand ever since. It’s been a growth story since then.
I think a couple of things went right for us at that time. One of them was that the packaging hit a trend of very minimalist packaging, and another was that the market itself had started to grow. People had become more interested in natural and organic products and eco-friendly issues, with Blue Planet starting to raise awareness about single use plastic. We were manufacturing in a small studio not far from where we are now. It was a converted school which had workshops as well as offices. We had a tiny studio where we did everything. Over time we ended up moving to bigger and bigger studios in the same building. Then eventually, two summers ago, we moved to where we are now which is a 10,000 sq. ft. eco studio in St. Albans which we fitted out ourselves with eco-friendly materials and energy efficient lighting.
We’ve grown the team as well and now have 35 people in the team, we are sold across Europe, we have a wide range of products and we’ve significantly grown the business over the last five years or so. What has been really interesting is that even though I’d been to Harvard Business School and knew about big business, management techniques and leading teams, I then spent nearly ten years with just one person in my team, who became a close friend, and I’d never really had to hire anybody. A few of the first people we hired were friends as well, so since then I’ve very much been on a learning curve re employment and HR.
We’ve got a really fantastic team and they are helping me to grow the business in such an amazing way. It’s become very much a team effort and amazing people are approaching us wanting to work for us. They’ve heard about what we are doing and are really aligned with our mission. It’s so fantastic, these motivated people, who are excited about our mission and who’ve come from a range of professional places and from whom we can learn a lot of business best practices.
Who or what has inspired you in business?
I think I actually inspired myself, it’s almost as if it just popped into my head intuitively but growing up, I was inspired by the people around me in my family. My mum was an entrepreneur. I was inspired by her being a go-getter in her business. She is from Romania and in communist Romania all the women worked so her expectation was that she would always work rather than stopping when she had her children. She was very successful for m
any years and was extremely driven. We also grew up in an extended family, because her mother, my Romanian grandma, lived with us whilst I was growing up and she helped look after us. She was also a very big influence on me as she used alternative medicine herself and I remember her giving me pollen granules and other natural remedies. She taught me about visualisation. She used to do acupressure and acupuncture. She was really interested in natural and alternative remedies which led to my interest in that.
My parents are both computer scientists and my dad is really interested in science generally. He was always interested in alternative energy. I guess different threads of inspiration came from different places. I had always had problems with my skin, so I turned to alternative remedies to try and help my skin. I have been seeing a homeopath since my early twenties to try and help my skin, so I was very interested in natural living which really inspired me.
If I think about a person in the beauty industry who inspired me then I would choose Anita Roddick. She was amazing and really changed the industry at a very early point before anyone else was doing it. There are many other passionate and creative people in the beauty industry, and I’ve met so many of them. It’s a very collaborative industry.
There are lots of fabulous entrepreneurs trying to move the industry forward which is excellent and it’s great to be a part of it. There are also super creative entrepreneurs like Marcia Kilgore who has created amazing, different business models including Bliss Spa and FitFlop, her Soap & Glory range which is now owned by Boots and now Beauty Pie.
What words best describe you?
I think I am very intellectually-curious. I’m always reading something different. I’ve read about 200 nutrition books. I’m really interested in nutrition at the moment because it’s so relevant to skin health. I think that as a business, and also personally we are very caring and that’s a general approach to how we do business, whether it’s the way we speak to our suppliers, the way we deal with them, the way we treat our people kindly and respectfully, and that’s consistently applied throughout the business from top to bottom.
The way my brain works is quite creative and what’s really interesting about cosmetic design is that it fuses science and creativity. I think being a creator and making things is an amazing job to have. You have a responsibility to create something good, but it’s an incredible job to have. I also have a mind that works laterally, where I can see systems and patterns and understand them quickly.
This is also why I enjoy and am good at Economics, which I studied at university. I also think we are very committed as a business. We have amazing, passionate people here and we are all committed to changing the beauty industry. I get up in the morning really excited about going to work and feel so lucky to have the job I have because I love what I do and I think I am one of the freest people in terms of my job of anyone I know. I don’t have any investors and I don’t have any bosses, which I quite like so I get to make decisions which means the buck stops with me.
It means we have complete control over what we do, and I really like that. I believe in being connected. Given what we do it’s about helping people to see the links between themselves and the natural world, what we do on the outside in our lifestyles and what happens to our health and also the connections between our actions and the implications for other people and the environment. The more we can help people to be conscious of that, the better choices people will make.
In general, I think those are the words that describe me and I can also see those traits in successful people in our team.
What technology are you passionate about?
The internet has made business so democratic and accessible if you have a good idea but not many resources! When I first set up my business you had to spend thousands on a template to make your website work and now with a template that you can probably buy for $100, you can set up a beautiful, professional Shopify website. I would probably say that’s my favourite technology as it enabled us to grow, when we were really small and be able to access customers. It also enables information sharing so our customers can find out more about ethical and eco friendly beauty and sustainability and educate themselves.
Has workplace diversity become embedded or is there still more to do?
I think it’s very important to be a meritocracy, to be able to see every candidate’s abilities and potential and to be able to hire the best person for the job without discriminating against anyone. We are still quite small so we are still implementing policies such as a diversity & inclusion policy, but we are working on this.
I think it’s very important to make sure that there aren’t any systemic racism issues in recruitment and in our culture. I am pleased that we do have a very diverse workforce with people from twelve different countries. You can’t legally positively discriminate in the UK and we want to make sure that we are being fair to everybody who applies.
What legislation would you amend or implement to support UK business?
As a small business owner, I think it would be good if it was clearer what legislation I need to follow. It would be great if there was one place where you could access and understand all the things you need to do. It can be quite overwhelming when you are first starting out to make sure you comply with all the different requirements.
In your opinion, what are the key elements of being a successful chief executive?
I think it’s really important to set the direction and the vision for the company, to be able to inspire everyone and take them on the journey that you want to take your business on and to make sure that you create a good company structure and culture. I think the ability to hire and retain good people is super important.
As we’ve got better at that, it’s been incredibly helpful for us. When it was just me, I could only get so much done in a day and now we’ve got this amazing team, it just leverages the capability. Now when I have an idea, we can just make it happen and it’s a really fulfilling position to be in now.
What lessons have you learnt in your career that could be useful to others?
I think the main thing that I was taught at Harvard, which might surprise people as Harvard can be seen as quite a hard-nosed place, was to do what you love and don’t just chase the money because actually you’ll be most successful if you do what you love. The money will come if you do well. I think that’s really important. I was lucky enough to be able to spend the time to work out what would be the right thing for me to do. I’m really glad that I made the most of that opportunity as it basically set the rest of my career in motion.
What is your career highlight or achievement to date?
The last five years have been an absolutely amazing journey to be on for all of us. There have been lots of milestones along the way. I was particularly proud a few weeks ago when the BBC came in and filmed us. That was an amazing thing to happen as I just couldn’t have imagined them coming in to film us five years ago when we were so tiny. When we got back into John Lewis after not working out the first time around, because I’d taken on far too much when I’d first launched the business, that was a lovely moment. The second time, we had a big team and the people we needed to be able to look after all of the stores to make sure that it was all really successful.
What’s next for you and Evolve Beauty & Adaptology?
We’ve got a huge opportunity to grow our new brand Adaptology. We’ve only just launched it and it’s got lots of potential. Although Evolve is a lot bigger than Adaptology, there’s still a lot of opportunity. There are still many territories where Evolve isn’t widely distributed. There is a lot of potential to grow internationally and there are also still so many products that we can create that can help people. There is still so much we can do with sustainability. There’s lots of new things we are working on, different formats of products, refills and concentrates for example.
The future is exciting, and I want to keep on pushing forward so that we continue doing what we are doing and are fulfilling our mission which is to be the greenest and cleanest beauty brand in the world, and that journey will keep going for us. We will keep on changing and continue to innovate and Evolve!
Walmsley Wilkinson would like to thank the inspiring Laura Rudoe for generously giving her time for this interview. You can read more about Evolve Beauty and their wide range of award winning, handmade, vegan, cruelty free and eco-friendly products by vusiting their website - www.evolvebeauty.co.uk
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