How Sunday Riley Created A Successful Skincare Line During A Recession


"Every day, it felt like the business was going to shut down but you keep moving forward, you pivot."

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1 AUG - 2022

"I always say the perfect moment is never tied in a bow – sometimes your opportunity comes housed as chaos."

More and more people are leaving their salary roles and venturing into the world of self-employment and entrepreneurship. Around 30% of the workforce in the U.S. are said to be self-employed. Even though we end up working more hours and on average, earn less, there’s something to be said for the freedom and overall sense of happiness that self-employment provides.

For those who are feeling the current ick of the global economy and of course, the crushing effects of COVID, I thought there would be no better way than to motivate and inspire our fellow Chums through the teachings of an extremely successful entrepreneur, Sunday Riley.

Texas-born entrepreneur and cosmetic chemist, Sunday Riley created her eponymous skincare brand over a decade ago in 2009. As we know, this was when the world was completely rocked by the Global Financial Crisis. With the recession looming closer and closer, many of us are shaking in our boots for what is to come, especially after the chaos of COVID.

In today’s interview, we talk to Sunday about her journey in creating a flourishing business and of course, self-care tips from the skincare queen herself.

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Good Genes, $145.

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Sunday Riley

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How did you launch your business in 2009 during the thick of the Global Financial Crisis? What were the hurdles and harsh realities that you can share with us?

It definitely didn’t make it easier! At the time, it was a recession and a lot of people weren’t doing something new - it was a time to be cautious. But I like a good risk, so for me, it was a wonderful opportunity to start something new. Sometimes taking advantage of a slow moment is a bigger risk but that can sometimes be the perfect moment for you. I always say the perfect moment is never tied in a bow – sometimes your opportunity comes housed as chaos.

There is something about the human spirit needing to be inspired – when things are down, people need to be lifted back up. Whilst I had to do everything myself from start to finish and finding suppliers was definitely challenging, it was also a quieter time and people wanted to be lifted up, so they wanted to work with you.

No one was developing or creating anything so jumping in at the time was somehow a positive. It was a challenging time getting things off the ground; I didn’t know anyone, people introduced me to people but I did my own research and I would call them and see if they would work with us. I couldn’t afford a graphic designer so I had to buy photoshop and learn how to do it myself.

It wasn’t just about sourcing ingredients and packaging, it was about what should the design be, what should the colours be, and how do I learn a programme to do it? It was pre-shopify, so I taught myself to code to create a website. But I really had this vision and you couldn’t stop me!

How do you juggle the roles of being the C.E.O. as well as the product formulator of Sunday Riley and also a mum of four children?

It’s a lot! But I’m always meditating, I’m always making sure I’m grounded, checking in with myself and I try to be present in every moment. Wearing all of these different hats, you don’t get the same luxuries as others when it comes to weekends and time off. If someone needs me at 11 p.m., I’m there. That’s my job and it’s what I signed up for. I also have a family — I have four kids! It requires a lot and many people aren’t prepared for it. I chose this path and I love it.

"You just have to drop your ego and keep going, even if it comes at a cost."

There’s a lot of greenwashing going on as ‘clean’ beauty has become the coveted type of skincare. What is Sunday Riley’s point of difference as a clean beauty brand?

Sunday Riley is really about green chemistry. I’m a big believer that if you want to transform your skin, you need active ingredients. And this for me, includes balancing botanicals. Using the extract or the aloe to really soothe the skin - it’s looking at the 360 health of the skin.

You have the active transformation but you aren’t irritating the skin in the process. Our philosophy is powered by science, balanced by botanicals. We have an earth-centric philosophy.

Now and in years to come, I think ‘Clean Beauty’ will continue to grow - for Sunday Riley, this comes through in our pledge to our customers that we only want the absolute best available to people, that’s our mission.

This includes ensuring we’re the best we can be in all aspects of the business from product performance right through to giving back to the community and sustainability. You can feel good about the products you are putting on your skin because you trust that they are made with the highest quality ingredients and with the highest ethical standards in mind.

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Sunday Riley is now B Corp Certified, which is a huge achievement! What does it mean to you to own a B Corp company?

I’ve always been inspired by the power of positive change and being the change we want to see in the world. B Corp is a leader in corporate responsibility, sustainability, and brand ethics. Partnering with B-Corp to make sure that our practices aligned with our values was a natural fit.

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Let’s talk about vitamin A. What are the different types and what kind does Sunday Riley products use?

I could write a love letter to retinoids, I absolutely love them! A lot of retinols out there can be quite drying to the skin which is partly why some people really suffer when using retinol for the first time. When I formulated Luna Sleeping Night Oil, I wanted to reduce the amount of downtime that people were experiencing with other forms of retinol, so I used a very gentle but powerful form of retinol. I then placed it into this rich and nourishing dry touch oil which is full of antioxidants and hydrating botanicals to calm and soothe the skin.

I think we all get a little hung up on percentages and ensuring we are always putting the highest concentrations of active ingredients on our skin. When in fact, we sometimes need to look at the ingredients themselves, the quality of the ingredient and how they are being delivered into the skin.

We really should see topical retinoids as a marathon race and not a sprint, we need to allow them time to be effective and do what they do best. That’s why, when I was formulating Luna, it was important for me to formulate, yes, with the trans retinol ester, but also a wide range of skin-benefiting botanicals.

The rich blue colour from the oil comes from the blue tansy, German and Cape chamomile, all rich in calming and soothing azulene. The formulation is also packed with chia seed oil, nourishing avocado seed oil to plump and minimize the appearance of fine lines.

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What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are hustling day and night to make their business work in this climate?

Know everything, and learn everything you can about what you’re building. Try and do every job at different points. You have to be obsessed with it, you have to be all in. And you can’t give up, it’s super hard but you can do hard things.

When you hire people, hire people for personality, not resumes. Hire people who are builders, hire people who want to be there in a start-up, and who love an extreme start-up environment.

You always hit adversity, for me, every day it felt like the business was going to shut down but you keep moving forward, you pivot. Mistakes and failures happen. We’ve launched products I’ve wholeheartedly believed in, and they just haven’t resonated. You just have to drop your ego and keep going, even if it comes at a cost.

There is a lot to be said about trusting intuition, gut instinct is so important! Try not to connect to fear and doubt, connect to your inner voice and trust your instinct. It’s difficult but you have to keep moving forward. I love the Walt Disney quote, “Keep Moving Forward”. I have it printed on a lot of things. It’s easy to over analyse, but at the end of the day people are counting on you and you just have to keep moving.

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Do you have an executive coach or support system to keep your head in the game? What kind of podcasts and books do you read for motivation and inspiration when you feel like you’re burning out?

I don’t have a coach per se, but I meditate every day, I’m a student at MindValley (I think I’ve signed up for almost every class), and I listen to Joe Dispenza as much as I can. I also take time to prioritize my own needs, instead of only taking care of other people. When I started this practice, it felt selfish, I almost felt guilty about it. I grew up in an environment where sacrifice was glorified. And while I do think that it’s noble to sacrifice your time for others, I fully believe that part of your attention and time needs to be directed towards your own needs and interests. It’s not selfish.

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What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

When I applied for college, there were 13 “dream colleges” that I wanted to go to. I qualified, but I wasn’t a star applicant. I was middle of the road – none of my potential really registered on my application or my test results. My scores were good enough, but not exemplary. But I figured odds were in my favor, and I applied for all of them – completely convinced that one of my dream schools would take me. I was so optimistic that my friends and family believed in my vision, and started planning with me.

Instead, I received 13 rejection notices. No one knew what to say to me when the rejections came in. They wanted to say something comforting, but they felt awkward. It was embarrassing. My aunt, who was a visionary, was the only one brave enough to come and talk to me about it. She sat on my bed and mentioned the rejections. I was mortified and wanted it to end. She said that she was proud of me because at least I had tried. She highlighted that most people don’t have the courage to try, and what really matters is going for your dream and bouncing back when you get knocked down. She had breast cancer and was in her own battle. She died three years later, but I think of her every day. She taught me resilience and lifted the lid on shame in regard to failure.

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What does the future look like for Sunday Riley?

There is a lot I’m interested in at the moment, so many areas that I’m interested in expanding into, so watch this space. I just bought a farm in Italy and I’ve been experimenting with a lot of the botanicals from the land, especially for body products, so stay tuned…

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