Tata Harper had no prior beauty industry experience; now retails eponymous beauty line for up to $265 a pop at Sephora and Neiman Marcus
For Tata Harper, beauty has to be more than skin deep.
The 43-year-old entrepreneur grew up in Colombia before training as an industrial engineer and building condominiums with her real estate investor husband in Miami. But though she’s always had a ritualistic approach to skincare—not “a luxury or chore, but something you do for yourself,” she says—it was only when her stepfather was diagnosed with cancer that she started paying attention to the business of beauty.
As company lore has it, Harper became obsessed with learning how lifestyle products contributed to wellness and was shocked to find out that the likes of propylene glycole, a chemical compound used in antifreeze, was also present in beauty serums. She then realized most of the luxury beauty products she used were similarly rich in industrial chemicals, while pure natural skincare goods were marketed in health shops as “hippie sh-t.” In 2010, Harper founded her eponymous skincare line out of a 1,200-acre farm she owns in Vermont to cater to an affluent 40+ crowd interested in fighting wrinkles with 100% natural products.
While the company sources ingredients from 68 countries, everything from laboratory formulation to quality control and packing is handled out of the New England compound. Tata Harper products include a $78 cleanser, a $105 moisturizer and a $265 eye serum that boasts an anti-aging neuropeptide, cucumber seed oil and shea butter among its components.
“I wasn’t thinking about price points but about making the best frickin’ cream I could and then figuring out cost,” Harper tells Moneyish. “That was backwards and I don’t recommend it. But I knew we would be in a luxury space where people would still pay for craftsmanship.” The data suggests she has a point. A Euromonitor survey of 20,000 respondents found that 27.6% of consumers last year considered the presence of all-natural ingredients in their latest beauty purchase, up from 16.5% in 2015.
In some ways, Harper has had a charmed corporate existence. Well-off from their stint building luxury property, she and her husband co-founder rapidly raised an initial $500,000 in seed capital. She quickly found a team of scientists she wanted to work with, though the process was prolonged by Harper wanting to build almost everything in-house. She attributes her success partly to her background as an engineer. “There are always obstacles that you need to find your way around,” she says. “Being an engineer trains you to break down things to get the ultimate result. I use my engineering hat all the time.”
The businesswoman has also been hustling for much of her life. As a child in Colombia, her mother owned a liquor company at whose events she worked. She ran a fashion company during her last three years of high school. If the Francophile wanted to go to Europe for a summer vacation, Harper’s mother literally made her work for it. “We were never at home, not having planned things,” she says. “We were expected to do a lot. That comes naturally to me” now.
Harper’s also a rare female CEO in the business. Despite its associations with femininity, major beauty conglomerates like the Estée Lauder Cos., L’Oréal and P&G are all headed by men. She attributes this to beauty being a capital intensive business that women traditionally haven’t had the know-how to navigate. That, she adds, is changing as women startup founders are increasingly making skin care for themselves.
Harper initially benefited for having her husband handle much of the fundraising, though she’s grown better at it. “I got better by negotiating with suppliers, packaging people and negotiating salaries with my employees,” she says. “You need to practice.”
That approach has paid off. The brand now retails in 500 doors ranging from Sephora to Neiman Marcus. Celebrity fans include actress-turned-wellness guru Gwyneth Paltrow and supermodel Jourdan Dunn. Tata Harper is growing at about 50% annually and she expects sales at retail this year to total between $60 to $65 million.
While most of Harper’s staff is made up of millennial women, the brand hasn’t typically looked to that younger crowd for its crow’s feet-combating products. But Harper is launching a serum targeted at Gen Y next year which will have a lower price point and promises to prevent, rather than fix, wrinkles and help skin glow. “Experience is what we provide,” she says. It’s about “women taking a moment to get results and also feel emotionally nourished.”
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