Episode 131: Cheryl Foland, Founder and CEO of lilah b.

When Cheryl Foland was working too hard and running too fast, living up to the Manhattan overachiever standard, she happened to mention to her colleagues in beauty marketing that she thought the company should focus on developing business on the West Coast. “Good idea,” they said, “You go.” So she did, reluctantly becoming bi-coastal for a while, having a crash-and-burn moment, then bouncing back to embrace the laid back California lifestyle fulltime. It not only saved her, it planted the seed for lilah b., her beauty line that’s all about paring down, using less and creating simpler beauty routines around multitasking products.

Her’s is an inspiring story of resilience and reinvention, California style. Plan to listen.

Dan Hodgdon
Jodi KatzI am so excited to be sitting with Cheryl Foland. She is the CEO and founder of lilah b. Welcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY®.
Cheryl FolandThank you so much. I'm thrilled to be here.
Jodi KatzI'm going to start with one of my favorite questions, which is how have you been spending your day today?
Cheryl FolandWow. My day has been rather chaotic. I'm in town to meet with beauty editors, so I have a whole roundup of desk side meetings introducing a fabulous new product launch that's coming up in January. But this morning I've already had two breakfast meetings where I had to pretend that I didn't have the first one, and then I've already had three different desk sides and a little bite to eat, and now I'm thrilled to be sitting here with you.
Jodi KatzHow do you keep your energy up on those days?
Cheryl FolandIt's tough, especially since we flew in late last night from the west coast. So I don't jet lag very much, but trying to get enough sleep, drink lots of water. The first thing I do whenever I fly across country and I get into New York is the very, very first morning I forced myself to get up and go for a quick run or a Peloton class if I can make it to their studio, and it kind of gets me a little bit motivated and moving, and I'm sort of on track east coast time. But I think exercise and just really hydrating helps me a lot.
Jodi KatzSo we're going to go back in time with your career journey, but I'm going to start with something that I thought was really quite funny and like sweet funny. Which is that your friends or siblings would have said about your now husband that, in quotes, "I don't think you would've liked the old Cheryl."
Cheryl FolandThat is a hilarious, and I can't even believe I said that and told you that.
Jodi KatzWell you know, I think it speaks to a lot of what we talked about that we'll get into, which is there was a version of you before this company that you started and now a version of you after it.
Cheryl FolandYes.
Jodi KatzAnd that human evolution is important. That's why we're here together to talk about it. So with that in mind, what was the old Cheryl? What were you up to? What were you doing? What was your career and your habits at the time?
Cheryl FolandSure. Well, I was born into an extremely loud, chaotic Italian family, and if you've ever been around one or in one you'll know what I mean. And I was the oldest child, so I was like mommy number two. Always the fast talker, Type A, over achiever, and that trickled all the way into my career, my education. My career up until 13 years ago when I moved to the west coast, and I'll tell you a little bit more about that in a sec, and everything started to change. And during my time living and being raised here on the east coast, I always had to do better, do more, be bigger. I ended up in the world of finance where I was one of few women, and I had to be the overachiever. I had to talk over everyone to be heard, and that was in the early '90s and it was a very interesting time.

And, you know, I worked too much, I played too little, and I had a very frivolous life in terms of my purchasing, the makeup I wore, the way I wore my hair, how fast I talked, even my culture and my style when it came to business and personal, to be honest with you. And the new Cheryl, I shouldn't say the new, but the second life, the second phase of Cheryl if you will, was really came out when I moved out to the west coast and I just found this incredibly well balanced, healthy lifestyle.

And to be completely candid, growing up on the east coast and spending a majority of my time in Connecticut and Manhattan as a kid, this was all learned behavior for me here. So I never really knew that there was something different and I never thought there'd be anything different out there that I would love more. So, that is the Cheryl that my husband met and fell in love with, and yeah, I'm not sure he would really have liked the woman I was here, to be honest.
Jodi KatzWell you described him as like he takes care of himself, he's super well balanced, right? And we talked a lot about living through a career and not really living beyond that. So in those days when you were in finance, your priorities, was it just all work?
Cheryl FolandIt was all work. It was all work. And you know, I was that overachiever where I just always thought that ... I also think it was the pace of Manhattan and the world that I was in, which today I think the younger generations, millennials and younger, are much more focused on experiences and balance, and what is the work culture, what is it like? I don't know that that was even a question for me. I was on call 24/7. When I was first out of school in the early '90s there was no laptops and fancy smart phones, so you were glued to your desk when you're looking for a response, and sometimes worked very, very late nights or even pulled all-nighters.

And while I loved to spend time with friends and family, it was never a priority. I don't think that back then I recognized just how important self care is overall. Not just for yourself as a person, but also what you can be to other people. I think back in the 90s when everyone was just like really running fast, especially my generation, I think that self care felt selfish. And now today, people embrace it. People are proud and happy that you actually take care of you. So yeah, it's a very, very different time.
Jodi KatzYou know, I've noticed, I've been doing the podcast for three years and have had my business, The Agency for 13 at this point. And when I talk to people, I'm 44, so when I talk to people who are older than me or my age, some of them, not all, they still cling to this idea of the harder I work, the better I am as a whole person. And the more I sacrifice for work, the better I am at it, right? Which is what I knew in my 20s, because that's what was around me, but it's not who I am now. And I'm really caught off guard by it these days because it's so opposite of who I am and the way that I run my business and the way that I'm around my team, that I get taken aback when people are like, "Oh yeah, I stop everything when the client calls, even if it's during the family's dinner. Or I'm on vacation, thank God there's wifi in Italy."
Cheryl FolandYes, I agree. I agree.
Jodi KatzSo I want to talk about that point that kind of pushed you off the ledge to snap out of it. You went to work at Arcade.
Cheryl FolandI did. I did.
Jodi KatzTell us about it.
Cheryl FolandSo, part of my journey was working with an amazing team at a private equity firm, and they acquired Arcade Marketing when they were still fairly small. Arcade provides consultancy around how do you launch a product, how do you sample a product, how do you get a product into the hands of a consumer to try before you buy? Just an amazing model. Just an amazing, amazing business.
Jodi KatzBut at this time it's famous for the scent strips in magazines, right?
Cheryl FolandYes, yes, yeah. So the business was predominantly, I mean I'd say it was probably 80% to 90% it was all around fragrance. And if you think about it, that's a no brainer. How do you put a fragrance ad in a magazine and how are you going to sell that fragrance if a woman or a man can't smell it, can't trial? And so, that was a no brainer.
Jodi KatzIt really is a genius idea.
Cheryl FolandIt's genius, genius, absolutely genius, and the whole technology and the way it's manufactured is pretty incredible. So when I was part of the team that acquired Arcade, the moment in time when we looked at growth was how much business could be had if we started thinking about how to sample a skincare product, a color cosmetic product, a body care product, and not just in like these very simple packets or sachets, but really innovative samples that can be put into magazines or actually put through the mail without bursting, distributed on Sephora smart sampling. Like really, really cool, innovative executions, and it was super fun.

So when I was, it was probably about 2004, 2005, I based in New York, and so it was still part of my career journey in Manhattan and in that overachieving, crazy, fast running, fast talking person. And then about, I'd say two and a half years in, Arcade and the team, we all recognized the opportunity out on the west coast. And so of course, because I opened my big mouth and said, "I think there's lots of opportunity out there. And guess what? Beauty doesn't just live here on the east coast or in New York, and we should really tap into that." Of course, I was the one that was sent out there to get it done. And what I thought was going to be a two year project turned out to be like a brilliant choice of mine and theirs, and I never came back.
Jodi KatzWere you having a social life when you first moved to California? Like did you date? How did you meet people? How do you make friends when you're working so much?
Cheryl FolandWell, the interesting thing is that I not only went out there kicking and screaming, thinking what is this New York girl actually going to do out in California, but I also think because I was going back and forth so often here to home base, I really didn't set roots, and I thought it was going to be two years. And so I kept my friends, my family, my social life primarily here. And yes, I met people and they were acquaintances, or they were clients that turned into friends, but I really didn't let myself go and fall in love with California, the culture, the lifestyle, and the people until I was rounding out that second year.

That's when I realized ... I started panicking, actually, thinking about I'm going to have to go back to New York, present to them where we're at, and probably pack up my stuff and go home. And I couldn't imagine doing it. So yeah, so I stayed.
Jodi KatzWhen did you start to look at your lifestyle?
Cheryl FolandSo interestingly enough, within the first year and a half that I moved to California, I was running fast and I was traveling a lot, and I had very, very high expectations put on me, but also put on myself and I wasn't taking care of myself at all. And I crashed. I crashed pretty hard and everything was breaking down in my body. It was the first time I'd ever really truly experienced how stress and anxiety can actually affect you physically. I always thought if I got up at 5:00 AM and I ran like a hamster on the treadmill, I would look fabulous and feel fabulous and check that box for cardio. But that wasn't really important at this moment in time in my life.

It had been this culmination of a lot of work and no play, not taking care of myself, both mentally and physically, not eating right. I never partied hard. That wasn't part of the equation. It was really just I just didn't pause and take time for me. So it was probably a year and a half in where I think the culture around me, the world that I lived in was really teasing me and taunting me to get out on that trail and run for an hour. Don't squeeze yourself into a 15 minute run in a dark gym at 5:00 AM. And maybe you should do something for yourself on a Saturday rather than go into the office.

It really is the influence of what people do in the world that I was in, in Northern California. It was pretty amazing.
Jodi KatzWhat kind of boss do you think you were at that time before the shift?
Cheryl FolandOh, it's interesting, I had breakfast with someone this morning and I was talking to them about how I would present to potential clients, this is Arcade clients, so it was all beauty, fabulous beauty people, CMOs and founders. I would present our technologies, and it was super impressive and I talked really fast and I could have answered any question, but in the end these people would look at me like I was an alien. I started to realize they either think I'm on drugs or they think I'm crazy, and I probably need to take it down a notch or two and just chill out a little.

And so, my style had to change. I had to adapt to a very different culture and lifestyle, and it was really interesting. So that trickled into also being a manager, and I started hiring a full on sales team because we had nothing based out in Northern California. It's interesting, the very first person that I ever hired is from the Midwest, but she had spent six years in Manhattan, so she was groomed a little bit to be able to handle me, but we both embraced sort of this amazing life.

I think from then on, particularly now with my new business, I really try to instill the work-life balance and the values around taking care of yourself, and what priorities really should be.
Jodi KatzNow in retrospect, looking back into your 20s when you're pushing hard at work and you thought that that was the normal or the right path, can you see any signs in retrospect of like maybe the world was talking to you, you just weren't ready to hear it?
Cheryl FolandYeah, absolutely.
Jodi KatzAnd what did that manifest as?
Cheryl FolandWell, I'm a true believer in fate and I think the fact that I even was given an opportunity to move out to California, I think that first and foremost was sort of a clear sign that my life was supposed to take a dramatic turn. Whether I was ready for it and whether I embraced it right away or my true personality of sort of sticking to my guns and really feeling confident in who I was, is a different story. But I truly believe that was the turn of events for me, and I don't know where I would be or who I would be had I stayed here in New York, and that's a really interesting thought.
Jodi KatzRemember the movie, I think it was like a Gwyneth Paltrow movie, Sliding Doors?
Cheryl FolandYes.
Jodi KatzIt's so Sliding Doors, right?
Cheryl FolandIt is so sliding doors, yes. Yeah, pretty profound.
Jodi KatzI'm giggling inside about when you recounted what it was like when you were presenting to clients when you were at Arcade. I had a similar experience where I was just being me, and then I realized, "Oh, this isn't good." It was about also something family rooted. My family, they talk over each other, and I just always did that. I didn't know not to, right? So I would be in these business situations with my team or with clients or I'm sure my whole career, and somebody would be speaking no matter if they were the president of the company or whoever, and I would just interrupt and talk over them. And then I heard myself doing it over clients where in my head I'm like, "What she's saying right now is important because she's my client and she's telling me something that I need to act on," but my impulse was just to talk over her. And I noticed it, and then I noticed again, and I actually started working on this with coaching to get through this and to stop doing it, because that is not good.
Cheryl FolandNo, I know. And it's interesting when you say, "Learned behavior," because I think while I was probably the more conservative, milder one of the bunch in my family, it was speak to be heard. I remember sitting at our dinner table and I remember oftentimes if you didn't have something to talk about, if you didn't have something interesting in your day to talk about, my dad would call you on it. "Do you have nothing to say? Are you done eating?" And so, really encouraging us to speak up and be interesting. So yeah, it is that learned behavior, right? But he didn't teach me that I should probably slow down a bit when you move out to a very different world. And I mean that. I mean, it was a very, very dramatic shift for me.
Jodi KatzWell, let's talk about lilah b. How did this brand come to life for you? Why? What's the why of the brand?
Cheryl FolandSure. So I was never a beauty junkie, although during my crazy frivolous years in Manhattan I was quite the beauty consumer. I bought more product than I probably could have ever worn in my life. Same thing with the shoes and my handbags in my closet, but that was just the world that I was in. And what I recognized when moved out to California, embraced this entirely new lifestyle and simpler, minimalistic sort of philosophy, is that everything else was sort of pared back, but my beauty routine wasn't.

So, I wore flip flops, I fussed less with my hair. I never wore blue jeans so much in all my life. I just never wore jeans here in New York. I was much happier and lighter and healthier. And the one thing that you know was very clear to me, particularly working at Arcade and having lots of amazing insight, was just how cluttered and complicated and confusing the world of color cosmetics had become, and how many different products that brands actually encouraged you to buy and use, and prerequisites before you can put the next five products on.

While that really provided an amazing and successful career with our business when I was at Arcade, it was so daunting to me as a consumer. And when I first got out of university, Bobby Brown was my girl. She was simple. She made it easy. She was timeless. She was ageless. My mother wore Bobby Brown, my sister, myself. We'd go to that Lord & Taylor beauty counter in Connecticut and we'd stock up, and we'd all wear the same three products. And there was nothing like that, and I was never really loyal any more to any one brand other than Bobby.

And when I started thinking about this clear white space in the industry of a simple minimalistic collection, I thought about how I could pair things down, how I could really put three or four tasks into every single product and stand behind each and every one of what they do. I thought about that, I thought about luxe. I was a luxury beauty consumer and I wanted beautiful, luxurious for formulations that lasted.

And then back then, five and a half years ago when I started the development of lilah b., things were becoming a lot more innovative in terms of clean ingredients. So, that was a challenge. I wanted to provide cleaner formulations that still worked and lasted, because if you're going to make things easy for someone you don't want to tell them they have to reapply 10 times a day or that it won't look and perform. So, it was definitely this personal desire and need to have something simpler, easier, and I really thought that the brand would truly resonate with the modern day woman who just wants to look fabulous, but they want to look fabulous with ease.
Jodi KatzSo what led you to leave this great job where you've developed so much success to say, "Now I'm going to be an entrepreneur and spend all my money?"
Cheryl FolandSure. Exactly. I think that there was sort of this ... First of all, I have to say if I lived here in New York I would have never taken this leap. I think there is just some thing so inspiring, there's so many amazing, passionate, soulful entrepreneurs, not just in the beauty space, but just in general, whether it's in tech or otherwise, in Northern California. So I think that was really inspiring, and I don't know that I would've ever done this had I lived here. I would've gone on to the next best thing in my industry.

But Arcade Marketing was put up for sale, and during that process I thought about what my next step would be. And yeah, I had this idea in my head for probably about three or four years prior to that. That's when I approached my husband and told him my brilliant idea and my sort of brilliant concept, and he made me write a business plan before I could actually give up my career and be startup queen, which has been fabulous. Best decision of my life.
Jodi KatzWere you self-funded in the beginning?
Cheryl FolandYes.
Jodi KatzAre you still self-funded?
Cheryl FolandLots of amazingly supportive friends and family.
Jodi KatzThat's great. It's so hard.
Cheryl FolandIt is. It is. It's really hard. I also think that there's a lot of times I get the question, "What would you tell to that woman, that young girl or woman who would love to start their own beauty brand, or start their own business in general?" And it's just like a renovation on a house, right? It always costs you so much more than you realize.

So early on, yeah, we thought we would have plenty of money to continue to run the business. I think I have an amazingly supportive team of supporters in my family, right? And friends and colleagues that I used to work with that believed in me and believed in my idea. I've been very fortunate.

But yes, it's so challenging, and it's even more challenging when you're in the early stages because you don't necessarily want someone who comes in and invests to take over your business, but yet when you're in the early stages it's much more risky for investors. So, there's a very interesting dance. But yes, I feel very lucky.
Jodi KatzWell, talking about the costs of running the business or starting it, you approach packaging in a way that most entrepreneurs don't, right? So most entrepreneurs would look at stock availability, look at minimums, and buy something that's available. Maybe do some customization with decoration or caps. But you made these really beautiful custom pebbles, I'll call them. Is that what you call them?
Cheryl FolandYeah.
Jodi KatzAnd they're really like a piece of art.
Cheryl FolandThank you.
Jodi KatzThat's not a cheap process.
Cheryl FolandThank you. It's not a cheap process. I made a decision early on that everything that I was going to invest in, every single element of the brand, not just the icing on the cake, which is what is inside the components, but also packaging would be luxe and it would be fabulous, and it would be worth every dollar that you spend on it.

As I mentioned, I was that luxury beauty consumer for many years, and I have to tell you I don't know how many times I purchased and spent a lot of money on a product that either looked horrible and embarrassingly so, pulling it out of my makeup bag within two to three weeks, or would break or crack.

I decided that I was going to focus long and hard on a package that not only would look fabulous always, but it would last, it would be durable, and women would be super, super proud to pull it out of their hand bag.

My inspiration was drawn from Elsa Peretti, the designer at Tiffany for so many years, and was everything that I ever wanted as a young teenager. All of her beautiful fluid, organic designs that felt so good in your hand. Her paperweights.

So that's sort of where I started, and then we custom designed the stones.
Jodi KatzDid she do like beans?
Cheryl FolandShe did bean for your necklace. She did the cute little heart toggle bracelet. Beautiful paperweights that I still have on my desk. So I was really inspired by sort of that beautiful fluid design that really feels fabulous in a woman or man's hand, for that matter, and women don't want to put them down. I mean, they're just an amazing tactile, beautiful sensory experience. They're giftable, they're covetable, and they've become iconic to the brand, which is just incredible.
Jodi KatzIt's incredible. So I first saw these, I don't know if you were there, at the CEW beauty demo. I remember being in, I think it was the indie section or the new-
Cheryl FolandProbably indie section.
Jodi KatzAnd, I saw them on the table. Where you the person standing behind the table four years ago?
Cheryl FolandIt probably was one of my marketing girls, yes.
Jodi KatzI was so taken by them.
Cheryl FolandThank you.
Jodi KatzIt's so impressive. When you started the brand or launched the company four years, five years ago-
Cheryl FolandIt's four years now.
Jodi KatzThat was a completely different universe than we are now in marketing. I mean, like in such a short amount of time things keep shifting. What was your focus priority when you launched a product? Was it Amazon? Was it retailers? How did you market it?
Cheryl FolandSo interesting question, because that's clearly evolved quickly in four years. Well first and foremost, because clean was not as on trend as it is now, I mean, such a huge mega trend around wellness and clean personal care products.
Jodi KatzAnd plenty of greenwashing.
Cheryl FolandYes. And because that wasn't really ... I didn't lead with that. So, I was first and foremost, I was this luxe prestige brand and I was going to provide a simplified beauty routine for the modern day woman, and that's what I was all about. Three products is all you need. And by the way, were clean. During that process I felt like it was really, really important for me to solidify who I was in a very big traditional, conventional world of big brands that play in the luxe sandbox. So I launched at Barneys, I launched on Net-a-Porter. Within five months of launch Net-a-Porter was distributing us to over 170 countries. It was mind blowing.

And then after that, we started with Neiman Marcus. We're now in more than 32 doors of Neiman Marcus. So we really started in that sort of luxe prestige space, and then we focused on our own direct to consumer business as well. What we recognized early on is that the brand truly was exactly what I loved about Bobby, which was timeless and ageless, and there were young women that were embracing the brand and their moms. That's when we recognized that even our distribution should focus on a younger demographic with a greater reach. And as other retailers, Sephora in particular, started to really scream from the rooftops, "Clean. We have an offering of clean, whether it's skincare or color or hair care," that was our moment in time to partner with them.

We're now even in Nordstrom, so we're definitely talking to a little bit of a younger demographic, but yet the consumer is just embracing and loving the line in the likes of Neiman's and others. So, definitely started off as like super, super high end luxe prestige, and here we are really across the board.
Jodi KatzSo my last question for you is, because this is incredible, what keeps you up at night?
Cheryl FolandWow.
Jodi KatzBecause I'm thinking of all the things that would keep me up at night if I was importing all those retail partners.
Cheryl FolandIt's kind of, yeah, it's very stressful. On any given day it's something new, and I think it's because as small as we are I still continue to wear many hats. Is it that a sold out product, when is it going to get here from Italy? Is it, "Will this product resonate?" We have a huge launch coming up in January, and I feel pretty good about it. I'm clearly biased. It's my new baby. But your fear always is will it work? Will it sell? Is it as fabulous as I think it is? So, every day it's something new.

I have an amazing team in place, so what I do not lose sleep over is whether we're getting things done, and I feel fortunate. I have an amazing support system, including my husband at home.

So yeah, I think it's different any day, but there's a lot of lost sleep.
Jodi KatzSo, you know what I'm hearing is like the consumer perception or their feedback is the looming, I guess, fear. Like, will it be loved? Mine is always financial insecurity. It's farther away behind me, but it's always there.
Cheryl FolandYes.
Jodi KatzIt used to be literally on top of me, like all over me. And as time goes on and I have more faith in myself and I've learned not to worry and have more confidence, it's trailing behind me. It's like at the end of the block, it's not right on top of me. But I feel like that's just part of being an entrepreneur.
Cheryl FolandIt is. It is. I think that every entrepreneur, whether you're funding yourself or whether you have millions of dollars to run your business, the fear is if and when it'll ever run out, and how much more will you need to get to the next level? And if you want to do really big things, it takes capital, it takes money. So I think no matter who you are, I think the fear of if you have enough to get it done is always there.
Jodi KatzI actually am working through this in therapy right now, but I so love where I am right now. I love it. I'm so proud of myself. I'm so happy in all aspects of my life that I feel like there's going to be this hand that reaches, a giant hand illustration reaching and it's taking it away from me. Right? And I have to work through that, because that's an obstacle for me.
Cheryl FolandYeah. I think it's a fear for a lot of people. It really is. There's times where I say to my husband, "I want to pinch myself." I'm 49 years old. Who would have ever thought I'd be the founder of a beauty brand? First of all, that's crazy. And that I have this amazing team, and lilah b. is going strong. I have my health and happiness, and a wonderful family. I feel very fortunate.

But I think there's always that fear of pinch me, because when is something going to go awry? It's just way too perfect.
Jodi KatzWell, thank you so much for being so candid with us and for sharing all your wisdom. I'm so grateful that you're here today.
Cheryl FolandThank you.
Jodi KatzAnd for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Cheryl. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes, and for updates about the show follow us on Instagram at @WhereBrainsMeetBeautyPodcast.

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