Episode 166: Veronique Gabai, Founder and CEO of Veronique Gabai

Travel may be on pause, but Veronique Gabai believes fragrance can transport us on a journey to somewhere else. Her namesake fragrance, jewelry and beauty product company is inspired by her birthplace and the place of her childhood, the French Riviera.

After growing up surrounded by beautiful sensation, she wanted to put nature directly into her products, to help people feel better — more joyful, beautiful and confident — and express themselves more authentically. She made the switch from corporate America to indie beauty when the risk of ignoring that little voice telling her to leave became greater than the risk of leaving the corporate pool, and hasn’t looked back.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to, Where Brains Meet Beauty®, hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey everybody. It's Jodi Katz, your host of Where Brains Meet Beauty® Podcast. This week's episode features Veronique Gabai. She is the founder of Veronique Gabai. If you missed last week's episode, it featured Skin of Color Society founder, Dr. Susan Taylor. Hope you enjoy the show.

Hey everybody. Welcome back to Where Brains Meet Beauty®. I am so excited to be here with Veronique Gabai. She is the CEO and founder of Veronique Gabai. Welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®.
Veronique GabaiHi, thank you very much, Jodi. I'm so happy to be here and it's lovely to finally see you, from a screen, but lovely to participate to this wonderful podcast. Thank you.
Jodi KatzI am so excited. I actually just sprayed one of your fragrances, I'll butcher the French, Souvenirs de Tunisie.
Veronique GabaiYes, you did it very well.
Jodi KatzTunisie?
Veronique GabaiYep!
Jodi KatzWhich means Tunisia, right?
Veronique GabaiYes, exactly. It means souvenir of Tunisia.
Jodi KatzI'm really drawn to orange blossom and I assumed that there would be orange blossom in it when I saw Tunisia, and I was right.
Veronique GabaiYes, it's all created around one core ingredient. In Souvenirs de Tunisie, it's all about the orange blossom, and we try to magnify the beauty of nature. In Souvenirs de Tunisie, you have this orange blossom with a touch of citrus and a touch of almond to make it even sweeter. The idea here is to take you on an exotic and wonderful journey somewhere else.
Jodi KatzWell, that leads me right into my first question for you, which is one that I love to ask, and I haven't actually asked it of any of my guests during COVID and I just saw it in my notes. I'm like, you know what? It's still a great day.

Usually I ask my guests when they come to my recording studio in New York, how they're going to be spending their day today, and usually the answers are so different and varied. Today, I just mentioned to you I have construction going on outside as I'm doing my work. How will you be spending your day today?
Veronique GabaiWell, today I have a couple of things that I need to do for work, obviously. It's interesting to be working constantly from home. I think it's interesting, because this crisis, as terrible as it is, has forced us to think through the way we live, the way we communicate with others, what's important, what's not so important, the value system that really means something to us.

It's funny because a lot of things are shifting. Today, I'm working actually on a shoot that I have to do. I want to do it as safely as possible, so it's a little bit more complicated than usual. I'm going to work with some retailers as we are planning reopening. It's interesting. Interesting day.
Jodi KatzYou just mentioned shoot, we were just planning a shoot with my agency and we were talking about things that we used to not have to talk about. If we're going to be outside, we need to rent portable bathrooms. We need to rent the trailer. Right?
Veronique GabaiMm-hmm (affirmative).
Jodi KatzThere's so many things that are different. It can all be done. It's just really, really thinking strategically about everyone's experience. We were talking about not sharing food on a big catering table, maybe it's sending money or gift cards to all the participants ahead of time so they can bring their own food, and they don't have to worry. Just little shifts of the production day.
Veronique GabaiYeah, for sure. It's interesting, because I also think it teaches us to really act and behave in a very different way, to pay much more attention to other people. It's interesting, because for me, when I developed the brand, I always thought that beautiful products, beautiful scent are here to bring pleasure and joy and wellbeing to people, but I think after COVID, it's even more important. Life has become more difficult. It has become a little bit more chaotic. It has become more polarized.

The health safety of the people we love is becoming way more important. Somehow, things that were a little superficial before are going to be completely jettisoned from our lives, and we have to keep to the essential.
Jodi KatzWell, I'm excited to talk about fragrance with you. If I go to your LinkedIn, I see that your entire career has been fragrance, at the Estée Lauder companies and then the Vera Wang group. I asked you on our intake call, who connected us, and you mentioned Paige Novick, who's been a guest on our show. Tell us about Paige and what you're wearing around your neck.
Veronique GabaiFirst of all, you know what, again, I wanted to develop a line of beauty must haves and fragrances that would bring joy, beauty, wellbeing, and confidence to people. One of the element was to be able to live with fragrance and keep your fragrance with you at all times, without having to worry about carrying heavy stuff. Right now we're all at home, but the reality of our lives once this situation is over, is that we are more nomadic than our parents. We commute to cities to work, or maybe we're going to work more from home, but we travel way more and we want to have our hands free.

Even when I think of the way we live our lives, we go to gyms, and we run, and we take care of kids, and we go out for dinner, and so having this idea of having fragrance always close to you so you can have a little bit of your signature, a little bit of your comfort, a little bit of a little talisman that gives you strength and confidence and make you escape somewhere else, having it around your neck was something that I always thought would be interesting.

I worked with Paige Novick, who's this amazing jeweler, and we decided to create a piece of jewelry that would be absolutely gorgeous, absolutely precious, that you could keep for a gazillion amount of time, but that would contain in it a little secret, because if you open it, there's a little bottle of fragrance in it. Like that you have your fragrance with you at all time without having to worry about carrying something heavy.

That's what we did. We have also a lot of different objects, like a purse spray, so you can throw it in your bag, again, this idea of being mobile and being light in your travel or in your movements all day long, and at the same time being beautiful.
Jodi KatzI wish our listeners could see the necklace. We'll have to maybe put it on social, because it's so beautiful.
Veronique GabaiThank you.
Jodi KatzPaige is very talented, and what a great way for you to wear your work, Veronique, every day.
Veronique GabaiFor sure.
Jodi KatzYou've made a whole career out of fragrance. My first question is why, why fragrance?
Veronique GabaiMy second answer to you is, why not? No, but the real answer to this is it happened to me a little bit by surprise, because I always loved smell. I always loved scent as a little girl. I was born in the South of France and it's a region where the nature is absolutely stunning, so you're constantly surrounded with beautiful sensation. You have the sea in front of you, you have the air of the Alps. The Alps are behind you. You have a bounty of trees and plants and roses and jasmines and mimosa.

It's not a surprise that Grasse, in France, in the South of France, was becoming the historical center for fragrance, because nature allowed it. As a little kid, Grasse was in my backyard. I was born in Antibes, eight kilometers away, not even two miles away from Grasse. This constant connection with nature led to have a deep appreciation for it and have a deep curiosity about it. That was my childhood. Then as I grew up, I really didn't know what I wanted to do, except that I knew I wanted to be in a creative field.

At the beginning I was thinking of interior design. Of course, I was told by my parents, "You'll never get a penny out of it. You need to be independent." Reluctantly, I went into business school and there, one step led to the next. I was recruited by L'Oreal at one point. At L'Oreal, after a little amount of time in makeup, I went into perfume, and there, I really, really, really loved it. I found my passion and it has never left me.

It's a deep passion because there's something absolutely magical about nature. If you can harness the beauty and the power of nature, I truly believe that you can make people feel way better. There's the same time, the aesthetics of nature, it's just beautiful. When you smell nature, you smell so many different things, but there's also the incredible emotional content of nature, because smell takes you to your memories. Smell helps you express your emotion. Smells really helps you express your personality, and nature really is one of the most beautiful ways of doing it.
Jodi KatzWe had a really, I think, lively conversation, you and I, when we were doing our intake call around the need for some seductive element in the marketing of fragrance. I asked you like, while maybe like in the eighties and the nineties and the early two thousands, for sure that was true, and I asked you, "Is that still true today?" You're part of Indie Beauty now. Indie Beauty has really changed the conversation. Our lives are so different now, that inundation with marketing and information is different. Does that fragrance industry need to deliver on seductive in order for a customer to become a new fan?
Veronique GabaiI'm going to take you a little bit in the journey of understanding how smelling works. The sense of smell is one of the only sense, actually, the only one that's located in what we call the reptilian/limbic brain. All of the other senses are located in what we call the cortex brain. What is the difference? The cortex is linked to your thought process. The limbic is linked to your emotion. The reptilian is linked to your instinct. The reptilian brain is really the beginning of our evolution.

Fragrance is in between reptilian and limbic. It's there. What's happening with the reptilian? You connect this to basically the instinct of the human race. What is the instinct of the human race? You want to be safe, so smell is going to help you stay safe. Okay? You will smell danger. That's what happened to us like many, many, many moons ago. You want to reproduce, because you want to keep the race going, so today translated into seduction and other things like that.

Limbic, limbic is about emotion, so now it's not about your instinct as human race, which is shared by everyone around the world. This idea of safety, comfort, seduction, is true around the world with scent. Then you have the emotions. The emotion is more about the individual journey of a person. It's what connects you to your memories. By the way, the sense of smell is very close to the center where we store our memories. That's why scent is so connected with memories. That's why, when you smell something, sometimes it takes you back to a place, to a person, to a souvenir.

Yes, there's another aspect of scent, which is linked to basically wellbeing. Because it is connected to your emotion, scent has the power of making you feel better. If you use beautiful raw materials, beautiful essential oils, that power is absolutely phenomenal, and that's what I wanted to do with my brand. I wanted to put in my brand, in my product, in my formulas, only essential oils, natural, raw material of the highest quality, so they would make you feel better.

At the same time, there's an element of sensuality. There's an element of seductive power. There's an element of comforting power in those sense. Overall, there's an element of light, because I think in the crazy life we lead, we don't need more darkness in our lives. We need that luminosity.
Jodi KatzI love that explanation and the science behind it. As you're talking, I'm thinking about how you spent most of your career at these giant global companies, creating masterpieces and master brands that still to this day, those products, people love and probably haven't changed a bit. Then you started your own company. You walked into entrepreneurship knowing what kind of muscle and marketing machine it requires to build these brands and then said, "Okay, I'll do this myself as an independent brand." Why? Why did you walk away from the giant machines and resources required to start your own company?
Veronique GabaiTwo things. I think from day one, I had in me, the feeling that I wanted to do something to connect with people on my own. It was really about connecting with people. When you want to connect with people, you need to be able to put your imprint on things very, very clearly. Then there's another, I would say more circumstantial situation is that as I was growing up in the corporate world, the more I was growing up in the corporate world, the more the responsibilities you have towards the company you work for, are about organizational design. They're about finances.

They're about making sure that you report good numbers to Wall Street. They are about making sure that you have a healthy business going forward and that you continue to have growth and that you do it in a way that basically sustains the values of the company you work for, but you get less and less involved in what was really my passion, which is product development and connection, one-on-one with people that tries the product, that buys the product. Tat to me, is where I get my energy.

Little by little, I was becoming this formidable business woman, and I learned a lot quite frankly, but my soul was kind of shrinking. My office was growing, but my heart was becoming more and more little. At one point I realized that I didn't want to become the CEO of a public company. This was not my journey. It was, I had had a great journey until then, but then I had to make a decision, do I want my next step, because that was the logical next step, to become the CEO of a public company. Then I realized, this is not what I wanted. Suddenly the little dream, the little voice that I always had in my heart and in my mind became louder and louder and louder.

I realized that the risk of not listening to this little voice was becoming bigger than the risk of jumping into the entrepreneurial pool, and so I decided to leave my corporate job. I decided to leave this ginormous office of mine, and take a little desk on the corner of a hallway, but go back to what I really wanted to do, which was explore the power of nature, harness the beauty of nature, bring it to people so that I could bring joy and beauty and wellbeing and allow people to express their personality through my products. That's what I'm doing.
Jodi KatzI applaud you for listening to that inner child. It's hard to do. I'm curious, because it's been about two years since you left your corporate job. Was there a transition period that was sort of like, "Oh my god, what's going on," because I would imagine that leading the brands that you led, there was access to things and everybody wanted to know your point of view and you were invited to all the things, and the advertisers and the this and the that, and all that really goes away, the minute you don't have that big budget and you're not in charge of with that big budget. What sort of surprises hit you after leaving corporate life?
Veronique GabaiI was lucky, because I did it once before. When I was very young, I was the vice president for Giorgio Armani Perfumes at L'Oreal. I really built the foundation of the success for Giorgio Armani and I was quite young. I was in my late twenties when I left L'Oreal, at the height of my success there. People were telling me, "You're totally nuts, you're totally crazy. What are you doing this? You're shooting yourself in the foot." Again, I knew I didn't want to stay there.

At age 28, 29, I got that experience that you're talking about. I realized that suddenly the people that were saying they were absolutely loving me, and so, da da da da, the invitation, this, that, the other thing, all of that disappeared. I have to tell you, it's a lesson that you better learn in your twenties than in your fifties, because in your fifties, that could be absolutely traumatic. In my twenties, I learned that basically what you are is very different from what you represent and never to mistake one for the other.

That was a lesson learned that has helped me all my life. All my life after that, I only did the things that I believed were the right thing to do. I only did it because I wanted to do them and not because of what I was getting out of them. That's a very, very important distinction, because it gives you freedom, total freedom, in your mind, at least.
Veronique GabaiYeah, I think that basically I never was blinded by the glamor of it all. To me, what was important was to do the right thing from an ethical point of view with my teams, with the product that I was creating and never, ever, ever compromise on quality. I never ever, ever take a decision. I have mistakes, of course. Everybody does have mistakes and makes mistakes, but I never took a decision because I was enamored with the world I was in.

To me, what was important was the product and were the people, either the people in my team, the community that I would serve or my customers. People and product were the most important thing ever, and that's it. The rest of it, and for me, the most difficult part of getting into my own brand is because I was never enamored by glamor. I was always behind a curtain. I was always pushing other people in front of the stage, even though I was doing the work. To me, the most difficult thing, launching the brand was not, no having the same access or not having the same glitterati around me.

The most difficult thing was to put myself up front. The most difficult thing was to be present in social media. This is not me. I'm more comfortable smelling stuff, smelling flowers, thinking how to combine them together, that would this flower this, that, the other thing, how a product will affect the skin of an individual, no matter what color of skin they're in. Those are the things I love to do. Being up front, photograph myself, shooting myself, filming myself, this is not my zone of comfort, at all.
Jodi KatzBut you put your name on the brand. This is getting out of your comfort zone as you could potentially get.
Veronique GabaiAbsolutely. I think I did it because the values that I wanted to bring to the brand were so personal, that I thought of other names, I had other names, and it didn't feel right. It felt like it was like a curtain. I think at one stage, if you launch your brand, there's a part that they're called the ego trip. Okay. I had an ego trip too, but once the brand was formed, the ego trip was behind me.

I think that when you open the curtain on your own value system, you have to be so authentic and so real and so open to share your deep thoughts and your deep values that suddenly calling it another name was like, mm, doesn't feel right. That's why I did it. It doesn't mean that it becomes more or easier to live with it, but it's more real.
Jodi KatzI do understand the challenge of being front and center, when my team would ask me to do things on social, I'd say, "No." in the beginning I'd say, "No," and then they'd put me in front of a video camera and I like cried. I couldn't even like, get the words out. It was so stressful.
Veronique GabaiWell, you're very good at it.
Jodi KatzWell, I like learning about people. That's easy. These conversations are wonderful. It's like free therapy for me or free business coaching, but the other stuff is I understand, it's hard. It gets a little easier, but it's not always the most comfortable. You mentioned about this desire to be creative and sort of walk away from the corporate things that were about like resource planning or other corporate needs.

Is there a way for a big global corporation, like some of the ones you've worked for, to retain talent like you to help incubate these ideas? Do you think there's opportunities or do people like you at this point just need to move on and build your own?
Veronique GabaiI think there's as many situation as there is people. In my case, it was becoming more difficult and more difficult by the minute, because I was also in a strange conundrum. I like to make decisions. Okay. I like to be in charge. I don't want to be just a creative mind. If you want to be just a creative mind there's plenty of company that will welcome talent like mine, and they do. Estée Lauder is one that really is amazing with creative people, but I like to make decision. I like to manage.

Basically, if you like also that, at some point you have to decide, what do you spend your time doing. In the context of managing a global business, you have to manage it. You have to be there for that management, and you have to make sure that you deliver what the company needs you to deliver. For me, it was very hard to find that balance in the constraint of a global public company. I think in a smaller company, mine is microscopic at this point, but in a smaller company, it's slightly easier, but the minute you start growing, you need to put in a structure so that the company can function.

The minute you start putting a structure and the structure grows, the more it grows, the more the structure needs to be formal. The more the structure is formal, the more you're going to have those issues. That being said, there's ways to maintain a flow of communication, to maintain the participation of your employees. I will build my company this way, but when a company reaches the sizes of the companies I was working in, tens of billions of dollars in revenue, it becomes more and more difficult.
Jodi KatzRight. My last question for you is, what's been like the most surprising or fulfilling part of being part of the Indie Beauty world?
Veronique GabaiI think the most beautiful thing is again, I finally get back to what I love. That to me is fantastic, creating and connecting with people, but I think also what's absolutely amazing is the incredible solidarity and connection that exists between brand owners. I have found that they are a great group of women, because most of the people, brand owner that have been mingling with, not by choice, but just by occasion and circumstance are women and the generosity and the openness that we found, and the capacity to help each other is absolutely extraordinary.

That to me was fabulous. Quite frankly, I'm even thinking of building, at the same time as building my company, some kind of collective, just to put some type of resources together or some type of activities together, because we need to help each other. Building a business is not easy, and I'm sure that there are synergies that we can find by helping each other.
Jodi KatzThank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us today. This is so incredible to meet you over Zoom.
Veronique GabaiThank you. Thank you so much, Jodi. It was fantastic and so pleasurable to discuss all of this with you.
Jodi KatzFor our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Veronique. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes and for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram @WhereBrainsMeetBeautyPodcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty®, with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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