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FAB Founder Lilli Gordon Talks Coronavirus, College and Content

The founder of First Aid Beauty talks about the impact of the coronavirus, college loans and content creation.

Lilli Gordon was a math major in college, so no wonder her favorite way to unwind is puzzles. It also comes as no surprise that Gordon, the founder of First Aid Beauty, likes to tackle thorny problems — such as the pressing issue of student loans. Hence the launch of FAB AID, the brand’s first give-back program, which commits $1 million to helping recent college grads pay down their debt. While the coronavirus pandemic has caused the timeline to be altered, the company is still moving ahead with its plans and is dedicated to the cause. Here, Gordon talks about how First Aid Beauty is countering some of the devastating effects on business and the community, and her vision of what recovery will look like.

What was your first job?

My first job was when I was 15 years old, working in a warehouse for a retail clothing firm. I was incredibly bored, but I learned that hard work gave me money and money gave me freedom, an important lesson.

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My first ‘real’ job was when I got out of business school and was working for a now-defunct consulting company — it was like the McKinsey of its day. I was in the operations research section. I was a math major at college, and did very quantitative work. This job taught me that I could do something I was passionate about and actually earn a living. I crafted the entire rest of my career on that principle of finding ways to earn a living that weren’t drudgery, but were things I was passionate about.

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What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

I wish that I’d had a larger consideration set for my career alternatives. I grew up in a family where you could become a college professor, a doctor, a lawyer or a business person. I wish I knew there was so much more I could have done. The first half of my career was all analytical business and finance; I was lucky enough in the second half to shift to a more creative side. That part was never nurtured in me when I was young.

How do you think about your business for the next year in light of COVID-19?

Our world is topsy-turvy and we don’t know what the new normal will be. In the immediate term, it is survival, being nimble, leaning into what’s working and being of service to our consumer. We are leaning in more than ever into our digital channels, which are all performing incredibly well. They are not offsetting the losses at retail, but they are exploding. My hope is by midsummer we are back to business as usual and can resume devoting our time to longer-term strategic issues.

What do you think the longer-term impact will be on the business?

I wonder if some of the shift to digital is going to be quasi-permanent to the degree that people — especially during flu season and times when people feel more vulnerable — will have learned how to get really good at digital shopping.

What about on consumer sentiment?

It depends on how fast the recovery goes. Technically, despite the unemployment claims, we are not in a recession yet. There are going to be people — especially small businesses — who aren’t going to be able to withstand this. Aside from the loss of life and sickness, that is one of the most disturbing aspects. I personally think the economic recovery, once we get back on our feet, will be pretty considerable and won’t be that slow. Once people have a sense of security, they will go out and spend. Right now, it doesn’t feel like the right time. It’s a very solemn time.

Where do you see the most opportunity going forward?

Our business has very strong distribution in the U.S. through Sephora and Ulta, and we have solid double-digit growth in those channels. Where we are literally on tap is Asia and that is a huge opportunity. With the coronavirus pandemic, everything is going much slower, but the good news is we haven’t launched yet, so it is a deferral plan. We are currently on Tmall cross-border and in Hong Kong. We are working on how to approach China in ways that maintain our cruelty-free status.

What’s the most important change you’ve seen in consumer behavior over the last 12 months, and what did you have to change to better address it?

It’s not just the past 12 months — but the past several years, this digital world that we are in. As a company, it affects us on so many different levels. More and more, we see with our retailers this shift to digital. It is a capability we are in the process of strengthening and deepening every day. Content is a big piece, for Facebook, Instagram, now you need Tik Tok. Today there has to be more video content — before pictures were OK. It is constantly evolving. If you are a corporation, the resources it takes to deliver content she or he wants to see is mind-boggling. Along with that is an increased awareness of your voice and how you’re talking. You literally become a digital persona in the world we live in today.

What’s the toughest assignment you’ve ever been given and how did you navigate it?

One of the toughest was creating our Ultra Repair Cream. I knew I wanted a moisturizer that stood out from the thousands of others. To create it, I had to speak with lawyers to understand what claims I could make, with dermatologists to understand what claims I wanted to make, with chemists to understand what claims I could achieve. Navigating it involved getting information from a myriad of sources but not stopping until I was happy. Usually you go to a contract manufacturer and they give you three freebies to revise the submission. We were on revision 30 when I said, I’m accepting it!

What’s your favorite question to ask when you’re interviewing someone?

I really want to know what they’re passionate about in life. What do they do on the weekends and with their free time? What books and movies do they love? What problems do they like to solve? That says so much more than walking through their résumé.

What’s your quick fix when you need to de-stress?

The New York Times’ hard suduko puzzles. I don’t meditate, I do suduko. I love doing puzzles — it is an active way of turning off my brain.


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