‘You have to love it in every cell of your body’: Business and beauty secrets from the founder of skyn ICELAND

After suffering from chronic stress, Sarah Kugelman turned to alternative remedies. Her recovery process took her to Iceland, where she realised the benefits of the unspoilt waters there. From Sarah’s experience, skyn ICELAND was born.

With 25 years’ experience in the industry, Sarah is the right person to turn to when it comes to understanding not only what it takes to start a business, but how to make it an international success.

We spoke to Sarah about her must-know beauty tips, career highlights and plans for the future.

1. How did you pursue a career working in skincare and the beauty industry? What path did you follow in terms of education and experience?

I started in retailing – I was in the buyer’s training program at Bloomingdale’s.  But I realised early on that I didn’t like to just ‘sell’ the product; I wanted to make it. So I went back to school (Columbia Business School) and got an MBA in marketing. It was sort of crazy because I had been an English and French major undergrad and considered myself much more of a creative person, but business school prepared me for having my own company.

When I got out, I realised I couldn’t market just anything, it had to be beauty because that’s what I was really passionate about. My first job in beauty was at L’Oreal and I remember early on being sent on a shoot, and I couldn’t believe what went on there….the talent, the makeup, the hair, the beauty. I was just in a beauty trance, hypnotised by all things beauty. It was a very special moment in time and I knew after that, that I had to be a part of it. So 25 years later here I am and I’ve never looked back.  

2. Skyn was inspired by both personal experience with health and wellbeing and experience of Icelandic remedies. How did it go from an idea to becoming an international brand?

I think we really hit a nerve with our concept and the brand/product truly resonated with the consumer. We were definitely ahead of our time but I think now our messaging is very relevant globally, and that’s enabled us to have a dialogue with customers all over and introduce our products in places where it’s been welcomed

3. Could you describe your typical working day?  

The only thing that’s consistent is that it’s always crazy hectic and frenetic! I know it’s cliché but there really is no typical day.

If I’m in New York (as I travel a lot) then I take my daughter to school and try to exercise either in the morning or the evening. Then when I get to the office, it’s full on.  I’m usually in meetings and on calls most of the day, either with my team, retailers or suppliers or business partners. The day goes from thinking about the financial aspects of the business to the strategic marketing initiatives to the creative and technical logistics and implementation. The business is quite involved and complex now as we are in so many countries and have a big business in our home market in the US.

Then after work if I don’t have a business dinner, it’s all about my daughter. I am completely hers from when I get home until bedtime. So either it’s bath time, homework, a creative project like drawing or crafting, then bedtime reading and lights out. Usually I then have dinner with my husband around 10pm. Then from 11pm – 12am is ‘me time’!  That’s usually when I will test new products, do an at home facial, have a hot cup of tea, light a candle and relax. I will admit that I do often jump on the computer and get in a few emails too! Then it starts all over again!

4. A great deal of Skyn’s ethos is discussing stress and how to alleviate stress. Other than focusing on skincare, are there any other techniques you advocate for coping well with stress?

It has to be a holistic approach: 8 hours of sleep a night, a healthy and nutrient rich diet, 64 ounces of water a day, a good exercise programme and breathe! It’s simple things that really help us alleviate stress, and it’s how we take care of the inside that shows on the outside. When I slip into a period of extreme stress I know I have to get more sleep, cut out the refined sugar and white flour and load up on Omega rich foods (salmon and avocado), antioxidants (lots of berries), magnesium (sweet potatoes) and vitamin B complex (broccoli) and vitamin D (supplement), try to get some cardio or yoga into my week and get a massage.

5. What advice would you give to those wishing to pursue a career in the beauty industry?

Do it if you are really passionate about beauty. Everyone I know who’s been in the industry as long as I have is still a total beauty junkie. I think you have to love it in every cell of your body to be successful and to get up every day and be happy.

And, also that nothing comes easy. Someone once said ‘an overnight success takes at least 10 years’ and I believe that’s really true. Stick with it at the beginning. You have to learn but it gets better, much better!

6. What are your three must-know beauty tips, particularly with winter in mind?

  • Face oil, face oil, face oil:  It’s the best way to keep your skin hydrated and soft. Our new Arctic Face Oil is perfect…it’s 99.9% Camelina Oil which is rich in 9 Omega Essential Fatty Acids so it heals, rejuvenates, protects, hydrates and repairs skin!  
  • I also use a hydration booster that’s pure Sodium Hyaluronate. I think especially for older skins that become duller and more dehydrated, this is critical. You can use these types of serums after cleansing and before moisturizing with creams and oils.
  • Even in the winter use an SPF! Sun is an aging machine. I use a CC Cream that’s SPF 50 all year round. It protects, hydrates, and evens skin tone.
  • And don’t forget the eyes! They are the first area to show stress and that includes ‘winter stress’…always always hydrate morning and night no matter what!

7. What have been some of the highlights throughout your career?

For sure starting gloss.com and being acquired by Estee Lauder. That was a life altering, mind blowing experience. Winning the CEW Indie Beauty Award in 2007, 2 months after my daughter was born. That was really special because it’s an award that’s voted on by my industry peers, so it was like everyone I had ever worked with or known in the industry saying “good job!  you’re doing something ground breaking”. Also, mentoring many young women through my various jobs and at skyn ICELAND. I’ve had at least 30 high school, college and MBA interns over the 10 years at Skyn and they’ve nearly all gone on to do amazing things. It’s so exciting to see them grow and succeed. And then lots of pinch-me moments including negotiating a partnership with Sarah Jessica Parker in 2000, and seeing my product in the window at Henri Bendel on 5th Avenue in 2005.

8. And finally, what’s next for Skyn?

Global expansion, exciting new partnerships and fantastic, ground-breaking new products for inside and out. I’m really excited to bring more information and education to our customers about stress management, research in the area of stress, relaxation techniques, fitness and nutrition tips and inspiration as well.  And above all else, doing something in the future that is transformational, both professionally and personally. I am thinking about leaving my mark on this world and what that mark is going to be!

Now what?