Entrepreneur Jane Wurwand on why ‘high-touch will overshadow high-tech’ in business

In an interview with the BBC, founder of the multimillion-dollar skincare empire Dermalogica talks about entrepreneurship, independence and why human skills are the future of the service industry.

Entrepreneur Jane Wurwand on why 'high-touch will overshadow high-tech' in business
Entrepreneur Jane Wurwand on why ‘high-touch will overshadow high-tech’ in business

On a sunny day in Los Angeles, Jane Wurwand stands outside the first storefront for her skincare brand Dermalogica. In 1983, she started with the idea to create a training programme for the industry. “I actually wrote down my first kind of statement of purpose: total world domination of professional skincare,” she says. 

The humble beginning set the stage for a monumental ascent in business – the one she’d envisaged from the start. Along with her training academy, Wurwand also created Dermalogica’s skincare line in 1986. Her products are now sold in more than 80 countries – and Dermalogica is one of the most recognisable brands in the industry. 

The cosmetologist-turned-self-funded-entrepreneur joins BBC correspondent Katty Kay on Influential, her unscripted interview series, which features iconic guests including Ina Garten, Misty Copeland and Michael Lewis. Wurwand discusses her business empire, and how she learned to prepare for the unknown from age four.

After settling in Los Angeles from Scotland by way of South Africa, Jane Wurwand and her then-boyfriend, recent business-school graduate Raymond Wurwand saw a clear opening in the 1980s skincare market: to bridge the gap between salon experience and self-care education, information reserved at the time to plastic surgeons and dermatologists. 

Without the necessary financial history in the US to take out a line of credit from an American lender, the two bootstrapped the business with a modest sum of $14,000 (£11,040) – a combination of their personal savings and early investment funds gathered from friends and family.

“Self-funded, we never took a loan,” Wurwand tells Kay. “When we built the company to an acquisition, we owned it 100%, we had never given equity, never taken a loan, there was no debt to pay off.” The first training centre they set up was 1,000 sq ft (92.9 sq m), for which they paid $1,000 (£789) a month.

About 30 years later, in 2015, Wurwand, then 57, sold her brand to multinational consumer goods conglomerate Unilever for an undisclosed amount. In 2016, she was named ambassador for entrepreneurship by US President Barack Obama.

Wurwand learned ambition and independence early. Her mother was widowed at 38, with four children. When Wurwand was four, her mum tucked a house key into her jumper so she could come home alone after school – an experience, she says, that stoked fearlessness. “As scared as I was – and I was scared of course – knowing I could do that, it starts to build your confidence.”

Determined to chart her own course, Wurwand became a “Saturday girl” in a salon. Aged 13, she swept hair from the floor, and continued to beauty school. Swapping traditional university classrooms for the interiors of salons, Wurwand began to develop a widely applicable skill set – an approach her mother emphasised during childhood.

“Every time I go anywhere, Katty, whether it’s where my family lives in Moule in the Hebrides, all the way through to anywhere I travelled around the world – Vietnam, South Africa, Norway, New Zealand, anywhere in between – the first thing I look in any small town or village, ‘do they have a salon?’,” Wurwand tells Kay. “And if I see a salon – and I always do – I am deeply reassured that I could work there.” 

While she built her skills and career, Wurwand began to see openings to innovate and expand the self-care industry, particularly through skills-based training – an approach that remains relevant.

“We can’t get immigrants rehoused reworking if we don’t have apprenticeships and programs to put them into … We talk about climate change, and we talk about political change. We are about to have the biggest human migration on our planet ever. What and how and where are we ever going to cope with all the people that have come to our countries with different languages, different ethnicities? If they have a skill, we will be able to use them,” she says. “The core purpose of Dermalogica has always been skill-set training. We train 100,000 skin therapists. This is the whole back engine. And it was my back engine, that was my training.” 

She’s happy to take credit for her success – but also gives due to her now-husband Raymond, with whom she has two children. “Dermalogica could not have happened without Raymond. And it couldn’t have happened without me. And neither of us could have done it alone,” she says. “He is the smartest person I’ve ever known. And if I had to start another business, which I don’t intend to do, I would not do it with anyone else but Raymond.”

They’ve passed on the fruits of their success: in 2020, the Wurwands launched the Small Business Recovery Fund Grant Program, a $1 million (£790,000) fund in partnership with Pacific Community Ventures and TMC Community Capital, to help small businesses in Los Angeles fight financial challenges during the pandemic.

After three decades of building a business, Wurwand has seen the technological landscape change. But while so much talk centres the development of artificial intelligence, she’s confident there’s no replacement for the human touch in service industries. (“I can do a bikini wax in less than four minutes,” she quips. “Don’t worry, you’re in safe hands.”)

“Those skills won’t just be replaced by, I don’t know, AI, robots in in your industry? You don’t see that happening?” asks Kay. Wurwand acknowledges that many jobs will be replaced, just like they were during any industrial revolution.

Yet she believes this change will bring another wave of innovation.

“With technology being our current revolution, the equal and opposite reaction to that high-tech is high-touch,” she says. “Our industry is booming. We’ve got, right now, 40% job growth in our industry. I’ve never seen more spa salons, medical spas, massage, nails, hair, you name it. Look at your high street. It’s a service business. And a lot of it is salons. A lot of its restaurants. But they’re service-oriented businesses where humans are doing things that humans do best cooking, caring, touching, kindness, compassion, talking. I’m not in the business of just skincare products. I’m in the business of human connection. And no, a machine is not going to replace us.”

Ultimately, although Wurwand’s initial ambition was “total world domination of professional skincare” – something she’s accomplished through her empire – it wasn’t quite her literal intention. She says: “It’s not about dominating the world. It’s about how can I do my very, very best work that would influence and help change other people’s lives.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *