Our admiration for Annie Jackson knows no bounds. She’s the co-founder and COO of Credo Beauty, where she has essentially redefined clean beauty for a new generation through the brand’s pioneering approach to retail, both online and off. (Not to brag, but you can find our products on Credo’s real and virtual shelves.) Before that, she helped build Sephora’s U.S. presence from the ground up.

That’s why we asked her to curate a Sample Set of her favorite scents, which you can find right here. (You’ll never guess which one reminds her of “a badass with a sharp tongue”—specifically, her grandmother.) While we had her, we made sure to ask her how she does it, why she does it, and how she overcame the many challenges that face anyone brave enough to start a business from scratch.

Read her answers after the jump.

Let’s start here: How did you know the time was right for Credo?

Our founder, Shashi [Batra], who passed away in 2017, was a total visionary. He had tried different initiatives around clean beauty before it was even called “clean beauty.” He was really ahead of his time. He was with Victoria’s Secret makeup, and tried it with Pink—which was not the right place, and not the right time. It was his hall of shame, he joked.

Ha, I bet.

It was a tremendous amount of work. He was one of those super-creative thinkers who could see what was coming next. Even in his personal investments he would only work with businesses that were sustainable and aligned with his own values.

That’s great. How’d you guys connect?

We had started [together] in 1997, when we were at Sephora, and it was awesome to grow that business together. [Later] he had this idea for Credo and called me about it. We thought it would be about acquisition, but we couldn’t find anything that encapsulated his view of what the business was. So we said “We did this at Sephora, let’s do it again.” And first we just tried to fill a store.

Amazing.

And what we found was this incredible breadth of products out there from conscientious founders. We just dove in. It felt right.

And now it’s been five years. When did you feel like, “Hey, this is really working”?

Definitely after we opened our second store on Prince St. [in NYC’s SoHo neighborhood in 2016].

So not right away then?

It’s hard. We’re doing brick and mortar retail in a time of Amazon. We were choosing the most competitive and expensive real estate in the nation. What changed when we opened our SoHo store was brand awareness. When we opened our first store, in San Francisco, we said we’ll give ourselves a year, and make sure the store is conducive to the community feel we wanted to create with Credo. That was probably the longest, most uncomfortable year of our lives. We felt like we were onto something for sure. But it wasn’t until we opened in NYC that we felt like shit, this is working.

Startups aren’t for everyone, but it totally excites me and I’m stoked to jump out of bed every day.

I can’t speak for everyone here, of course, but it felt like a similar experience. That first year or so felt like proving a concept.

It’s hard. For an entrepreneur, it’s the loneliest time. You have a day where somebody gives you feedback, and then you go and fret about your entire business.

That’s true.

I knew it would be a lot of work. I always felt confident. But yeah, it’s tough—especially when you have little kids. But you also want to follow your dreams.

Sure. How did it compare to your time at Sephora?

Sephora at the start for us was a small team, but backed by a huge company, LVMH. What I learned at Sephora was that as the years clicked by I became less interested and inspired. Startups aren’t for everyone, but it totally excites me and I’m stoked to jump out of bed every day.

You and Credo’s Clean Beauty Council have been trying to get new beauty legislation passed, which would be the first FDA regulations in 80 years or so? How’s that going?

We’re going on 81 years now. Nothing substantial has changed.

That’s crazy. What do you think needs to happen to make change a reality?

Well there are a couple of things at play. There’s the Collins-Feinstein bill, which has gone through a couple of revisions but hasn’t gone to the floor. There’s a fragrance bill that California is supposed to come out with, and we’re supposed to get more information about it this week. And we’re a part of Beautycounter’s efforts.

They’re great.

And we a thousand times over support it, though we spend a lot of time just creating a standard for Credo. And Eric [Korman, our co-founder] and PHLUR have been a huge part of it. It wasn’t us just standing on our soapbox—we needed people like Eric who we could talk to and ask questions of and get input, which was very valuable on our fragrance research.

How did you guys cross paths, anyway? You two are very like-minded when it comes to, say, synthetic ingredients, which not everybody understands.

I think we were in Dallas when we got on the subject, and I think I met my spirit animal [in Eric] on the subject. He’s very humble in the sense of [saying] “We haven’t figured it all out yet, but we’re trying,” and Credo was at that place at the time, too.

PHLUR Sample Set, curated by Annie Jackson of Credo Beauty
A three-scent Sample Set, curated by Annie

For sure.

When it comes to fragrance, it’s a very different conversation than with a skin care product. With skin care, you can point at everything that’s in there—”we didn’t add arsenic because it’s bad, but we did add sunflower oil and chia seeds. And then there’s all these synthetic manmade chemicals and this is what they are and this is how they’re made and this is why they’re good.”

Right. And then fragrance is another story.

With fragrance, the label just says fragrance. And you’re trying to be transparent without sacrificing the secrecy of how something is made, to convey what’s in the product to the customer. We say that when you see that word “fragrance,” you need to communicate to a customer that this fragrance is natural, or naturally-derived, or whatever it is. That way people can sense that, for example, there are synthetics here, but there aren’t musks, because some musk families are bad. We worked with a toxicologist that Eric helped us with, and what we learned is there’s just no data [around some of this].

Exactly. We have to educate people, maybe more than a brand in another category might.

And there are some [clean] retailers out there who just don’t carry fragrance [at all], which further perpetuates customer distrust. That doesn’t do a customer a service. We want to categorize it for the customer and really celebrate those brands. And by Oct 1, 2019, we want to take all those brands that make great products and categorize it correctly and celebrate them.

Well, that brings us to Clear for Me, which is doing great work clarifying what exactly goes into different beauty products, and who you’re working with on some upcoming projects. I’m curious: How did that partnership came about, and how it will be incorporated into the Credo Beauty ecosystem?

Sabrina [Noorani], the founder, found us actually, and we’re so glad she did because the partnership has been great so far. She had a condition where she started to get horrible breakouts around her mouth and could not figure out why. Many customers have this experience and start reading about ingredients, and learn that not all of the ingredients are listed on one product, and on another they are, but [even then], I don’t know what they mean. Or they have 13 other synonyms, so I’ve got to look out for this term and 13 other terms, too.

Yeah. You need an advanced degree in chemistry to sort it all out.

We’re creating it so that, when you go onto Credo’s product pages and hover over the INCI, you’ll see a clear definition of what it is, and what other products have that same ingredient on our site.

But the next stage for me, which we’re most excited about because we think it provides the most service for our customers, is you can see everything without lavender. So if you’re looking to avoid Sodium benzoate and the 11 other terms for it, you can type in that word and see everything without it—and those other 11 terms.

Annie Jackson, co-founder and COO of Credo Beauty
Annie Jackson, co-founder and COO of Credo Beauty

That’s awesome, and I look forward to that. So let me ask: Why do you think the tide has turned this way in the past three or four years or so? And has that been good or bad for business—there are more opportunities, I’d imagine, but also more competition?

It’s great, and it’s frustrating at the same time. I think it’s great when a customer goes into a Sephora or Nordstrom and sees the products that are being heroed out because they’re clean. It shows that it’s mainstream, not niche, and that we’re here to say.

What bums me out is—not at Sephora, necessarily—restricted terms lists. They can be very confusing. Like including formaldehyde, which you wouldn’t see those in products anyway. And then brands that say “We’re clean” or “We’re green,” but they don’t articulate what those terms mean. That’s why we worked so hard on that messaging. But lots of people are jumping on the bandwagon, which is great.

Why do you like us? How’d you find out about us, anyway?

The positioning is awesome—one of our merchants, who is obsessive about the fragrance category, found you. And it was one of those moments where, it seems like a short time coming out of my mouth, but when we first opened our Fillmore store four years ago, there were a lot of brands that had a very indie feel. It felt like a craft fair—there’s nothing wrong with that, but the offerings that we wanted, and to get women to trade their products for, you needed to find that same luxuriousness, that same feeling. And when our merchant brought in PHLUR, we were like finally. Beautiful packaging, creative names, great juice. It’s the whole package. It was a no-brainer. We were super-excited.

What’s in your Sample Set, and why did you pick each one?

Siano. One of my grandmothers was an I. Magnin model when she was young. She smoked cigarettes with an old-fashioned extension and wore a silk bed jacket in the morning and you’d think she was drinking tea, but it was tomato juice. (Might have been something more in there, but who knows.) But she was a bit of a badass with a sharp tongue. It reminds me of her—it’s a little spicy but soft.

That’s hilarious. What else did you choose?

Moab. I was first drawn to it because I love the name. But it is warm and toasty and lasts on the skin like I layered a bunch of fragrances… but didn’t. Love that.

And then Greylocke. Totally Game of Thrones in a bottle. Love it!

Ha! Must be the name. Thank you so much for your time!

Thank you!

[Editor’s note: After this interview, the Food and Drug Administration’s outgoing commissioner said what we’ve all been saying: cosmetic regulations desperately need to be updated.]