Gregg Renfrew has been hustling since her college years, when she started a house cleaning company on Nantucket with two friends so that they could spend the summer there. They cold-called a slew of real-estate firms, charged $20 an hour, paid the younger kids they hired $10 and walked off the island with thousands. “I feel like I put more cash in my pocket that summer than at any other time in my life,” she laughs.
From there, she’s learned everything there is to know about the wedding industry, sold a company to Martha Stewart, helped build a whole slew of now-famous brands, and served as CEO of Best & Co.’s children’s retail group. And if that wasn’t enough, in March 2013, she launched Beautycounter, a direct retail brand of safe makeup and skin care products, free of toxic chemicals.
Beautycounter is now sold by approximately 1,000 independent consultants in 47 states, as well as on their website, and to date have put nearly 20,000 products into customers’ hands. Their most popular items include a jasmine face oil and a new plum lip sheer.
We spoke to Gregg about being an entrepreneur and her advice for other women like her.
How did you start The Wedding List, the company you ultimately sold to Martha Stewart?
In my mid-twenties, I started going to millions of weddings and was tired of wearing all these dresses that didn’t fit and made me look terrible, in colors I couldn’t stand. So, my friend Karen and I started a bridesmaid company called Elizabeth Gregg, which are our two middle names, and started selling bridesmaid dresses to our friends. We created five or six different styles and allowed people to order in advance.
Later, I was living in London and one of the girls I worked with told me: you really need to meet this woman Nicole Hindmarch — she started a company called The Wedding List, and you should try to sell your bridesmaid dresses to her. Nicole had this interesting concept, which was basically a personal shopping service for weddings, where you could pick and choose different presents from different shops. It turned out that in London they don’t really use bridesmaids in the same way we do in the United States, so I wasn’t able to sell her dresses, but it was the beginning of conversations that led to me ultimately founding The Wedding List in the United States.
We did it as a partnership. I approached her and said I saw an opportunity to take wedding gift purchasing online. I had seen how the process was really cumbersome, with someone walking around Bloomingdale’s with a scanner gun, and there was nothing that was personalized. No one really asked you anything about what you did and how you wanted to live your life with your new husband or wife. So in 1998 or 1999, we took her personalized service and incorporated the Internet.
We raised a bunch of capital through both individual and institutional investors, which was the first time I’d ever done that, so that was a learning experience, and also received a million dollar investment from Nordstrom’s.
How did Martha Stewart come to acquire the business?
We were approached by Martha Stewart, who was interested in creating a commerce angle for her weddings magazine. So we partnered with them and Martha ended up ultimately acquiring the company in 2001, and I ran The Wedding List business within her organization. It was the very first acquisition in the history of Martha Stewart.
Martha ultimately ended up selling the UK business and closing the U.S. one. But it was incredible to be Martha Stewart’s first acquisition and to be able to put a multi-panel wedding strategy on the map.
So you’ve been an exec at Martha Stewart, CEO at Best & Co. and a consultant for Vivienne Tam, Intermix, Bergdorf Goodman and Jessica Alba. Would you encourage other entrepreneurs to take time to try out a lot of different things?
As an entrepreneur, you have to always be thinking about the big picture and looking for opportunities in the marketplace. Being an entrepreneur requires an inordinate amount of time commitment and passion. So for me it was always about pursuing things I cared about.
There are two common threads for me if you look at my career. One has been focusing on woman-based businesses — things that help empower women, that educate women, that are selling to women, because that was an area of interest for me but also an area of expertise. As an entrepreneur, it’s good to stay in your wheelhouse because you have to put so much passion toward whatever it is that you’re doing. And the other thing is that I’ve been really focused on businesses that allow you to give back while making money. I did that in a small way with The Wedding List, in a big way with Love Cures [a shopping program for Ann Taylor to benefit breast cancer research] and obviously in a very big way with Beautycounter.
Were you raised with an entrepreneurial spirit?
I have a really strong mother who is an amazing businesswoman herself, so she instilled in me that you want to be financially independent, you want to explore your own dreams, and she always gave me the confidence to go for anything I believed in.
It’s all been fun. Someone told me the other day, one of my investors who’s beyond successful — like multi-billionaire — that sometimes work is more fun than fun. And I think if you’re an entrepreneur, that resonates. [Work is] something you’ve got to be incredibly passionate about and it needs to be fun.