SAHAR HASHEMI MEETS DENISE LEICESTER,
FOUNDER OF ORGANIC BRITISH BEAUTY BRAND ILA
They discuss what it takes to start your own beauty business, why the tsunami was related to the birth of ILA and what you should do when you feel the fear
I have always wanted to meet ILA founder Denise Leicester. As a customer, I have been a fan of her company’s products for years. As an entrepreneur myself, I wanted to hear the real story behind ILA and what it takes to build such an authentic brand. So when Spa.Kitchen proposed this series of discussions with female founders digging into their stories, Denise was the first call I made.
To meet her, I took a train to Charlbury, a picture-perfect Cotswolds setting. Denise was waiting for me at the station in the fog. I was instantly taken in by how humble, warm and natural she was. We hit it off immediately as she drove me through the rolling countryside, totally agreeing on how important it is to tell our stories in order to inspire other women to start their own entrepreneurial journeys.
When we arrived at the idyllic barn that is the home of ILA, I was shocked. I have seen many HQs but I had never seen anything like this — it is the most un-corporate setting you can imagine, bursting with the scent of essential oils. The only sound (apart from the cows in the fields) was that of eastern chanting. It’s generally the case, I find, that when you visit someone’s HQ, you are struck by how different the atmosphere is from that of the brand. Nearly always it is a disappointment — it takes the gloss off — but that certainly wasn’t the case here. Denise’s team was the same. Everyone was very much in the spirit of the brand, reflecting exactly the luxurious ILA bottles I had at home.
As Denise and I chatted I realised the physical setting and engaged team were the perfect metaphor for her holistic, authentic and integrated approach to business.
SH: I started my business Coffee Republic simply because I was desperate to get the kind of lattes I enjoyed in New York in London. This is common in my experience. Entrepreneurs usually start with their passions. Is that true for you and, if so, how did you discover your passion for oils? DL: I started my career as a nurse and was sent to look at the bed-ridden ruler of the UAE. Since he couldn’t walk or talk, it was challenging and I was at a loss as to what I could do, but then I realised that touch and smell were very important to him, so I thought maybe we should use oils. I had read about Clarins oils, so I tried them on him. He loved them and was transformed, but I was transformed too. In my rigidity I had never looked outside the box and seen the potential to do with touch, with oils — the potential for another form of healing. When I returned to the UK I went to study complimentary medicine and trained as a practitioner.
It’s one thing to have a passion and quite another to build a business. People often see an established brand and don’t realise the long and difficult story behind it. Was it a quick and easy journey from that lightbulb moment to what you have today? It was a long journey actually. In the 90s when I had my complementary medicine practice I started a range of aromatherapy oils called Aromatheraputics which was a disaster. Basically I chose the wrong partners who forced me to have it made in a factory and I knew in my heart of hearts that was not the right thing to do. By the time the product was made I felt I had no connection with it and I couldn’t sell something I didn’t believe in, so I sold out to my partners. I thought, clearly, the business side is not for me.
But you didn’t give up. What inspired you to try your hand at business again? I was on a silent retreat when the 2004 tsunami struck. They broke the silence to tell us the news and talked about mother earth and how we all have responsibility to bring a drop of change. It was those last words that sparked something.
OK, so you have this powerful realisation in 2004, what happened next? I think these moments of inspiration are actually common, but often people just don’t act on them. How did you move from inspiration to action? My husband John turned one of the rooms in the house into an apothecary. It was a dream I always had — I wanted to have shelves full of bottles all around me. I just started playing around, creating oils, mixing them with salts, and I would make little samples and give them out to my yoga students. They loved it. It’s all about starting small – the little steps.
I totally agree. Play is such an underrated part of starting a business. But, of course, it’s not enough to just experiment. You also have to be fairly obsessive about the details in my experience. Is that true of ILA – can you tell me a little bit about your approach to quality, to getting the details right? We make sure we know where all the ingredients come from, where they are grown. I wanted to go and meet all the farmers, so we went to Morocco for the argan oil, to Kashmir for the salt. To this day our ingredients and our suppliers are the most important thing for us – the excellence is in that only. Of course, it’s more hassle working directly with indigenous people as they don’t have systems and supply chains. But once you set the system up, it works and there is no middleman.
Most entrepreneurs meet with a lot of resistance – people telling them their idea won’t work. And on top of that I feel as a women we always have a lot of self-doubt. How did you deal with it? I had lots of doubts – I would think maybe this is bonkers. Who do I think I am? Everyone I met was very doubtful when I mentioned ‘organic chemical free’. You just have to try and it all slowly adds up, taking little steps and not being put off. You have to push away the fear when it comes up. And sometimes I felt like I was going off at an angle, but that’s important too.
For me a lot of entrepreneurship was about trial and error. So often the first products are far from perfect. What was your first product like? We packaged the Rose Oil in little green bottles. I called it ‘Himalayan Goddess’. My husband designed the logo, the vicar’s wife designed the brochure. So much of it wasn’t right, but I had started – the DNA of ILA was there although it was the wrong name, wrong packaging. It was a start, which is all that matters.
I know ILA Spa business is really growing. You are in hundreds of spas in the most incredible hotels across the world. How did you get into doing treatments? Is that something you knew a lot about or were you fairly clueless like most entrepreneurs? I remember being approached very early on by the Mandarin Oriental who asked us to do ILA treatments in their spas. It came out of the blue and, of course, I had no idea how to do treatments but I didn’t say no. I thought well, I have run a clinic for so many years with knowledge of healing and massage.
One last question: what advice would you give women starting a business? Trust in starting small. If it’s kitchen table only then it’s bloomin’ perfect. Don’t think, how am I ever going to get to that place?’ It’s a creative process. You will make a lot of mistakes. It takes time. You don’t need to force things. Let it happen.
Also, when you are scared — you have doubts and everyone is doubting you — just keep walking through it. Think to yourself ‘oh fear has come up again’ and push it aside. Take the next step.