Susan Griffin-Black, along with her ex-husband but still business partner, Brad Black is Co-Chief Executive Officer of EO Products, an independently owned beauty company featuring organically derived essential oils. Their large range of soaps and cosmetics has grown from a 3-gallon stovetop stockpot in Susan’s Potrero Hill garage to a 45,000 sq. foot facility housed in an old Star Wars studio space in San Rafael, Ca. She is a well-known figure in the worlds of natural care, as well as all things kind, kind to the environment, and smelling good.
When did you know that you might have a real business and not a kitchen endeavor?
Brad and I were dating, both divorcees and refugees from the apparel industry. I had been in retail, with several stores under my belt and Brad was an apparel manufacturer. We knew how to build a business, but nothing about making fragrance or things that come in bottles. The only things we knew for sure was that we did not want to work for anyone else. We did a few private label essential oil projects and when we landed on the name EO, we knew that we were on to something. After a year we moved from my garage to an industrial space.
Is there one product you credit with your identity and growth?
We’re really proud of our hand sanitizers; they’re the leading organic hand sanitizers on the market. In 2006, Whole Foods challenged us to create one with all non-GMO ingredients, which led us to an organic alcohol derived from sugar cane and our hand sanitizers were born. With FDA approval, we became a certified OTC manufacturer and the world was introduced to hand sanitizers that smelled great and were gentle, moisturizing, and 99.9% effective against most common germs. I still get a thrill when I smell our lavender oil at the entrance of Whole Foods.
You had a young family to support when you started EO, how did you finance the business?
We were blessed with some early family & friends support and we rode with that 100k for a long, long while. Well, that and I always maxed out my credit cards, and sometimes we relied on purchase order /factored loans. It was scary at times and for years we put everything we made, beyond rent and essentials, into the business. It didn’t really feel like hardship and I like to think the kids never knew how close to the edge we were living.
Can you describe “close to the edge?”
Well, we never bought a house and 3 times in the last 23 years, we had to cut back to a 4-day manufacturing schedule, as opposed to now where we operate a double shift. I think we’ve become awfully good at NOTgoing out of business.
You’ve been doing this for a long time now and because I‘ve experienced your dynamism, I can ask: Are you still excited about your work?
I can honestly say that I love what I do. The challenge of running a growing business makes for a dynamic day. I get to work with smart people, many of who have been with us for decades. On a daily basis, I am creating product, labels, packaging—scaling is even fun for me. My colleagues call me the SKU queen. I am always excited about coming up with new products and extensions of the line.
As a female leader, and one with such a gentle demeanor, are you viewed as the company “Mother?”
Thank goodness no. I have my own family to mother. Early on we hired a brilliant woman to run our HR department. She is remarkably caring and smart and does a great job of working with our best resource — our human capital. But I do think that good parenting skills equal good HR skills: see the gift in your employees and support their growth.
Your website identifies EO as a “B” Corp. What does that mean?
B Corp designations are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab who have met rigorous standards of social responsibility. The B Corp designation is something we take seriously as it keeps us focused on being good citizens of the world. Yes, we want to make money, but we also want to honor and respect our employees, the environment, and our own proclaimed intentions.
I’m sensing a Buddhist theme coming on can you talk a bit about how your practice has influenced your work?
Although the EO story can feel like more luck: a kitchen stockpot, a new boyfriend, made by hand etc., but actually, we unfolded in an intentional way. Meditation taught me how to slow down to that still place where I can figure out what has real meaning and heart for me. Kahil Gibran said “Work is love made visible,” and I think that is what really excites me. I get to live my calling because I was able to listen and hear myself.
What would you tell your 35-year-old business self?
I would tell myself that if you are very careful about what kind of investment dollars you accept, it IS possible to create a company that you’ll want to work for. Brad and I always want to treat people the way we want to be treated. We want to be trustworthy and trusting and it feels really, really good to do good.
Okay, one bonus question: if you had a warning label, what would it say?
That’s easy: Be kind or go home.