The Interview: Melisse Shaban, Founder and CEO of Virtue Labs
Melisse Shaban is the founder and CEO of Virtue Labs, the company behind the pioneering Virtue haircare brand that has been quite literally turning heads around the world since it’s 2017 launch.
Born out of research seeking to repair catastrophic battlefield wounds, the science-led brand features ground-breaking patented keratin protein technology that transforms hair with its unrivalled healing powers.
Discovered by retired US army colonel Dr Luke Burnett, Alpha Keratin 60ku is ethically sourced from human hair, meaning that it can bind directly to areas of damage and repair them, regardless of hair type, race, ethnicity or demographic.
Just this month, the brand launched its latest offering: Flourish – a new range designed exclusively to help treat female hair loss.
In this exclusive interview, Shaban leads Gaelle Walker through the fascinating story of her formative years, early business successes and the chain of “serendipitous” events that led to the birth of the Virtue brand.
Included this year as one of Forbes’ 50 over 50 women doing amazing things, Shaban also talks about the culture she has worked so hard to nurture within her business – not forgetting her meaningful relationship with friend and brand partner Jennifer Garner.
Melisse I’m so honoured to meet you – and face to face rather than over Zoom too! Before we delve into the fascinating story behind the founding of Virtue, please enlighten us on your career history so far. It’s certainly been an impressive one!
“Of course! Well, I’ve been in the haircare business for literally my whole life! My dad worked for Revlon for 30 years so I had a real love for the category from really early on and in-fact my first ever job was behind the Revlon counter at Macy’s Herald Square.
I really admired my dad and just loved to watch him work and then later I was actually lucky enough to start working with him, so from there my career just kind of fell into place.
I spent a few more years at Revlon and then later I went to work at Aveda for Horst Rechelbacher who was an absolute genius but also really eccentric, as so many creative types are!
He taught me so much about detail and the nuance of what made something good into something great.
Later in the 90s I got the opportunity to work for Anita Roddick at The Body Shop which was obviously pretty exciting. She was such an interesting woman who was almost ahead of her time and she was also crazy funny.
She had the most amazing sense of humour and it was totally off the cuff. She was a fascinating woman and if you think about what she did back then, it’s just incredible. Not only did she start an independent beauty company based on naturals, she also did it through franchised free-standing stores. It was an incredible concept and one that everyone then copied! I worked for her for around three years running the North American business which was just the most interesting time.
Once I got out of that I did a couple of little entrepreneurial things and got involved with medical devices which I was intrigued by. Lasers were suddenly popping up all over the place for hair removal and they were migrating from medical providers into retail.
That process of taking cutting-edge technology and making it accessible to consumers by removing legislative barriers is something that has always fascinated me and still does.
A little later down the line and while still working within that field I met a gentleman called Michael Chu and together we tried to buy Burt’s Bees. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the cut but Michael and I became pretty good friends and I went on to join him at L’Catterton which is the largest consumer product private equity company in the world.
Together we bought Frederic Fekkai, Niadyne, StriVectin, Pout Cosmetics and many more. We also sold a bunch of businesses, but then my dad got sick and I started to think that this wasn’t quite what I wanted to do anymore.
So when did Virtue enter the frame?
It was around that time that I got a call from a very prolific banker in the states who asked me to do him a favour.
He had a big client who had a piece of technology in the medical devices field that was promising great things and he wanted me to take a look. And so, that’s how I came to meet the fascinating Dr Luke Burnett.
Burnett was a retired US army colonel who had done two tours in Iraq and was utterly dedicated to trying to improving the quality life of traumatically injured soldiers. War had changed in 20 years and so had the types of injuries that soldiers were sustaining. Doctors were no longer dealing as much with wounds inflicted by bullets and more with wounds from explosions.
The military had also got really good at triage and extraction meaning that people who years before would have died of their injuries were now being kept alive.
Medicine however, had not caught up in terms of improving the quality of that life, once it had been saved.
So what Dr Burnett was doing was trying to develop products, proteins and devices to help with that process by regenerating bone, tissue and nerve.
One of the proteins he was concentrating on was keratin – and he had a thesis that if he could find a way to recreate a full proteomic form of human keratin, it could be the catalyst that would help. The issue was that you can’t make keratin in a lab, it’s a very odd shaped protein and it’s large so you can’t make it synthetically and you can’t take it off of the skin.
His premise though, was that you should be able to take it out of hair, and that’s how all this started.
It was around that time that a young woman on the team whose parents had a hair salon started to ask the question, ‘if this technology can help to repairs wounds to bone and skin, wouldn’t it work for healing hair too?
Now, the way the industry has traditionally dealt with keratin for cosmetic use is as an animal by-product: it’s from animal hair, beaks, feathers, and we acid wash it at high heat for purification.
So, this young woman and the team played around with the keratin technology a little bit to see what possibilities it might offer for human hair repair and it was around that time that I came into the picture. I was hooked by the concept from the start. I didn’t know if it would work but I loved the story.
So, we raised a little bit of money and ran some clinical trials and the results were simply incredible. Because the keratin was human and recognized that way, the hair absorbed it into any damaged areas.
It would see a damaged site and it would adapt exactly to the size and shape of the site and where it wasn’t needed it would just come off. There were also improvements to things we weren’t even expecting like far better colour vibrancy, bigger, thicker fuller hair.
We knew then that we were seriously onto something so at that point we raised a couple of million dollars and did more clinical work and started to think about commercialisation.
We later established what is now a dedicated R&D lab facility in North Carolina where we make the protein.
On paper that all sounds fairly simple and there were lots of serendipitous moments but there were also quite a few challenges along the way too!
You say there were quite a few challenges and we’ll come on to those later, but something must have kept driving you on, what was that?
Yes absolutely I knew in my heart that I had something. It’s important to say that I take zero credit for the technology. We never forget that people got mortally injured and that’s why we got to where we got, because someone was looking to help somebody else.
But the marketing side and the product development side, I knew we had something. I’ve been in this business for too long and this was doing too many good things in a category, which quite frankly, was devoid of research and development at the time.
Tell me more about the journey from concept to creation, how did you actually bring Virtue to life?
We put a team together using a lot of people I had worked with before. They weren’t taking money or anything, they were just betting on the fact that we were going to build something great. From the get-go we decided to lead with a ‘problem, solution’ strategy, what were women’s problems and what is the solution.
I also used lots of different agencies in lots of different places to pull everything together as I really believe that no one agency can do everything and be truly great at every aspect.
One of the hardest aspects, would you believe it, was the actual name! It took us two years just to find the name, we just couldn’t get there. We were so heartfelt about the whole thing, we had all come to know and love Dr Burnett so well and we knew that the brand and positioning had to be absolutely right.
I’ve been around the industry for too long and seen far too much salacious marketing, products that over-promise things, and staying away from all of that was so important.
We had been all over the place looking for the right name but to no avail and we ended up hiring a very junior copywriter who compiled some more for us and one day I was going down the list and just stopped in my tracks when I came down to Virtue.
When I closed my eyes I imagined an angel, a beautiful bare-foot, kind woman who we would aspire to be like. Because that’s what it’s all about, we aspire to be virtuous, we aspire to be kind, we don’t always quite get there, sometimes we trip up, but we are trying and that’s what we wanted from this brand, to aspire to be as virtuous, to be honest, to be as forthcoming as we could and as good as we said we were.
Once we settled on the name the next challenge was actually getting it! We called our lawyer and she did a search and I was dreading the call back because I was just so worried that it would already be gone.
When the lawyer called back she confirmed that it was gone BUT she said, ‘it isn’t being managed.’
The next part is totally crazy because as it turned out, the name was owned by a man called Ben Carson, a paediatric neurosurgeon and author who was running for president at the time! There were 17 people running for president in the Republican party in 2016, he was one of them and a pastor in LA had deeded him the name for a fragrance!
We knew however, that the trademark was up for renewal pretty soon so our lawyer just advised us to parallel path ourselves, sit quietly and see what happened.
On the day (it was 3pm on a Friday) I got the call I’d been waiting for ‘you got it, it’s yours!’ the lawyer said. I can’t tell you how elated I felt. It was meant to be.
From there things moved pretty quickly. We made 8,000 products in four different SKUs and gave it out to friends and family and just asked them to use it and tell us what they found. It was their reactions that gave us the marketing story, they were just so excited and blown away that it did what it said it would. I’m a big believer in brands and brands having guardrails and living up to their promises.
Talking of living up to promises – the brand is clearly doing that – didn’t it just double its revenues to $30 million year on year in 2020?
Yes and we’ll double in 2021 too. The other incredible part is that our repeat purchase rate is over 40%. Now for shampoo and conditioner that’s really impressive and something we are super proud of.
Jennifer Garner’s support has really helped too. That all came about initially because she is friends with our creative director Adir Abergel and about a year in she asked him if she could get involved.
Now Jen doesn’t do a lot of brands, but she’s actually part of the company, and her support and genuine love for the brand has just been so amazing.
The hair-growth side of the story must have also helped too?
Yes, that’s certainly been another major driver of the brand’s success. When we launched Virtue we knew that people’s hair would get thicker as the keratin repaired any damage but after a few months we also started to get feedback from people saying that they were also seeing peach fuss and new hair growing around their temples.
So we decided to take a look at that aspect and once again the keratin was the gift that just kept on giving. That process led to the creation of Flourish – our newest launch specifically designed to help treat hair-loss.
My mum suffered from catastrophic alopecia so I had a personal understanding of the impact of hair-loss but we also knew from our research that hair-loss just fractures women.
Crazily though there just wasn’t really anything on the market that catered to this problem! There were some products for male hair loss but women didn’t want to use those - the industry just hadn’t been paying attention though.
So the journey started three years ago and we finally launched Flourish in April in the US and in the UK it’s just hit Cult Beauty this month.
The Flourish range uses an entirely different type of keratin. In the core line we use Alpha Keratin 60ku but for Flourish it’s a combination of Alpha and Gama – it’s a different type of protein and that’s because we are dealing with scalp health. We are going to go after eyebrows too as we see a huge opportunity in that market too so watch this space!
Tell me about your marketing approach?
“We are so lucky to work with such a fantastic piece of technology and so because of that we are totally technology forward-facing not marketing forward-facing and that’s pretty rare in the hair industry.
The difference with Virtue products is that they progressively improve the quality of the hair, while other products coat the hair for an immediate moment. Primers, silicones, all that, they coat the hair but it all comes out in the wash.
With Virtue, seeing really is believing and when people use it, they see the changes to their hair right in-front of their eyes.
Our website and feed features a raft of stories from women within our ‘community’. These are women who use Virtue and genuinely want to tell their story and help others. There is an authenticity to it all that really resonates.
Even with Jen Garner, she’s genuinely a user. She simply has a really high regard for the integrity of how the brand has been developed and she wants to play a role in that.
This is a woman who could have 20,000 gigs if she wanted to but she doesn’t. The main thing for us is this deep sense of authenticity and honestly. We are so lucky and humbled by the opportunity that we have with this brand and we will do all that we can to stay true to it.
Tell me about how you built distribution?
Our distribution is omni-channel, we have a very strong native direct to consumer business which probably accounts for around 40% now and that’s how we started.
We started native because at first I didn’t know how to tell the story on shelf and it’s expensive, because this keratin is super expensive. I’d hired some very good digital people to help with that and we built out a really strong feed and footprint that way.
However, it really wasn’t long before the salons started to come inbound; because what was happening was clients were going in and stylists were saying to them ‘what have you done to your hair? It’s amazing!’ and clients were telling them about Virtue. And so that’s how that started. We didn’t do that typical distribution thing and push salons to buy in large quantities either, I came from that business, I knew how rough it could be for them so we said, ‘buy what you want, you want rolling demand, you got it!’
So we now have 1,300 salons around the world and in the UK we also sell through Space NK, Lookfantastic and Cult Beauty. We are huge Cult fans, love Alexia Inge and everything she’s doing.
What other factors, societal or otherwise are helping to fuel the brand’s success?
Hair is having a moment right now so that’s a lucky thing for us. The pandemic has probably helped that too. We’re looking at ourselves a lot more now on zoom and I also think that we have finally convinced women that healthy hair is the best-looking hair.
It’s not about gluing it down, burning it, backcombing it to within an inch of its life, because it’s breaking!
The other thing that is important to note is that the protein in Virtue doesn’t see race, ethnicity or demographic. It just sees damage, an injury, a wound and it goes to that wound and repairs it.
Virtue really is for everybody and that allows us to have a really diverse positioning. In-fact we have a new campaign launching in February which will centre around that theme which is really exciting.
Talk us through the range as it stands today?
We have four families of products: Recovery, which is really for everybody, Full, for volume, Smooth for thicker more course hair and then we have Curl, for all ranges and levels of curl. And now we also have Flourish for hair growth.
There is also a suite of treatment products including a treatment mask and a healing oil which are just game-changers.
They are also really fantastic gateway products. Sometimes because of our premium price points it can be hard at first to get people to migrate to something that’s new, so these treatment products are a great way of giving people confidence.
The smell is great, the performance is great and once they get familiar with the brand they tend to migrate into it.
Your management style is widely admired and you’ve pulled together an incredible bunch of inspiring people to work with at Virtue Labs, many of whom are women. Tell us a bit more about your management approach and the benefits it reaps?
The key, in my view to building a successful business is to create a culture and environment where everybody wins.
You have to manage through empathy and understand that different people need different things and our job as leaders is to adjust to their needs, not the other way around which is not how it has happened historically.
As new leaders we need to figure out how to make our employees’ jobs and lives better and enjoy contribution equally.
Yes, I’m the one being interviewed today but I can honestly say that there’s not one person on my team without whom this whole thing would have collapsed on any given day.
I’ve also worked hard to create a culture where we enjoy each other as much in business as we do socially. There’s a real love and there also isn’t anyone in the company who doesn’t have equity.
It doesn’t matter what you do, even people in the plant, we are all owners. I genuinely believe that when you create that kind of environment you have a happy, healthy team. Even through this awful pandemic, we’ve always tried to do what is best for our people.
When you start up and build a brand you have moments of success and moments of failure and in my opinion those unsuccessful moments are actually the most valuable. The key is not to judge the failure. Success doesn’t define you and nor do mistakes, they are all part of the learning process.
What’s important is how you deal with it and that’s another key strength of ours. Even during these recent challenging times our team has been brilliant at solving problems very quickly, they are so fluid and there’s always a solution. We really try not to dwell on what isn’t working but to dwell on what did work and how to do it again and it’s that ethos that has helped us get to where we are today.
Looking at the wider market, there have been a lot of other early successes of late, new brands powered by influencers and it will be interesting to see if they have legacy and if they can manage their problems when things go wrong, because that is truly where the art is.
It’s very much like parenting, it’s the not the good days that make you a great parent, it’s the bad days.