This is the fifth article in a seven-part series interviewing independent small business owners in the apothecary space.
Katharine L’Heureux is a businesswoman, wife, mother, and passionate wordsmith that speaks volumes about sustainability, truth in practice, and a profound depth in knowledge that pushes her to do her best work without fail.
I began using products from L’Heureux’s Kahina Giving Beauty line almost two years ago and still a loyal fan today due to the efficacy of the ingredients used throughout all her serums, creams, and cleansers. L’Heureux’s transparency and honesty in her craft crosses countless thresholds within the brand, which is not seen very often in the mainstream skincare industry. Sourcing only the finest of ingredients for every product in her line, and understanding the source and efforts it takes to produce only the highest degree of excellence is what makes Kahina Giving Beauty such an award-winning success.
L’Heureux has committed her life’s work to giving back to the people that make the brand what it is today, improving livelihoods, and providing men and women globally with a health and beauty option that speaks to their worth.
What’s the phonetic spelling of your surname? We bombed French class.
My husband’s family always used the American pronunciation: LeROW. So that’s what I married into. When I am in Morocco, I use the French pronunciation “LEU•reu” with a rolled “R”.
Can you share a bit about your life pre-Kahina Giving Beauty?
It was not a direct path for me to get to the place I find myself in today. I was born and raised in San Francisco and the Napa Valley, where my family owns and operates a cabernet sauvignon vineyard. After graduating from UC Berkeley I moved to New York and began my career, initially in publishing. I eventually returned to San Francisco where I co-founded a public relations firm specializing in local, sustainable products, and services such as Odwalla Fresh Juices and Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Restaurant. My husband and I moved back to New York in the mid-90s and purchased a loft in Chelsea where we raised three children and where we still live. For the next decade, I worked sporadically in public relations, and developed a passion for gardening at our home in Upstate New York. In 2007, a holiday in Morocco inspired the start of the next chapter of my life. The thread that ties it all together is a quest for authenticity and quality and an effort to live consciously.
After discovering inspiration to start your company, how did you establish such a strong business acumen?
I had been searching for effective organic skincare to use myself when I happened to travel to Morocco [that year]. On that trip, I discovered argan oil at an apothecary in Marrakesh and realized I had found the single ingredient I had been searching for: sustainable, multi-purpose, and effective. After sharing the oil with friends back home, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one searching for simple organic skincare that works. At that time, argan oil was barely known in North America so I began to investigate. I made frequent trips to Morocco to source the highest quality argan oil. While visiting cooperatives that produce oil by hand using techniques passed down over generations I developed a deep appreciation for Morocco, particularly the Berber women who do the hard work of extracting argan oil. It was then I decided to create the Kahina line of natural, effective and ethically sourced skincare that honors and gives back to these women.
Being such a prominent entrepreneur in several industries, where do you find your motivation and drive?
I envision the person I want to be and the life I want to lead and try to make it happen. It isn’t about money or recognition. It is about creating something beautiful and putting it forth in the world and taking pride in that. And about setting the example for my three children that they can do whatever they set their minds to do.
“I envision the person I want to be and the life I want to lead and try to make it happen. It isn’t about money or recognition. It is about creating something beautiful and putting it forth in the world and taking pride in that.”
Your work with the Berber women in Morocco is beautiful. Can you tell us more about your work with this group (e.g., immersing yourself in the culture, collaboration, international business practices, and philanthropy)?
For the Berber women who inhabit the argan forest in the Southwest of Morocco, the hard work of extracting argan oil offers them their only means of financial and social independence. Visiting the women who extract the oil for Kahina is always a touchstone for me, renewing my passion and excitement for the work I do. These women live in a remote village high in the Anti-Atlas Mountains in the South of Morocco. They are extremely poor, with no electricity or running water. They work hard just to sustain themselves and support their children as their husbands typically reside and work in the larger cities, but they are truly aligned with nature in their daily rhythms, which connects them to the earth and to each other in a meaningful way. The way in which they live happily, simply and creatively is always an inspiration to me.
Developing these relationships has been a process, which has gone through several iterations since I first started almost nine years ago. I have always tried to find smaller cooperatives that are in need of my help instead of the larger companies that provide the majority of the oil on the market, often supplying inferior oil and paying less than fair wage to the women. My initial experiences were with cooperatives that had little experience in international shipping or doing business with foreigners. I even funded securing the organic certification of one of these. As much as I have wanted to work with the women who need the most help, I have learned the hard way that often these poorly run co-ops are simply too unreliable when one is running a business overseas. Now, I work with small artisanal providers whose leaders understand the demands of selling in the Western market. While I have provided guidance in things such as organic certification, testing and analysis requirements, packaging and documentation for export, they have the knowledge of harvesting and extraction techniques passed down through generations.
Unlike traditional cooperatives in which the number of women who benefit is limited to the women who are members of the co-op, we pay a fair wage to any woman who wants to participate in the harvesting and cracking of the argan nuts. As our business grows, the number of women who can participate also grows. Initially, this was a means of income for the 40 women of one village, the women participating in producing our argan supply has now extended to neighboring villages and numbers up to 150.
I’m always looking for ways to give back to the Berber women beyond the workplace as well as providing them with additional opportunities to earn money, such as weaving the rugs that we have sold on our website. We make donations directly to the women as well as to NGOs such as Education for All and The High Atlas Foundation.
How do you measure quality when sourcing ingredients for the Kahina line?
First, we source our ingredients by region, making sure to purchase the best quality ingredients from around the world. We make an effort to purchase from small family farms and women’s cooperatives. Coming from a farming family myself, I know that the level of care given to the crops by these individuals is superior to a mass commercial producer. We purchase fair-trade and certified organic ingredients when possible and we make sure that the ingredient is sustainably produced (no palm oil!) Finally, we test each ingredient for microbes and bacteria as they come in. We seek out and source the highest quality raw materials, even when similar ingredients are available at a much lower price.
The history behind argan oil’s strong presence in traditional Moroccan beauty rituals are fascinating. What beauty rituals have been passed down for generations amongst the women in your family?
My mother was very no-fuss when it came to skincare and makeup so there were really no beauty rituals passed down through my family beyond the Formula 10.0.6 Cleanser my mother had on her shelf. I think that is what sparked the interest in me. I really feel that engaging in beauty rituals and sharing beauty secrets are such strong bonding elements for women. I love sharing beauty rituals I learn from my travels with my daughter.
Can you tell us about the design process behind the packaging for Kahina Giving Beauty? (E.g., function/beauty behind the black bottles, translation of the jotted script, deciding between rollerballs vs. tinctures for certain products in the line).
The mission for Kahina Giving Beauty is to create an effective, sustainable, and beautiful skincare line that respects the environment and the consumer and honors the women who do the hard work of extracting the argan oil at the heart of the line. Our story is part of the brand DNA, which is reflected in the packaging – from the name, Kahina Giving Beauty, to the artwork on the boxes. Kahina was a Berber queen who reigned in North Africa in the 8th Century. And Giving Beauty refers to our practice of giving back to the Berber women who do the work of extracting the oil at the heart of the line. In another homage to the Berber women, the artwork on the packaging is a compilation of their signatures and squiggles (most of them cannot read or write) and their graphic “marks.” I chose the black violet glass for its striking appearance and because it is recyclable and helps to protect the formulas.
We learned so much from spending only a few minutes on your website and we’re big proponents of thought leadership. Could you share your point of view on product transparency and the importance of educating customers?
I sense so much fear among consumers about what is in their cosmetics. With good reason – there are so many toxic ingredients in traditional skincare and can be next to impossible for consumers to understand what they are putting on their skin by reading labels. We formulate according to Ecocert natural and organic guidelines and adhere to European labeling standards. We use exhaustive third-party vetting by two different independent formula verification vendors to certify that our products are safe and sustainable and our labels are accurate. Each ingredient is broken down to include preservatives in the ingredient itself and listed on our label. Natural and organic percentages are clearly presented. By showing complete transparency on our packaging, our customers can make educated choices for themselves.
What’s next for Kahina Giving Beauty?
We plan to continue to produce beautiful high-quality products that work. I hope to immerse myself more fully into Moroccan culture and to really make a difference in the lives of the people there. This could mean extending the Kahina brand into lifestyle and hospitality.
If you could have dinner with anyone alive or dead, who would it be?
That fear will hold me back.
Best Hepburn style: Audrey or Katharine?
Katharine, of course.
Which country are you dying to visit that you haven’t seen yet?
Thank you, thank you, thank you (and so many more thank yous) to Katharine L’Heureux for a truly breath-taking interview and for inspiring us at great lengths with the ground-breaking work you do at home and abroad. To learn more about the Kahina Giving Beauty mission and peruse their amazing products, please visit kahina-givingbeauty.com.