The FEKKAI Life Episode 5: Hillary Peterson, Founder and CEO of True Botanicals

I am a celebrity hairstylist, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist who’s built my brand on taking care of others, body, hair, and soul. Join me weekly for The FEKKAI Life, a series of relaxed, intimate conversations with free thinkers, business leaders, and creatives who’ve used their passion to change the world for the better.  Available wherever you find your podcasts.

HP: Hi, I'm Hillary Peterson and I'm the founder of True Botanicals. We make pure potent proven skincare products that empower people to take the best care of themselves and the people they love and the planet. To me, clean living means having access to nature in as many aspects of your life as possible, whether it's what we eat, how we spend our time, and the products that we put on our bodies. You know, I think in the end, Mother Nature is really the master healer. And so, you know, incorporating nature into our lives in as many ways as possible has really felt like the best way for me to approach clean living.

FF: I'm Frédéric Fekkai, and this is The FEKKAI Life. I'm coming to you from my home in upstate New York. We are all adjusting to working from home during this time. And as you can hear, podcasting is just the same. I hope you and those close to you are healthy and safe. Coming up, you'll hear my conversation with Hillary Peterson, the founder of True Botanicals. I wanted to interview her for a long time, and was so inspired by her take on healthy living.

FF: Good afternoon, Hillary.

HP: Good afternoon, Frédéric.

FF: It’s so nice to have you.

HP: It’s my pleasure to be here.

FF: Well, everyone, this is Hillary Peterson, and I'm so delighted to meet you. And truly because we tried to actually meet a few times when you were in New York, and we failed. But here we are in your land in California. And I'm so curious of what you've done and how you got there. You founded a brand called True Botanicals, which is amazing. Just the name sounds very inspiring. And I hear the idea came from a health issue. And so I want to hear all about how you really plunged into this journey and what caused that.

HP: You know, it's so interesting because sometimes the most challenging circumstances can open very interesting doors, you know, as we all learn in life, and for me, my thyroid cancer opened the door to my awareness of the fact that my personal care products were being made with toxins and I didn't know it.

FF: When did you diagnose the thyroid cancer?

HP: So I was young, I was in my early 30s, I was 32. And I had baby twins. And it was such an interesting time to have that kind of health challenge. And as part of sort of a mother's desire to be healthy, to raise her children, I really took a deep dive into all the different ways I could support wellness in my life and I never even thought about my personal care products until I heard the cord blood study that was conducted around 2005 and it showed that the chemicals in women's personal care products were absorbing through their skin into their bloodstream because they were finding it in babies' cord blood and that's when I thought wow, OK, this is an area of wellness I should look at for myself. And it was seeing all of the endocrine disrupting chemicals that were in common personal care products, most personal care products, that really inspired me to think about how this industry could shift.

FF: We'll talk about how you went and developed this product later on. But I want to talk about a little bit the cultural bit of your company as well first. I hear that it is a mostly female team, which is fantastic. And you're based in Northern California, where exactly?

HP: Our headquarters are in San Francisco. And you're correct. It's a mostly female team. We have added some men to the team, which everybody's really enjoyed. But we did start and we still are primarily women. And, you know, I think about that a lot, because so much of what we're doing as a business is about caring for people in the planet. And there is something innately, I think, intuitive to women when it comes to really taking care.

FF: And how many are you in the company?

HP: We're a team of about 25 now.

FF: Wonderful. Wow. So you founded in 2014, is that right?

HP: Yes, that’s correct. Well, 2015.

FF: OK, great. Wow, what a great journey. And you know, my wife and I have been watching lately series on Netflix and so Laura Dern and I think I see that she's very involved in your brand. Also Olivia Wilde and Zazie Beats. I mean, they are fantastic actresses, that's amazing. And why are they part of the brand and how did that happen?

HP: You know, it's so incredible because it's very connected to the ethos of the brand. You know, at the core, it's a very authentic brand. The reason I'm doing this comes from a very deep personal place for me. And the same is true for Laura and Olivia and Zazie. You know, these are women who are very discerning and certainly, you know, how you look and feel as an actress is very important and so they certainly want to use products that really have an impact on their skin. And at the same time, all three women are very true activists, they care a lot about the well-being of people and the planet and human rights. And you know, how are we going to take care of this planet in ways that we need to in order to survive. And so I think it was just that perfect intersection of them discovering products that really worked for them and that they loved using. And at the same time, learning that this was a brand that is really taking care to innovate and disrupt and do things in a way that does consider human health and the environment. And so I think it was, you know, their discerning natures and their activism intersecting that really brought them to the brand which is so wonderful because that really speaks to the original authenticity, that matters a lot to me in terms of what it is that we're doing and how we're doing it.

FF: How did you meet? How did the connection come about?

HP: So each story is different actually. In the case of Olivia, she had just had Daisy, her daughter, and she has a nonprofit called Conscious Commerce. So she really cares about conscious consumerism. And she had talked with her agent and said, "I really want to support a beauty brand that's disrupting and approaching beauty in a way that I know that it should be approached" and she had been using some of our products and she really loved them and she said, "Let's talk to True Botanicals as one of those brands." And so she talked to a lot of companies and we just really connected and she loved the products. And you know what's really amazing is the best part of that story from my perspective. First of all, she's just a lovely person and we love working with her. She's very much a part of our company. And then secondly, she had this sort of chronic adult acne issue because as an actress, you're wearing makeup all the time. And I love that she can so passionately say now when she talks about the products that our products have cleared her skin. And so that that happened over time, maybe over about five months. She was already working with us. But it's really amazing that not only has it been, you know, a great collaboration from a business perspective, it's also wonderful that personally she's so excited about it. So that's really great. And then in the case of Laura Dern, her makeup artist was using the products on her on the set of Big Little Lies, and she loved the pure radiance oil. And she actually wrote a note to me and said, "You know, I love your product. It does amazing things for my skin. And then I dug a little deeper and realized that you as a company were so committed to sustainability and to taking care of the planet and human health." And she said, "I just really want to be involved with a brand like yours." I couldn't believe it. I thought, wow, did I just get that email from Laura Dern? So obviously we we did respond. And that's how that partnership began. And then in the case of Zazie, we've reached out to her and in the way that we always do things, we just sent the products and said, if you love them, let us know, please, you know, reach out, we'd love to talk to you. But you know, if they don't resonate for you, no problem, she loved the products and, and that's how that partnership started.

FF: Wonderful. Couldn't be a better partnership with these wonderful, beautiful women. Tell us I mean, you know, I know what it takes to make product and to develop a brand. And, you know, I want to hear a little bit, is it difficult to have the most amazing organic ingredients and to find sustainable packaging. Take us through that. And where is it manufactured? How did you get to find the right supplier, laboratories, and so on?

HP: So relative to the challenge of developing the product line, it's incredible how it really did flow which is very exciting that it just worked in the way that it did. We were looking at the latest science relative to cellular health, and nourishment of cells and aging of cells. You know, the same philosophy that applies to us internally is the philosophy that applies to the cells on our skin. And so, the research around the ingredients that we would use in the products was based on some of the latest scientific research coming out of universities. We've worked with some really interesting professors from universities, the head of green chemistry helped us to identify our preservation system, I would say that's the hardest part. You know, if you were to ask me what was the hardest part of developing the products, it was preserving them in a way that the preservation system was bulletproof, which ours is, and yet it's completely safe for people on the planet. So our preservatives don't bioaccumulate in people or the planet and with natural products that can be hard. So I'd say that was probably the toughest part.

FF: Great. This is great. Your products—the ingredients all from the US or the all over the world? And did you source everything locally? What's the philosophy behind this?

HP: Yes, so our philosophy is to blend the best of ancient healing wisdom and modern science. And because we are relying on that ancient healing wisdom largely to identify incredibly nutritive ingredients, and then we confirm the efficacy through scientific studies, we source ingredients from all around the world, because it is amazing. You know, our essential oils come from one of the oldest fragrance houses in the world, south of France, which I know you know very well. We source ingredients from Africa from South America. So we're sourcing the most potent ingredients from all around the world and then we do manufacture everything in the United States.

FF: So what inspires you about working in skincare, and what sets it apart from the rest of the beauty world?

HP: I think for me having healthy glowing skin is at the heart of anybody's beauty routine. I think it's just letting that inner beauty come out and shine. And as Gita Bass said to me, she's Laura's makeup artist, as well as Katey Denno, who's one of my favorite celebrity makeup artists. You know, both of them often will say that the best makeup look is just beautiful, fresh, healthy skin. And so I think skincare is so important in that way to me and to others. And I would also just say that it's nourishment and I just love the whole concept of nourishment. I love cooking. And skin nourishment, I think is is equally important for its own reasons. And you know, the fact that we're helping people balance the ecosystem of their skin and really a partner to them in that way, I find very rewarding.

FF: What were you doing? I'm curious before that, what was your life like?

HP: So prior to founding True Botanicals, I worked with a smaller skincare brand in Northern California and learned a lot about the industry through that experience. So initially, I started working with this person as a marketer supporting her efforts. And then I became CEO. And we grew that business dramatically over a five-year period. Marie Veronique Organics, that was the name then. It's sort of reinvented, been reinvented since then.

FF: So it was already organic.

HP: Yes. And prior to that, I was an executive at Levi Strauss & Co and so I led the 501 Jeans business and marketing at Levi Strauss & Co. I lead 501 Jeans marketing and women's jeans marketing and clearly learned a lot about connecting with consumers and, you know, storytelling and fine tuning a brand essence and making sure that that comes across so that was my experience.

FF: Great. Amazing. Amazing. I mean iconic brand, Levi's. Great. So we talked about your health issue, your thyroid. By the way, I also had a thyroid issue myself, not cancer, thank God, but tell us about how this health journey impacted your relationship with what goes on on your skin.

HP: I think, you know, on so many levels, first of all, I really look at what I put on my skin and what I allow in my home very differently because I think a lot of people see the cleaning supplies that you use and your skincare is very separate, when actually they absolutely become a part of you. And therefore being very discerning about them is is incredibly important. I think additionally, I've learned a lot about the types of foods that I should eat on a regular basis from developing my skincare line. Because for instance, you know, I can see very clearly for your skin cells the benefit of essential fatty acids, and regular consumption of the right essential fatty acids and the right balance, and likewise, the importance of antioxidants and how antioxidants can really help to address the free radical damage that comes from aging and environmental exposure. And so I've gotten so much better about eating antioxidants, understanding how they can really keep your body in balance, just knowing how important it is for us to incorporate them into our skincare products.

FF: So of all the things you learned about how ingredients affect our bodies, what has changed your life the most?

HP: I would have to say it's knowing the importance of knowing how oxidative stress accelerates aging.

FF: Can you elaborate about that? That's interesting. I want to make sure.

HP: So what I've learned through my studies is that oxidative stress is really at the core of all illness, free radicals cause inflammation. And inflammation causes aging and oxidative stress is when there's an imbalance of free radicals in the system. So every doctor that I've talked to when I talk about the disease that they study, I'll ask, you know, is oxidative stress related to this disease? And they'll think for a moment and they'll say, yes, as a matter of fact, it really is at the core of whether it's an eye disease or cancer. And so not only has that informed how I create our skincare products, but it really informs how I eat because making sure that your cells have adequate access to antioxidants is a really great way to avoid oxidative stress.

FF: Wow, wonderful. I learned a great deal from this. This is amazing. That's great. And now I'm gonna have to balance my oxidative stress.

FF: So we talked about earlier, you know, your team is mostly composed of woman. And so how is it? What impact it is for you to work the woman environment in your office?

HP: I, there's so many ways to answer that, because I think the impact comes across in many different ways. The first thing that comes to mind is community and the fact that, you know, I think throughout history it has been shown that women are organizers and community builders. And so given that we're organizing this movement, and really working to create change in our industry, and to empower people with more information about how to best heal people and the planet and skin, having this group of women collaborating on how to grow our community is just incredibly powerful. And our target consumer is a woman. And so, you know, there's something to be said for that understanding.

FF: So today your brand has a great traction, is growing very nicely. And what do you think is the most exciting, the most desirable from the customer point of view? What is it, the ingredients? What is it?

HP: I think what resonates so much about our brand for consumers is for so long there was this perception that you either needed to choose potent, effective products or natural, sustainable products. And what we've shown is that's not a choice you need to make, you can have both. And I think that really resonates that there's no sacrifice required. As a matter of fact, you know, we're empowering people with the information that we all deserve better. And I think that's something not only people feel passionate about personally as they see the success that they have with the products, but then they want to tell more people because there is somewhat of an indignation that comes with the fact that we've been sort of, you know, led to believe that that's not the case.

FF: That's great music to my ears. I won't talk about my brand but that's pretty much the promises I made myself when I launched again my new line to make sure that the performance was not compromised with the sustainability and the clean formula. Is it difficult for you to find the right ingredients, the right packaging, has it been a challenge?

HP: I would say that the ingredients have been the easiest of all the challenges you mentioned because nature offers up such incredibly potent, nourishing ingredients for us to draw from. And we have amazing suppliers, we're very careful about making sure that we source sustainable ingredients because as you know what you buy not only impacts your customers but also the farmers who are farming these ingredients and you know there are record numbers of farmers with neurodegenerative disease and cancer. And, you know, being thoughtful about that sourcing really matters. So that actually hasn't been the hardest. It's exciting and I'd say it's probably the most rewarding for me personally, being able to source such beautiful ingredients. I would say what's the hardest has been packaging really, the packaging is tough because we'd love to have zero plastic in our packaging. So far, we have glass packaging, but then you've got the closures, you know, you need packaging to function. So we're always pushing to evolve our packaging to keep it as minimal as possible as easily recycled as possible. And I know packaging is something you really care a lot about too. And you've been so thoughtful with the packaging you're sourcing. I think that we can make such a big impact with being thoughtful about how we approach something like packaging.

FF: What is the most impactful about engaging with your customer, especially knowing that many of them had really emotional health journey on their own?

HP: I think it is exactly that. It's just knowing that you know, we all struggle at some point and finding a brand that is really there to support you and help you on your journey, whether it's healthy skin or nutritive food products, for us it's skin, you know, knowing that we can really be a partner for customers and make a difference in their lives and help them to look and feel their best is just incredibly rewarding. And, you know, for me personally, not only did I struggle with my thyroid cancer, but I really struggled with adult acne, much like I had mentioned regarding Olivia and so to be able to develop products that keep my skin and other people's skin clear, is incredibly rewarding because there's nothing like waking up and seeing clear skin instead of breaking out.

FF: Do you see your customer very engaged and I mean, basically, communicating or challenging you, even trying to be part of the process?

HP: Completely. And we'd like to engage our customers even more moving forward more and more. We're trying to involve them in our product development process. We love to hear from them when they think we could do better, you know, and we love to hear from them when we've changed their lives. I mean, this dialogue, that's the most amazing thing to me about having a direct brand is we get to hear directly from our customers on a regular basis.

FF: So what is the ultimate goal for True Botanicals and how will you know when you achieve it?

HP: For me, personally, the ultimate goal is to be one of the top beauty brands in the world. And to show that you can build a very successful profitable brand, while very carefully considering the health of people in the planet. You know, I think that that is the kind of change that the world needs right now. And it really is an honor just to be a part of that movement. And a lot of other brands are working towards the same and it's exciting to see it happening.

FF: Living in San Francisco in a wonderful, geographically amazing place, mountain oceans, Napa Valley, Sonoma, all this wine country. So how is this affecting your life every day? What does clean living mean to you?

HP: Well, I feel so lucky to live in a place where we have access to such beautiful places and where nature is, you know, a five minute walk away. You know, I can be standing up against some of the most beautiful redwoods in Northern California or my husband and I can go on a mountain bike and be at the edge of the ocean. You know, within a half an hour. I just am such a believer in the healing power of nature, you know, whether it's through what we eat, or what we put on our skin, or just what spending time in nature does for body and soul, it's incredible. So I do feel really lucky to be able to live so close to it and to even have, you know, I take a longer commute to work, I take the ferry, and you know, the negative ions coming off of the ocean are a part of my life, morning and night. And so to me, it's worth half worth having a commute that's 15 minutes longer, but I'm on the ocean and I'm looking at the seagulls and the other day I saw a whale and I just feel like, you know, all of that is just, you know, definitely a really important part of what makes life feel full and balanced.

FF: You have a great brand. What is out there, what is all the benchmark or inspiring brand? Doesn't have to be in beauty specifically, but anything that you admire and look up to.

HP: I love that question because there's so many brands that I admire and it's so fun to track their progress. I would say one of them would probably be Patagonia. I think they've done an incredible job of connecting the benefits of their products to the incredible enjoyment that their customers experience using their products out in nature. So I would say that's definitely a favorite brand. I think the MADE SAFE brand is one that I'm a huge fan of, because I feel that they're really bringing integrity to the beauty industry's evaluation of what are truly safe products, through looking at ingredients all the way through supply chain, through looking at not only ingredients but all of a sudden ingredients. So I love the integrity of that brand. There's some really beautiful makeup brands that I like it's very hard to create clean makeup products, and so I love Ilia, that's that I like to use, I love Kosas, so it's exciting to see all of these brands, you know, connecting with consumers in ways that are meaningful and really creating products that people love in a very enthusiastic way.

FF: What would you wish to change in the business to accelerate your mission or your vision?

HP: Yeah, I would say, you know, if I were to think of what I would love to see change in the business, I think really more than anything, it would be consumer perceptions around what efficacy is and what it takes to have healthy skin. And, you know, I just think, post-Industrial Revolution, there are a lot of perceptions that we're shifting every day, so I guess it would just be an acceleration of those perception shifts, that we certainly don't need to unnecessarily expose ourselves and those that we love to toxins in order to look and feel our best.

FF: Tell us Hillary, I mean, this beautiful brand— by the way, there's a reason why you're here. I've admired this brand and what the message of the brand is, I admire your work, and now you're the cause behind it. It's good. So tell everyone, where can we find this brand? I see that you are mostly DTC. Is that right?

HP: That's correct.

FF: What is it? 95%?

HP: Yes, I'd say even 98%, the brands are really available pretty much exclusively at truebotanicals.com. And we're @truebotanicals on Instagram. So thank you so much for sharing that.

FF: Thank you. Well, thank you, Hillary. It was great to have you and to learn about this beautiful journey of yours.

HP: Such a pleasure.

FF: Have continued success!

FF: Hillary's journey from the health scare to business success is just incredible. I think the days when your business career and your personal journey were separate are totally gone. Today, you have to infuse your walk with passion and customers can see that. I'm excited to see True Botanicals grow. I'm Frédéric Fekkai and this is The FEKKAI Life. Thank you for listening.

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