The New Next Gen: Melisse Shaban, Founder and CEO, Virtue Labs
Women in Retail Leadership Circle, sister brand of Total Retail, is excited to announce the release of its latest report, New Next Gen: Meet the Women Who Have Transitioned Their Careers for Successful Second Acts. This report spotlights entrepreneurial women who have reinvented themselves and their careers after the age of 40. Through in-depth interviews, you’ll learn what inspired these women leaders to make an impact, all in their own unique ways.
One such woman is Melisse Shaban, founder and CEO Virtue Labs, the first beauty brand built with pure, human Keratin. In this interview, which was excerpted from the New Next Gen report, Shaban details what inspired her to launch Virtue Labs, the challenges that confronted her along the way and how she overcame them, her advice for other women contemplating a career change, and much more.
Women in Retail Leadership Circle: What was your age when you started your new business venture?
Melisse Shaban: I was 50 when this started.
WIRLC: What is your current age?
MS: I recently turned 60.
WIRLC: What inspired you to make a change later in your career?
MS: Really, it all started with this technology which was unlike anything I had ever seen before in beauty, and certainly not in haircare, which frankly is not known for having real, robust technology. I saw an opportunity to deliver something completely revolutionary. And having spent most of my career in the beauty industry, it’s a space I know well.
Dr. Luke Burnett, chief scientist behind the development of this technology, is a retired Colonel from the U.S. Army. After two tours in Iraq, he made it his mission back home to find ways to speed healing and improve quality of life for wounded soldiers, and it was all based on his development of this newly patented form of a human keratin protein. Most “keratin” you’ve heard of on the market is a substance derived from animal sources (like sheep wool or feathers) and harshly treated and broken down into little more than amino acids. It’s no longer a whole, functional protein. Dr. Burnett’s breakthrough was a fully functional, human-identical protein that the body could recognize as its own and use to help with wound healing.
A young woman PhD candidate working in Dr. Burnett’s lab had family members in the hair salon industry, and she asked if she could perform some experiments on the side using leftover material — she had heard of “keratin” in hair care and wanted to test and see if this new protein could also have benefits for hair. A few experiments later, they liked what they saw, but hair care wasn’t their mission or their expertise. That’s when I was called in to take a look, really as a favor for a friend. Seeing the extraordinary results that this technology has on damaged hair made me want to share it with the world. About five years after that, Virtue was born.
WIRLC: What steps did you take to start anew?
MS: Like all journeys, it was one foot in front of the other. Luckily, I had experience in the industry, both on the private equity side buying and selling beauty companies, and also as an operator. But taking the leap to start something completely new was new to me. Founding a product company is exciting, but it’s also scary and really hard. But seeing the truly transformative results this technology has on damaged hair made this an opportunity I simply couldn’t ignore. It felt like almost an obligation to bring to women everywhere.
WIRLC: What were the primary challenges that confronted you in making this career change? How did you overcome those challenges?
MS: Oh, there were lots of things. Frankly, I wish I had known how long it would take, although if I had known, I might not have had the guts to do it! I wish I had known I would have to build an ingredient manufacturing facility. We create our key Alpha Keratin 60ku® ingredient through a patented and highly specialized extraction and purification process. We searched far and wide, and nobody — not traditional cosmetic suppliers or pharma suppliers — could replicate the process. So, to move forward, we had no choice but to set up a lab facility and make it ourselves. That wasn’t something I ever expected, and it made the journey longer and more costly. But now I see it as a positive. We’re learning more about this ingredient every day in our lab in Winston-Salem, and how to work with it to formulate better products.
WIRLC: Did you have mentors or other people in your network that helped with this career transition?
MS: Historically, I’ve had people in my life — other founders and entrepreneurs — that have served as mentors and that I’ve learned from throughout my career. People like Horst Rechelbacher, who hired me when I was very young to help grow Aveda, and Anita Roddick, who hired me to run The Body Shop in the Americas. They taught me a lot about building a brand with a legacy that can make a difference and stand the test of time. That’s what I’m trying to do with Virtue.
WIRLC: What advice do you have for other women that may be interested in a change further into their career?
MS: Apply the lessons of the past. Whether you feel you’ve experienced a failure or a success, there are lessons learned. Apply them. And frankly, you probably learn more from failures than you do from success — those are the harder lessons to learn and hopefully you won’t make those same mistakes again.
WIRLC: What are you most looking forward to in 2021, both personally and professionally?
MS: I’m looking forward to being able to engage with my team and my customers on a face-to-face basis again instead of on a Zoom. I look forward to the day when I can travel again and thank people for sticking with us and supporting us. That human touch makes such a difference.
For more inspiring stories like that of Melisse Shaban, download the New Next Gen report today!