diagnosed with lupus, winning a car and knowing little about launching a line aren’t the typical catalysts to starting
a beauty business. But for Kiley Russell, the founder of Chicago-based Big Girl
Cosmetics, a makeup and skin care brand for women of color, these events shaped
the rest of her life. Today, her brand is sold in several Macy’s doors and is
currently expanding into Bon-Ton. And, most importantly, Kiley is health is doing just fine.

Big Girl Cosmetics:
“We are a multi-ethnic cosmetics and skin
care brand. We cater to African-Americans, Latinas, Middle Eastern women and
Asians – the most underserved populations at the cosmetic counter. It’s
unfortunate. These women feel a sense of rejection – that they are not the perfect shade. Women
tend to hide behind neutrals and taupe and don’t find the colors to complement
their skin tone. We tell women not to be
afraid of color. We describe ourselves as a cross between MAC and Bare

We Began:
“I started making body butters in the
kitchen with my grandmother and over time it turned into a part-time weekend
business. Meanwhile, I was an assistant
principal in a middle school when I was diagnosed with lupus. The stress level
working in education was pretty intense and my doctor said I needed to make a
career change.”

Epiphany in Chicago:
“My mother and I were in the
audience of The Oprah Winfrey Show the day of Oprah’s car giveaway. I remember
Oprah saying, We are improving the way people are living their lives. That just
really stuck with me. I told my husband I’m going to sell that car and pursue
my cosmetic company full time. With the $20,000 I got for the car and my
personal savings of $60,000, I started a web site and traveled to all kinds of
trade shows. We started with body butters and scrubs and then added cosmetics.

Hearing ‘No’:
Initially I had been making the product
all myself. When I first started talking to manufacturers, I didn’t have the
minimum batch order necessary. A BBQ sauce maker with excess capacity due to
slow business agreed to do small runs of my body butters. It requires the same
equipment. A cousin and a friend who are
both chemists helped me with the contract manufacturing process, too.

from Macy’s:
When I first approached Macy’s, I realized
I wasn’t ready for retail. I had to beef
up my manufacturing and shipping capability and compliance. I applied for their
workshop that helps smaller brands. I spent a week in New York with their
buying team and was taught everything we needed to do to handle the
opportunity. Working with a major retailer is a whole different animal.

the Horizon:
Big Girl Cosmetics is now in five Macy’s
doors in the Chicago area and we are working on entering stores in New York and
New Jersey. And, we expect to go into 30
Bon-Ton doors by next summer.Our goal
is to be in 240 doors in the next two years and grow to 800 doors in five