Dreamers: Scents and Sensibility

Lisa Price whipped up beauty products in her kitchen, but to grow the business, she had to get out of the house.

BY Margaret Heffernan from Reader's Digest | November 2008

For Lisa Price, it was a bad time to get sick. Her fledgling skin- and hair-care business, Carol’s Daughter, was preparing for a surge in Valentine’s Day sales. But instead of ramping up, everything came to a halt while Price was in bed with the flu for two weeks. That’s when she realized that her hands-on management style was a problem.

“I never let anyone else make the products because I didn’t want them to get my recipes,” says Price. “But I realized that I couldn’t work like this anymore. I had to let go.”

Lise Price, 46, at her flagship store in Harlem.Photographed by Melanie DuneaLise Price, 46, at her flagship store in Harlem.

Price had started cooking up fragrances and lotions in her Brooklyn kitchen in the early ’90s. She wanted something unique, not something that made her smell “like the department store shelf. I found books that gave the basic guidelines for balancing volatile notes with grounding notes,” she says. “I tried different ingredients, and I wrote them down as I worked so if I got a recipe right, I could reproduce it.”

It was Price’s mother, Carol, who urged her to turn her hobby into a business. Price took her Body Butter moisturizer and fragrance oils to a church flea market and sold everything. For the next nine years, her apartment was packed with jars, labels, baskets, and helpers.

By day, Price worked as a writer’s assistant on The Cosby Show. By night, she created new products. Price’s husband, Gordon, helped out at street markets and fairs; her cousin Michael handled logistics and customer service.

Price, who left TV in 1996, underestimated how fast the word would spread. When Essence magazine told her story, she returned from the hospital after the birth of her second son, Ennis, to find her voice mail overflowing. “My mailing list went from 2,000 to 5,000 in two days.”

“The changes weren’t easy,” Price says. “But my mom always said, ‘You can’t block the blessing. You have to figure out how to manage it.’ ”

Price opened her first store, in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, in 1999. Three years later, she finally moved production out of her kitchen and into a warehouse. But while she kept coming up with new products-Almond Cookie Shea Soufflé moisturizer, Jamaican Punch Sea Salt Scrub, Black Vanilla hair conditioner—she struggled to keep up with the bills and payroll. She needed more expertise than her family could provide. “This was as much as I could do without capital,” says Price. “But who wouldn’t be afraid? You meet people interested in investing, but many don’t have your best interests at heart.”

Steve Stoute, a well-known marketer, was different. “He understood what I had done,” says Price, and he offered to invest in the company.

Stoute brought professional advice and connections—endorsements from Mary J Blige, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Will Smith. But Price worried about working with people who weren’t family. “I felt like I couldn’t make mistakes because it wasn’t my cousin now—it was someone who didn’t know me. It took a lot of faith to let go.”

That faith paid off when Stoute brokered deals that placed Carol’s Daughter in Dillard’s, Sephora, and Macy’s and on HSN, the home-shopping channel. The company is now a multimillion-dollar business, with seven stores and 85 employees.

“I want Carol’s Daughter to accomplish what Madam C. J. Walker wasn’t able to do,” says Price. “We know she started a beauty company, she was the first woman millionaire, and she happened to be African American. But you can’t buy any of her products today. Forty years from now, I want people to be able to purchase Carol’s Daughter Peppermint Foot Lotion. That’s my big dream.”