Sylvia Brownlee on Pure Beauty Skin Bar and Learning to Love your Skin

Sylvia Brownlee

Sylvia Brownlee has been working in the beauty industry for more than two decades, and over time, she found skincare to be her passion. After clearing her own skin and finding unstoppable self-confidence, she knew she wanted to use her expertise to help others do the same. That’s why she opened Pure Beauty Skin Bar in Silverton and established her own skincare line: to serve a community in need of quality care and that ever-coveted healthy glow.

Women of Cincy met with Sylvia on a strangely warm November afternoon. It was Small Business Saturday, and she was just cleaning up after her last client of the day. The space was small, but gorgeously refined. We had a seat in her consultation area where so many people have begun their skin-changing – and life-changing – journeys.

Interview by Kayla Blanton. Photography by Yashira Afanador.

Tell us about where we’re sitting right now.

This is the room where the consultations happen. Also, it’s where our before and after pictures happen. Clients come in, whether they purchase product to have services done, or if they purchase product because they want to take care of their skin at home. I do before pictures so we can track the progress, because that’s the one thing people will say: “I don’t really see a difference.” And I’m like, “Really?” so I pull that out.

How did you go about opening this shop?

I recently moved to this location August 1 [2018]. Before that, we were down the road in Pleasant Ridge. This is our three-year anniversary. I’ve been in the beauty industry since ’96. I have my full cosmetology license – I went to cosmetology school when I was in high school, and I knew I wanted to be in the beauty industry, but I just didn’t know to what extent. So I did hair for a little bit, and I hated it. And then I did nails a little bit, and I was like, “Eh.” And then I did skin, and I was like, “I love this.” I worked for a pretty large salon for about 10 years, and I realized I wanted more out of that. I decided I wanted to have more control over my business. I learned great business skills working there and seeing how the company was run. One day, I was like, “Oh, I can do this. I can run my own company.” So, a year ago, I started my skincare line because I realized I wanted to focus on acne and hyperpigmentation and helping women improve their self-esteem.

I want to create a movement to educate more women – and men, because boys suffer from it, too – about skincare.

That’s big for me: seeing women get clear, seeing how their confidence changes from when they first come in to when they leave. That’s pretty crucial to me, and I’m really excited that’s what I’m doing now. So here I am, basically 23 years in, but it’s ever-changing.

You talk about confidence being a big motivator in what you do – helping women regain that. At this point, you’ve probably learned a lot about how it ebbs and flows. That said, what would be your best piece of advice for women who are struggling with it?

Basically, it’s about embracing who you are, whatever that is. Embracing your red hair. Embracing your pretty green eyes. Just looking at yourself and loving yourself for who you are, and not comparing yourself to what others have. Especially on social media. You can get so caught up in, “I wanna look like Kylie Jenner,” and that’s not reality. You really have to love yourself first before you can even get that big job, or get that promotion, because you have to have the confidence in yourself to do that.

Can you walk us through how you help your clients achieve their best skin?

Every client who walks in fills out a consultation form. Their consultation is going to be based on their skincare needs, so it could be a five-pager, which is for acne, or it could be a three-pager, which is for normal and aging skin. Based on that consultation, we’ll sit here at this table and we’ll talk about their concerns. We’ll talk about what they’re looking for. Then I go into looking at the skin, taking some before and after pictures, and then we proceed with the service they’re getting or checking them out with retail.

Sylvia Brownlee

Your website says that one of your goals with this business is to make beauty accessible, rather than a compromise. Can you elaborate on that? I thought that was really powerful.

A lot of times, women feel like they can’t afford to get a facial or they can’t afford to buy the product. I make my facials affordable, as well as my products. I do that on purpose. I don’t want people to be like, “Well, I’d love to be able to clear my acne, but I just can’t afford it.” I don’t want that to be the case.

Ugh, that is so wonderful. Growing up, I used to struggle with pretty bad acne. And I would see Proactiv commercials and think, “I just need three small payments of $19.95 to clear my skin forever!” Which obviously wasn’t the case, but my mom couldn’t afford to buy me Proactiv. I felt so trapped.

Yes! That’s so crucial. I think, a lot of times, parents sometimes tell their kids, “Oh, you’ll grow out of it.” Even though sometimes you will, what about the time that you’re still in it? You’re still here; you’re still getting picked on in school and things like that. That’s really why I want to be accessible.

I love that your heart goes out to those teenagers because I feel like a lot of people tend to overlook that population. I would’ve loved for someone to tell me that there is a way to fix it. Because, like you said, the depression and anxiety is so real.

I do have a Pure Beauty teen camp. It’s for girls 13 to 18, and we do it in the summer. It’s usually in July, and it’s a three-day overnight camp. What we do is we teach the girls self-esteem, anti-bullying, health and fitness, financial fun; we do vision boards. 2019 will be our third year. Last year we had 18 girls; the first year we had 12. It’s constantly growing.

I just want to create more awareness that increases self-esteem.

The girls have an amazing time. They make new friends that they would’ve never met, because kids come from all over the city. They have to put their cellphones away, which they hate. But they would never have this engagement if they had their phones. Then at the end, they present to their parents what they learned, why they enjoyed the camp; it’s just a fun time. And we do go over skincare; every kid leaves with a skincare kit. They learn how to take care of their skin, what they should be doing, how they should be doing it. Because most kids don’t know. If you’re not taught, or if your mom isn’t doing it at home or you’re not watching her, you don’t know that you should be cleansing and using a sunscreen every day.

What inspired these camps?

I just felt like the kids needed an outlet. You’ll meet a lot of girls who are kind of lost – or not even lost; they just don’t have anyone else outside of their family and friends [to talk with]. And the thing is, a lot of the things that you wanna talk about, you can’t ask your mom. Your friend, who’s the same age as you, doesn’t know because she’s going through it, too. So the thing the kids love the most is called Girl Talk. They get to take an index card and write questions down, and they can ask whatever questions they want. Then we read the questions, and we answer. And the questions are anonymous. That can go on as long as they want it to. It’s a fun time when we’re all on the floor in our sleeping bags and we’re talking. They need that, because when we asked them what they loved the most about camp, it was Girl Talk. They ask deep questions – like about sex – and they ask questions about marijuana; they ask questions about birth control. If they didn’t ask us, who would they ask? If you can’t ask your mom, and you can’t ask your friends who are teens also… It’s amazing. [Editor’s note: The next Pure Beauty Camp is July 19-21, and tickets can be purchased through Eventbrite.]

How did you go about establishing a skincare line and deciding what products you wanted to include?

I worked really closely with a chemist to decide what I wanted in the products. I found my bottles; I found the graphic designer for my labels. I label and bottle everything myself. It’s a lot of work, but it’s cheaper that way. And it was a lot of work deciding what I wanted to do. I started smaller. I recently added the Illuma and the Pure Bright line – that was just a recent add this year. I started with just my acne management line – like 10 products. Now I think I have around 23 products.

But it was a lot of trial and error. I had to try a lot of the products on myself. My daughter tried some, as well, making sure they had the consistency that I wanted. Because I suffer from acne myself; that’s why it’s near and dear to my heart.

Pure Beauty Bar products

Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

That’s funny; I was just telling this story to one of my clients earlier today. When I first started Pure Beauty, which was 2014, I was working full-time as the director at Empire Education Group over in Florence. You know, so I had a salary; I would do a couple of clients here and there. But I didn’t really promote myself; I didn’t even know what I was posting on social media. People would text me or call me for an appointment, and I would try to answer my phone to get them in. It was like, not real. It was real, but it wasn’t real. And then, January of 2015 I got laid off. So I thought, “Well, it’s now or never. I’m gonna try this entrepreneurship 100 percent. That’s what I’m gonna do.” I did it for a few months, and I was like, “This isn’t working. I’m not busy; I’m not making any money.” I literally like, packed all of my stuff up and left. I called a friend of mine, who owned the building that I was in, crying, and I was like, “I’m not doing it anymore.”

She was like, “Absolutely not. Go unpack your stuff. Put it back; you’re going to do this. You can do this.”

And I was like, “Okay.”

Four years later, I’m in a new location, loving what I do. I always loved what I did, I just didn’t know how to do it. And being a one-woman show, where I’m literally doing everything from promoting to doing the clients… In the beginning, I was doing all that by myself. But yeah, she was definitely a really influential woman in my life. She’s a great businesswoman. And then, I have a lot of great friends who are entrepreneurs, and we bounce ideas off of each other and tell each other what’s working and what’s not.

Sylvia Brownlee and Kayla Blanton

How important is it that these small business owners come together and help each other rather than competing against one another?

It’s so important. It’s so important that we collaborate and have these conversations where we talk about what’s working and what isn’t. But as an entrepreneur, nobody is going to work as hard as you do for your business, your baby. The funny thing is, when I first started, I had people doing hair with me. I still sell hair extensions online, but I don’t have a stylist working here anymore. Because sometimes I would think that they should be working as hard as I do, and sometimes that can be bad. Because, they’re like, “Pure is not my baby. I don’t live, eat, breathe Pure.”

And I’m like, “Why not?”

But as an entrepreneur, nobody is going to work as hard as you do for your business, your baby.

Even my daughter will say to me, like, “Mom, this is your dream. Not mine.” So it’s comforting to meet with other entrepreneurs because they understand. But this is my passion; this is what I love doing. I never wake up and think, “I don’t wanna go to work.” I might be tired. But if you would’ve asked me five years ago, “Could I have seen this?” I probably wouldn’t have. Even now, I’m working on something to add to the line, but it’s not skincare; it’s something else that goes really well with skincare. A lot of people wear it, and a lot of people wear the wrong kind. So I’m super excited about that. I can’t wait for it to come out in 2019.

You’ve come so far in just a few short years. Where do you see the future of Pure Beauty landing?

I’d love to see the skincare line grow. I’d love to see ambassadors all over the city promoting with healthy, clear skin, going into schools, helping girls understand how to clear their skin. Teens suffer so much from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and sometimes it’s literally their skin. They pick it, thinking that’s going to make it go away, but it just spreads the inflammation under the skin. And they don’t know that. So I want to create a movement to educate more women – and men, because boys suffer from it, too – about skincare. About how it’s not just going to a dermatologist and getting a medication, but it’s a lifestyle change. I’m taking a class for beauty nutrition, so that’s something that I’m definitely focusing on and adding to the business. I just want to create more awareness that increases self-esteem. That’s what my business is all about: clear skin that improves your self-esteem.