As founder of Tarte Cosmetics, a New York City company that makes portable, user-friendly products for women on the go, Maureen Kelly is in the business of making real women look and feel spectacular. Kelly regularly turns heads with her innovative packaging and products, but it is her competitiveness, clarity of vision and compassion as an entrepreneur that made our heads turn and ultimately decide to select her as the winner of this year's OPEN from American Express and Entrepreneur magazine Woman of the Year Contest.
Kelly, 34, didn't possess much more than an idea when she gave up pursuing her doctorate in psychology to launch her own line of cosmetics in 1999. Having too often fallen victim to makeup artists in department stores who would leave her beautiful but poorer and unable to recreate the look later, she knew there was a need for more down-to-earth makeup that was simple, easy to use and conveniently packaged. So despite her complete lack of experience in the industry, she went ahead full-force.
After extensive research of laboratories and chemists who could bring her vision to life, as well as numerous trips to fabric markets to find the best leather and fabrics for the packaging of her cosmetics, Kelly invested $20,000 from credit cards and savings and fearlessly went against the industry's top names. "Looking back, I realize I was entering an industry with huge competition: Est�e Lauder, Lanc�me, big companies that had millions of dollars in advertising budgets," says Kelly. "Because I was very green, I [thought], 'Why should they be able to do it, and I can't?'" Because Kelly did not shy away from competition, she has now created her own powerful presence in the industry.
Sales for last year broke $15 million, but Tarte's success might not have been realized had it not been for Kelly's vision. Staying in touch with her customers' needs and desires is a priority and the reason Kelly launched a public forum online. Members visit and provide feedback, which Kelly uses to make her company stronger.
Kelly has also made it a point not to grow too fast. For two and a half years, she and four employees ran the business out of her one-bedroom, rent-controlled Manhattan apartment to minimize the cost of overhead. And when offers for partnerships came pouring in early on, including one from popular shopping network QVC, Kelly said no in the best interest of the company. "I wanted to make sure that we were delivering amazing products and staying true to our customers and always having the inventory," she says. "I've seen so many brands that have come and gone because they were everywhere all at once."
In 2005, Kelly was ready to pursue a partnership with QVC. It has been an extremely beneficial relationship, and QVC has invited the company to do a "Today's Special Value" in the spring, meaning for a 24-hour period, one product will be sold at a discounted rate. The exposure translates into a million-dollar opportunity.
But perhaps where Kelly shines the brightest is in her compassion for others. This year, the company contributed to and helped build a house for Habitat for Humanity. In addition, 15 percent of select products' proceeds goes to the Young Survival Coalition, a group of young women united to fight breast cancer. Says Kelly, "We've been all about giving back because people have helped me on the way and I've been given wonderful opportunities. You have to give back no matter how small you are."
Beauty may be subjective, but Kelly's drive, focus and passion glow for all to admire. Meanwhile, challenges continue to arise. Getting her products to the United Kingdom by spring has been keeping the company busy, and Kelly just became a mom to a baby boy. Through it all, she never skips a beat. "That's what I thrive on," she says. "I feel like if I didn't have challenges or issues, things would get boring. I love coming in to work every day and expecting the unexpected. It's something different every day, it's something crazy some days, but we deal with it."