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Within five years of leaving University, Laura Kirkbride, was running an R&D department at a major Contract Manufacturer. CTPA caught up with Laura for its ‘Behind Beauty’ blog series to find out how she’s carved out her career path and what advice she’d give to those starting out in Cosmetic Science today…
How did you get into the field of Cosmetic Science?
Completely by accident! In hindsight, it’s definitely a path I was always destined for but as I started my career, I didn’t even know it existed. I was quite shy and naturally favoured the sciences & geography at school, so chose to study Chemistry at Nottingham Trent University.
Alongside that, I had always been a life-long lover of cosmetics. I was the child that at age seven used my pocket money to buy peel off Tinkerbell nail varnish. By my teenage years I was making mashed up banana facemasks at home and getting into trouble with my mum for ruining our towels. As I got older, I would spend my lunch breaks wandering around Boots in awe of everything on the shelves.
Back in the 1990s, careers in Cosmetic Science simply weren’t signposted anywhere. I told my Lecturers that I thought I wanted to be a Forensic Scientist (because I loved Silent Witness!), but they dissuaded me, suggesting I’d spend my whole life analysing paint samples. Instead, I was encouraged to go into teaching or Agrochemistry. Both excellent choices, but both definitely not for me.
When I left University, I managed to land a job for a month working for a Contract Manufacturer in Bradford in the Quality Control department. When I arrived, there was my favourite brand of shampoo running down the production lines. It was completely by chance, but I was immediately fascinated about how it was made. In fact, I spent as much time as I possibly could in the R&D Lab which was happily right next to the production line.
I must have come across as keen because a month later, instead of leaving the company, I was hired into the R&D team as a Lab Technician - and the rest is history!
Once you secured that first job, you went on to study Cosmetic Science and work at the same time. What was that like?
When I was working as a Lab Technician, my then Manager was doing a Diploma in Cosmetic Science and we went to an Exhibition together by the Society of Cosmetic Scientists (SCS). It really opened my eyes to what the industry was, and cemented for me that this was absolutely the area in which I wanted to work. It was the perfect way to combine my passion for all things product, with my abilities as a Scientist.
I asked my manager if I could study for the Diploma as well. Although I had a grounding in Chemistry, the Diploma gives you the specialist knowledge in Cosmetic Science. It was super tough juggling long working days and studying on the side, but I came out of the Course with a Distinction and the Hibbott Memorial Prize, which recognises the highest performing student in the Year Group. It made every minute of that really hard year worthwhile.
In fact, that year-long juggling act would lead to 20 years (and counting!) working in an industry that I absolutely love. I still feel really indebted to SCS for giving me the platform to be able to pursue my dreams.
Before long I was promoted to Development Chemist and within four or five years of starting my career, I was running the Development Laboratory. In hindsight, working for a Contract Manufacturer was exactly the right side of the industry for me personally as it meant I got to collaborate with people in lots of other disciplines, including Sales, Production, Engineering, Manufacturing, Purchasing and Quality Assurance. I love being able to work with people at all levels and achieving something together as part of a team. It also means I get to work on a diverse range of formula technologies, rather than specialising in one area.
In 2007 I moved to my current company, Orean, as their Development Director, as it offered me a chance to focus more on skincare, whereas I had been mainly involved in hair care prior to that. It was a great opportunity to broaden my horizons even further. Since then, I’ve become Technical Director, and we’ve scaled up the team from three people to twenty-four. I feel privileged every day to work with such a talented team of up-and-coming scientists.
Alongside your day job, you are also the current President of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists (SCS). What is that like?
It’s an absolute honour. Just like in my day job, it’s not about me being front and centre, it’s about working with and guiding incredibly talented people towards a shared success; and getting a huge sense of collective achievement.
I always knew I wanted to give back to SCS after what it’s Diploma Course did for my career. I originally volunteered for the SCS Regional Development Group for the North, and eventually became Chair of that Group. It was actually the CTPA’s Dr Emma Meredith who then persuaded me to put my nomination forward for the SCS Council, she could see my passion for the industry.
Being on the SCS Council opened up a whole new perspective and I could see that I would love the opportunity to become the President at some point. In fact, I remember that when my MD Dan and I were once discussing what we’d be doing in our retirement, I told him I hoped I’d be a Past President of the SCS! From pretty shy beginnings, I have got better at putting myself forward for opportunities over the years. I was delighted to be approached to put my name forward for the presidential track. I was voted in as Vice President in May 2020 and then started my Presidential year in May 2021.
Thinking about either of your roles, what keeps you awake at night?
Honestly? Nothing! I am blessed to be a really good sleeper, which I’m really thankful for as all good skincare starts with a good night’s sleep! However, the most important focus in both of my roles is managing people. Talented individuals need to feel engaged and able to create their best work, while the group needs to be able to collaborate really well as a whole too.
I think that nurturing and managing talent can be really underestimated in terms of its importance, but the truth is that the culture of an organisation is absolutely integral to achieving. People will want to deliver when they feel inspired and excited to be at work.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of a career in Cosmetic Science?
Don’t worry too much about taking the perfect first job. Just get in somewhere and build up your experience. I was fortunate to have the opportunity of that Quality Control job after university, but I had to push for it. I was told that the position didn’t require a graduate and that I was overqualified. Once you are in a company, you have more scope to create your own opportunities.
That said, do think about the side of the industry that might suit your personality. I am a Lecturer in Cosmetic Science at Sunderland University and I always say to my students that you need to decide what you want to spend your day doing. If you are not a people person, there will be a background role that is hugely important. Conversely if you love being around people, being on the technical sales side could be for you.
Ours is a really secure industry to work in. Even during tough economic times, people will still buy our industry’s products as an important treat. The lipstick factor is real. It’s also a diverse and vibrant industry, with so many elements to it offering a wide range of opportunities. There will inevitably be a science role for you, but you need to work out what sort of person you are and what side of our wonderful industry is going to make you the happiest.