CEO Stories: Ramy Gafni, Ramy Beauty Therapy
Ramy Gafni quit law school to go to beauty school and eventually found a job as a makeup director at a top Manhattan salon. But a bout with cancer literally cost him his job – the salon told him he wasn’t “pretty” anymore. When no one else would hire him for the same reason, he showed that he was more than just a (formerly) pretty face.
After getting fired, he leveraged his Rolodex (it was the ‘90s) and reputation for eyebrow shaping to get clients to come to his “studio” (AKA his apartment). Gafni put the knowledge he gained developing a makeup line at the salon to use to develop his own products. After a year of calling around, he landed a counter at one of New York’s most exclusive department stores, shaping brows and selling his makeup and skincare. After surviving cancer, he was initially content just to work.
THE POWER OF “CHUTZPAH”
His ambitions grew, and one of his first products was a lipstick called “Chutzpah” – which so impressed one salon owner that he dropped a prestigious makeup line to take Gafni’s. And it took chutzpah to get started. He had no capital to invest in the business, no business plan, and no business knowledge. He had no clue that people were wondering about his sales when they asked him questions like “How are your numbers?” Today, he understands the power of having a passive income stream thanks to his makeup line.
Gafni is also an author, whose first book was about helping cancer patients use makeup so they wouldn’t appear sick. He firmly believes “When you look good you feel better” and that it’s empowering to fight the disease any and every way you can.
Read Full Transcript
POC: They say eyes are the window to the soul. But what about eyebrows? -For Ramy Gafni, eyebrows proved to be the door to success as a makeup artist, author, and CEO of a company that produces its own line of cosmetics and skin- are products. And all because he became known as “THE go-to eyebrow” guy in New York City.
And today’s he here on CEO Stories to talk about his not exactly direct or smooth path to starting and owning a thriving business.
Ramy, thanks so much for joining us today on CEO Stories for This is Capitalism.
RG: My pleasure.
POC: So Ramy, you are many things – you are a beauty guru, the eyebrow king, an author, CEO of your own business – but I would say one of the ways I think about you, and I have known you a long time now, is you’re kind of an accidental entrepreneur. Tell us about how you got started in running your own business, Ramy Beauty Therapy.
RG: Well, I had dropped out of law school and moved to Australia, where I ended up going to beauty school.
POC: And I’m sure that made your parents very proud.
RG: Actually they were supportive, which was a huge surprise. I was afraid to tell them that I was in beauty school while I was living in Australia because they were still hoping that I’d go back to law school. And I ended up writing them a letter because I was afraid to speak to them on the phone even to tell them that this is what I decided I want to do.
And when I did finally speak to them after they received the letter, to my surprise, they were very supportive. They said, “Oh why didn’t you think of this years ago? You’re so talented with makeup, you should’ve thought of it a long time ago.” And because they didn’t object and they were supportive that really spurred me on to take it seriously.
So I returned to New York with a career in hand, you know, a career I wanted to pursue as a makeup artist. And I started working my way through the ranks as a makeup artist doing photo shoots and such and working in retail. And ended up getting hired as makeup director at a Fifth Avenue salon. And that was the job that put me on the map. That’s where I started doing eyebrows and working on celebrities and I developed the makeup line for the salon.
And so I learned a lot on that job, dealing with beauty editors. And I was written up in Vogue in a story about eyebrow obsession and I didn’t know it at the time but that basically dubbed me the go-to eyebrow person in New York. And I didn’t realize it at the time and I didn’t really want to be the eyebrow guy, I wanted to be the makeup guy. And I was like, “Oh, I’ll just ride this out for a month or two, you know. And then the write-ups just kept coming and they just…
POC: Around the eyebrows?
RG: About eyebrows, yes. And I was like, “Well, okay, so I’m the eyebrow guy.” But then, just as my career was going so great, everything was happening that I had hoped for, I developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And I went to work every day during five months of chemo. And I was about to start daily radiation when the salon fired me, telling me, “You’re not the pretty boy we hired,” verbatim.
POC: Okay, first of all, isn’t that illegal?
POC: Let’s not even get into unethical and all that. Isn’t it illegal to fire somebody for the way they look?
RG: It is and…
POC: And for being sick.
RG: And I think it was at the time and I have no explanation. But I took my things, I went home, another top salon heard that I was leaving this salon and they reached out to me and said, “Come be our makeup director.” So I was thrilled and I went to meet with them.
And at the time, I looked like I was going through something. I was bald, I was bloated, you could tell I was clearly…I was recovering from the chemo. And they said, “Oh, you don’t look like your pictures.” And I explained, I said, “Well the cancer is technically gone, I have a few weeks of radiation and then I’m good to go.” And they said, “Well, we’re not looking to hire someone right now anyway.” And I said, “Well you called me, I didn’t call you.” And they just…
I realized no one was going to hire me while I looked like a cancer patient. So, I went home and I printed up some elegant invitations and I sent it… I had my clients literally on a Rolodex, that’s how long ago this was.
RG: Yeah. [Laughs.] Thank God I took home the Rolodex. And I did a mailing to my clients that I’m available at my private studio. And these were women that were…they didn’t go below 57th street. These were all very Fifth Avenue, 57th Street.. And I was working out of my place on East 30th Street. And I remember one client called and she said, “Is that the South Street Seaport?” [Laughs.]
POC: So for people who are going to listen to this, Ramy, who aren’t familiar with Manhattan, let’s just try to characterize this a certain way. So, 57th Street, Fifth Avenue, is the very exclusive shopping district.
POC: And where you were living was a residential neighborhood in Manhattan but not…
RG: Kind of off the beaten path a little bit, yeah. It wasn’t Central Midtown, it was very far east. But God bless, people came, people followed. And then I just kept getting written up in all these different magazines and newspapers as like “the eyebrow guy” and that sent new people my way.
And so my business was thriving. I was never busier. Really, really lucky. I was still working also as a freelance makeup artist and my first gig was actually for ABC Television doing makeup for a public service announcement for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And they had no idea that I myself was recovering from cancer at the time.
And I decided to do my own makeup line, which every makeup artist dreams about. But I had done it for the salon, I kind of learned what not to do on their nickel. And I started my own line with no investors, just my own money. And I was selling it to my brow clients for about a year. And very small, I had like 12 products and I thought this is all anyone will ever need. [Laughs.]
And then I started calling around to the department stores and Bergdorf Goodman returned my call. And it took a year of meetings. Every three months they’d call me in for another meeting and I would go and we’d have a nice meeting and nothing ever came from it and they would call me again and I’d go in again.
And at the time, I was doing a lot of work for In Style magazine. I was doing the editor-in-chief’s eyebrows and the whole staff’s eyebrows. And they gave me a product placement for my makeup line in the September issue “What’s Hot Now.” And it was the center of the page. And I showed that at my next meeting with the buyers at Bergdorf. I said, “This could say Bergdorf Goodman if you would just give me a counter already.” And the next thing I knew, I had a counter at Bergdorf’s.
POC: Every three months, it’s like, “Change of seasons, it’s time for my meeting with the big department store, which could really be a game changer.” What kept you going during that time?
RG: The way I describe it is to get through cancer, which was about a year of my life – I was in treatment, like, six or seven months, but with the recovery and everything, it was about a year of my life – you have to forge ahead.
And I thought of the whole cancer experience as a pie and every day was a slice of the pie and I was like, “Let me just get through today’s slice. It’s like sink or swim.” My survival instinct kicked in and I wasn’t going to sink.
And so when I was fired and I was recovering from treatment, first of all, I think I was so happy to have my health back that I felt like I could… I got through cancer, I can get through anything.
And so then I think my approach to my business was the same thing. I was just happy to be working. I was happy that I had an income. I was happy to have a customer base. And everything just sort of evolved. It really felt destined at that point.
Even when I got the counter at Bergdorf, I was the last brand that they had on the main level before they opened the lower beauty level, so I had about a month on the main floor before they moved us downstairs and opened the beautiful lower level. And I was at my new counter at the lower level. I had no big plans for myself. I was just happy to be alive and kicking.
And the buyer called me while I was at the counter and said, “How do you like the counter? How do you like the new department? How do you like where you’re located?” And I was like, thumbs up to everything. I was just like, everything is great. And she said to me, “How are your numbers?”
I’m looking around, I’m like “numbers, numbers, what is she talking about?” And I said, “Oh, my numbers are great.” And she goes, “Oh, so your sales are good?” And I was like, “Ohh, numbers!” But that’s how green I was.
I didn’t know what a UPC code was. They were like, “Are you EDI compliant?” I had no idea about any of these things. And Bergdorf really coddled me. I was very, very lucky, they were very, very good to me.
POC: Well it seems like you deserved some good karma after what had happened. But also the name Beauty Therapy, Ramy Beauty Therapy, talk to me about what that name means to you.
RG: So I came up with the concept, obviously I was recovering from cancer. While I was going through treatment, even before I was going I was going through treatment, the pressure to look good at the salon was very intense.
And when I started going through treatment, I mean, I joked that I looked like Uncle Fester from The Addams Family, but I really did. I had very deep dark circles around my eyes, I was bald, I had no eyelashes, I was very bloated, my complexion – I’d be grey or yellow or green every day. And every day 100 employees at the salon would be like, “Ohhh, are you okay? You look a little yellow, you look a little gray.” And I had to have that conversation 100 times a day saying, “I’m fine.”
So I started doing little makeup tricks just to look like myself – a little concealer, a little bronzer, a little highlighter. And you couldn’t tell I had any makeup on. And people would say to me, “Oh, are you done with treatment?” And I said, “No.” And they were like, “Well, you must be getting used to it, you look great.” And it was a much easier conversation to have every day, 50 times a day.
So I realized, I’m lucky I’m a makeup artist, I knew what to do to address the physical side effects of treatment. And that gave me the idea for my first book, to do a makeup and beauty book for people living with cancer, how to address the physical side effects, how to empower yourself. A big part of it is that – going into warrior mode, not caving to the situation.
POC: I think it’s interesting because as much as we like to think we’re all beyond the superficial and looks don’t matter and we certainly live in a time where there is a lot more emphasis on things like body positivity, let’s face it, we still are a visual people.
RG: Yes. And let’s face it, also the cosmetics industry, the fashion industry, it is superficial overall. But what I learned was if someone really needs makeup, for example someone who is going through chemo and she doesn’t want to upset her children, seeing her looking sick, if there’s a few simple things she can do to look like her healthy, vibrant self while she is in treatment, that’s incredibly empowering.
And that’s where Beauty Therapy came from. It’s beauty, yes, but it is also very therapeutic. You know, like they say, “When you look good you feel better?” It’s really true. And there is a place where it’s really a powerful tool. And that’s where the Beauty Therapy, where things…
It should be good for your skin, so it’s skin-friendly products, it should be simple and easy. It’s not about doing the Sistine Chapel on your face, it’s about things you can do quickly and easily and look better and feel better for it.
POC: You also have a couple of interesting themes here, which is one, I’m sure on the bright side with masks there’s been a lot more emphasis on eyebrows and making your eyebrows look good.
POC: On the other hand, it’s probably been a little difficult on the business in that there have been times when you have not been able to see people in person and do the eyebrows.
POC: But you also have another income stream through your makeup line.
RG: That was what saved me, really. And they eyebrow products have always been… I think that’s what we’re known for the most. So like my Perfect Brow Wand is still by far my No. 1 seller and the sales never slowed down for that product. Other products, you do see a dip. I think people were buying less lipsticks for a while.
I always try to come up with something that will help people in a given moment so with the pandemic I came up with mask shield, which is a creme gel that you wear before you put a mask on and it prevents mask-ne, you know, acne and irritation?
POC: Oh, okay, great.
RG: It makes the mask more comfortable to wear. And that was featured on The Today Show. I’ve had products featured on The Today Show before and it’s hit or miss. Sometimes it hits and it’s like you can’t keep something in stock, and other times ehh, not so much. And this time it hit and that was a shot, a much-needed shot in the arm for the business during the whole lockdown, pandemic situation.
POC: Did you ever think about the makeup line though as a passive income stream in case let’s say you wanted to do something like, oh I don’t know, go back to Australia for two months or travel or was that also kind of accidental, if you will?
RG: I’ve been in business now almost like 25 years, but about 10, maybe 15 years ago there was a point where I felt I had to choose between seeing clients every day and doing a bunch of people’s eyebrows and makeup every day and focusing just on the product line. And it is a tough decision because there was so much demand by the clients to get their brows done and so on with me.
And so what do you do? You don’t want to turn away money or business or… Also, those clients are the people that I introduced my products to so in a way that is also feeding the product line. So I felt like I should’ve made a choice years ago and I couldn’t. It was like Sophie’s choice, I couldn’t give one up or the other. So I just kept on keeping on.
And as you know, I had an accident six years ago where I was run down by a moped. And at the time, I had a fractured skull, bleeding in the brain, I was out of commission for two or three months. I have lost my sense of smell and taste, which it’s been six years and it has not returned, and I thought that was the worst of it. And then about a year ago I had pain in my neck and shoulders and, long story short, I had to have a disk replacement in my neck, which they believe it was protruding severely because of the accident and it just took a while before it bothered me.
POC: Wow, that accident, a gift that just keeps on giving, Ramy.
RG: That’s what I say. Yeah, hopefully this is it. So after a year, almost, of physical therapy and injections, they realized I needed surgery and I had a disc replacement. Thank God that was very successful. But I’m still doing physical therapy for my shoulders.
So all of these things, you know, when I’m doing eyebrows my hands are up…I’m holding my hands up, I’m using my shoulders, and I have those moments of, like, what if I won’t be able to work even if I wanted to? What if the doctor says to me this is not a good idea for you? So it got me thinking about the product line, maybe I need to focus on it more, expand my distribution and rely more heavily on the product line.
I think in the long run, that’s much easier than seeing clients. And also, with the pandemic, it has not fully recovered from the pandemic as far as number of clients and so on. And I’m nervous about it. I have Type II diabetes, my doctor says my job is more dangerous than his because when you’re doing someone’s eyebrows you are really in their face, you’re in each other’s faces.
RG: Yes. And over the years, I can’t tell you, I can count a hundred times where a client has shown up for a brow-shaping when they were at death’s door with the flu and with no regard for my health or safety. And I would say to them, “You’re sick,” and they would say, “Oh no, the doctor says I’m not contagious anymore.” And invariably I would get sick.
So you know, if it was Covid, that is not okay. [Laughs.] You know, with Covid, someone may not even know they have it and that’s what’s scary about it. They might seem fine. And we take all the precautions with masks and everything but it’s just very nerve wracking. So I feel like the evolution may happen and I may not have a say in the matter.
POC: But it’s smart that you’ve had this second stream. And the other interesting thing is you said that when you started up the business, in terms of developing the makeup, you didn’t have any capitalization.
POC: So how did you…? Credit cards?
RG: It was just… No. [Laughs.] Well, a little bit credit cards. I have always said if I ever write a book about being an entrepreneur I would call it How to Build a Business on a Frayed Shoestring Budget. Because it’s not even a shoestring. I literally had no money.
Actually, it’s a funny story. I had a list of manufacturers and labs for cosmetics because I had researched on behalf of the salon. And when I left the salon, I had all this paperwork and I said to the owners, “What do you want me to do with this?” They said, “We don’t care, throw it away.” So I took it home with me and when I was ready to do my own makeup line I pulled out all these brochures and stuff and I started researching suppliers and I found a company in Canada that offered packaging as well as great formulas.
So I went to meet with them in Toronto. And it was a husband and wife that owned the company at the time. And I met with them for three days and they were like, “Okay, what’s your budget?” And I’m like… “Budget..? [Laughs.] You know, like, I don’t know.” And the wife was like, “How much money do you have in the bank?” And I told her, and it was not a lot and [Laughs.]
POC: So Ramy, I think I’m just going to say I don’t think you took a lot of business classes in college.
RG: You know, I think I cut class that day. [Laughs.]
POC: Yeah, it sounds that way. Between not knowing when someone says how are your numbers and what’s your budget, but okay.
RG: I am much more the artist.
POC: Okay so the wife puts it in language you can understand: How much money do you have to spend.
RG: How much money is in the bank right now? So I told her. She said, “Put aside like one month’s expenses, like one month’s rent, and one month’s expenses take out.” So then what number is left over? So I told her and she’s like, “Okay, you have a champagne taste and a beer budget.” She’s like, “You have no money.”
And so I went back every day for three days to convince them. I said, “I have a book coming out, I’m going to be your biggest customer one day. I just need you to help me get started.” So what was expensive was the minimums to do custom formulas were very expensive, you couldn’t get a few hundred, you had to get thousands of a custom-formula product. And also they charged for research and development to formulate these products. So I convinced them to waive the research and development fee and to not give me minimums, to allow me smaller minimums to get started.
And on the third day, the husband was like…I mentioned that I was a cancer survivor and it turned out he was a cancer survivor. So I had found his Achilles’ heel and he’s like, “Okay,” he said, “I will disregard the minimums and the research and development fees on one condition.” I said, “What’s that?” He said “That you don’t come back tomorrow.” [Laughs.]
POC: Okay, three days was enough.
RG: So I came back to New York with a manufacturer. And also there was a salon, Paul King Salon in Toronto, it’s a very upscale hair salon, and I had met him when he visited the salon where I was working in New York. I gave him a tour of the salon at one point. And he gave me his card and he said, “If you’re ever in Toronto, call me.”
So I was in Toronto, I knew no one, so I called him and he said, “Oh, I’m going to a party for Hugo Boss tonight, do you want to come?” I said, “Sure.” So we went to the party and he said to me at the end of the evening, he was very diplomatic, he said to me, “You know, you don’t look like you looked when I came to New York, what’s going with you?”
And I said, “Oh, I just finished treatment for lymphoma, but I’m all good, I’m cancer free, but I’m just recovering from chemo and so on.” And he was very nice about it.
And I took him to my hotel and I had mixed three products on my hand to show my first product, the lipstick in Chutzpah. So Paul King was so impressed with the Chutzpah lipstick that he was carrying a very high-end cosmetic brand in his salon, he dropped them and he started carrying Ramy Cosmetics. So I left Toronto not only with a manufacturer and supplier but also with my first account.
And then actually he did a huge launch party for me. So, I had to go back to Toronto for the launch party, which was amazing. So it was a very nice beginning after all the difficulties of surviving cancer and getting fired, it was a very nice beginning to my business.
POC: Chutzpah I think is a great name for your lipstick because obviously it says a lot about you. And actually, you have a lot of really fun names for your products. And people can find out more about you at Ramy.com?
RG: Yes, R-a-m-y.
POC: Ramy.com. But if people look at your products, they’ll see that you have a lot of really cleverly named products. Do you use an agency or do you name them yourself?
RG: No it’s all me except for two products. I have a friend named Meg Herzog who is a wonderful writer, she is very smart and witty. And twice I have gone to her and I’ve shown her product and I’ve said, “Do you have any cute names? I’m kind of having writer’s block.”
POC: So it sounds like even though you didn’t have a business background and you didn’t necessarily have aspirations to be an entrepreneur, CEO, run your own business one day, that it just…it kind of fell into place for you.
RG: It did. And I think even at the beginning, I think I was thinking at the time, “Well I’ll just do this for now until I get another job, you know, until I’m looking better and feeling better enough to go apply for a job. Maybe that salon will have me as their makeup director.”
I really never had that moment of, “Okay, I’m going to go into business for myself, and this is going to be it for the rest of my life”. I think I was just doing what I felt I had no choice in the matter because of my circumstances and it was just a way to survive at the time, you know, to continue having income.
POC: Well so I guess one lesson that people could take away is even if you don’t necessarily have the background or even if that isn’t necessarily your intent, maybe sometimes life points you in a certain direction and go with that.
RG: Yeah. I think it’s…I mean, there was a little bit of dumb luck, I think. Like, what made me call department stores? I don’t know. I was just like, that’s what you do if you come up with a makeup line at the time, you know, 25 years ago. That’s kind of like…“Maybe I can get it into a store.”
And I remember the buyers at Bergdorf’s, I was established there already, and the buyers came by the counter one day and they said to me. The head buyer said to me, “If you give your brand to Barneys… [Laughs.]And I was like, “It never occurred to me to give it to Barneys.” [Laughs.] Like, I had no agenda. I had no agenda whatsoever.
POC: Well the irony now is, correct me if I’m wrong, the salon that fired you is no longer in business, correct?
RG: Just as I got into Bergdorf Goodman, the salon that fired me went out of business. And they had to notify me because I was getting my health insurance still through them, though COBRA at the time. And I couldn’t believe it. I thought they were closing for renovations temporarily but no, they went out of business. It was…
POC: So they went out of business and Barneys, to whom you didn’t give your makeup, is…
RG: Is gone.
POC: So you’re the last man standing, Ramy, in all this.
RG: So far so good. [Laughs.] Yes.
POC: Well, Ramy, as we said, people can find out more about you and your products and your business and your books because I know you’ve done actually a couple of books…
RG: Yes, How to Fake Real Beauty was the last one.
POC: And we will look forward to… what did you say? How To Be An Entrepreneur On a Frayed Shoestring? How To Start a Business…
RG: On a Shoestring Budget, yes.
POC: Okay, well we will look forward to that one. But thank you so much for joining us today on CEO Stories: This is Capitalism.
RG: My pleasure, thank you for having me.
About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.
About Patricia O’Connell: Patricia O’Connell serves as Editor in Chief of “This Is Capitalism,” a content site sponsored by Stephens Inc., and is host of the site’s podcast series, “CEO Stories.” Patricia, a former editor at BusinessWeek and a New York Times best-selling author, brings her experience as a journalist and her passion for storytelling to “This Is Capitalism.”