How I Overcame Tragedy & Started My Own Business: Interview with Francesco Clark of Clark's Botanicals

clarks-botanicalsI'd heard of Clark's Botanicals skin-care line before I knew the face behind the label. I've read about the products in countless magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar and The Wall Street Journal, but until I received a copy of the Francesco Clark's autobiography 'Walking Papers: The Accident that Changed My Life, and the Business that Got Me Back on My Feet,' I didn't know the family-owned business was born out of tragedy. (Which I think is a great testament to the product -- it stands on its own merits.)

The book is a fascinating read; the story begins with Francesco Clark talking about the accident that changed his life forever, paralyzing him from the neck down at the age of 24. His diagnosis was grim, but Clark not only fought back, he overcame the odds -- and by the end of the book, he's also shared some very inspiring secrets about overcoming your own obstacles and starting any new venture you might want to try.

Clark's Botanicals didn't begin as a money-making enterprise. As a shut-in, and being wheelchair-bound, Clark's once-clear skin began to blemish terribly. Nothing worked. His skin was too sensitive for many of the products available, or the ones that were mild enough simply didn't work. With the help of his family, he began to experiment with natural ingredients -- and out of that, the successful business Clark's Botanicals was born.

His company has won the Fashion Group International Rising Star Award, Allure's Best of Beauty Award (two years in a row), Fitness's Beauty Award, Self's Healthy Beauty Award, Cosmetic Executive Women's Indie Brand of the Year 2008, as well as Wallpaper's design award.

walking papersQ. Rather than being depressing, your book had a really good balance between the tragedy and the triumph. How did you find that balance?

A. Thank you. It was important to me that it didn't [come off] so black. I wanted it to be a book about: This is what I did, this is how I lived through this injury. And it's my life, so I'm not expecting anybody else to go through it the same way. This was more my journey.

Q. It seems the fact that you already had a great work ethic, before your injury, helped you start your own business. Able-bodied or not, it is such an accomplishment for anyone.

A. What's interesting about Clark's Botanicals is that I never started it as a business. It was a point in my life after my injury when I felt like a piece of sand and I didn't want people to notice me. I didn't want people to look at me to talk to me or to worry about me because all I felt that they looked at was my wheelchair.

Three years after I was injured, Christopher Reeve passed away and that was kind of the turning point for me because he was my hero even before I was injured, but especially after my spinal cord injury. He was an advocate for people with my disability and for stem cell research and for medical research of any kind. So when he passed away I realized that I had been wallowing in self-pity. His passing made me realize that I wanted to become part of the cure and not be passive.

I joined a local advocacy group. [I soon realized] I didn't want to wear the T-shirt day in and day out, and suddenly for the first time in three years, I looked in the mirror and my skin didn't look like my skin. My face didn't look like my face. I wanted the physical, the outside, to reflect the way that I felt. That's when my father [a doctor] and I created Clark's Botanicals, because nothing was working. We started to formulate the product at a point in my life when I was from this very negative place. And suddenly it just turned around and because of this, people saw me. They wanted to smile at me and they wanted to talk to me. And they wanted to see me as a person and not as a disabled person. So it was just me. And that's kind of how it all started.

Q. What kind of personal traits do you think make for a good entrepreneur?

A. In order to be a successful entrepreneur you have to have a very thick skin. You're going to have to learn to deal with hearing 'no' a lot. Also there is a sense that you have to endure a lot of disbelief, because as an entrepreneur, inherently you're starting this idea completely on your own. Many people won't have the faith in your idea that you have. So you have to be very strong-willed and you need to be very sure of what your goal is and what your vision is. As an entrepreneur if you waver at all on the ability of your idea, that reflects back on the actual business in everybody's point of view.

Q. For a botanical product, what are the FDA guidelines? How do you put things out on the market and have all of your legal things in place? That must have been difficult.

A. It is difficult, but that is very important. The way that you're able to brand if you say that your product is 'natural.' Then for organic there are specific guidelines for it. Clark's Botanicals is not 100 percent natural, because it's actually the best of science and the best of nature to create a synergy for healthy growth of skin. We don't use a lot of botanical preservatives that are bad for you. For example [certain chemicals] actually have been shown to increase estrogen in women, leading to breast cancer. So we cut that kind of preservative out of all of our product. We don't use colors in any of our products with the exception of our tinged lip balm.

But nothing that is superfluous, is not needed, or actually doesn't build upon the strength of another ingredient, is in any of our products. And ultimately, every product has to deliver. Every product has to have a reason for being, which means they have to be results-oriented. At the end of the day -- whether you're buying the natural product line and organic product line, a botanical or a completely traditional beauty cream -- all you want is beautiful skin. That's why you go to the store to find that particular product.

I never wanted any trade-off. The typical trade-off is that when it says that it's 'natural,' it has to be an ugly packaging or it has to smell like cardboard. So you kind of think, 'I guess that's all right, because it's natural'. No. The thing about Clark's Botanicals is that I wanted it to feel like the best that you can buy, and it works better than anything else you could buy, because it's stimulating. And I wanted you to be able to see results after three days of use. I wanted you to be able to see that your wrinkles were filled. I wanted you to see that the apple stem cells that we use in our cellular lifting serum are actually plumping up fine lines and wrinkles and making your skin pink and glowing again. And you can feel the product working, because they tingle.

Q. Today's economy isn't that great, but what can people on a budget do to help those with spinal cord injuries? Are there volunteer situations? Does a portion of the proceeds from your botanical line go to research?

A. Yeah. Every product purchase of Clark's Botanicals helps. A percentage of each of our products' retail goes to benefit the Christopher Reeve Foundation. That goes directly to finding a cure and also funding the care for people with spinal cord injuries. People can help in many different ways -- and in fact, the way that I'm involved with the foundation is that I'm one of their national ambassadors.

So my company is directly involved with the foundation; but me as an individual, I give speeches, I do events. I go to events, because it's about showing people what living with a spinal injury means. I discuss my first days of injury, when I couldn't speak and when I couldn't breathe; when I was told that I would be on a ventilator for the rest of my life. And clearly that's not happening. I'm pretty much not shutting up. People can get involved [by] running marathons. There's a program called Team Reeve where, when you run the New York City Marathon and the Boston Marathon, you can sign with Team Reeve [at the same time] and the money that you raise to run that marathon would go to spinal cord injury research through the Christopher Reeve Foundation.

Next:How Tragedy Led Me to a Job I Love: Personal Stories of Rising from the Ashes >>


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