SUSAN GRIFFIN-BLACK IS a woman way ahead of her time. She co-launched San Rafael’s EO Products, a line of plant-based and organic personal care products, 25 years ago, in the early days of the natural cosmetics and beauty revolution. She intuitively organized it like a B Corporation, a business that balances purpose with profit to ensure beneficial impact on workers, customers, suppliers, communities and the environment. She even “consciously uncoupled” from husband Brad Black before Gwyneth Paltrow championed the phrase.
Griffin-Black is not only ahead of her time, but also a role model. Her visionary activity flowed from something profound — a quest for a purpose-filled life, which she also discussed in a recent TEDx Talk. “I had a drive to find my purpose, find heart and meaning to live and make a living,” she says.
More than 150 employees of EO (Essential Oils) now carefully craft soaps, lotions and shampoos based on oil extracts from seeds, bark, stems, roots, flowers and other plant parts, in the Marin County space formerly used by George Lucas as a movie studio. But it has been a challenging journey, Griffin-Black adds.
It began with her work at the fashion company Esprit with its co-founder Doug Tompkins, the entrepreneur and environmentalist who also founded The North Face. “His idea was to try to figure out how to grow and make things sustainably,” she says. “For example, cotton [fabric] was being made with many dangerous chemicals. This got me thinking about how we make other things too.”
The aha moment came when she serendipitously wandered into Neal’s Yard Apothecary in London’s Covent Garden. “The smell was incredible,” she recalls. “I looked around and thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’” Soon, she was studying aromatherapy and opening a Neal’s Garden location in the Bay Area. She also married Brad, whom she now describes as her “wasband.”
In 1995, they launched EO out of their garage. What Griffin-Black now considers their greatest success was born from many hurdles: “We got really good at not going out of business,” she says.
Building any small business is hard. “Cash ebbs and flows,” she explains. “We kept thinking that one of us should get a job.” When business got really tough, they went to a four-day work week in order to keep on their small cadre of valued employees.”
Buying a small manufacturing facility in Corte Madera in 1999 helped too. “The owner taught us quite a bit,” Susan explains. “That helped us learn how to be a maker, a manufacturer. This also gave us the opportunity to scale.” An early contract with Whole Foods – when it was only 50 stores – also helped.
Whole Foods. But the real game changer came when Griffin-Black realized that her own son couldn’t afford EO products. So she developed EO Everyone: products with a reduced percentage of essential oils, sold in substantially larger containers, at a much lower price point.
Explosive demand led to rapid growth. Now, keeping up with that, while also honoring EO’s core principles, is both a constant objective and a blessing. “We’re values-led and values-driven. We’ve never had to get off that path because of [any need to please] investors,” she says. EO still is proudly family owned. The company is also aiming to be a zero-waste and zero-plastic manufacturer.
Passion and appreciation for work, life, family, community and nature are the hallmarks of Griffin-Black’s success. “Making things that are better is something that has a lot of meaning and heart and purpose,” she adds. “People are looking for that. It’s [a way of life] returning to the United States more and more.”
She’s also grateful to live and have raised children in Marin because of its natural beauty, progressive values and creative spirit. She’s close to two sisters who live in Marin and own restaurants. “One owns Moseley’s Sports Bar and Tamalpie. The other owns Hazel’s Kitchen in San Francisco.” You can feel her grin when Susan states, “I never have to cook a meal.”
Passion and appreciation for work, life, her “wasband” partnership, family, community and the majesty of the natural world all inform every sentence Susan thoughtfully offers. If more people dug deep emotionally to find authentic purpose, just imagine how much better our world will be.
Susan B. Noyes is the Founder & Chief Visionary Officer of Make It Better Media Group, as well as the Founder of Make It Better Foundation’s Philanthropy Awards. A mother of six, former Sidley Austin labor lawyer and U.S. Congressional Aide, passionate philanthropist, and intuitive connector, she has served on boards for the Poetry Foundation, Harvard University Graduate School of Education Visiting Committee, American Red Cross, Lurie Children’s Hospital, Annenberg Challenge, Chicago Public Education Fund, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New Trier High School District 203, and her beloved Kenilworth Union Church. But most of all, she enjoys writing and serving others by creating virtuous circles that amplify social impact.