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Tarte CEO: 'I started this company on credit cards and a dream'

Maureen Kelly chats with Mika Brzezinski about how she started Tarte from her one-bedroom apartment and turned it into one of the fastest growing cosmetics companies in the U.S.
Maureen Kelly, founder of Tarte.
Maureen Kelly, CEO and founder of Tarte.Courtesy of Tarte

Maureen Kelly’s fascination with makeup started at an early age. When she was 6, Kelly created a homemade cheek stain with shaving cream and red cough syrup. She loved giving her dolls makeovers and made lip gloss for her friends during the holidays.

Kelly eventually turned her childhood hobby into a booming business, creating Tarte, one of the fastest growing cosmetics companies in the U.S.

But her career path hasn’t always been linear. Kelly initially was going to be a clinical psychologist but dropped out of her Ph.D. program to create her own makeup line. She started the company out of her and her husband’s one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, and at one point accumulated $100,000 in credit card debt. At one point, she roped her parents and four siblings into helping, paying them in pizza and wine. When her company finally started picking up steam, Kelly suffered the terrible and shocking loss of her husband on 9/11 when he was working at the south tower of the World Trade Center.

Despite all the obstacles, Kelly managed to persevere. Today, Tarte, which is 23 years old, has an in-store presence in over 23 countries and prides itself on its cruelty-free line of products made with good-for-you ingredients.

Kelly, 49, recently chatted with Know Your Value founder and “Morning Joe” co-host about her journey, how women’s makeup habits changed during the pandemic, her best career advice and more.

Below is the conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Mika Brzezinski: I'm curious, how did Tarte do during the pandemic? Did people’s shopping habits change? Did they wear more or less makeup than before? And how did you change your strategy?

Maureen Kelly: That's a great question. So, [our customers] definitely didn't stop wearing makeup, but they did stop wearing a lot of full-coverage products.

Thankfully, they didn't stop wearing concealer, so Shape Tape, [our best-selling concealer] still reigned supreme. But what we did find was they used Shape Tape all over their face. So, they used it for spot treating and in some cases they'd use it in place of like a foundation…

Shape Tape is truly a multitasking product …and that's one thing we saw during the pandemic is multitasking. So, people were using one product as like a multitasker… [Another example is] they would use one product on the lips, eyes and as blush…

Brzezinski: I hear you are turning 50 next month! I ask the next question to everybody, because, you know, I do the Know Your Value and Forbes’ “50 Over 50” list each year, which highlights women shattering age and gender norms.

I ask every woman that I've put on this list and interviewed — Did you ever imagine your career after 50 did when you were younger? I always thought about getting married, kids and my career. But I never imagined this whole realm after 50. Did you?

Kelly: If I'm being honest, no I didn't. When you're younger, you think, “Oh my gosh, 40 is old.” And then, when you're 40, you think “50 is gonna be so old.” And now [at 49], I'm winking at it, and I'm like, “Ah. It's not so bad!” ... I'd say I'm hitting my stride because the industry is constantly changing … I never am bored with what I'm doing, and that's why I love my job.

Brzezinski: I was reading about the early days of your career, that you contacted one of your favorite stores, Henri Bendel, and sort of bluffed your way in– essentially saying you had a commitment from Bergdorf Goodman. The lie landed you your first order, for $15,700, and a week later you got the attention of beauty writers at a breakfast hosted by the department store. What did you learn from this and the whole notion of “fake it, until you make it” during this time of your life?

Kelly: I had to, because no one would call me back. Looking back now as a business woman, I think, “What was I thinking?” But then, I had no money. I just had a little bit of life savings, and I started this company on credit cards and a dream, which I think people would think is crazy nowadays. You just don't do that. I mean, you're either an influencer or you're independently wealthy.

Social media didn't exist back then, so clearly influencing wasn't a thing. And, I remember someone looking at me and saying, “Well, you're definitely not a model” … and I was not independently wealthy. I was one of five [siblings] and both my parents worked for the government. So, I started Tarte with credit cards and minimal life savings.

When I created my business, no one would call me back. I started to panic, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I have to pay off these bills. What am I gonna do?” I started to feel a little bit desperate, and I was like, “OK, everyone says you have to fake it till you make it. So that's what I'm gonna do.”

…I kept leaving messages for all the buyers, and no one would call me back. And so then I finally left the message for the buyer at Bendel’s saying, “I'm about to launch” … and I kind of played the companies off of each other. She called me back that day and she said, “OK, fine, come in. I wanna see what you have.” She said they were having a press breakfast in a week and that she would give me a tiny little slot in the corner and see how that goes. And so, I had this tiny little corner slot. All of these amazing brands were there, and that was so intimidating.

I remember getting an outfit from Ann Taylor [for the press breakfast], and I remember not being able to afford it, tucking the tags into the back, thinking, “I probably am gonna have to return this, because if this doesn't go well, I'm not even gonna be able to pay these credit card bills off.”

I set my little, tiny booth up in the corner. I knew that if editors and customers got to see our product, they would realize it was different.. It also had this like cool fabric on the outside that no one else did at the time…So these editors were like, “What is this?” and “Who are you?” …They're like, “OK, we wanna shoot your stuff.” …Once you're in these magazines, back then, it just catapulted you. I got a counter at Bendel’s because of it. Sephora came calling, and the rest of it is history.

Brzezinski: Looking at Tarte today, your company is mission oriented. Tarte is dedicated to a number of causes, including animal welfare, women's empowerment, cyberbullying and more. I’m curious about the life-altering event of the 9/11 attacks, when you suffered a terrible and shocking loss of your husband when he was working in the World Trader Center. I know it was an extremely personal loss, and I’m not asking about that. But I’m curious. Did the way you approached your work and the people you worked with change after that?

Kelly: Yeah, for sure … I felt like I had a responsibility to the people, the very few people, that were working for me at the time, to keep going, I will say that had I not had some employees, I would not have probably been able to keep the company going … I just felt like I had a responsibility, because we had this goal and this purpose of creating this brand that was different. … It definitely gave me a purpose, and so I really poured myself into my work…

Brzezinski: You have an all-female leadership team, which is unusual for a cosmetics brand of your size. Do you find yourself repeating to the women you work with a particular piece of advice? I can't tell you how many people I'm still begging to stop apologizing. Most women apologize way too much in the workplace, and it hurts them. Men never do that.

Kelly: Right! It’s one of the reasons I launched a mascara called “Big Ego.” And it was all about the fact that women can have a big ego, and it's not a bad thing. Go ahead and have a big ego, because men have big egos. And you know, when boys have big egos, people say “he's gonna be a CEO one day” or “he's gonna really be somebody.” But when young girls have big egos, they're called bossy or that that they are somehow stepping out of line. And so [my advice is] a big ego doesn't have to be a bad thing.