Ruby Polanco emerged from the darkest of backgrounds to create the most colorful of companies. Ruby Makeup Academy (#403 on the 2014 Inc. 5000), a $2.1 million cosmetics school with three locations in the Los Angeles area, is helping graduates make it in Hollywood, influencing nationwide fashion trends, and may be getting its own reality series.
I was born in Honduras and came to this country at age 12. My mom made $5 an hour and raised three of us in an apartment in South Central with one bedroom and no kitchen. Typical story from that area: I dropped out of high school and got pregnant at 17. I got married; we moved to Las Vegas; we divorced; and I was back within a year.
I got a job at McDonald's. I started as a cashier, and then moved up to management, where I did accounting and payroll. That taught me I was smart enough to do something better than clean houses and babysit. I went to community college to improve my English and got my business management degree from University of Phoenix. I did people's taxes and managed accounting for a company to pay for it.
In 2003, about a month before graduation, I met Trish Grimes online. She became both my business partner and my life partner. Trish was a real estate broker. I said, "I can help you. I can sell anything. I can sell all day long." She didn't believe me. But within a month, I was sending her people every day. And that's when she said, "Why don't we start a business together?"
We started a real estate business and did really well for a few years. Then the market crashed. I was selling to the Hispanic market, so my market disappeared first. I lost everything: my home, my car. Trish stayed in business for another year.
I had this dream of creating a makeup line for Latinas. When Trish saw my passion for this, she funded everything. I wanted to make my own formulas, but for the time being I used private label. We had a little kiosk at the West Covena Mall. We had to be open every single day all day long, which meant we needed employees. It got very expensive, so I started freelancing as a makeup artist to pay for it.
I wanted to get into Hollywood, so I did makeup at fashion shows and nightclubs for free. Designers and promoters started calling me for jobs. I realized there was real money in it when I did makeup for a music video featuring the Mexican singer Anahi. I was just assisting, but I got paid $100 an hour. I started working with other artists. After eight hours I would go home and turn the money over to Trish so we could meet payroll for the cosmetics company.
I was making a bit of a name for myself, so I decided I could teach people. I opened up a little studio: 300 square feet. But I was still putting all the money into the cosmetics line. By January 2011 we were broke and closed the cosmetics business. In April we were evicted. I was living in a friend's spare bedroom, borrowing her car. But we still had the studio for two months, so I decided if I was going to go down I was going to give it my best. I offered classes for free to get people in the door. I took great pictures that made it look like we had big classes, and I used social media to market the classes. In September we had our first real big class: 15 people paying $2500 each.
Everybody comes with the idea that they want to be makeup artists. But 50 percent of them, after they are done, realize they just wanted to feel pretty. Makeup gives them that. About 30 percent end up working with celebrities and doing makeup for music videos. I have an internship program that helps them land those jobs. One of my girls did the Oscars this year. She works with Samuel L. Jackson--people like that. The other 20 percent are shy and don't want to deal with the business part of it. They want to be famous on Instagram and do workshops at home.
When I started, everybody was doing natural colors: a lot of browns. I made color the signature of my company. We use crazy colors: red, blue, green, orange. It became a trend. Now everybody copies us. Latinas love color. Ninety percent of my students are Hispanic.
I do marketing and product development: creating the looks, creating the classes. I have amazing salespeople. I train young girls with no experience in sales. Their parents think, "oh, you girls are just brats." I turn them into businesswomen. I have 20-year-olds making $4,000 or $5,000 a month selling classes.
This is a company for young women by young women. Ninety percent of our employees were students first. Our girls are 18 to 28. They are beautiful. They are very passionate for life. They love to work hard. They love to play hard. I promote the school on social media as Ruby Girls having fun, doing selfies, group pictures at different events. Young women come here trying to be beautiful. But also they want to belong.
I am restarting the cosmetics line and plan to have it in all Sephoras. I'm hoping to be a $50 million company.
As told to Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan.