May 17, 2014
When I came to Scripps I was a chubby Goth kid; then I started hanging out at Pitzer and became a Hippy. Next, I discovered LA and all it had to offer in the way of illegal warehouse gatherings, and 1992 Raver Nonie was born – although I struggle to remember her…
I met my British husband while I was at Scripps and Punk Nonie prevailed for many years and several bad tattoos, before giving way to a London-based Fashionista version. So here I am, back where I started, now a sometimes confusing, but well adjusted, amalgamation of all those personas.
College is a crucial time to explore yourself and your mind. Try stuff. Develop opinions, and just be in an environment where your BIG job and purpose is simply to think. These years are gold dust. Trust me, you’ll carry on reinventing yourself for the rest of your life, but what you learnt here at Scripps will creep in and tap you on the shoulder at the most amazing times. You may not even realize you knew those things, but they’re in there. So, as the first straight C student to give this speech, I’d like to share my experience of that with you.
In all seriousness, I was a very average student. I didn’t win awards, I wasn’t valedictorian, and I am not a Fulbright scholar. I always knew that I was an “artist”, but I didn’t understand so much about my own creative abilities and nature. I majored in fine art, and studied under Alan Blizzard and Marcia Kilgore, who not only allowed, but encouraged, me to spend an entire semester making plaster casts of my- and my now husband’s-naked bodies to use as canvases. Seeing the naked Nonies installed at my own senior graduation show remains the highlight of my fine art career!
I developed a total fascination for paint itself and mixing colour, but my big take-away from all that painting that I did was that I kind of sucked at it. I was devastated. Here I was, this wildly creative woman with all these ideas and strong vision, but a total inability to express them on a canvas despite excellent tutelage. I feared I was a failure. But the information and the experience was finding its way into my subconscious and taking hold.
Those of you that know me and my first cosmetics company, Butter London, know how that affinity for paint itself ultimately became the backbone of my entire career, but I’ll get to that…
I did excel in colour theory, art history, creative writing, and… Qigong (thank you Pitzer)… but my passion was for creating, and I felt unsure how to use that even as I collected my hard-won diploma. People sometimes roll their eyes at certain majors like, “What will you do with that?” The correct answer is “Anything I want, actually.” You are not defined by your major or the classes in which you excel. They are merely your jumping off point!
If you told me I’d end up using my Scripps fine arts degree to build beauty enterprises I would have laughed at you. I’d have said, ” But I’m not an MBA, I don’t know anything about business”. Well, it turns out you don’t have to. You just have to be smart. And you women are SMART. How do I know that? Well, because I hold the same diploma that you are about to hold, and as we all know – with far worse grades. And because your education has already found its way into your next steps, whether you realize it or not. And believe me – it’s a top notch education that continues to save my butt every day of my life.
When I left Scripps in 1994, I ran away to London – without a visa, without a penny, and without really thinking about it. After a few months living in a filthy squat with my boyfriend and “the band”, I started to panic. My parents werefurious, and told me (quite rightly) that financial aid would come ONLY in the form of an airline ticket when I came to my senses. I’d never actually been out in the real world on my own without a safety net, and I felt lost and scared and kind of dumb. But a safety net appeared. I realized there was something I could do – anywhere in the world. I could paint.
Now it’s not to say that I thought I’d race out and land a show at the Tate, but I could hold a paintbrush, and painting nails looked fun and easy, and a visa was not necessarily required! So that’s what I did. My first foray into life with my fabulous and expensive education was spent painting nails. Turns out I was the best (and smartest) damn manicurist London had ever seen. I started my first nail business standing outside the subway station every morning with business cards, a basket full of nail supplies, and a pay-as-you-go mobile phone. By lunchtime I’d be fully booked providing deskside manicures to the Wall Street types – cash only, please.
It’s important for me to stop here and talk about how hard this period was for me. I loved what I was doing, and the cash was addictive, but my overarching feeling was actually shame. I was “well-educated,” upper middle class, and here I was doing this job that required little more than a grade school education and was what people ended up doing when they had no other options. Now, I had no experience of humility, but this time in my life taught me a hugely important lesson. WE ARE NOT BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE. We have the gift of our Scripps education, but that education is NOT a free pass in life. You are still going to have to work really bloody HARD to succeed.
I also learnt to listen to myself, and trust that if I was happy, the only measure of success that mattered was my own. This is a crucial life lesson, because we live in a world full of expectations. Expectations of ourselves, expectations put upon us by others, and bars that are set high and ever rising. Enjoy yourselves, do things that you enjoy – don’t worry about the money. I’m going to let you in on a little secret : Money is only actually fun if you’re already happy.
Oh yes, and grow thick skin ladies, because I challenge any of you to try and explain to the country club set in Houston, Texas that you are now a…manicurist.
And then, a friend started dating a top agent in London who booked jobs for makeup artists and hair stylists on fashion shoots. No one at the time really thought much about manicurists, BUT they were a required part of the beauty team – you cant have Mario Testino shooting Kate Moss with dirty chewed up nails! So, I suddenly found myself shooting Gucci campaigns with Mario Testino and becoming Kate’s personal manicurist for years to come. Designers started to request me for their fashion shows, and sought me out for my “special skill” – hand mixed nail polishes. After all, it’s just paint – and that’s something I knew a LOT about.
Fashion and beauty editors were fascinated by my arrival on the scene, and it wasn’t because I was great at nails (although that goes without saying!) It was because I was well-educated, I was an artist, and I could speak to my trade with authority and in a voice that they could relate to. I began to get calls from Vogue asking to interview me on the latest trends in nails and beauty. I started to see my picture in The Times, then W Magazine, then Vanity Fair. Editors scrambled for my custom nail polishes and everyone asked “When will you start your own line?”
Here’s the part where, overnight, I build a 20 million dollar beauty company and live happily ever after and we can all go start drinking… except it did NOT happen that way.
I had to leave my beautiful home and my husband in London, move to America, live in someone’s rat-infested basement for two years, and earn less money than ALL of you will earn when you graduate to start and grow Butter London. I was 34 years old – I have never worked that hard in my life, and I pray that I’ll never have to again!!
We were two women at a kitchen table, with $50,000 in investment we’d managed to beg, borrow, and steal. We had ZERO experience in start-ups but had a killer vision and a relentless belief that we could DO THIS. I taught myself through painful trial and error how to manage multiple labs, product research & development, international supply chain, and simultaneously be the face and voice of our company. I mean, how hard can it be?
I literally can’t even work an Excel spreadsheet – still – and I’m on my second company! NEVER underestimate a Scripps “art major”. That said, I also got to conceive and create a brand, graphics, art, marketing concepts, and mix my precious paint all day. I created my own dream job. And it was born right here, on this campus. As I stand here in the throes of my next company, which the press describe as a beauty brand rooted entirely in “paint”, and “paint-like” cosmetics, nail polishes, and even hair dyes, I cant help but tear up when I look at each of you and wonder where Scripps will lead you.
Looking back the line from there to here is crystal clear. But you can’t see that as it’s happening – that would take all the fun out of it! Trust yourself.
The single most important skill you can take into the next phase of your life is resourcefulness. You women already have a wealth of resources at your fingertips. First of all, you have each other, and you will continue to call on one another for advice, connections, and support for the rest of your lives. As you move forward and scatter into hundreds of different fields, you become a crucial network of information and experience for one another.
Out of my own graduating class, I’m still best buds with a New York journalist, an Italian fashion designer, a high level Disney exec, and a woman who built, from scratch, and with every cent she owned, a world class extreme snow sports destination with her Pitzer boyfriend who is now her husband of 16 years. Twenty years after graduation, I still call on them regularly, they are my core, they’ve known me forever, and they don’t let me get away with anything.
The journalist OK’d this speech, the fashion designer helped me NOT to wear the leather shorts I was planning, the Disney exec begged me not to drop the F bomb, and the snow boarder said, “F@#% yeah dude, you got this.”
And do you know what? YOU got this. Don’t be scared about what comes next, don’t worry about whether you’ll set the world on fire, and definitely don’t stress about money. Just stop…think…as you’ve been educated to do….and then try some stuff that looks FUN and INTERESTING. If you’re truly unhappy, try something else, and so on and so on, until…you know. I am a late bloomer. Some of you will be too, but let me assure you, I’ve never felt like I was failing. I always thought my life was awesome, even when I was holding a basket full of nail files at the subway station.
The only measure of success that matters is your own. Knowing that – you simply CAN’T fail.
So here’s to you, the class of 2014. All Hail the Queens.
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