Making a big career change is never easy, particularly during a pandemic. Amy Wilkinson-Lough, Founder of Project bYouty, has however successfully launched a space set to break boundaries in the beauty industry regardless of the challenges.
“Life has a funny way of taking you on journeys you least expect, right?” says Amy Wilkinson-Lough, whose career took a total 180 after being dealt an unexpected hand of cards.
After nearly 20 years in the music industry working with some of the biggest names you can think of – Drake, Avicii, Prince and Take That – Amy took a step back to reassess. What she didn’t expect was many people who she thought were friends simply disappeared into the abyss. “The phone stopped ringing and you realise pretty quickly the friends you thought you had you didn’t and that’s a really re- ally hard place to find yourself,” she admits. “It required a lot, and I mean a lot of therapy and self-care.” What followed was a devastating cancer diagnosis in her family, which emphasized the loneliness she was already feeling. Little did she know however that this would lead her down the path to founding Project bYouty – an e-commerce beauty space in the Middle East making cruelty-free non-negotiable.
Hours of reading and researching on chemotherapy and radiation, led her down the rabbit hole of what actually goes into the products we use, which had her questioning, “Why do we continue to support brands using such ingredients?” As she was based in the United Kingdom at the time, Amy immersed herself in the world of conscious consumerism, ensuring she put her support behind clean and conscious beauty brands that always explained the “why”. However, returning to Dubai she found it was a totally different story when it came to sourcing ethical and conscious brands. And when she did, the wait time was astronomical, as were the costs – duties, taxes, delivery fees and more added up, but so did finding a clear gap in the market to create something to combat this. “It felt like a scenario I could fix, the rest as they say is history,” she says.
As her first foray into the beauty industry – worlds away from the music business – Amy jokes that she’s “blissfully unaware” of what else is out there, something she believes has helped immensely as she’s bringing “an entirely new thought perspective”. And, well, it’s clearly working. While she only just launched Project bYouty earlier this year, the e-commerce site already has just shy of 90 highly sought-after brands under its umbrella – Augustinus Bader, Revitalash, Dr. Barbara Sturm, Emma Hardie, Oskia, Sarah Chapman, just to name a few.
Carving her own niche in the beauty space is something Amy is taking in her stride, despite the challenges one can have with any new launch, as well as beginning an excruciating and heartbreaking journey with IVF just at the time of her launch. However, it’s something she’s been open about continually with her team, brands and investors. “I’ve just been very honest about it to my team and to our brands – and the support has been overwhelming, honesty often counts for a lot,” she says. Emirates Woman sat down with the entrepreneur to discover exactly how she came to find herself immersed in the world of beauty, the changes she’s making in the industry in this region, the trials and tribulations she’s had to endure on her way to success and what’s next for Project bYouty.
Can you talk us through your career?
Until launching Project bYouty I’ve spent the last almost 20 years in the entertainment industry, delivering live concerts all around the world and I’ve loved every minute of it. I started out standing outside nightclubs in the freezing UK weather at ridiculous times of the morning handing out flyers for various DJ’s and shows, then went into the PR and marketing aspect eventually finding myself in essentially a combination of artist and tour management. I’ve put together tours and album campaigns across UK, Europe, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and of course right here in Dubai. Privileged to have worked with some absolute musical icons; Drake, Take That, Pharell, Avicii, Nile Rodgers and Prince. I eventually raised investment to set up Louder Entertainment here in Dubai which went on to win a plethora of awards and deliver some monumental shows until an unexpected and hugely upsetting investment fall out.
Have you always been entrepreneurial?
I’ve always been a square peg in a round hole with massive ambitions and an innate dislike to being asked or expected to conform; so, my honest answer to that is I don’t really think there was any other route for me, I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted it (my route) to look like, just how I wanted to feel.
What eventually brought you to Dubai?
The Middle East stole my heart at a young age. I went to school in Abu Dhabi when I was 14 and I had the best time of my life, the happiest time of my life and I knew that I was unequivocally going to end up here permanently at some point. I was offered a role way back in the early 2000s by an agency who had essentially been tasked with making live music and entertainment concepts a ‘thing’ for the region – it was the easiest decision and fastest ‘yes’ I’ve ever given anyone, three days later I was here.
You’ve now entered the beauty space after being in the music industry for years – what inspired this?
Life has a funny way of taking you on journeys you least expect. When Louder entertainment ended it took me a good year to recover mentally. The phone stopped ringing and you realise pretty quickly the friends you thought you had you didn’t and that’s a really really hard place to find yourself. It required a lot, and I mean a lot of therapy and self-care. My family was then dealt a devastating cancer diagnosis; the sadness, the grief, the loneliness just reached new heights if I wasn’t in hospital wards I was in a bath with essential oils, or bed with a face mask just trying to ‘hang in there’ – I read constantly in a bid to help with the side effects of chemotherapy, radiation, lethargy and all of a sudden I was like wow how did I not know all of this ‘stuff’, why did no one tell me the side effect of some ingredients, why is the oncologist telling us to rid the house of X, Y and Z, why am I supporting brands that haven’t necessarily been doing the ethical thing? That journey of what I call conscious consumerism seemed a lot easier to do in the UK, I could get every possible clean product, I could get every form of an anxiety-based elixir, every unsung indie hero product, brands that had a huge ‘why’ it was all just there and at my door the next day. I came back to Dubai and joking aside the struggle was real, sites didn’t ship here, if they did it would take over a week, it would cost me double by the time I’d paid duties, taxes, delivery fees and everything in between, I was more stressed trying to order than I was trying to solve! It felt like a scenario I could fix, the rest as they say is history.
What does your new brand Project bYouty represent?
An authentic, informed, inspired space to shop the very best in conscious beauty and wellbeing from all around the world.
What sets Project bYouty apart from other e-commerce sites in the beauty space?
We are the only site in the region to make cruelty free an absolute non-negotiable. We only deal directly with founders and or licensed distributors, you will never find a product that’s not registered and or certified, if you see a product listed as Vegan you can be confident, we’ve done significant due diligence to verify that, same with halal, organic, clean or such like. We have the planet and its people at our core, we genuinely believe wholeheartedly that we can make a change. We aim to tackle the subjects no one wants to talk about but we know to exist and ultimately remind every individual that whoever comes onto ProjectbYouty.com whether as a consumer or a reader that you are your superpower.
Do you feel starting with fresh eyes to a new industry has helped or hindered?
It’s helped for sure, I’m coming at everything from an entirely new thought perspective as I’m blissfully unaware of what’s been done before or perhaps what the industry is used to and our brands love that. Our initial approach to brands came via a Kanye West-themed video, with zero and I mean zero references to beauty we’ve got just shy of 90 of them currently on the site so goes to show just because you’ve never done something before doesn’t mean you can’t you just need to think differently.
How does the beauty space differ in the UAE/Middle East than in other parts of the globe?
We have some of the most beautiful men and women in the world. As a region I think it’s fair to say we aren’t as well informed when it comes to ingredients and formulations as some other parts of the world and therefore, we can’t necessarily make the most effective decisions for our skincare, symptom or wellbeing. In terms of the industry aesthetic in this part of the world sadly, we’ve only delivered a very polished one. You don’t see ads or should I say certainly anywhere near enough of them that have women/men with acne, cellulite, freckles, pigmentation, curves all of which are totally normal irrespective of nationality, race, religion – that’s something I’m determined Project bYouty will change.
You’ve worked incredibly hard, where does your motivation from?
I have days where the only option is to give in, order takeout and eat it in my pyjamas even if it is only 3pm in the afternoon – we’re all human. However, I’m determined and with that comes a level of natural excitement, especially when surrounded by people who want to see you win. I get to talk to phenomenal founders, most of whom are women, I get to represent their brands and their values which I genuinely see as a privilege.
While you’re still in the early days, what has been the most rewarding thing you have experienced since founding the brand?
Unquestionably finding some of the most beautiful brands on the planet, getting to spend so much time with their founder one way or another and listening to their whys. So many brands have been created from adversity, illness or an overwhelming desire to see change one way or another and it’s been an absolute privilege to learn about and now represent in the Region on Projectbyouty.com.
What advice do you wish you had received at the beginning of your journey to success?
Over and above anything else, if you’re in a position to do so freeze your eggs.
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Looking back over your career and since launching the brand, can you tell us about some major hurdles you’ve had to overcome?
I’ve been on and am still on a pretty brutal IVF journey which started at almost the exact same time Project bYouty really came into momentum, the amount of appointments, surgeries and treatments I’ve had as part of that journey including finding cancer, and suffering a miscarriage has meant I’ve taken a lot of Zooms from hospital wards often in less than fetching surgery gowns – [laughs] but, I’ve just been very honest about it to my team and to our brands – and the support has been overwhelming, honesty often counts for a lot.
I worked with a lot of the wrong people in the early days, partners, agencies, investors and that was expensive, when you’re hungry for your idea to come to life you don’t always question things that you probably should, you want to believe everyone wants to see you win, and that they have the expertise they say they have; sadly that’s not always the case and when it goes wrong it’s tough to swallow and as a startup, it sets you back monumentally as every dirham is accounted for. Not listening or trusting my gut instinct cost me and those brands who’d committed to Project bYouty a good year of revenue and my mental health.
I was a couple of months into the investment raise journey of Project bYouty, I’d specifically been seeking out female investors or at least female-founded venture capital firms, I’d secured two big meetings one round a table with three women, the other one on one.
The three ladies didn’t even let me get to the end of the pitch before they said, it will never work, the market here isn’t ready, it’s all too costly to do that’s why no one’s done it before – I probably wasn’t even in the meeting eight minutes when I was shown the door. The next one probably a week or so later, was direct with the founder, she absolutely loved it, it made sense to her five days later I was issued with a head of terms sheet; essentially the first official part of any raise, it was all systems go – until I was ghosted, calls ignored, emails unanswered and Zooms unattended. These are moments you’re really tested, they’re also the moments that you have to cling for dear life to the belief in your concept, you take the no’s or the unkindness of the non-believers, you store it and you go again as many times as you have to, you send the follow-up emails, you call and leave the voice notes and you go for the coffees – eventually someone will say yes. At 1 pm on October 25th I inked a seven-figure seed round for Project bYouty, at 3.30pm I was under anaesthetic having parts of my uterus removed in a bid to become a Mum – never let them tell you women can’t do it all.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, what have been the key milestones?
I’m still standing – that counts right?! The loss of a business especially when it’s one completely out of your hands is tough to swallow and no one talks about the effect it has on your mental health – I am tremendously proud that I’ve found the strength to go again.
When Project bYouty first started out I had a vision board with 20 absolute must-have brands on them, people thought I was nuts as a start-up with no beauty experience to be aiming so high, we launched with 13 of those brands, 5 more will join us in Q4 and the other 2 are playing hard to get!
Whilst perhaps not considered a milestone I am incredibly proud, humbled, grateful and at times emotional that I have such an incredible team around me – no one can achieve success on their own and when you’re a startup you’re asking people to take a chance with essentially no guarantees. I have a small but mighty team who work tirelessly on all kinds of time zones because they believe in me and the change I want to see us make in the world.
What are your future plans for Project bYouty?
We’re just getting started and there’s a lot to do. If the last 18 months has taught us anything it’s that the world can change overnight as can consumer wants, needs, demands – we’ve got a heavy 5-year plan that includes Project bYouty television, a huge event and workshop calendar, we’re looking at a physical space – it’s exciting and sleep-depriving all at the same time.
And finally, this is ‘The Icon Issue’ – who are the icons in your life?
That’s easy – my Dad. He took a horrific illness, less than optimistic diagnosis, made a promise to me to fight it even when it got dark and to be here to see me launch Project bYouty – he was our first customer and in January we’ll officially be ‘cancer free’.
September’s – ‘The Icon Issue’ – Download Now
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