It’s the kind of crazy match made in heaven that you’d expect to find in a movie. A discovery is made that can help heal those wounded in battle. Then, in a bizarre twist of fate, it turns out that same discovery can help do something else too – create beautiful hair.
A group of bio-scientists discovered Alpha Keratin 60ku. They found they were able to use it to help wounded soldiers heal quicker. In 2012, Melisse Shaban learned about this fascinating technology and began hearing rumors that this life-changing regenerative medicine might also repair hair. In that moment, Virtue was born, a biotech company designed to repair hair.
Shaban is now the Founder and CEO of Virtue, which merges the two distinct worlds of biotech and beauty. Virtue contains the patented, self-regulating protein called Alpha Keratin 60ku recognized by the hair as its own. So, basically, Virtue is putting the strength of $30 million dollars of military medicine back into hair care.
The brand launched in February 2017 with several million dollars. At the end of their B-round in August 2017, Virtue had raised over $20 million. Shaban was born and bred in the industry and so few are surprised that she is shaking up the beauty game with hair care products that are equal parts beauty and tech.
Shaban grew up in New York and Greenwich, CT, and attended Rosemont College in Pennsylvania. As a kid, she says she was pretty shy. “I was also a ‘Sporty Spice.’ I was a very outside kid and loved sports and being part of a team,” she explains.
She says that she doesn’t necessarily have any sort of fundamental interest in hair or beauty. Instead, she has an interest in products and how consumers relate to those products. “I came to the beauty industry because my Dad worked for Revlon for 30 years – the whole time I was growing up – and I wanted to do what he did. It’s certainly a very interesting, competitive, and constantly evolving product category.”
As a kid, Shaban wanted to be a veterinarian because she loved animals. “My actual career took a different path. But I maintain my love for animals to this day – especially our three dogs, our crazy cat, and the occasional fish. Clearly, I’m proud to have passed that love of animals along to our kids. It’s a very animal-friendly home.”
Almost all of Shaban’s career has been in the health and beauty industry, much of it working directly with founders and entrepreneurs, who she says she feels like she has a real an affinity and understanding for.
“Early on, I was given a huge opportunity and named General Manager of Aveda, working with founder Horst Rechelbacher, and helped oversee a dramatic expansion of the business, including internationally.”
After that, Shaban had the opportunity to work with Anita Roddick as Chief Operating Officer & General Manager of The Body Shop in the Americas. She was then the CEO of Frédéric Fekkai, followed by StriVectin. “At Fekkai I oversaw double-digit yearly growth, expanding it into Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, leading to the acquisition of the brand by P&G.”
But, for the past six years, she has been bringing her own baby to life - Virtue.
There is real technology in Virtue, Shaban says, which has been both a huge blessing and an equally enormous challenge.
The protein used in Virtue was discovered in the study of regenerative medicine by researchers looking into how to speed up healing from catastrophic battlefield injuries — things like bone, tissue, and nerve regeneration. “The fact that it is being used in hair care is kind of a fluke,” Shaban says.
Shaban explains that other “keratins” currently on the market in hair care are derived from animal sources – feathers, sheep’s wool – and are harshly broken down leaving little more than amino acid fragments that don’t really do all that much. “The technology in Virtue, Alpha Keratin 60ku™, is a whole, fully functional human keratin protein, carefully extracted from human hair – the first of its kind on the market, and a major breakthrough in hair care.” She says it’s clinically proven to locate the damaged spots on the hair, and adhere to it naturally, repaving and repairing those spots. The result? Healthy, beautiful hair, Shaban says.
When she first learned that the human keratin protein was $46.00 per gram, she thought it was a typo. The product requires an extremely high dose of the protein. But instead of simply walking away, she “found a resource engineer with experience in human proteomics, and worked to put a scalable process in place to drive down costs to the point that production was feasible.”
But then she was unable to find a contract manufacturer to extract and purify the protein, regardless of process. “Pharma companies wouldn’t do it, and cosmetics manufacturers couldn’t do it, so by default we became our own ingredient manufacturer – not something we ever intended to be.” Virtue now has their own lab facility in Winston-Salem, NC, where they extract and purify the human protein they use in their products.
As far as they have come with Virtue, Shaban says, “I honestly believe we have just scratched the surface of what this protein can do. As we continue to develop the brand, we will only go where the technology leads us – that will always be our point of difference.”
Throughout her career, Shaban has raised over half a billion dollars. “It’s always hard, but I believe I have a solid knack for being able to tell a story of what’s possible for a brand.” Shaban says that when you’re raising money, the story and the logic has to be pretty simple.
She believes that people tend to invest in companies when the business model isn’t overly complicated. “I’ve been lucky enough to work with some pretty meaningful brands and technologies along the way which helps. But raising money – taking people’s money – always comes with a great deal of personal pressure, but that’s part of the job.”
Because Virtue began as a local North Carolina biotech company, she started with the North Carolina business community when it came to fundraising, and “raised most of the initial capital from local, high net worth family offices who consider it part of their mandate to bring more jobs to the state,” Shaban explains. In fact, the company is housed in a former RJ Reynolds facility in Winston-Salem, NC.
So, Virtue is actually creating jobs in areas hit the hardest when tobacco industry left the area.
“That’s a very serious and noble cause, and it was our extreme good fortune to be able to repurpose that technology to repair damaged hair.” The technology behind the Virtue line came from the study of regenerative medicine to help wounded soldiers. Shaban was committed to paying homage to the root of the technology.
“We had to find a word that gave us comfort that we weren’t exploiting that, and yet also remained on brand for us.”
A copywriter came up with twenty-five words, Virtue was one of them. “For us, the word has a very deep meaning. We use the word Virtue as a touchstone, a standard to measure everything we do against.”
It was nothing short of surreal seeing Virtue out in the world for the first time and hearing people’s responses to using it, Shaban says, especially since it took nearly four and a half years to get the products to market. “I’m usually in and out of a deal in that amount of time,” Shaban explains. She describes it as both was scary and truly gratifying to finally have Virtue out in the world. “And to hear that the products are resonating and creating a real, transformative difference in people’s lives is deeply moving to me.”
Shaban says that rising above the noise in the crowded industry that is beauty has been her greatest challenge. “The consumer has so much information constantly being pushed at her. It’s hard to build space and time with her, and then to get her to take notice and also take a chance.”
When she was able to share the proceeds of a company’s sale with absolutely every person working there, including many who never would have expected to have been included in something like that, Shaban says, “It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced as a boss and frankly as a person. I really hope to be able to do something like that again someday.”
Shaban says that although she doesn’t see beauty for beauty’s sake as a vital part of the human experience. She does think that “confidence, self-worth, and being your best self is an important part of the human experience” as is whatever goes along with looking, feeling, and seeing the best you in yourself.”
When it comes to challenges she has faced as a woman, Shaban says she has certainly experienced her share. “Because I’m alive, and I’m human, I’ve seen a lot of misogyny out there,” Shaban says. “I think that women who are passionate and strong are sometimes criticized as being emotional and mean spirited.” Shaban adds she has certainly felt a little of that in her life because she is extremely passionate. “But I’ve never let those types of criticism define me or limit the way I approach my work. If I believe in something, I’m all in.”
As for the future, Shaban’s hope for our world is that “this period in time is a teachable moment and that we will come out on the other side much better and stronger because of it.” As for Virtue, she wishes for a legacy for the brand. “That we can keep true to our roots and what the brand stands for; that we have a voice and that we use that voice for the betterment of society. We feel this brand.”
Shaban says she feels very lucky and humble to be working with such an amazing piece of technology and such a great group of dedicated, caring, talented people. “It’s a unique moment to be building a business and a brand from the ground-up, and we’re hopeful that for this brand the future is bright.”
Shaban’s advice for other women looking to mark their mark is simple, “Tenacity, tenacity, tenacity. Life isn’t linear. Business isn’t linear. Surround yourself with really quality people who share your values and your perspective on the bigger-picture things. Then get up to fight another day. As my girl Miley says, it’s all about the climb.”
Dr. Victoria Bateman, an esteemed economist best known for her nude protests for gender equality, uses her body as a form of art that serves to challenge the stigma around women's bodies and women's rights, in the world of economics. In March 2018, Bateman attended the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society in Brighton stark naked with the word "respect" written across her chest and stomach. Unbashful in delivering her message, Bateman was determined to start a conversation.