A Beauty Genius On What Goes Into Making the Next Best Product
Michael Rowe

As the lead innovation scientist for Burt’s Bees, Abena Antwi whips up all-natural products that make our skin sing. We talked to the 37-year-old chemistry whiz and mom of two to find out what goes into creating the next best formula.

ESSENCE: How did you get started in cosmetics?

ABENA ANTWI: I started my major at Kean University in nursing; both of my parents were nurses. I changed to chemistry during my second year, thinking I would go into the pharmaceutical industry. One year, my chemistry teacher told me about a L’Oréal internship. The creativity and art behind the cosmetics industry attracted me. It wasn’t just the chemistry that you learn in school, which is very structured.

ESSENCE: How did you turn your internship with L’Oréal into a job?

A.A.: It was supposed to be a three- month program, but when I finished I asked if I could continue part-time while I was in school. So they gave me the opportunity. In my last year of college, L’Oréal acquired Kiehl’s and they were looking for chemists. I got hired right before I graduated.

ESSENCE: How do you decide what trends to bring to consumers?

A.A.: My department forecasts what is going to be happening in the next five years. Say we’re looking for new lipsticks. Once we have a concept, we test it with consumers to see how they buy that idea. Then I’ll put that concept together and show the marketing team or go back to the consumer for more testing. If it works, we’ll launch it. It takes two to three years to actually come up with the whole product.

ESSENCE: Are there many other female scientists in this field?

A.A.: You’d think that the cosmetics industry is full of women, but it’s dominated by men. Trying to prove myself everyday is a challenge as a woman of color. I’m tooting my own horn to make sure people know what I’m doing. If not, I’d just become another chemist in the lab. If something I’m making comes out well, I don’t even go to my manager. I’ll head straight to upper management like, “This is what I have.” They know every day what I’m working on or what is in the pipeline. 

ESSENCE: What advice would you give to young women who want to work in STEM fields?

A.A.: Stay in school, keep studying, ask questions. A lot of women don’t want to go into chemistry—it’s very hard and intimidating. It wasn’t a piece of cake for me, but I liked the challenge. I had a lot of mentors within the chemistry department. They had a big study group at my university, so there was always a group of people I could go to and ask questions. But what I do now is very different from what I learned in undergrad. I ended up getting my master’s in cosmetic chemistry, which L’Oréal paid for.

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ESSENCE: What’s next for you?

A.A.: I’m looking into writing about how natural products affect our skin for a trade publication in the skin care industry. I grew up in Ghana using shea butter and coconut oil on a day- to-day basis. People say, “Black don’t crack.” My grandmother was 100-and- something years old, but you wouldn’t see one wrinkle on her body because of all the natural ingredients. I don’t think there are a lot of studies out there that really talk about their benefits.

ESSENCE: What’s your work mantra?

A.A.: “Have a good attitude about your work and passion for what you do.” If you’re just doing it for the money, I think that can get old very easily. I love what I do, and if I weren’t here I’d be somewhere else doing exactly what I’m doing now.

Tamara E. Holmes is a writer in Washington, D.C.

This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of ESSENCE Magazine.