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SHEsFirst: Gabrielle Davis

When Gabrielle Davis isn’t in the lab, she can be found on her computer playing a game, reading science fiction on the couch, or starting a new knit or crochet project. She currently lives with her fiance in northern New Jersey. She loves cats, bugs, and reptiles, but (sadly) doesn’t own any. You can find her on Instagram as @not_so_gabby.

Name: Gabrielle Davis
Industry: Personal Care Formulation
Age: 29
SHEro(s): My mother and my great aunt Ada, both unapologetic women who work(ed) in male-dominated fields and did very well for themselves

Who are you, where are you from, what do you do?
My name is Gaby, and I’m a personal care formulator. I am the first in my immediate family to hold a college degree – a Bachelor’s in chemistry and a Master’s in molecular science.

I create products for clients that sell their goods in large beauty stores, drugstores, and salons. While my current focus is haircare and skincare, I’ve also made powder products, foundations, mascara, and lip products. I grew up in the northeast US, then moved to the south, then moved in with my now-fiance in California, and have now ended up back on the east coast again. I’ve been all over!  

I went in totally blind, and as a result my path through school was pretty inefficient and riddled with questions I didn’t have the means of answering

What challenges did you face as the first SHE in your family to not only get an undergraduate degree, but also a graduate degree?
Lack of mentorship and help from someone who had been through all this before was a major roadblock. I had no one to help me through the student loan process, no one to talk me through selecting classes or a major, no helpful anecdotes about college life in general. I went in totally blind, and as a result my path through school was pretty inefficient and riddled with questions I didn’t have the means of answering.

What motivated you to accomplish this?
Academic curiosity strong enough to make a living off of, mainly!

What inspired you to a position in makeup/skincare/beauty? What was your path there?
I’m not going to lie, getting into cosmetics formulation was a total fluke. My first job out of grad school was as a formulator for a color cosmetics manufacturer – they were the first company after six months to give me an offer! This seemed like an odd choice as I don’t wear much makeup and I was planning to search around for other jobs while I worked, but the position grew on me immensely and I stayed. When my fiance and I moved across the country, I took a similar position in personal care formulation, where I remain to this day.

What about your job brings you the most joy? What challenges you the most?
I’m a problem solver at heart, and my formulation work is an extension of that. A lot of our clients come to us to make their products better, or to solve a problem they’ve found through direct feedback or market research. I also love seeing my work on the shelves. Wandering into a Sephora and seeing something I formulated- something I poured hours of thought, research,  blood, sweat, and tears into- available for people to use is amazing.

I had to train myself to take chances with minimal outside input as I never had a mentor or someone to really “look out” for me
The most challenging thing is caring about the same things your clients do – formulators and other people who use science skills care a lot about empirical data, and a lot of the things clients care about are not empirical. Marketing stories, emotional presence and “aesthetic” are things that are important in this field but don’t impact how well a product does its primary job, and aren’t directly calculated or measurable with numbers. Making your conditioner a touch more blue won’t impact how it softens your hair, but if the client thinks that color will impart a specific look and emotional feel to the product then your best interest is to make them happy, even if it seems pointless.

What obstacles have you faced, internal or societal, in your involvement as a first?
Internally, I had to train myself to take chances with minimal outside input as I never had a mentor or someone to really “look out” for me. I had to make all my decisions based on what I was feeling and my own understanding of the consequences, and when you doubt yourself all the time that can be tricky to do!

Externally, it was obvious that I didn’t have the support structure that others had – monetarily and advice wise – and some people used this as a way to manipulate me and put me down when I was younger and hadn’t learned to stand up for myself yet.

What advice would you give SHEs considering a career path in cosmetics and skincare, or continuing their journey as a first generation college student/grad school graduate?
Find someone to mentor you! This is really important. Even if your family is loaded to the gills with emotional support and money, if you are a first-gen college student that means they’ve never been there themselves and may not give you the best advice even if it’s coming from the heart. It’s super beneficial to have a rapport with someone who has been through the same thing you are currently going through. Seek advice from all viewpoints you possibly can to try and get the whole picture.

Seek advice from all viewpoints you possibly can to try and get the whole picture

As for pursuing a job in skincare, what made me stand out to my first job despite lack of experience in the industry was that I had a little bit of formulation under my belt from graduate school, and that I can be quite stubborn – formulating involves a lot of slight adjustments until something is just right, so to someone who isn’t determined in this way, it can be exhausting and boring.

If you have a Bachelor’s and don’t want to deal with grad school (I totally understand, don’t worry), it’s possible to start out as a lab tech and work your way up to a chemist position after a few years. As a lab tech you will learn about the different classes of materials used in cosmetics/personal care formulation and how they all work together.

Another possibility – albeit an expensive one – is to provide a “proof of understanding” by making cosmetics at home! There are a lot of hobby websites that sell materials that we in the industry also use. There are also plenty of beginner formulations online, sometimes even from the same sites that sell the materials. But giving someone a starter formulation is no good – put your own twist on it. Make batches of your formula, get yourself some business cards, and register for a Society of Cosmetic Chemists convention. Hand out samples and a business card to different formulation labs. Do a lot of networking. You might get a hit!

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