Meet the “Norma Rae” of Sunscreen: Holly Thaggard, Founder and CEO of Supergoop!

Holly Thaggard who is based in San Antonio, Texas, discusses her 10 years of dedication to skin cancer prevention through her brand Supergoop!.

by SunHee Grinnell

It was in 2007 that Holly Thaggard launched her brand, Supergoop!, with the intention of providing sunblock to local public schools. When she was young, a very close friend in her early 30’s was diagnosed with melanoma, a form of cancer that affects close to 3 million people worldwide each year. “Because I learned from my dermatologist that sun damage starts at a very young age, we must protect the children first,” Thaggard said.

When her kids started school, she was shocked to find that sunblock use was not allowed during outdoor activities (only because public schools did not have the funds to allocate for SPF)—and, she adds, “we live in Texas!” Though she was unable to pursue her original plan, Thaggard continued to build her company, with a commitment to product transparency as well as educating individuals and families on the importance of skin cancer prevention and safety. Her goal was to create products that are effortless to apply, hassle-free, and that won’t make you look like a ghost – but mostly to provide sheer sun protection for all.

With her innovative, stellar new product lineup for spring, which includes sunscreen compositions from Unseen Sunscreen, a colorless sunscreen that can be used as a foundation gripping primer, and a collaboration with Milly on the brand’s best selling product Defense Refresh that launches this March, it’s no wonder she’s been received numerous awards— the American Academy of Dermatology’s Gold Triangle Award for Sun Safety Education right out the gate in 2007 and most recently CEW’s Indie Beauty Award.

What drove you to become an entrepreneur?

I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I think it really comes down to how much I love to create. Ideas have always come easily for me and it’s just not in my DNA to work on someone else’s dream. I think entrepreneurs by nature refuse to accept the status quo and they fundamentally believe they can raise the standard and create a better way.

Was your idea a success first time out? Or, did you have to re-work your agenda?

Despite the way the world felt about SPF in 2008, I created this brand because I believed that suncare, as a category, should not be marketed or developed with a summer-centric mindset. The epidemic of skin cancer is real and it is 16 times bigger than the next leading cancer, which is breast cancer, but yet it is one of few cancers that is primarily preventable.

I set out to change the way the world thinks about sunscreen, so naturally I felt this conversation should start around better education. Putting our first Supergoop! formula into school classrooms across America was my original plan but it was not initially a success. In 2008 California was the only state in the U.S. that actually allowed sunscreen in school due to its classification of being an over-the-counter drug (ie: Tylenol should not be readily available, right?). I also found schools just weren’t ready yet to hear that it was their responsibility to take on this healthy habit and lastly, I hadn’t yet put the time in to building a brand that was trustworthy amongst parents. After two years of hard work I changed directions and decided to build the brand at retail.

Interestingly, I actually looked at this early and time-consuming failure with optimism because I knew that many of the greatest entrepreneurs also had early failures so I felt even stronger that I had to be on the right path to achieving something great if I could pivot and find a new way.

What were you doing before Supergoop!?

Post college I was an elementary school teacher and a performing harpist. I didn’t realize it at the time but both of these careers were incredible learning experiences for what I am doing now. Not being from the beauty industry actually also enabled me to break some of the traditional rules in beauty; and performing requires many of the same skill sets of an entrepreneur: consistency, discipline, confidence and perseverance.

Today I often say that I’m still teaching but just not confined to the four walls of a classroom. My time spent in the classroom also taught me a great deal about children and parents and their likes/dislikes and sensitivities. We keep this top of mind when looking at ingredient choices. Bringing clean, efficacious feel-good product into the world has always been our priority.

What made you create Supergoop!?

A close friend of mine was diagnosed with skin cancer when we were in our early 30s. Another college friend was finishing her residency in dermatology and explained to me that daily incidental sun exposure at a young age is cumulative and damaging. Through research, I learned the #1 reason why people do not wear sunscreen is that it doesn’t feel good on the skin. I love to create and was super inspired to fill the void in the market for an ingredient conscious, clean, feel-good product –an SPF that everyone would want to wear every single day.

Supergoop! is now 10 years-old. What has been the most difficult building your business?

When you set out with the goal of changing the way the world thinks about something, it requires a very loud voice which is very difficult when you are small. Consumers today are finally starting to understand the importance of daily SPF and I’m so proud to have played a part in that, but by no means are we finished. We won’t rest until people think about daily SPF just as they do buckling their seat belt or brushing their teeth.

What’s been your biggest triumph?

When we launched Supergoop! only the state of California allowed sunscreen in schools. Today, ten states allow SPF on school campus without a note from a doctor and another five states have bills in motion. This is a meaningful win that will contribute to eventually seeing a decline in the United States in skin cancer rates.

Also, we are celebrating this year our launch of Ounce by Ounce TM which is our full circle platform to fund SPF in school classrooms across America. Our goal is to be in 1,000+ PK, K and first grade classrooms this school year.

What keeps you going?

Interestingly, I just recently had this discussion with my daughter Emery. This weekend was her thirteenth birthday and we gave her a book called Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls which is packed with bedtime stories about the lives of extraordinary women from the past and present. Similar to the stories throughout this book, I believe that confidence is strong and it’s something that my parents really helped nurture from an early age. Confidence allows you to push through unsure times or times when you may feel hesitant or scared and this confidence is what fuels change in our world. Confidence keeps me going.

Please tell us about your best sellers.

This year we launched our new Invincible SPF 45 Makeup Setting Powderas a quick and easy way to reapply your SPF throughout the day (and take care of any mid-day shine) without messing up your make-up. It quickly became a top performing product for us. More recently we extended the range of shades from one universal tint to a wardrobe of SPF powders for every skin color. These will be on shelf in Sephora in early 2018.

Defense Refresh Makeup Setting Mist SPF 50 is another great way to reapply your SPF and for 3 years in a row it has been a top seller that is hard to keep on store shelves. Not only does it help control shine but the refreshing Rosemary Mint scent is a great late afternoon pick-me-up too.

While these two formulas are newer to the Supergoop! family, our Everyday SPF 50 for Face & Body continues to stay within our top 3 products and yet it was our first early launch. It is super lightweight, water resistant and works on every skin color without leaving any ashy or white residue that is often associated with highly efficacious, clean SPF lotions.

Do you try them on your pre-teen kids before they do on market?

Yes! In our family, it’s just impossible to escape trying multiple new formulas every single week. Our product team has quite a bit always in research and development so fast feedback really helps our team.

Our kiddos both have completely different skin types. Our son Will (10) and his friends are very active and on-the-go and our daughter Emery (now 13!) has very sensitive skin. Her friends are just starting to shop beauty so we’ve had some fun conversations around what we know is the #1 piece of beauty advice –wear SPF.

Both of our children are very honest when it comes to how formula feels and how likely they would be to wear it over something they currently wear. They are also the inspiration behind some of our formulas --they are obsessed with our Sunscreen Mousse SPF 50.

Who are your inspirations?

I think successful entrepreneurs are often inspired most by other successful entrepreneurs which is why I keep podcasts on my phone and in my car and I have a growing personal library of founder memoirs.

I don’t know Sara Blakely personally but I am always inspired by how she speaks up about how important it is to be willing to make mistakes. Arianna Huffington is another great women entrepreneur that inspires me as she put a bright spotlight on one of the worlds most underrated healthy habits –sleep. People today make such a big deal bragging about not getting enough sleep as if success is the result of working long and hard. Our son is doing a project right now on the brain and importance of sleep and I could really relate to how sleep impacts not only my mood and ability to focus but also my creativity and confidence. Studies have also shown that women more than men are at greater risk for higher stress levels that result from poor sleep. I’m always inspired by women who are rethinking the importance of healthy habits and wellness.

From where you sit as multiple award-winning CEO, what salient advice would you give to a young beauty entrepreneur?

Supergoop! was never about commercializing and making money. It was about developing a business concept around something I found to be particularly passionate about. In my case, it was about stopping the epidemic of skin cancer in the United States and brining awareness to a primarily preventable disease. I realize how cliché this sounds but being passionate about the space you play in is critical.

I also think it’s super important and inspiring to read about the journey of other brand founders across categories –not necessarily limiting to those in beauty. Take time to build your personal library and listen to podcasts. Guy Raz hosts an incredible podcast series called How I Built This. Brand founders are often very open in sharing their story, including the crazy ups and downs which can help put in perspective what you might experience.

And lastly, be humble and grateful. If your path is an entrepreneurial one, realize early that you will have obstacles but know that nobody expects you to be perfect. By stepping up and fixing things and by asking for help and being appreciative of the help you are given when things go wrong you will become leaps and bounds better at what you do.

sunhee grinnell