Since leaving a career in fashion design over three decades ago, EO Products co-founder Susan Griffin-Black has emerged as a champion for an integrated wellness lifestyle, and a pioneer and one of the top women business leaders in the natural personal care industry. To celebrate Women's History Month, we spoke with Susan about her journey into leadership, her insights into why women make great leaders, and who her female heroes are.
You went from being a fashion designer, to co-founding EO Products over 25 years ago. What led to you making such a big change?
I was looking for heart, meaning and a more integrated life.
The last fashion gig I had was working for the late (Espirit co-founder) Doug Tompkins. In 1990, Esprit was a very progressive place to be and we were really looking at the environmental and social impact of manufacturing clothing globally. The big wake up call for me was learning about growing and processing cotton. The impact was problematic in every way - from a social and justice point of view in its origins to the toxicity of the pesticides involved, and what that does to the growers, processors, and the planet. About 4% of greenhouse emissions are from the clothing business. This learning helped me experience the reality of our true interconnectedness: people, planet, purpose.
In 1991, I was on a buying trip in London. I walked into this little shop, an apothecary, that smelled like nothing I've ever smelled. Essential oils, dried herbs and tinctures - it was just like a portal into a whole different world. With one deep inhalation of lavender essential oil, my life changed.
I fell in love with essential oils and aromatherapy. What I saw was a different way of being and living. My son was four years old [at the time] and the demands of travel and corporate politics did not feel sustainable or healthy for kids, mothers, or families. The aspiration was clear - create a company where I wanted to work.
What does being a woman in a leadership position mean to you?
Being a good mother has more similarities to good leadership than I ever thought. Wanting other people to thrive, being consistent, being mindful, and bringing people together where there are common points of interest and ways to unify and inspire people to work well together. I do believe that work is love made visible (Khalil Gibran).
When I had my son, culturally at work, you never talked about being a mother because it disrupted the level playing field of capacity and ability. That did not belong in the workplace. But the job is to lead from an integrated place, to bring your whole self to work. That doesn't mean it's boundaryless, or you're leaking too much information all over the place, but it's a much more curious, open and collaborative process. When you put that into the workplace, it looks very different than a hierarchical, patriarchal, more authoritarian situation.
I'm learning so much these days too about what it really takes to make a workplace socially just. Even though we've been a B Corp, and even though I've been aspiring to do this for 30 years, there's still such a long way to go and so many more questions than answered, but I think women have an easier time leading from the question than men.
As a Zen Buddhist student for more than 30 years, what does your self care and wellness practice look like?
I started meditating in the bathtub when my son was two, because it was the only time I could have any quiet and privacy. After work I lit a candle, had some essential oils, and I just started sitting peacefully for 10-15 minutes as I soaked. My son would waddle in and out, sometimes he would sit down, but basically I didn't interact with him during that time. Or if I did, it was like, "Let's just have a moment of meditation."
I'm not a morning person, but in the morning I have a meditation practice of just being quiet, sitting and thinking about the day, the week, and what's going on. Then I eat pretty lightly, drink a lot of tea, and take a sun break every day. Then I'm either going to yoga at 4:30, rowing, or taking a walk.
There’s an ongoing conversation about work life balance which I believe is a set up for women to be unsuccessful. It's not as much about balance, it's presence. I can come to the next meeting totally available, listening and not waiting for my turn or thinking about what I'm going to say. Then trying to move from one thing to the next thing mindfully, and staying grounded, present, and available to listen, guide, problem-solve and create.
Tell us about one woman who is your hero - in what ways has she been an influence in your life?
I have two younger sisters, both in the restaurant business. My sister Karen Goldberg, her restaurant is called Tamalpie in Mill Valley. My other sister, Leslie, has Hazel's Kitchen in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. They've been so amazing over this last year of keeping things going, that it's been so humbling and magnificent to watch their ups and downs. They inspire me every day.
They both had a takeout business that was solid before [the pandemic], so they didn't have to flip everything over to takeout having never been in that business. But with the closing, the opening, the outside, the not outside, all of that - just being able to roll with it, and stay in the game, and keep people employed, and keep feeding the community...it was quite something. Still is.