Michal Ann Morrison is making waves in the beauty industry. She’s at the helm of Michal Morrison skincare, a science-first company using proprietary skincare technology based on 25 years of research in stem cell science to develop effective, accessible products. Their first entry, the Genesis Molecular Serum, launched last week. It employs a patent-pending, biomimetic metamolecule™ never before used in skincare.
Michal is no ordinary founder. She asks for more expansiveness in the beauty industry, comfort in a space typically defined by rigid standards. She’s reading The Wisdom Of Your Body at the start of our zoom call. She says she’s trying to examine more from women authors on embodiment — a salient topic for Michal since suffering a Traumatic Brain Injury in a 2016 car accident.
During recovery – she’s made new meaning through leadership, and grown tender relationships with beauty and self:
What is your relationship with beauty?
I was 26 when I was in this accident, just about to be 27. It’s not fun to lose your health in your twenties, but change is inevitable.
My body changed a lot after my car accident. I was on bedrest for a year and ended up developing multiple chronic illnesses. That changes your body.
Change is always gonna happen, but I was just forced to accept change earlier, maybe than I would’ve wanted.
People who are at ease, and they’ve made friends with their body — that really, really compels me.
I know you said before your TBI, you weren’t thinking about beauty – what was the switch? What was the motivation to start this venture in the beauty space?
I think it’s an unusual answer and it’s one of the things that I have told my PR company that I wanted to be honest about this from the beginning:
I tried to apply for jobs after I did a lot of recovery from my TBI. I didn’t want my disability to be a silent subject when I was applying for jobs. When I would talk to whoever was making the hiring decisions, [I learned] no one wants to hire disabled people. Even if people say that they don’t have bias, they do. They think, “I can find somebody else better for the job, someone that’s not ‘complicated’.”
[There are] people who don’t want to provide any sort of accommodations to disabled people at all, which is ridiculous because one in four people in the United States has some sort of disability. It should just be integrated into how workplaces function, but right now it’s unusual to find that kind of support.
So as hard as entrepreneurship is, it was still a safer option for me to branch out on my own and start my own company where I’m in control of my workplace culture. I’m glad that it’s been at this point in my life and not before my TBI, that I actually decided to start a company. I feel better prepared and better equipped now to lead and be an empathic leader than I would’ve
What are you equipped with?
I think the idea of growth at any cost is a very old idea. Growth at the expense of human beings isn’t growth, it’s damage. To me, putting people first and being a very people-centric brand is important, particularly in our hiring decisions, and [accessibility] decisions like putting braille on our product.
I think workplaces have been so intense for such a long time and then with COVID happening, people have been able to see: “Oh, me being expected to sacrifice myself on the altar of somebody else’s dreams isn’t good for me and I don’t have to do that.”
Flexibility is great. Being able to work from home is great. We can get more women into the workforce that way as well as disabled people.
I started thinking, okay, I can’t work for somebody else, it’s not safe for me to work for somebody else, what kind of company would be feasible for me? What can I do?
I’d been interested in skin health for quite a long time. My mother has struggled a lot with skin cancer. She found her first cancer at just 27. So I’ve been looking for a long time for innovation in the skincare industry. [If skincare] isn’t based on science and facts, where’s the innovation?
Most people use the same ingredients as everybody else and just repackage it differently and sell it. There are a lot of companies that have done a great job at that. There’s people who have really compelling founder stories, people who have done an amazing job connecting with their communities. But I wanted to see if I could get a new ingredient out into the beauty world, and that’s what we’ve done.
We have a proprietary patent pending molecule called βSTEM6™that we’re featuring in our hero product. It attaches to the cells in your skin and makes them behave like much younger cells.This has the impact of erasing sun damage on the molecular level. People can’t say that, we can. We’re the only people in the world who have the right to use this molecule.
So that’s how I landed on taking things in that direction. I had this life experience of watching my mother have a hard time, then I had an opportunity to meet a scientist who’s been working in this space for about 25 years. We’ve partnered on bringing this forward – I acquired the science from him.
You wanted to introduce a new ingredient into the beauty space, was that before you met this scientist? What was the timeline like?
I knew that I wanted to add better science into the industry. Dr. [Michael] Kahn has been working on this research for the last 25 years, and a student of his made this βSTEM6™molecule based off of Dr. Kahn’s research.
It was important to me to acquire intellectual property. We looked at a couple different opportunities, but a lot of IP is just more of a variation on a theme,like, ‘here’s a new way to deliver retinol’ instead of ‘here’s an entirely new form of matter that’s never existed and no one’s ever used it before’. That’s what I wanted and that’s what we got.
Speaking of physiological safety in the workplace, what other kinds of conversations are you having, through your company, with the current state of work culture?
I’ve had multiple people come to me after speaking about my TBI and saying, ‘Hey, I have a child who’s neuro divergent or I have a kid who was in a really bad accident too.’ Or, ‘I take care of a loved one. I’m married to someone who has, or I myself have, a chronic illness’. I’m excited to see that conversation normalized. That’s one of the things I’m really trying to do.
Obviously we have an incredible ingredient. We’re very science focused, but I know a lot of people who are disabled don’t talk about what’s going on for them. There are very real reasons behind their hesitancy to do so. I’m never going to tell someone that they need to disclose their disability — ever. I’m just at the point in my life where I feel comfortable doing that, and I now have the power and a platform to hopefully make a difference in that capacity.
It sounds like you’re building this new type of community within your work. What do the communities that you belong to mean to you?
I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been a Notley Fellow. This is my second year, so I’m about to put a bow on that experience, but that’s exposed me to a lot of other people who are also founders or are entrepreneurs.
And Austin in particular, I feel really lucky to be from Austin because people are very supportive of young people starting their own thing. I know a ton of people now who are in their twenties or thirties and they’ve started their first or even their second venture. Austin as a whole, even though it’s growing quite a bit, it still does feel small because a lot of entrepreneurs know one another and there’s not this idea of competition. People share resources and knowledge. They want to help.
I’ve had coffee with dozens of people who said, Hey, do you wanna just shoot the breeze about business in today’s world, or do you have questions about fundraising that I can help you with? That’s been one of the things that’s really supported me since I started my company is just how many people, through Notley and then the business community at large in Austin, have offered their support and their experience.
Growing up, I never thought about starting a business. I thought that was something that somebody else did for a long time. I think probably growing up I thought it was something that just men did, which shows how conservative of an environment that I grew up in, but [in Austin] I felt very welcomed. I’ve had a lot of men reach out to be supportive of me as a female entrepreneur as well. That’s something I’m really grateful for. It’s been wonderful to see other women succeed because of the support here in Austin. I want to be a part of bringing a bigger presence for this industry to Texas.
What is it about Texas that drives the positive ecosystem you feel so comfortable in?
Sure. You know, we all know that Texas has its issues.
If it’s not obvious, I’m an extremely liberal person, so I’m hopeful about the future of Texas, that this becomes a more inclusive place to live. Austin has a long way to go with that. But all that being said, this is a really friendly place. Every time I go to New York or Los Angeles, I always look forward to coming back home. There’s no replacing the warmth that you get here. I have several great-grandparents and great, great grandparents who originally lived in the Austin area. I have a long family history here. That tradition feels important to me. In a state that’s been so conservative where women didn’t have very many options, it feels empowering to stay as a business woman in Texas. I’m getting to do things that the women in my family could only dream about having the freedom to do.
I wanna be a positive presence. Femme-presenting people, it’s not as safe for us here as it might be in a really liberal place, like California or the Pacific Northwest. But I don’t think I want to vacate. I think I want to stay and help make things better. Texans are awesome people, I want to contribute to my own community by staying.
Right. Because as you said, there’s a warmth, there’s community, there’s just a lot of beauty in being from Texas that, we as marginalized communities shouldn’t have to sacrifice.
Right. Also, what I would say about Austin is there’s a culture here of celebrating when other people win. I don’t necessarily see that in a lot of other places. I see competition. I see hoping that other people will fail. I see there can only be one winner. I don’t believe in that and I don’t think Texas does either.
Looking at your career, it’s so layered; archeology, writing, marketing … and so I guess, what I am wondering is [laughs] I’m trying to articulate the question…
Well it might be what a lot of people wonder, which is, what the hell are you doing [laughs]?
I think there’s this idea, it’s a very modern idea, that you have to become the best at one thing and do one thing. And I just don’t believe in that. I have a lot of different interests. Like I went and got a graduate degree at a seminary. Am I using that today? No. But it was really engaging for me and I learned a lot.
[With Michal Morrison], I’m really bringing my passion for innovation and for science. When I saw the opportunity for IP with Dr.Kahn, I saw the value immediately. There was competition for this IP, so I’m really grateful that we’re the ones that get to bring it forward. He’s a molecular biologist, he’s a world class scientist.
During our first conversation, we talked about science and our love for it for a long time because, you know, archeology is this really cool combination of the humanities and the sciences. I have a real appreciation for a wide variety of practices within the sciences. So to be able to bring something really innovative from that space forward was really exciting to me even though I didn’t have a background in the beauty industry.
I worked in archeology in the Middle East, in the Mediterranean, in Europe, and the Caribbean for almost nine years. I learned how to be a better writer as well and a researcher. But, archeology is not kind to your body. It’s an intense lifestyle. I’d been working on archeological digs right before [my car accident]. I’d been in the Emirates working on a really, really tough dig and that’s not conducive to what my body is like anymore.
I knew that I needed to do something that I could have flexibility with, best case scenario, and do at least part of it at home. I really miss archeology, but it’s just not feasible for this new version of myself.
Your path reminds me how open and expansive our lives can be. It’s exciting to see someone growing into the different ebbs and flows of life, into new versions of themselves.
I appreciate that.
Do you have any lessons from your past work that you bring into your current role?
I think I’ve grown a lot as a person in my capacity as a woman leading. Archeology has women in it, but it tends to be very male dominated in terms of leadership and that was hard for me to figure out how to balance.
I think I walked around with a lot of fear about how men would interpret me. You know, women are culturally taught to make sure everybody’s feeling okay and that you don’t want to phrase something too straightforward because you’ll be labeled aggressive.
I think I’ve learned throughout my career that “assertive” is not the same as “aggressive.” I can lead with feminine energy, and that’s just as powerful. People respond really well to feminine leadership because people want that emotional capacity in business.
What is feminine leadership, in your own words?
I don’t want to use the word softness because I think anybody can be soft. I do think anybody of any gender can have feminine energy and masculine energy. There’s room for both of those things, but I do think there’s a time to listen and help people feel understood — that might not necessarily always come to the forefront with a masculine approach.
I don’t want to control anyone. I want to build value for everybody, for my entire community and to give back. Women are really good at that. When women control more capital, they give a lot more to philanthropy than men do.
There is an idea that when I succeed the people around me are gonna benefit from it as well. And while I’ve seen that in a lot of men, it does have a more feminine approach to me. Everybody can win. Not just one winner at the end of the race, everybody can benefit.
Michal Ann Morrison’s Genesis βSTEM6™ Molecular Serum is available now at MichalMorrison.com.