Stories of Success After Service
Inspired By Her Grandmother, Former Soldier Restarts Skincare Line
Nicole Baldwin’s grandmother decided it was time for tea, so she set a pot of water to boil in the family’s Los Angeles home.
The three-year-old just wanted to help.
“I’m going to show Granny. I’m a big girl,” Baldwin, now 34, remembers thinking.
So she pulled a stool over to the stove and climbed up. But she didn’t understand that you don’t just grab the pot barehanded. The searing pain made her fall back, and the boiling water covered the girl’s face, neck and chest.
Emergency room doctors treated her third-degree burns and sent her home, where Granny would make something else—a family recipe passed from mother to daughter to make her granddaughter better. Cupboard ingredients came out, and she carefully concocted a healing balm.
“I remember my grandmother coming home from work and mixing it up by hand,” Baldwin says. “She’d massage it all into my skin. That old-fashioned remedy healed my burn scars.”
Baldwin says the accident and her grandmother’s effective skincare regimen would eventually define her destiny: The childhood memory would later inspire her to become a skincare entrepreneur.
While traumatic, the teapot incident wouldn’t affect Baldwin as profoundly as the gang violence that permeated daily life in her neighborhood. By 16, she had lost seven friends to shootings.
Baldwin sought change, a fresh start. So she moved to the family’s Houston home to finish high school.
She remembers the day she decided to join the military. It was during morning homeroom, and her teacher wheeled in a TV. He turned on the broadcast and said, “America is under attack.” The students watched in horror as 9/11 unfolded.
The next day, recruiters from all the armed services came to school, and Baldwin spoke with them. Baldwin, then 17, was curious and started a conversation. In the coming weeks, she’d go into the Army recruiting office and continue to talk about life in the military. Eventually, she’d find herself in downtown Houston taking a test called the ASVAB, which shows potential recruits the military jobs most suited to them.
As she thought about enlisting, 9/11 remained forefront in her mind.
“Just seeing the agony, the pain and the crying of people who had lost people in the twin towers—I remembered my friends that I had to bury. I said, ‘I want to serve. I want to be part of this mission.’”
Baldwin’s mother supported her decision and allowed her to enlist early through the Army’s Split Option program. It allows high school students to enter basic combat training in the summer after their junior year. Enrollees then resume school to finish their senior year and graduate.
Four months after graduating, Baldwin got a job as an armorer—the occupation responsible for maintaining and managing a unit’s weapons—and she went to war. Her first deployment came in 2003, when she shipped off to Baghdad, Iraq.
There’s always something to do in the Army. At one moment, Baldwin would be repairing broken weapons as a unit armorer or escorting personnel to the airport to relieve them of their rifles and sidearms as they caught flights home. In another, she’d be helping build schools or contributing to Iraqi female empowerment as part of her civil affairs unit.
In still another, at the base education center, she would be taking online classes toward a bachelor's degree in business administration. Baldwin said Army Tuition Assistance paid for every course that went toward her major. She took all courses online, choosing to study in between deployments and after “duty hours” during deployments.
Later, when Baldwin redeployed to Afghanistan, she began mixing different formulations of moisturizers in disposable cups and toying with the idea of starting a company in the little spare time that remained after her work and studies.
To protect her skin from the dry and harsh conditions, she began using the moisturizers on herself. Some of her recipes brought her childhood and present circumstances together, combining her grandmother’s concoctions with plant ingredients she found in the war zone.
“It was therapeutic to pamper myself,” she recalled. “My skin got dry in the desert, and I broke out. None of the things I ordered online worked for me.”
She also offered the cream to her fellow service members. Their enthusiastic response was encouraging. Baldwin decided it was time to launch a skincare company she called Biao Skincare, which stands for beautiful inside and out. She created a website and made her first sales in February 2012.
Within four months, she says, she had sold $75,000 in products. She started thinking about life after the military. It was time to start a new chapter.
After serving her country for 13 years and achieving the rank of sergeant, Baldwin left active duty in 2012.
To fund Biao, she took a job with the engineering firm in Houston, all the while continuing to sell her products online. She kept the day job for a year and a half.
“I loved my job, but Biao was my baby,” she says.
She left the firm, went back to school to become a licensed aesthetician and went “full bore” into Biao.
But nothing is certain in business. Just as Biao’s star was on the rise, it got hit with manufacturing issues in 2016. Baldwin had been working with chemists to develop organic formulations. But the natural preservatives they used in those early years didn’t do their job. The products were going bad soon after production.
Then her business idea was rejected on an episode of the reality show Shark Tank. She made the difficult decision to halt sales and retool. The company went dark for four years.
Poised for Success
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The grit, determination and self-discipline Baldwin learned in the Army would prove pivotal in getting her ready to relaunch the brand.
Business incubators saw promise. Baldwin attended a Stanford Ignite certification program and then moved cross-country to New York City so she could attend Veterans Future Lab, a business incubator run by the New York University Tandon School of Engineering.
Scientists eventually found better natural preservatives, and Baldwin sought investments for a reimagined Biao that would transform it into a skincare technology and subscription service company.
A group of seven investors thought her vision had potential and put in $150,000. A Houston bank offered another $750,000.
She expects to make $750,000 in revenue this year. Next year, she hopes to make $2 million in sales and grow the business by 15 percent annually after that. She ultimately wants a bigger player to acquire her brand.
Baldwin credits the Army for shaping and preparing her to persevere through the obstacles.
I owe every person in my Army leadership a thank you. I know they saw something in me that I had yet to see in myself.