Marketing Student Turns Strawberry Beauty Hack Into Hot-Selling Serum

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Varika Pinnam

In less than two years, marketing major Varika Pinnam turned her sweet-smelling beauty hack into a fast-selling facial serum. Inspired by Pinnam, Volition Beauty’s Strawberry-C Brightening Serum launched March 5 on Sephora.com and sold out in 10 days. It hit Sephora store shelves in April.

“I’ve been interested in the beauty industry and followed blogs and product launches daily for years. I’ve dreamed of collaborating with a beauty brand or creating my own product since I was 13,” says Pinnam, who grew up in Mount Prospect, Ill., but lived in California before starting at UT Dallas.  “So the opportunity to collaborate with Volition really came perfectly to fulfill that dream. Being a consumer myself, it’s so unexpected to have this product sold online and in stores and have my name attached to it.”

The summer before she came to campus, Pinnam and her older sister were experimenting with different homemade skin-care tricks when they discovered placing thin slices of strawberries on their faces for 15 to 20 minutes gave them an extra glow. Later they found out the sweet fruit was a favorite beauty secret of Marilyn Monroe — “which was cool,” Pinnam says.

About the same time, Pinnam stumbled across Volition Beauty when she was browsing online. “They’re a crowdsourced beauty company and take ideas from consumers,” she says. “The whole brand idea is that consumers drive the products because consumers tell them what they want. So I decided to submit this idea to them, and they got back to me and said they really liked it.”

By fall of her freshman year in the Naveen Jindal School of Management, where she is a member of the Davidson Management Honors Program, Pinnam was talking to Volition reps about the product and the formulation.

“I wasn’t involved in the actual chemistry of it — the chemists in their labs formulated it — but I was involved in describing my idea and how I envisioned it and testing out two formulations and giving feedback on what improvements could be made.”

By March of her freshman year, the prototype was ready, and her product campaign launched to Volition’s online community. “The campaign stage is when consumers vote on the product, and if you get enough votes, then it goes to market,” she says. “So that’s kind of like the marketing stage and getting people to know about the product. Throughout the spring and summer I was working on getting votes.”

That is when Pinnam put her UT Dallas marketing and entrepreneurial skills into practice.

“A marketing video about offering a value proposition to the consumer and not making it about yourself helped me during the campaign. It’s not about the money or proceeds but offering what the product can do for someone else. It’s not about it being ‘my’ campaign,” she says.

JSOM marketing lecturer Rita (Bargerhuff) Egeland provided further insight on how to connect with consumers. “I really enjoyed both of her classes that I’ve taken, Principles of Marketing and Marketing Projects,” Pinnam says. “Those classes and her industry expertise and speakers taught me a lot about marketing overall and directions I could take my career.”

In addition, Pinnam’s internship supervisor, Cindy Anschutz of Anschutz PR, let her post on her company blog and allowed an Anschutz staff member to design a graphic for the campaign.

In November of last year, Pinnam’s campaigned ended in success: Strawberry-C Brightening Serum was going to market. “This February, it launched on the Volition Beauty website, and then in March it launched on Sephora.com, and that’s when it sold out 10 days later,” she says.

“With selling out, it’s something we always hope for but is still a surprise when it happens,” says Brandy Hoffman, co-founder and chief operating officer of Volition Beauty. “We knew we had a superior formula and compelling new vitamin C source that consumers could get behind.”

Strawberries contain a wide range of antioxidant ingredients, including vitamin C, phenolic acids and flavonoids, that have been shown to protect against UV radiation, improve DNA repair and reduce inflammation, notes Dr. Heather Richmond, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Dermatology and Laser Surgery Center in Houston. Richmond, who was not involved in the creation of the serum, says the mild acidic properties of strawberries also function as an astringent to remove oil and unclog pores.

“Many fruits and berries have antioxidant benefits; however, strawberries are particularly appealing due to their pleasant odor, pretty color and especially rich concentration of antioxidants,” she says. “Patients are very interested in natural, organic products. They don’t want to be putting chemicals on their skin.”

Now Pinnam’s role is to be available for the media, and coverage already includes a story on today.com. “I think I was most excited about NBC Today because everyone knows that one, and I didn’t realize they even did stories like this or in this industry, and they are also the only ones that requested my last name and my university,” she says. “It’s really both exciting and humbling because I would’ve never imagined I’d see my name in publications, especially while still in college.”

But Pinnam is not sitting around waiting for her press clippings to stack up or trying to think of another beauty tip to pitch.

“Even if I had another idea, I feel like I would do it on my own. I feel like the next step is working on my own entrepreneurship goal.”

Already well on her way, Pinnam recently won third place with one new idea in her first pitch competition through the GalXC Women’s Accelerator program at the Blackstone LaunchPad at UT Dallas and honorable mention with another idea that she pitched at the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars Startup Weekend conference at UCLA at the end of April. She and her sister are collaborating on an idea to develop an online platform to help connect female entrepreneurs to support and resources.

“It was cool because this is something new we started working on,” she says. “We don’t have an MVP [minimum viable product] yet or anything, and I thought you needed to have all that and headway into the market and revenues to show for the pitch, but I only pitched the idea and future goals so it was really nice to win.”

— Rachel Stowe Master

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