At a young age, Lela Kelly became a single mother of two children on welfare. After many late nights, hard work and determination Lela worked her way to earn her law degree from University of California and began balancing corporate law by day and parenting by night. After several years of practicing law, Lela began to feel the entrepreneurial itch, but wasn’t sure which direction to take this creative buzz. It was during a trip to Rome that the light bulb went on.
“I was sitting at a rooftop cafe in Rome, admiring the incredible cityscape and feeling grateful for the chance to share travel experiences like this with my children. I rubbed my son’s face as moms do and then noticed unusual dirt on his soft skin. looked around again at the Coliseum and other ancient edifices, and could see the layers of daily life settled on, and in, the stone. Was this on my face, too? I asked a friend about it and heard the words “volto” and “urbano” — face and city. Volto Urbano was born,” says Kelly.
A new approach to skincare where skin type, environment and seasons matter equally. Their carefully formulated products protect the skin from man-made and natural climate irritants while boosting skins overall health and vibrance.
As we travel from our office in the city and head home on the train to our home in the suburbs our skin reacts to each climate it comes in contact with. Each climate lives its own stressors from car exhaust, smoke, UV exposure, and blue light. That’s where Volto Urbano comes in offering customizable regimens that treat skin no matter where you are in the world.
Here’s how Lela Kelly went from welfare to attorney to beauty founder.
Stephanie Burns: How did you manage to achieve so much (becoming a corporate lawyer and now beauty entrepreneur) while on welfare and care for two small children as a single parent? What was the driving force for you to achieve such success during a trying time?
Lela Kelly: Along with the hard, early life lessons, I also adopted an action bias rather than letting life come to me. The real motivation behind my determination and hard work was my two young children. I was 18 years old and a single mom with two young children in Honolulu where I could have chosen to be comfortable with a basic 9 to 5 job in the hospitality sector like most of my friends and family. In my heart, I knew that was never going to provide the life for me and my little family that I believed they deserved; so I applied to mainland universities and received a full ride to attend the University of Southern California. I didn’t just study and raise two daughters there. I graduated with high honors with an acceptance in hand to attend the UCLA School of Law. Today, my eldest daughter is at UC Berkeley and my other two children are growing and happy.
Burns: How did you decide on law? How has being a lawyer helped in your latest endeavor in the beauty industry?
Kelly: I really wanted to be a dermatologist or plastic surgeon, but my life did not make that choice as easy as choosing the law. Medical school and residency would have taken too many years to stabilize my family’s situation, so I chose a more expedient route that also matched my talents – law. If you go to a good law school, get good grades, in three years you can land a six figure job at a big law firm. I needed to get there quickly to provide a better life for my kids.
The law has been a helpful skill for me because I’ve worked with other beauty companies in understanding all the business and legal issues relevant to this industry. These include regulatory issues, such as ingredient claims made and the need to back up those claims with research, to understand business transactions such as equity financings, mergers and acquisitions.
Burns: What inspired you to launch a skincare line in such a competitive market?
Kelly: I had to downsize my legal practice over the last two years and now function as “outside general counsel” to a select few companies, including a cyber-security company and a wellness media and entertainment company.
When I lived in the Philippines and Hawaii, I had great skin and did not experience teenage acne or other typical skin issues. By the time I moved to LA for college and law school, I struggled with an oily t-zone, dry splotches on the sides of my face, and, worst of all, acne. LA is a dry and polluted place.
Nothing really alleviated my skin issues completely. I went to dermatologists and aestheticians and no one found the right regimen for me. Finally, I had an “a-ha” moment - everyone sells me skin care solely based on my skin type, but my skin problems happened when my environmental surroundings changed by exposing me to more pollution, dryness, ozone and blue light than I ever experienced growing up in the Pacific Islands. I clearly saw how environment and lifestyle are just as important as skin type and I eventually took cosmetic chemistry classes to learn the details around skin care formulation. Through this process, I also found amazing labs from Southern California to France who helped us formulate Volto Urbano.
Burns: Your focus at Volto Urbano is to provide skincare that protects against environmental and man-made irritants that lead to aging. Why is this so important to you and how do you achieve this with your products/ingredients?
Kelly: I was so frustrated trying to figure out why buying what the beauty industry told me should work and finding it didn’t solve my issues that my action bias kicked in. I called my business partner, Mark Tennenbaum who is a stellar business entrepreneur to help bring Volto Urbano to life.
Our mission is to educate consumers that their environment is as important as their skin type when choosing effective and safe skincare products. We want everyone to get the same healthy skin glow we get when using our products on ourselves. I am a billboard for my brand.
The way we achieve best results starts in the lab with our bias towards effective ingredients from the natural world, like azulene from Roman blue chamomile or astaxanthin from red algae. Where natural ingredients cannot perform to our very high standards, we look to safe, clean lab-formulated ingredients like capryl hydroxamic acid as a preservative and broad spectrum anti-fungal agent derived from coconut to keep our products from spoiling. Finally, we research the science for peer-reviewed studies and clinical trials on our ingredients to ensure we use effective combinations to combat these environmental skin aggressors.
Burns: What are your plans for the future at Volto Urbano? Any upcoming launches?
Kelly: Over the next few weeks, we will be introducing our Radiance Recovery Biocellulose Mask that elevates the sheet-mask experience to a whole new level by defending against digital pollution and environmental irritants as well as being biodegradable.
After that, we are looking to extend the line to sensitive/sensitized skin and explore new technologies as more environmental irritants are identified in the peer-reviewed scientific journals on which we rely for both the scientific evidence about these irritants and the validated solutions we can deploy to combat them.
Burns: What is your advice to individuals who may be looking to make a change or experiencing hardship and looking to follow their dreams and find success?
Kelly: Persistence, grit and an action bias. When one thing doesn’t work out – pivot. Our mistakes are our most important teachers and almost always the prelude to success. When the status quo is less than what you see for your life, shake everything up to create and seize the opportunities to take your life to another level. There were critical moments in my life where I had to choose between the status quo or the unsafe scary choice. It’s good to invest in uncomfortable choices that help you thrive and grow in the future.