Sylvia Brownlee invites me to sit in one of two comfy chairs where she does consultations at her Silverton-based business, Skin by Brownlee & Co. Behind us, her skincare product line is elegantly displayed in tidy, neutral-toned packaging: cleansers, creams, serums, and four products that began selling exclusively on Target.com earlier this year. And to think, seven years ago she nearly called it quits.
Chic in a sweater, jeans, white high-heeled boots, and a bright red lip, Brownlee asks to videotape our interview for her social media followers—which number around 16,000 on Instagram alone. There’s a folding table nearby with orders ready for shipment. Customers these days might see an ad for Skin by Brownlee & Co. while reading The New York Times online or in The Cincinnati Enquirer.
She’s still on cloud nine from the Target launch and working long days to keep up.
“When I started my company, I was working out of a suite that was only about 200 square feet, about the size of this area we’re sitting in now,” says Brownlee, 44. She offers a quick tour, including the treatment room where she does facials and other procedures that brighten the skin, reduce acne, or acne scarring known as hyperpigmentation.
Brownlee opened a smaller salon in Pleasant Ridge in 2015 after being laid off from a job as an area director for Empire Education Group, a nationwide beauty school with a Cincinnati location in Colerain Township. “I had a daughter, I had a mortgage, I had bills to pay,” she says. She also had some private clients and had gone back to school for a bachelor’s degree in management.
Why not become an entrepreneur and start her own business? She was still doing it all then—hair, nails, facials, lashes, wax—but it didn’t feel exactly right. “I wanted to do something that made a difference,” Brownlee says.
Today, her clients say she’s doing just that. But it took a leap of faith for her to find her niche.
Brownlee’s client list was growing in her small salon, but not as quickly as she wanted. “One day, I was like, This isn’t going to work, I’ve got to go get a job,” she recalls. So she packed up the salon and put all its contents in her car. She called the landlord, a long-time family friend, and said, “I’m done.”
“No,” the friend replied. “You need to stick it out. You can do this.” Brownlee isn’t entirely sure why, but she listened, took the stuff out of her car, and set everything back up. “Nobody would’ve ever known,” Brownlee says, smiling at the memory. “No one knew I left and came back.”
Brownlee decided to buckle down. She’d been dealt challenging hands before and had worked hard for what she had. She recognized that she was happiest when helping her clients get the skin they wanted, so she took every continuing education course she could in acne prevention and hyperpigmentation and never looked back.
Christie Bryant Kuhns, interim president of the Urban League of Greater Southwest Ohio, began seeing Brownlee years ago to address some longtime skin is sues. A former member of the state house of representatives, she says she had no idea her skincare journey would become a selfcare one—and she has Brownlee to thank. “What you want is someone to wave a magic wand and just, you know, clear your skin up and make it glow,” Kuhns says. “But this is a partnership.”
Brownlee and Kuhns talked about her diet and how she deals with stress. They settled on some lifestyle changes and a skincare routine. “When you’re on 50 different committees and you’re on everybody’s board, it can get really stressful, and my body reacts physically to stress,” says Kuhns says, who is currently a member of the Diversity Advisory Board for the Cincinnati Reds and a board member for the Ohio Poverty Law Center and the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati. “Sylvia helped me recognize my triggers and treat them, not just with the products but by establishing more healthy habits for my skin and managing my stress.”
When Kuhns follows her skincare routine, she says the results are amazing. She appreciates that Brownlee makes her clients feel beautiful no matter what’s going on with their skin. “Depending on your current skin condition, you’re not going to see immediate results,” Kuhns says. “And you don’t want someone to feel ‘less than’ for the six months to a year before they start to see the dramatic results that they’re looking for.”
The two women also talked about Brownlee’s business, her struggles, and her strategy. Kuhns watched Brownlee persevere when finances got tight and the schedule got crazy, when she created her own skincare line with a chemist in 2017, when she moved into her larger beauty and skincare clinic in Silverton, and when she nabbed the Target contract. Along the way, Brownlee stayed humble and true to her course, Kuhns says. “I’ve done a lot of work around women- and minority-owned companies,” says Kuhns. “It’s so inspiring to watch how much she’s grown over the years.”
Ashley Styles met Brownlee a few years ago while looking for someone to help her learn how to take care of her skin. She’d just finished a degree in communications, and Brownlee brought her into the company to “do her thing” and help with public relations work for the clinic. “It was important that I could find someone who looked like me,” says Styles, who is also Black. “Sylvia has taught me that change starts from within.”
Brownlee was born and raised in Kennedy Heights, one of Cincinnati’s most diverse neighborhoods. She attended Withrow High School and completed the cosmetology program there. Her mother and grandmother inspired her to get into the beauty industry, teaching her to always put her best foot forward and modeling natural confidence.
Until she started treating her breakouts, Brownlee struggled with acne herself, so she knows first-hand what skin problems can do to one’s confidence. “When their skin starts to clear, the change in attitude is priceless,” she says. “If you’ve never dealt with acne or hyperpigmentation, then you can’t really sympathize or empathize with what someone’s going through it.”
Those issues can lead people to hide their skin with makeup or talk down to themselves. “I feel liberated in knowing that I’ll still shine without putting on makeup,” says Styles. “Not only is Sylvia knowledgeable in her field, but she genuinely cares for each client and improving their confidence through their skincare journey.”
There’s nothing quite like seeing someone shine, Brownlee says, and knowing you helped them shine brighter. In the years before COVID, she organized a self-esteem camp for girls ages 13–18. The sleepover camp featured activities such as creating vision boards and yoga and was held at various places around town, including the Six Acres Bed and Breakfast in College Hill. Brownlee invited female speakers to talk about their journeys. The most popular activity by far was “Girl Talk,” when participants could drop nagging questions anonymously into a can and Brownlee would start discussions around a campfire while the group made s’mores.
She encourages every young woman to find a person in her life she can feel comfortable going to with anything. “That could be an aunt or an older cousin,” she says. “It has to be someone older, someone who you’d respect what they tell you.”
Brownlee knows two things from her own journey: You can’t do it alone, and you must stay committed to your skincare routine and yourself. First, though, you must know you’re beautiful inside and out.
Still excited from the Target line launch party, Brownlee is planning another one: her seventh anniversary as a business. She’ll celebrate on June 12 at Somerhaus in Over-the-Rhine. “It’s important to celebrate the big wins, but the small wins, too,” she says.
Sylvia’s Skincare Advice
Be proactive instead of reactive with skincare. Acne takes 30–90 days to form, and skin takes 28–30 days to renew itself, Brownlee says. Start with these suggested routines below and know that breakouts might get worse before getting better. No matter your age, the first thing to commit to is sunscreen every day at SPF 30 or higher.
In Your 20s
Use a cleanser, a moisturizer, and a sunscreen in the morning, and a cleanser and moisturizer at night. (Makeup wipes are not a cleanser.)
In Your 30s
Use a cleanser, a moisturizer, and a sunscreen in the morning. Add anti-aging products to your routine, such as a retinol or vitamin C serum. Start slow with these new products, a couple of times a week. Cleanse and moisturize at night.
In Your 40s and Up
Use a cleanser, a moisturizer, and a sunscreen in the morning. Anti-aging prevention continues, but you may want to start correcting things like the loss of elasticity in your skin or the need for more moisture. Brownlee recommends a skin consultation to learn exactly what your skin needs. Take her free skin quiz to get started at skinbybrownleeandco.com.