October 01, 2015 07:40 AM

Jane Wurwand doesn t remember her father dropping dead of a heart attack. She was just 2.

But what came right after left an imprint: her homemaker mom finding work as a nurse for the first time in 16 years just to keep her four girls fed.

“There she was, with no idea how she was going to pay the mortgage, didn’t know how to drive and hadn’t worked in 16 years,” Wurwand, now 57, tells PEOPLE, tracing the success of her $250-million skin-care company, Dermalogica, in Los Angeles back to the struggles of her childhood in the U.K.

“Thank god mum had vocational training to fall back on. After that happened, she drummed into my sisters and myself, ‘Learn how to do something. If this same thing ever happened to you, you must be able to go to work as soon as possible and earn money.'”

Wurwand (center) with her mother and sisters shortly after her father died, 1961.
Courtesy Jane Wurwand

A Scrappy StartOne of Wurwand’s earliest preschool memories is of napping with her mom, who worked the night shift. “I had always thought naptime in the afternoons was for me, of course. But now I think it was really for my mum.”

And she remembers money being tight. “I knew we had to budget every penny,” Wurwand says. As a 4-year-old kindergartener, she earned two pennies a day fetching rolls from a bakery for her teacher. “Miss Dee must have known I needed it.”

Embarrassed at having to use subsidized-lunch tickets at school, she started earning her own money at age 13, working odd jobs at a hair salon in her small hometown outside Edinburgh, Scotland.

Risking it AllBy the time she was 25, Wurwand had saved $2,800 and graduated beauty school with that vocational training her mother so encouraged. With her esthetician license and one suitcase, she moved to L.A. with her now-husband, Raymond, in 1983.

Wurwand with her husband, Raymond (center), and Dermalogica's Weslie Rau, 1988.
Courtesy Jane Wurwand

Using a $25 mailing list from the California licensing board, she began offering $10 classes in advanced skin care to fellow cosmetologists and started the International Dermal Institute. Dermalogica followed in 1986 because, she explains, “Our students wanted American-made products to use.”

“America is like the golden ticket in Willy Wonka s chocolate bar – dreams come true here,” she says.

A Shared RoadToday, Wurwand, who never attended college and is now a U.S. citizen, gives dozens of disadvantaged students free tuition to the Institute each year. And in 2011 she founded the nonprofit joinfite.org, which has since provided small-business loans to 62,000 women worldwide. One, in San Jose, Calif., expanded her childcare center to 24-hour service to help parents working night shifts.

“Their story is my story – my mum s story,” Wurwand says.

Her mother died in 2002 of Alzheimer’s. She knew her daughter had become a huge success. “Dermalogica was already in 70 countries at that stage,” Wurwand says, “but she didn’t remember everything at the end.”

So the mother who instilled in Wurwand her whole life’s guiding principle – “With vocational training, no matter what happens, I know I can always find a job because I can still wax a bikini line in under 7 minutes,” Wurwand says with a laugh – left her daughter one last “beautiful gift.”

As Wurwand describes:

“When I was young and in training, I lived at home and I used to do Mum’s nails pretty much every day because I needed the practice. And so, she always had perfect nails. So one of the last times I saw her, she was in a hospital ward, and I took my kit and sat on her bed and was doing her nails.

“Something must have triggered. The woman in the bed next to her was watching and said. ‘Well, that looks nice!'”

Choking back tears at the memory, the woman atop a multi-million-dollar company continues: “And my mum turned to her, with a huge beam of pride on her face, and she said to the woman, ‘My daughter s a qualified manicurist you know.’ And all I could think was, ‘You’re right, mum.'”

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