Sarah Kelly, who was 32 weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed, founded SaltyGirl Beauty with her sister, Leah Robert
Most “a-ha” moments preceding life-changing business ventures don’t involve the unlikely combination of a new baby, chemotherapy, and a swipe of lipstick.
But most women aren’t Sarah Kelly, a breast cancer survivor who, along with her sister Leah Robert, owns and operates SaltyGirl Beauty, an all-natural makeup brand born from Kelly’s cancer fight — and her realization that a little bit of feeling good goes a long way.
“[During chemotherapy] I was losing my hair, and as a redhead — who I was was a redhead, and I lost that,” she tells PEOPLE ahead of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, launching Tuesday. “I was feeling really bad about myself … and Leah came over with this really beautiful lipstick color. I remember putting it on and being like, ‘Wow, I feel like me again in a way.’ “
The sisters took that feeling and ran with it, joining forces to create a range of makeup and body products women can feel confident rocking, like foundation, multi-sticks, lipsticks, and glosses — all of which are made with clean ingredients.
Kelly, 40, leaned on chemists she knew from working at the organic toothpaste company Tom’s of Maine to ensure that they were using all-natural ingredients, a factor of the utmost importance to the sisters.
“My diagnosis [in 2015] was a triple negative breast cancer. I didn’t have the BRCA1 [or BRCA2] gene or any other gene that they’ve identified,” says Kelly, who was 32 weeks pregnant with her second child when she received her diagnosis. “I’m somebody that’s always eaten really healthy. I was running all the time at that point in my life, and I was just really surprised that this had happened to somebody like me, being someone who was really focused on ingredients [and], for the most part, what I ate, but not necessarily with what I put on my body.”
She continues, “When you’re going through a breast cancer diagnosis, you’re trying to figure out, ‘How do I get control back in my life?’ “
To help other women — fellow cancer patients, yes, but also working moms with a lot on their plates — gain their own sense of control, Kelly and Robert, an oncology nurse, launched SaltyGirl in September 2017.
“You see more women trying to go the cleaner route, but they just can’t find that foundation that gives that good coverage, or that feels good on their skin,” Robert, 34, tells PEOPLE. “Even my patients, they’re like, ‘Oh, I want a good lipstick,’ and they truly love it. They feel good when they wear it, and we’ve gotten really good feedback from it.”
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The Kennebunkport, Maine-based sisters initially drew inspiration from the nearby ocean for their new company’s moniker, but soon realized SaltyGirl doubled as the perfect explainer for what they were all about: “Having attitude and being a little bit badass,” says Kelly, who celebrated four years cancer-free in August.
Because their target customer is a multi-tasker on the go, the sisters have kept their product line limited to the basics, but they have added a body scrub and are eyeing the addition of a cosmetic eye line for late 2020.
“If you’re a busy person, you have five minutes in the morning to get yourself out the door,” says Kelly. “We want women not to feel intimidated by makeup, but be able to utilize it as a tool that helps them feel more beautiful and powered when they walk out the door.”
As business grows — SaltyGirl is currently available online and in 35 retailers nationwide — so does Kelly and Robert’s dedication to keeping their company focused on its mission of making women feel empowered and beautiful, no matter the circumstances.
In that vein, the sisters recently unveiled a set of six lip glosses, with each one named after a “badass, kick-ass” woman who’s battled cancer, including 65-year-old Dotti, who died of breast cancer shortly after learning she’d won SaltyGirl’s “Lipstick Hero” naming contest.
They’re also gearing up to host a Warrior Revolution wellness retreat in their native Maine from Oct. 25-27, which will include special events for women with various cancer diagnoses, including sunrise yoga, cooking demos with Blue Apron, art therapy, and a visit from Dana Donofree of AnaOno Intimates lingerie.
And at the heart of it all lies Foundation4Love, the sister’s nonprofit dedicated to giving the families of cancer patients special experiences they can enjoy together, like Red Sox games or a girls’ weekend at a local resort.
So far, SaltyGirl has given these special moments to almost 50 families, all with the goal of helping them the chance to focus on something other than their cancer diagnosis.
“That’s really the mission behind SaltyGirl,” says Kelly. “It’s this product that’s empowering women to face the day, but then we also want to give back to adults that are going through cancer in general, and so that’s just a big part of our identity.”