Credo’s Annie Jackson on Building the Largest Clean Beauty Store on the Planet

Annie Jackson, the co-founder and COO of Credo, is a veteran of the beauty industry. From her beginnings at Estée Lauder to quite literally transforming what “clean” means across the category, Jackson’s success is directly tied to a lifetime of learning an industry from the inside out.

“I’ve always been able to keep an annoyingly amusing aspect on everything we do,” Credo co-founder Annie Jackson tells me over Zoom. It’s the end of our conversation but it underpins everything we just talked about. It’s the mindset of a successful entrepreneur, a +1 to the expression “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

It’s a mantra of sorts, the kind that offers perspective on the herculean task she embarked on in 2014 with Credo’s late Co-Founder, Shashi Batra: building a company from scratch. Today Credo is known as the largest clean beauty store on the planet, recognized for introducing tough standards that have had a ripple effect on the industry, gaining consumers’ trust in the process.

Six years into the journey, the story of Credo is still being written but in so many ways it’s the embodiment of Jackson’s life and career, one that begins at Estée Lauder and continues through to Exa, Credo’s just-launched private label makeup line.

Growing Up

Jackson got her start at Estée Lauder at the age of 19. Originally responsible for typical intern tasks like fetching lunch and filing paperwork, the role proved transformative as she took on more and more responsibilities across inventory planning and marketing. It’s a time Jackson recalls fondly, describing her first few years with the company as a “great place to grow up.”

Jackson soon found herself in the position of Marketing Manager, relocating to the East Coast to be stationed out of the beauty giant’s New York headquarters. Soon enough the company approached her about a new opportunity. While it didn’t reveal many details, it would bring her back to her hometown, San Francisco, and give her the chance to further her career. “That was all I needed to hear because I was young, anxious to get back, and ready for a new challenge.”

Back on the West Coast, Jackson assumed the role of Merchandising Director, a founding member of the team that would go on to establish Sephora, a new kind of beauty retailer that at the time was relatively unknown in America. A household name in 2020, Sephora was revolutionary when Jackson and the rest of the team started laying out the framework.

The challenge was primarily two-fold: 1. taking beauty products from their traditional context of department stores and placing them in an environment where customers could actually try the product themselves, and 2. introducing entirely new brands to an audience that had previously only been acquainted with the brands of previous generations.

The second point, while it largely defines the retailer today, was triggered by the first. “Traditional brands weren’t ready to leave their anchor retailers and were distrustful of what this new concept was so we had to pivot and hustle to find all these indie brands to fill a store.”

In 2020, this likely wouldn’t have been too difficult. A few Google searches would reveal dozens of potential brands and ways to get in touch with each of them. Jackson and her team didn’t have that luxury in 1997. In fact, when Sephora launched a robust website in 2001, that alone was considered a game-changer.

All told, launching Sephora in two previously untapped markets was an opportunity and an experience that Jackson would draw on years later as the idea for Credo started to come in to focus, partially due to the involvement of beauty visionary Shashi Batra, her boss at Sephora and a figure who’d go on to change her life decades later.

The In-Between Years

After 10 combined years at Estée Lauder and Sephora, Jackson was ready for something new. She left Sephora in 2002 and from that time until 2014 when she’d officially embark on her Credo quest, she continued to excel in her career, from a VP role at Restoration Hardware to Director of Brand Strategy and Product Innovation at Benefit Cosmetics, with a few other positions in between, including leadership appointments at Estée Lauder and Sephora.

Throughout it all her friendship with Batra continued. During her second bout at Sephora in 2012—this time around as Director of Merchandising—Batra started floating a new business idea. At first, Jackson wasn’t having it. “He continued to call me under the guise of wanting to network. I knew he was trying to bait me with his idea but I kept giving him names of people that I thought were interesting that could help him with what he was doing.”

Jackson was busy at Sephora as one of the company’s most influential figures but her evasiveness had roots beyond that: she’d been wanting to take a year off from work to spend more time with her growing family.

Eventually Jackson did take her long-awaited year off. It was everything she hoped it would be and more. Alongside priceless family time, it gave her the headspace to consider her next step. Did she want to continue down the conventional beauty path or try something new?

Batra, persistent as ever, never left her ear, sharing his thoughts on the changing consumer landscape and the need for a retailer that speaks to what this consumer wants, namely products crafted of safe ingredients available in an environment they can trust. Eventually Jackson conceded, dipping in one toe at a time. “I said, ‘Okay, why don’t we just do it?’ When the kids are at school I’ll start sniffing around and looking for brands that fit this idea.”

What Jackson learned in those first few months was all it took. Not only were there enough brands to occupy a retail space, but the beauty industry, long self-regulated, was due for a shakeup from the inside, replacing ROI and the bottom line with health and safety.

From Dream to Reality

Once Jackson committed to the concept in 2014, drive and inspiration took over. Originally, the two thought about acquiring a small company to build off of but soon abandoned the idea when they realized they’d have to deconstruct too much of what they’d purchased. Instead they decided to start from scratch, buoyed by their professional experience opening stores from the bottom up. “We were part of that founding Sephora team so we knew we had this capability.”

From there Jackson did what she does best and started scouting the brands that would make up the Credo roster. “It was really exciting as a merchant to find amazing brands that have passionate founders behind them. These are not your typical brand founders. This is someone that was inspired by a different value system.”

Although she was working more than she ever had in her life, Batra’s friendship and guiding vision made every day feel like a blessing. “If you’re trying to be an entrepreneur and you’re doing something that doesn’t fulfill and inspire you, it would be impossible. If you get the opportunity to do something that really inspires you, it’s easy.”

“We were inspired to do something that was not a hippie play, not a natural food market, but a very elevated experience for customers shopping on high streets.”

Credo Comes to Life

By 2015, the first Credo store was ready for business. Opened on San Francisco’s Fillmore Street, the shop was the culmination of the Credo dream: a one-stop shop for beauty products that were good for the consumer and good for the planet. The store also captured the contemporary approach at the heart of the brand, a sense of energy and optimism in place of quiet and preciousness. “We were inspired to do something that was not a hippie play, not a natural food market, but a very elevated experience for customers shopping on high streets.”

The combination of location, inventory, and branding spoke directly to the Credo customer: a woman interested in exercising, eating healthy, and informing herself about the products she’s buying. While Credo couldn’t account for individual lifestyle choices, it could very well have an active voice in the efficacy of the products it carried.

Speaking truth to power, Jackson, Batra, and Amy Galper, a well-respected clean beauty expert, developed The Dirty List, a literal list of over 2,700 specific ingredients and types of ingredients that are used in mainstream beauty products that Credo prohibits due to safety and/or sustainability reasons.

Within a few short years, Credo had carved out a widening niche for itself, becoming the leading clean beauty retailer while starting to have an impact beyond its own doors, forcing the industry at large to reconsider its own practices. In short, Credo was going from strength to strength and with so much pent up demand from consumers, nothing could slow it down. Thus, it was all the more upsetting when tragedy struck in 2017.

An Unexpected Loss and the Way Forward

In May 2017, Jackson’s longtime mentor, business partner, and best friend, Shashi Batra, lost a battle with cancer. It’s a time Jackson remembers as incredibly stressful and traumatic. Three years on and not a day goes by that Jackson doesn’t think of Batra.

She’ll often wonder how Batra would handle any given situation, especially now when the entire world is facing an unprecedented public health crisis and all that comes with it. But above all she misses his wit. “He was incredibly funny and I miss having someone with a wildly inappropriate sense of humor around.”

Although she’d never again be privy to his wisdom or wry wit, his powerful vision and natural charisma had rubbed off on all it had touched, propelling Jackson and the growing Credo team, which by 2018 would include the appointment of Dawn Dobras as CEO, forward in its mission to completely upend the beauty industry.

The Credo Clean Standard

From day one, Credo had set out to affect positive change in an antiquated industry that had no transparency around it. The Dirty List was just the beginning.

In 2018, Jackson, with Batra’s voice always in the back of her mind, wanted to go beyond a restricted substance list and introduce operational standards around how Credo vets and guides the brands it works with. The outcome: the Credo Clean Standard.

Essentially a roadmap for brand partners to follow, the Credo Clean Standard is a 27-page document that outlines the practices brand partners need to follow in order to make it onto Credo’s shelves. It covers everything from the safety of products to labeling guidelines and manufacturing requirements.

While many brand partners were already complying with the Credo Clean Standard, others had to pivot in order to accommodate Credo’s strict but attainable expectations. A few dropped out altogether, at least until they could get their house in order.

“Brands were fighting the good fight for us. They’d go to their manufacturers and say, ‘I need to hit the standards being carried at Credo. You guys need to give me more information on the products you’re creating for me.’”

The guidelines even had a knock-on effect, forcing the manufacturers of products to change the way they do things by way of the brands themselves. “Brands were fighting the good fight for us. They’d go to their manufacturers and say, ‘I need to hit the standards being carried at Credo. You guys need to give me more information on the products you’re creating for me.’”

Recently, Credo added Sustainable Packaging Guidelines to its standards and because of the work it put in back in 2018, the response from the packaging supplier community was swift. “Suppliers are saying to us, ‘We meet your standards. We have options for your brand partners. We want to be on your preferred supplier list.’”

Complementing its clean standards, Credo entered a partnership with ClearForMe in 2018. Designed to take the guesswork out of ingredient lists, ClearForMe connected nearly half a million data points to make shopping that much more transparent.

In practice it meant customers could scroll down to the ingredient list on any product page, click an ingredient, and receive information about that ingredient, alongside all other products that feature that ingredient. It also meant customers could search for products without certain ingredients, a kind of exception-based shopping Jackson says is how people in reality actually shop.

“The younger customer’s expectation is that corporate social responsibility is not nice-to-have; it’s an absolute necessity.”

The Future of Clean

Fast forward to 2020 and the Credo customer is getting younger, demanding more from the products it seeks. “The younger customer’s expectation is that corporate social responsibility is not nice-to-have; it’s an absolute necessity.” To give this customer exactly what it wants, Credo launched its first-ever private label makeup line, Exa.

Affordable, inclusive, sustainable, and clean, it feels like the peak of what Credo’s been working towards all along. Not satisfied with what’s out there, it took matters into its own hands, just like it did with the Dirty List and the Credo Clean Standard.

The reception was overwhelmingly positive, earning critical acclaim from customers and garnering awards like Best Foundation from both Oprah Magazine and Shape.

A Cheeky Perspective

Now, in late 2020, the sum total of everything Credo stands for reflects what Jackson and Batra were aiming for the entire time. Its guidelines are considered a clean beauty industry standard. It stocks 135 brands across 11 locations. It was the first beauty brand to extend the store experience online with virtual shopping consultations. Nonetheless, Jackson hopes for more. “If what we’re doing starts to influence bigger companies and bigger brands, that’s great. We feel it lifts all boats. We’re not trying to keep this to ourselves.”

It’s a tall order for an industry that’s worth north of half a trillion dollars, only a fraction of which consists of clean beauty brands and products. But Jackson will likely be smiling the whole way, channeling Batra’s sense of humor, and reminding herself and her employees that yes, they are on a mission to clean up the industry but “we’re not sick and we don’t work in an emergency room so everybody just needs to relax and keep a healthy dose of realism on what we’re actually doing here, because it should be fun and it should put a smile on your face.”