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tricia cusden, 68, digital entrepreneur

ageist EDITORS | november 21, 2016

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The story of how a semi-retired 65-year-old became a celebrated digital entrepreneur begins not in a startup incubator, or even the light-bulb moment that turned frustration into a winning business idea, but in a children’s hospital room.

“You've got life hanging by a thread all around you: tiny, little, vulnerable human beings with just very tenuous hold on life; it makes you realize very powerfully how brief is our existence on this planet,” says Tricia Cusden. “It just made me determined that I would keep living until I died and not start dying whilst I was still alive.”

"It just made me determined that I would keep living until I died and not start dying whilst I was still alive.”

One of those little humans was Cusden’s granddaughter, who ended up making a full recovery. And the realization stuck. It was then that the semi-retired management consultant resolved to stay retired no longer. So she took aim at an industry that had long annoyed her.

“You've got L'Oreal, who have engaged Helen Mirren, the poster girl for the 70-year-old, and she's absolutely beautiful … and they’ve got her in a leather jacket on a bridge, and she’s walking past a younger guy who’s kind of looking at her. She looks at the camera, raises her eyebrow, and it’s almost like Helen Mirren is saying into the camera, ‘I know he thinks I’m still hot,’ ” says Cusden. “And I just think, in what deluded universe do they live in where they believe that most 70-year-old women get out everyday and think, ‘I'm going to put this cream on my face so that younger guys think I'm hot’? It just doesn't happen. It isn't where our heads are at anyway. Really, this just shows the poverty of imagination of a younger ad execs who just can only produce through a younger person's lens. It just doesn't work"

"The poverty of imagination of a younger ad execs who can only produce using a younger person's lens"

The problem wasn’t that the beauty industry was ignoring Cusden’s generation, but that it assumed age was something they were battling against. Cusden saw an opportunity. 

After a quick Google search, she found a local manufacturer of beauty products and decided to pay a visit to see if something could be done. After all, skin that was dehydrated needed a different kind of blush; a mouth with wrinkles around it needed a different kind of lipstick.

The manufacturer got on board, and Look Fabulous Forever was born. She invested her own money and found a local designer to create a logo and branding, and a photographer to shoot photos of her friends wearing the makeup. On October 13, 2013, a video she’d made illustrating how to put on the makeup launched on YouTube.

“I thought that was a really bad idea,” she says now. “Because, A: I'm not well known and nobody knows me in the cosmetics industry; B: Will older women really be looking at YouTube for makeup videos? I don't think so."

Then the views started coming in: first in a trickle, then an avalanche. By January 2014, her YouTube tutorials were getting 1,500 views a day. Customers in Alaska and Saudi Arabia and the United States placed orders. So she pivoted her original idea of simply selling locally, and turned it into an online business. Her message resonated because it was so disruptive.

“We say unapologetically, ‘We just want to sell to women over 55,’ ” she says. “Nobody in the beauty space would dare to say that. They're all chasing the youth market.”

Testimonials came in from women expressing gratitude for inspiring them to wear makeup again. Within the first year, she more than doubled the return on her initial investment. Since year two, the company’s growth has doubled every six months.

“I've been on the most massive learning curve since I launched the business,” she says. “Everything about this business is new to me and so I've had to really let go of any thoughts in my head about not being able to do this.”

In February 2015, Cusden was invited by Google (which would later present her with a Digital Achiever Award) to Brussels to speak at a conference highlighting small businesses using the web to get ahead. She shared a stage with a couple of business owners in their 30s. 

"In the next ten minutes or so I want to completely change your perception of what 67-year-old grandmothers like me should be up to,”

“In the next ten minutes or so I want to completely change your perception of what 67-year-old grandmothers like me should be up to,” she began. “I’m much older than you were expecting, and I’m also female and I’m working in a digital world. Of course, it’s also possible for me to do that … I think one of the most damaging limitations that we impose on ourselves is the one to do with age.”

Changing the perception of what someone her age should be doing is perhaps Cusden’s most powerful message and the one that most resonated with us. Like most of the members of our tribe, the key to Cusden’s success is a sense of empowerment. Relevancy—and the dignity that comes with remaining relevant—is in our own hands.

“If you can't engage in the world as it is now, then you might as well not be around because you're only living half a life,” she says. “Unfortunately, technology is such a dynamic arena that's constantly changing. Unless you can engage with it and keep engaging with it, then you're going to get left behind very quickly.”

Maybe it’s a generational thing. Cusden believes that ours is the first “to do old age differently” because of our pedigree for disruption.

But there’s something also very specific about Cusden, a woman who managed to lead a busy professional life while still raising two teenaged daughters by herself.

“I do think that I've had a huge need throughout my life to put myself on the line from time to time and just test the limits of what I'm capable of doing,” she says.  “I think to be a successful entrepreneur it’s actually about putting yourself a bit further out than perhaps some people are prepared to go, and just saying, ‘I'm going to do it and I'm going to see what happens.’ Because I really want to feel the feelings that I have around that— sort of putting myself a bit on the line and testing the limits of what I'm capable of achieving."

Contributor notes on the portrait: Kalpesh Lathigra is a photographer whose practice sits at the space between documentary and fine art, he has worked on personal projects such as Lost in the Wilderness highlighting life of the Oglala Sioux on Pine Ridge Reservation to photographing actors, writers, sports stars. AGEIST is honored to have Kal as a contributor.