Chris Salgardo is at the helm of one of the world’s premier skin care brands. Not content with spearheading initiatives to challenge perceptions about social issues and raising money for HIV research, Chris recently released his first skin care manual for men, Manmade. I spoke with Chris by phone as we talked about the pillars on which Kiehl’s is built, his new book Manmade and why giving back to communities is at the core of everything that he does.

Philanthropy and activism have been a part of Kiehl’s heritage and DNA since the beginning. How did you choose what causes to support and why are these important to you?

One of the things that I loved about the Kiehl’s experience of the original flagship store was that it was very much community based. People could come in, they could hang out and there was always generous sampling.  It was a place that you felt was your home away from home.  In the 80’s when all of a sudden AIDS had become ground zero in places like San Francisco and New York, Kiehl’s began to support organizations like amfAR and Project Angel Food and others and it just became a part of the company.

When I joined the company I wanted to continue that tradition and really amplify it. For me there are so many great organizations but at some point you have to decide where you want to put your stake in the ground and clearly AIDS and HIV were very important.  Also, I lost one of my closest friends to AIDS in 1996 so I understood that feeling of loss and wanting to do something.  So that became one of our pillars. As a company that makes great products I felt that we had a real obligation to get those products back in the recycling stream so recycling and the environment became the second pillar.  Also, children’s well being and hunger were an important issue. I find it alarming that in a country as wealthy as ours that we still have so many people going hungry.  It’s not so much about the food but connecting people to food and breaking that cycle of hunger for families.  It’s critical because if you are not eating properly you are not gonna study, you are not going to be able to keep a job, there is a whole cycle that comes with this.  Then I’d say women’s issues.  We started supporting ovarian cancer and I’m going to be doing my first motor cycle ride next year on behalf of breast cancer and so those are where we have really focused our energy.   My grandmother always said, “If you can give back, you should give back” so we are always finding a way to do that and we do that through raising money.  We do that from actually getting on the road and creating awareness.

I do a motorcycle ride, I’ve done it for six years now on behalf of amfAR.  We’ve raised almost 1.4 million dollars because making noise is important too.  Making sure that the organization and what they are fighting for is known because that’s a way to galvanize other people to get involved too.  So, they are very important to us and we are going to continue to give back in any way that we can that makes sense for Kiehls and for our customers.

I think that these causes are all relevant and timely.  Today is World AIDS day, the United Nations conference on climate change is taking place in Paris and women’s issues are at the forefront of political discussion.

Yes, thank you Craig I totally agree.  The Ovarian Cancer Research Fund honored me last year for their 20th anniversary Legends Gala. I thought about it and I asked them why they wanted to honor me.  They said it was because of everything I did on behalf of women. When I accepted the award I was asked if I knew anybody who has died of ovarian cancer. I said no but I don’t want to either.  I don’t want to know anybody who is having to go through that. Unfortunately, with breast cancer,  most of us know someone who has been affected by the disease. I lost one of my closest friends to it. It’s a hard way to see people go.

Let’s talk about the genesis of LifeRide. I know that was something that you created. Where did the idea come from?

It’s funny because everybody asks that. I have been a motorcycle rider for thirty plus years.  My father was a California highway patrol man and when we started to expand Kiehls I put a motorcycle in every store. The flagship store had a collection of motorcycles the previous owner put in. I’ll never forget when I was in Texas in 2010 I was looking at some motorcycles and I thought if we could just get it on the road it would make some real noise. We already supported amfAR but I felt like I wanted to do more. I worked with my team and we created LifeRide. The first one was in California, and I have to tell you Craig, it was one of those things where everything was just going wrong.  We were going to ride a short distance to raise money but people kept dropping out. I said to myself, if I am the only one riding I am okay with that because I am going do this regardless.  Luckily, that wasn’t the case and I got a group of ten very devoted people who came along with me for that event which are still riding with me today.  That’s how LifeRide was born and all of a sudden it really was creating a dialogue.   We’ve ridden almost  10,000 miles at this point.

It sounds like the motorcycle is a metaphor for activism.  The manifestation of noise makes me think of organizations like ACT UP in the eighties.

I think it’s still very unexpected and that’s exactly the point.  I’ll do anything to get attention around this issue.  There are 35 million people living with HIV and God knows I think we have buried about 40 million.  It’s a problem.  I just want to get people’s attention and get them on board and get them thinking.

I agree.  I wanted to segue into a lighter subject and talk about your book Manmade. The men’s grooming industry is growing tremendously. Men are more aware and there isn’t a stigma about taking care of yourself.  Why did you think that now was the right time for a book?

What you said is very important because the stigma is going away; it’s not gone but it’s going. As a teenager who had acne, it was a challenge finding products that would work and options were limited. It really affected my confidence because I didn’t feel like I looked my best. That stayed with me as a young adult and I faced all these questions that I think a lot of  other people are faced with. Women have always had the luxury of, and I use that loosely, being able to cover it up but those sorts of options for men did not exist.  From that point my love affair with skin care and how important it is began.  When I came to Kiehls I had been a Kiehls user for 10 years.  I absolutely love Kiehls because it works for me. When I became president, I started travelling and talking to the press more and all of a sudden men were coming up to me and recognizing me and asking me questions. I always wanted to write a lifestyle book and I thought I should really focus on skin care and grooming.  There were two things that really drove me to do it.  First, the questions were increasing and they were very similar.  Maybe they just wanted it all in one place and easier to digest or maybe they just wanted it from a reputable source or it could be all of the above.  Then there’s the trend in men’s skincare that is booming. I thought, now is the time to do this. I wanted Manmade to be a book that everybody should have but I wanted men to think of it as a manual, as a resource. I don’t know how you are with manuals but I skip around and I probably shouldn’t. Maybe that’s why my TV doesn’t work better.

Well, I don’t read manuals. What projects can you talk about that Kiehl’s is working on for the future?

Oh my gosh, we are always working on something.  In the men’s market we are coming out with our first line of men’s anti-aging products. We also have our very first beard oil coming next year and it has been worth the wait; it’s great.  One of my favorite products we are launching in January is our Ultra Facial Deep Moisture Balm. I took it with me to Alaska. Have you ever been to Alaska?

No, I haven’t.

Let me tell you this much, if you ever go to Alaska, and go because it is amazing, the minute you get off that plane your skin is dry.  I don’t know how a lot of people do it.  I rode around for 1,000 miles and it was cold.  It’s 18 degrees on a motorcycle and I used this balm and it was amazing.  It has edelweiss extract and creates a barrier for your face.  It’s light weight but you get real protection so this is a real breakthrough in technology.

That sounds exciting.  Shifting gears, what motivates and inspires you?                       

I have always been curious and I love to experiment and try things. Whether it’s a new adventure, riding around on a motorcycle in Alaska or working on my country house in up state New York that was built in 1772. I love to push myself and discover new things. I’d say what motivates me most is finding ways to give back.  There is really nothing I think is more  fulfilling. It’s good for your soul to be able to find ways to help others.  I started that a long time ago out of grief because I lost a friend to AIDS. I didn’t think he was going to die but he did.  I was volunteering, donating whenever I could and now I feel I can really amplify that and do so much more. It doesn’t have to be major, you don’t have to ride a motorcycle like I do.  Find what you want to give back, what you are passionate about and start with the small things because what you may think is small, to the person receiving it, it’s huge.

Thanks Chris, it’s been great chatting to you.

Purchase Manmade here