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How broke, single mom Rea Ann Silva built her Beautyblender empire

"Being Latina gave me the vision and understanding about the nuances in skin tone, which directly correlated to my hands and my eyes mixing colors that made people feel comfortable in their own skin,” says the CEO.
Beautyblender founder and CEO Rea Ann Silva.
Beautyblender founder and CEO Rea Ann Silva.Courtesy of Beautyblender

Beautyblender founder and CEO Rea Ann Silva knew she had created a hit product when the egg-shaped sponges she hand-cut to apply makeup started disappearing from the television set where she worked.

“Actors were stealing my sponges,” Silva told Know Your Value. As one of the first-ever makeup artists to work on a high-definition TV show, she needed to create a tool that was up to the challenge. She couldn’t rely on airbrushing the show’s four female leads: the technique took too much time and required her to pull actors off-set where the airbrush machine was plugged into an outlet. Silva’s sponges, meanwhile, were so light and portable that they were being pocketed by the cast and crew. “I thought, well, there must be a retail possibility for this product,” she said.

Silva started selling Beautyblender, an edgeless sponge used to apply foundation, in 2002. Now, her company says it’s projected to do $215 million in retail sales this year alone. The Original Beautyblender has won 10 Allure Best of Beauty Awards, and a Youtube search of the name pulls in nearly a million hits. It’s a favorite among celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Meghan Markle.

But Silva told Know Your Value that she never actually set out to create a sponge. In fact, she wasn’t planning to pursue makeup artistry at all. As a student at The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, she was drawn to fashion illustration. After an unexpected breakup, however, she became a single parent and pursued makeup to make a living.

With “no job, no money and no skills,” Silva cobbled together a look-book of her makeup work, and shopped it around. She started working in music videos, then followed those clients into television and film. Along the way, she became known for her expertise in working with women of color, and began quietly developing a prototype for the Beautyblender. She remembers the doubtful looks on her celebrity clients’ faces when she told them what she was working on.

“I never at that moment could have imagined that I’m sitting here talking to you right now as CEO and founder of a brand sold globally in the biggest stores in the world,” Silva told Know Your Value. “I didn’t dream that big. I dreamt, like, how am I going to support myself, pay rent, and have food and gas.”

In the summer of 2018, Beautyblender’s massive success enabled Silva to launch her own foundation line, Bounce. It comes in 40 shades — a far cry from the seven to 20 shades she remembers major cosmetics companies offering when she worked as a makeup artist two decades ago.

Beautyblender founder and CEO Rea Ann Silva.Courtesy of Beautyblender

“The biggest fail for makeup applications for many years is that there weren’t enough shades for women of color to actually look natural with makeup on, so you had to learn to become like a mixologist,” Silva said. She remembered blending lipsticks and blushes into foundation to get the right undertones, and even heard stories of makeup artists reaching for shoe polish to darken shades. “They would all be from light to a little bit darker, not really going into other ethnicities, the Latin colors, or African American colors or Asian colors,” she recalled of the available hues.

Silva’s background is diverse, and she describes her own extended family as “The United Colors of Benetton,” referencing the clothing company’s famous multiethnic ads. Her mother is Mexican, Spanish, and Native American. Her father was Portuguese and Irish. Her husband is from Panama and her children are black. Parts of her extended family are Jewish, Asian, and white. Doing her own family members’ makeup was “a great launching board.”

She credits her Hispanic heritage with giving her an eye for color. “Being Latina gave me the vision and understanding about the nuances in skin tone, which directly correlated to my hands and my eyes mixing colors that made people feel comfortable in their own skin,” she said. She keeps her family’s traditions alive by making tamales at Christmas, listening to Latin music and frequently getting the extended family together for celebrations. Hispanic Heritage Month runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 and Silva’s company is planning its social media around the occasion, but Silva says her family honors their heritage every day.

“I always try to do the most and not the least,” Silva said about her approach to beauty. “Being Latina, we are a very colorful people. We are not afraid of color. We embrace color. And we celebrate color.” She added, “And we’re not afraid of makeup.”