With unbending faith in herself and a strong business sense, Ruby Polanco built a thriving company and transformed her life.
BY: Cuyler Gibbons
Photos: Courtesy Ruby Polanco MakeUp Academy
With but one short week of driving instruction (and no highway experience), 18-year-old Ruby Polanco took her new license and drove the rented U-Haul, full of the belongings of her young existance, across the desert and away from Las Vegas and an abusive husband, and toward a new but uncertain life in South Central Los Angeles, where her family lived. Unsure of her nascent driving skills, she called her mother to come to Vegas to pick up her one-year-old son, to spare him the risky trip in the U-Haul.
South Central was familiar, if less than encouraging territory. With her parents, Polanco came to America from Honduras when she was 12. At that time, even South Central seemed a world away from the poverty she had grown up in, and by junior high, Polanco was being bussed to affluent Sherman Oaks. Although when they arrived, the extent of Polanco’s mother’s ambition for her daughter was that she “learn good English so you can get a good paying job cleaning houses,” the valley children Polanco went to school with betrayed a lifestyle that was completely foreign, but one she coveted. Though it would be several years and some experience later, the spark of her future success had been struck. “That’s when I got really curious, wondering ‘how can I have that?’” she says.
Life in the hood intervened however, and Polanco dropped out of school, was married at 16, and living in Las Vegas with her husband and newborn son at 17. Soon back in South Central, however, after the marriage failed, Polanco began working as a nanny and cleaning houses. While this career may have satisfied her mother’s ambition for her, Ruby Polanco had set her sights higher. As a 19–year-old mother and junior high drop out, she started to contemplate what it would take to go to college.
Polanco began by going to night school and getting her 8th grade certificate. Taking considerable heart from what she felt others saw as a relatively minor achievement, she enrolled in adult high school at night. When she discovered she could get a GED simply by passing the test, however, she decided on an accelerated course and purchased GED study guides. She spent three months absorbing the material independently and passed her GED on the second try.
Soon Polanco enrolled at Trade Tech and, as she says, “I took just about every single class they had. I ended up with something like 128 units, but mainly I was learning English.” Following Trade Tech, she enrolled in the University of Phoenix and began taking courses in business management. In the midst of earning her degree, Polanco began doing taxes and payroll for private clients, as well as dabbling in real estate. She met with some success, but most transformatively, she met Trish Grimes—another agent who eventually became both her business and life partner.
With Grimes, Polanco built a successful full-service real estate business that she says would “not only find your house, but sell you the loan, notarize the paperwork and even go to your birthday party!” Yet, despite this success, Polanco felt she needed to hedge her bet, and purely out of a personal love of and affinity for makeup, decided to create a side business out of cosmetic formulation. She began with a professional makeup class, not to learn techniques she felt she was already pretty skilled at, but for the additional credibility a professional certification would confer. Her intention at this point however, was not to do makeup for other people. She felt that she had identified what was both an underserved niche and a niche she personally knew well…makeup for women of color. At the time she felt only M·A·C was addressing this market, and even then with products not suitable for everyday wear.
In 2006, with input from her partner Grimes, Polanco began formulating her own line of cosmetics; She saw it as a hybrid of Mary Kay and M·A·C, targeted at Hispanic women. In 2008, she opened a kiosk in West Covina and from the beginning business was brisk, with cash flow of upwards of $50,000 a month. Then came the crash. While Polanco saw some decline in demand for cosmetics, the effect on her and Grimes’ real estate business was catastrophic. Instead, they focused on the makeup. But Polanco had noticed something else while running her kiosk—everybody who bought makeup had questions about how to apply it. So, she set up chairs and started demonstrating how to apply what she sold. It was immediately evident that the more makeup she applied, the more makeup was purchased. Yet, beyond the retail trade, she was receiving multiple daily requests to teach her craft for a fee.
Polanco took the hint. “Instead of doing one face, and selling $300 in make up, why don’t we do a class,” she thought. While the cosmetic line continued, the Ruby Makeup Academy was launched in a 300 square foot room, with $100 in supplies purchased from Ikea. 10 people signed up for the first set of classes and 16 the next. And from there, there was no looking back. Polanco has never had a problem with math and she knew soon enough she was on to something. Where her kiosk margins were small, this new venture was almost pure profit. Within 6 months, she was sure. “Forget cosmetics,” she thought, shutting down the cosmetic line. “We’re a school now.”
Polanco’s personal passion for business is certainly a key to her school’s success. Yet, just as important is her passion for the well-being and success of her students, her “Ruby Girls” as she calls them, not only as makeup professionals but as people. “A lot of girls come in and take the 11 week program just for themselves. You should see these kids. They come in like little kids, afraid of makeup. And when they finish the program they look so beautiful and grown up and they feel so secure about themselves. You can see it in the way they walk, the way they talk. It’s amazing what makeup can do,” says Polanco.
Polanco’s Academy provides more than just personal makeup instruction. Following successful completion of the basic program, specialty instruction is available in everything from Bridal make up to Hollywood special effects. Additionally, in keeping with her mission to provide more than just instruction in cosmetics, Polanco has created free events like this year’s Reaching for the Stars, where she brings in influential stylists and business people to discuss how they got their own start and their keys to success in life and the world of beauty. And perhaps closest to her heart, she has begun introducing business classes in order to provide her “artists” with some of the more concrete skills they may typically ignore, but will need to make a true living at their chosen profession. “For me it wasn’t until I was in trouble that I thought, ‘Oh my god, maybe I need help from someone who knows more,’” She says. “I’m trying to plant those seeds as they start, so they can grow and be thinking smart from the beginning.”
Despite the fact that competition is growing fierce—“It’s huge now, huge,” says Polanco, “it seems like every Latina has a makeup school now!”—the Ruby Makeup Academy continues to grow. Now, with three new locations in addition to the Temple City headquarters, the Academy will graduate over 1,200 students this year alone. Polanco is already eyeing the future in any case. “My goal now,” she says, “is to see my business coaching for youth take off. We don’t have a lot of that, and kids need it. So that’s my number one priority right now.”
This year, the Ruby Makeup Academy was named (for the second consecutive year) to Inc. Magazine’s list of the 5,000 fastest growing private companies in America, coming in at 1,702. Polanco likes the trajectory and whatever the future brings there’s a good chance she’ll be ready for it. “I don’t see a lot of limitations,” she says. “What I can think, I can do.”