By Rebecca Jones
Originally published in ASCP's Skin Deep, November/December 2008.
Peace activist Jody Weiss is attempting to build a bridge between women and children in a land of plenty and those whose lives are mired in poverty and oppression. And she’s doing it one lipstick and nail polish at a time.
The founder of Peacekeeper Cause-metics, Weiss, 50, has found cosmetics to be surprisingly potent weapons in her social justice arsenal. They’re also helping her to battle demons from her own past. In short, she’s found ways to use cosmetics for higher purposes than ornamentation of the body.
At present, Peacekeeper markets just lip and nail products. But Weiss says plans are in the works for a line of skin care products as well. “When we do that, we’ll get much more involved with estheticians,” she says.
Since its founding in 2002, her company has donated roughly $50,000 to a variety of organizations dedicated to empowering women and girls around the world. That’s not large by some corporate standards, but it does represent 100 percent of the company’s net profits. And Weiss believes she’s just
“We’re still a young company,” she says. “I hope we all can look back on this in 20 years and say that we’ve given $200 million to women who had nothing. I hope when I’m old and gray and crotchety, this project will be global, and it will be a fund-raising machine.”
Weiss, a onetime agent with sports and entertainment marketing firm IMG, figures she came by her radical streak naturally. “My parents were activists,” she says. “I was spoon-fed activism.”
Her father, a commercial artist and political cartoonist, and her mother, a fashion designer and political activist, raised not just a little girl but a social consciousness as well. She recalls attending political rallies at her parents’ Englewood, New Jersey home.
She headed off to college to study public relations and marketing at the University of South Florida, but during her first year of school she became ill and couldn’t finish. She was eventually diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a chronic—and incurable—autoimmune disease that attacks the gastrointestinal tract, and sometimes leaves its sufferers quite debilitated. “I couldn’t eat much for a number of years,” Weiss says.
But she eventually improved, and wound up working at an advertising agency. From there she went to IMG, where she found huge professional success. “I learned how to take a product and create mojo around it,” she says. “I learned how to take a widget and lay a persona around it.”
It was while she was working with athletes at the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta that a casual glance at a magazine changed her life, and allowed her to see for the first time the kind of oppression that some women face, simply because they’re female.
“I saw a photo in Time of a pretty little 4-year-old girl,” Weiss recalls. “She was wearing patent leather shoes and a pretty little ruffled dress. But her dress was pulled up and she was wailing. And the adults were laughing. The image was so startling, I was shocked. And I read the story and it was about female genital mutilation. I didn’t know things like that happened to little girls with patent leather shoes and ruffles. I didn’t know why the mother in the picture was so happy.”
Weiss went on to research the subject and eventually wrote a screenplay, entitled The Choice, that deals with female genital mutilation. When she finished the screenplay, she felt the need to do still more. She weighed her options. She could invest money to get her screenplay produced as a film. Or she could take that same money and invest it in the lives of struggling women and girls around the world.
She chose the latter—because an abusive marriage had increasingly led her to identify with the plight of voiceless women everywhere. “That was fundamentally and eternally the impetus for Peacekeeper,” Weiss says. “It started out with righteous anger.”
Her ex-husband was not physically abusive. But the emotional abuse was devastating to her, she says.
“I felt at the time that if it could happen to me—a woman born in America, with privilege, married to a college-educated man with all sorts of status—if that heartbreak could happen to me, can you imagine the absolute heartbreak of other women on this planet who have nothing? A lot of what informed Peacekeeper was my desire to have Madison Avenue dollars show the difference between dominance and collaboration.”
But why makeup? What led Weiss to launch a cosmetics line? She sees makeup as a universal product for women. Weiss brought all her mojo-making skills to bear on the project, and surrounded herself with a team of chemists to develop a product line bolstered by her beliefs. The products had to be environmentally safe, and free from animal testing. The manufacturers the company would be involved with had to pay their workers a fair wage, and the workplace had to be free of exploitation in terms of healthcare, hours, retirement, and safety.
“I was fearless,” she says of those early days when the company was just starting out. “I didn’t blink. Fools go where angels fear to tread. I had dreamt about this idea, and it was so clear in my dreams. I had no fears then.”
Within a year, Peacekeeper’s Lip Paints line of natural lipstick was a finalist for Best Lip Product of the Year by Cosmetic Executive Women. And the Environmental Working Group deemed PeaceKeeper nail polish as one of the safest paint-based polishes on the market.
Meanwhile, part of the sales of the company’s products—Peacekeeper also has a line of lip gloss and lip balm—have gone to fund Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, which helps sexually exploited girls ages 12–21 to escape abusive lifestyles; an organization called Ja and the Street Children, which assists orphans in Thailand; the United National Development Fund for Women; Project Hope International; and the V-Day movement to stop violence against women.
The company has also donated approximately $30,000 worth of products to women-focused nonprofits for silent auctions or other fund-raising events.
In addition, Peacekeeper has launched a new campaign called Million Kisses that includes a virtual Kiss Museum. Patrons can put on some lipstick and apply a kiss to a paper “canvas,” then write a note describing who the kiss is intended for. The canvas is mailed to the company, along with a donation of $1 or more. The kiss and its accompanying information is scanned and placed on the company’s website.
“So far, we have kisses from former state senator Carol Moseley Braun and entertainers Bonnie Raitt, Daryl Hannah, Julia Ormond, and hundreds of customers,” Weiss says.
The launch of the skin care line in 2010 will include a new campaign Weiss calls Makeup Artists for Peace, in which she’ll invite estheticians and makeup artists to e-mail pictures of themselves and include their favorite makeup and beauty tips.
“These makeup and beauty tips will be a celebration of ourselves, not something to change who we are,” she says. “Real beauty is humanity and how you connect, heart-to-heart, with another human.”
Weiss says the fearlessness of her early days running the company has slowly given way to the intense stress of launching such a venture.
“I’m a worrier now,” she says. “I’m challenged by old paradigms of thinking about money, and how much do we need to sit on versus using our money to help the poorest of the poor. As Americans, we do great philanthropy, but can’t we do more? How much money is enough?”
Weiss says she has gladly foregone the perks that usually accompany a CEO’s position. “I just want a reasonable salary,” she says “I don’t want perks. The perk I want is to look back on this and see how much we’ve given away. I feel it’s a privilege and not a sacrifice to do this.”
For more information, visit www.iamapeacekeeper.com.