“Excellence in education” has been a guiding principle in Annette Hanson’s life and her school Atelier Esthetique Institute of Esthetics, a New York licensing aesthetics school and post-graduate facility. She studied face and body treatments throughout the United States, France, Germany, and England and is determined to never stop learning. Her professional experience in skin care spans more than 30 years as an aesthetician, salon manager, product innovator, aromatherapist, distributor, instructor, writer, and consultant. When Hanson is not working, she enjoys traveling and experiencing other cultures, and she can never be caught without her red lipstick.

Why aesthetics?

My parents owned a drug store in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. My father was the pharmacist and my mother managed the beauty counter, mainly offering DuBarry cosmetics. I inherited my love of skin care from her. She taught me all of my customer service and retailing skills, starting when I was six selling penny candy. When I arrived in Paris for three years of aesthetics study at the famous Carita Institute on the elegantly fashionable Rue de Faubourg Saint Honore in Paris, I knew I was living my dream.

What have you learned about yourself through running a business?

I am only as good as the people with whom I surround myself. As much as I would like to, I cannot do everything. I hand-picked my team and without them, I would never have gotten to where I am today.

Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?

I have lived two lives in this industry: as a distributor and as president of my company.

I was a skin care equipment and product distributor where I lectured in schools, salons, and at tradeshows and conferences across the country and abroad. It was Rebecca James Gadberry, a cosmetic chemist and the most respected cosmetic ingredient educator in our industry, who taught me about product development and inspired me to create my own two product lines – Simple Solutions with GHK Copper Peptide Technology and AquaSanté Spa Products from France. She coached me on how to achieve excellence in my presentations and helped me acquire the confidence to speak to audiences small and large.

As owner, president, lead instructor, and head of curriculum development of Atelier Esthetique Institute of Esthetics, I was inspired by Dorothy McKinley Soressi. She was always there to guide me on how to operate my school using best practices. We met in New York in 1990, when she was vice president of a prominent school chain. She helped me keep my school in compliance with all state and federal rules and regulations and was always there to share her expertise. She was my trusted adviser with so much knowledge and experience.

Without these and other mentors in my life, I do not think I could have achieved what I did in my career. Mentors are so important to success.

What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

Opening Atelier Esthetique Office and Training Center on the 34th floor of the Empire State Building in 1985 without one single customer. When I first came from France, I was unaware that New York State did not have a separate aesthetics license. I had to go through the phone book and call every spa and ask to speak to anyone doing facials. I built my client base by word of mouth and I became very active with the New York State Cosmetology Association.

What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?

I keep up-to-date with the latest scientific findings about aging, as well as procedures to delay the process while building skin’s health and radiance. Anywhere in the world that I travel, I make sure to visit local spas to keep Atelier Esthetique’s education current and forward thinking. I continue to speak at school association and spa conferences. And, I make it a point to visit my graduates in whatever city I find myself. I care about each one’s success.

What motivates you each day?

Rent and payroll. As the sole owner, I am responsible for my teachers and administrative team, as well as all the vendors that make Atelier successful. Challenging issues always arise and it is the way in which you handle them that defines you as a leader. Owning your own business is both exhilarating and exhausting, but each day has its lessons and its rewards.

How do you approach change?

An important step in learning to thrive in our current world is to make change a skill. Being able to recognize what the end consumer wants and teaching it to my students guides me to make the necessary proactive shifts in my thinking and leadership.

How do you keep yourself grounded? What do you do to unwind?

My sense of humor has always kept me going and helped me to deal with the ups and downs of business and life in general. I definitely believe in making lemonade out of lemons. A little dark chocolate and my current favorite Netflix series help me to put the challenges of the day behind me.

What is your favorite spa treatment?

A two-hour face and body treatment that begins with a scrub and a detoxifying seaweed wrap, followed by a rejuvenating facial and a relaxing hand and foot massage.

If you could go back in time to when you first were starting out, what advice would you give yourself?

Oh, that’s simple – I would pick a name for my company that people could pronounce! Let’s just say Atelier doesn’t exactly roll off everyone’s tongue. But, now, Atelier is well-known in the industry – after all, I helped bring the French way of beauty treatments to my students and their clients.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

Specialize, specialize, specialize – you cannot be good at everything.

What’s your most irrational fear?

That when I get on stage to give a lecture, the room is empty. Fortunately, I have become an engaging speaker who makes learning fun and I have developed a following.

What’s something you wish you’d written?

A book about a Canadian girl born in a small town who makes it in the big city with many difficult and humorous experiences along the way. I wish I had kept a day-by-day journal of all the things I have witnessed in my career, both good and bad. But, now that I have stepped away from the daily operations of the business, I have started writing my book.

How do you stand for what you believe in?

I have never wavered. I never gave up – even in the face of adversity. When I fell down, I picked myself back up and turned my fear into energy. My company almost collapsed three times, but I refused to fail. I just worked harder to be successful.

What do you love most about your job?

I feel so proud when I run into people who say how much I have inspired, motivated, and encouraged them. That I am responsible, in some small way, for their success is both humbling and gratifying.

If you could ask another leader any question, what would it be?

How can we bring back civility, kindness, and manners into our daily life and on the job?

How do you measure success?

Definitely not monetarily. I measure success by how many of my students have gone on to have fulfilling careers in the industry; by how many people I have touched and inspired by my teaching.

Early bird or night owl?

I am the ultimate night owl. I do my best thinking after office hours.

Sweet or salty?

Unfortunately for my waistline – I love both. Salami and cinnamon buns.

Laundry or dishes?

Dishes, with non-latex gloves.

Camping or glamping?

Glamping. You will not catch me pitching a tent and nestling in the woods amongst bugs and bears (even though I was born in Canada).

What is your proudest accomplishment in the industry?

After many years of advocating in Albany, New York to create separate licenses for aesthetics and cosmetology, I was so proud when the honorable Alexander Treadwell, New York’s department of state secretary of state, asked me to develop an aesthetics curriculum for schools in our state. Finally, on July 5, 1994, New York created a specialty aesthetics license consisting of 600-hours for those who wished to study skin care, waxing, and makeup only. This same curriculum, with updates, is being used today throughout New York.

I also championed a separate waxing specialty license in New York, making it a law that only aestheticians, cosmetologists, or waxing specialists could perform waxing. On January 1, 1999, New York created a waxing specialty license of 75 hours – the only state in the United States to have this.

After being sworn in by Mayor Rudy Giuliani as a United States citizen in September 1999, I was appointed by Secretary of State Treadwell to serve as educator on the appearance enhancement advisory committee for aesthetics, nails, and cosmetology. I continued to lobby for licensing and high educational and professional standards for the next 15 years.

Another proud moment was being honored as a DERMASCOPE Legend in August 2009. To be recognized by your peers in the industry for leadership and education to protect the career of skin care meant so much to me.

What’s the biggest myth in the industry?

That owning your own business will make money quickly. It takes years of hard work to develop a loyal customer base and a good reputation.

What hurdles have you had to overcome?

Dealing with New York landlords can be frustrating. Continuing to teach Atelier students while I lost my lease on Park Avenue and opening a school in a new location was certainly challenging. Also, when I sold my two product lines to a biomedical company, it was very bittersweet.

Where is the brand headed over the next five years?

Atelier is positioned for growth in a new facility with expanded classroom space. Its 34th year has been the best ever! We are planning a big 35th year anniversary celebration in 2020.

Where is the entire industry headed?

Although the internet has provided easy access to at-home skin care treatments, it will always be the personal, hands-on touch of a well-educated aesthetician that will continue to make spas successful.

What distinguishes your company from others in the industry?

I like to say we are the “Harvard of aesthetics schools.” We set the bar high in order to prepare students academically and for the real world of business. In order for students to graduate and obtain a prestigious Atelier Esthetique Institute of Esthetics Diploma, they must pass 23 written exams and 10 practical exams. I am honored to say that I have graduated over 1,000 aestheticians who are part of an exclusive worldwide alumni group.

We are the first accredited, internationally-recognized member of the International Therapy Examination Council (ITEC) in the United States. With just two extra weeks of preparatory training, students can sit for their ITEC London Diploma in beauty treatments allowing them to work anywhere in the world in salons, spas, and on cruise ships without having to take another qualifying test.

What are your current goals?

To expand the curriculum to keep students up with new industry technologies and skin care developments. My personal goal is to continue to connect with my graduates who are employed around the world.

How would you define your company’s culture?

To train aestheticians in the French way of beauty – sophisticated, classic, and timeless skin care. We practice “CPR” – courtesy, professionalism, and respect.

What has been the hardest lesson learned in business?

Not every person you meet on your road to success will be kind, honest, and rooting for you. You have to have the intrinsic motivation to want to be the best you can be.

How do you motivate your team?

By allowing them to contribute ideas and, when it is a good one, running with it! I am always excited to have them put forth their perspectives on how to make Atelier a better school.

Gut instinct versus expertise: which is more important and why?

You’ve got to have both. First, you need the solid foundation an education provides before you can allow yourself to listen to your inner voice. In business, you have to make decisions based on the facts at hand. However, when it comes to our fast-paced industry and what’s right for my students and employees, I use my intuition.

How do you encourage creative thinking within your organization?

I try to create an environment where everyone knows that their opinion matters and is valuable.

Where do the great ideas come from in your organization?

The great ideas come from my mentors, my employees, my students, and my advisory committee. I listen to everyone’s opinion and, in the end, I use my best judgement to determine what will work best.

What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of your organization?

One of the most important decisions I make is to hire the best people for our team, whether they are teachers or in administration. They have to have the same drive as I do and always maintain our mission.

How do you stay current?

I continue to network with my peers and colleagues as often as possible. I attend conferences here and abroad about the latest developments in the spa and skin care industry. And, I keep up with the latest articles and research findings on dermatology and skin care. I was a founding member of the ASCP Skin Care Schools Association and I continue to be on their leadership committee.

What is the hardest thing about being a leader?

The hardest thing is that you are on your own – sometimes, it is lonely at the top. I rely on my instinct a lot, which can mean I take a leap of faith without knowing what is waiting on the other side.