Beauty Store Business magazine - December, 2019

The Industry Innovator: How Liam Ben-David's Past has Shaped Sutra Beauty

Raised in two different cultures, Sutra Beauty’s CEO Liam Ben-David developed a curious and entrepreneurial mindset from a young age.

Liam Ben-David had an interesting childhood. The son of a diplomat, he was born in a small town in southern Israel, before moving to Los Angeles when he was three years old. “After that, my whole life was spent shuttling back and forth between two worlds,” says the president and CEO of Sutra Beauty, manufacturer of cutting-edge hair styling tools. He went to grade school in Jerusalem, then completed high school in Chicago. These continuous shifts shaped his perspective, providing a unique viewpoint that has been valuable in business. “From a young age, I remember being able to analyze the nuanced differences between cultures,” says Ben-David. “I learned that saying or doing something in the U.S. would evoke a very different response than the same action taken in the Middle East.” As a current industry leader, that lesson still resonates. “When I wish to get a point across, I know I must do more than simply spit out words,” Ben-David explains. “Colleagues and customers in various managerial levels and countries will absorb my message in distinct ways, so I’m always thinking about my method of delivery.”

After high school, the young grad had a choice: go to college like the rest of his American friends, or return to Israel and serve in the Defense Forces. National military service is mandatory for both male and female Israeli citizens over the age of 18. However, as a dual citizen, Ben-David could have avoided conscription. He considered his life carefully, then committed the next four years of it to the special forces unit of the Israeli Air Force. “It was so hard,” says Ben-David, laughing. “I’d get letters from my friends about the college parties they were having fun at, while I hadn’t showered in five days and was reading with a flashlight in the dark.” Moreover, he feared how disadvantaged he’d be time wise and from an educational perspective upon returning stateside. His peers would have obtained bachelors’ degrees, while he’d only be starting to write admission essays. Worry filled him–until he completed his service and realized what he’d gained. “I learned responsibility, initiative, leadership, all of which proved invaluable when it came time to launch a business,” says Ben-David. “I’ve been shot at–I know what a tough situation looks like–so how is anybody going to convince me that I can’t do something, after doing that?”

SOLDIER TO CEO

The former soldier returned to California to attend UCLA when he was 23. At no point did he consider a career in beauty. “You could have given me a choice of 10 different jobs, and hair would have been at the very bottom, right below gardening,” jokes Ben-David. To help pay for school, he scored a part-time sales position. “I’d never considered doing sales, yet I turned out to be good at it,” recalls the pro. Two years later, inspired by that unexpected success, he dropped out of school. “I didn’t come from an entrepreneurial background, so my family was crushed,” Ben-David shares. “Their disappointment further motivated me, because I wanted to prove to them–and the world–that I could do something great on my own.”

Fate lent a helping hand in 2005, when a friend reached out with a business proposition to sell ceramic hair straighteners. “I was in the right place at the right time, as that happened to be the start of the flat iron revolution,” says Ben-David. Gregarious by nature, he connected with most people he encountered, from retail consumers to salon professionals. During the course of countless conversations, he gleaned a lot from the feedback he received–what worked, what didn’t, what was missing from hot tools. Further, he’s long been naturally inventive. “I always had ideas growing up, about new designs I could create or ways I might improve existing items,” shares Ben-David. Perhaps what happened next comes as no surprise: Inherent curiosity soon led to product innovation. “The market was so raw–it was like the Wild West of hair tools,” says Ben-David. “I began collaborating with different brands and manufacturers to improve the engineering behind hot tools, and advance the development and production of new offerings.” Unexpectedly, a passion for beauty snuck in. It’s fair to say that Liam Ben-David accidentally fell in love with hair.

Five years passed, and he grew tired of giving away his ideas. So Ben-David decided to strike out on his own. He worked at first with two other people, innovating items initially geared toward the retail market. “We were doing a lot of trade shows and selling at conventions, mall kiosks and Costco road shows,” he explains. He raised some capital, assembled a group of investors, and Sutra Beauty launched in 2011.

KARMA SUTRA

The name “Sutra” comes from Buddhist scripture. Roughly translated, it’s a chant or thread of prayers that offers wisdom into how to live with purpose and intentionality. “I do consider myself spiritual, but the reason we picked that name had more to do with luck,” says Ben-David. Some might call it karma. While on his way to a meeting to discuss potential names for his new brand, Ben-David found himself in an Uber with a driver who was murmuring while touching his forehead with two fingers. “I asked what he was doing, and he replied, ‘Reciting my sutras,’” shares Ben-David. “Then I remembered that was one of the names on our list.” The rest was destiny.

From the jump, the company’s aim has remained the same: Develop the best-functioning tools at friendly prices. “We’re motivated to be dis-ruptors,” says Ben-David. “We don’t want to be a brand for the rich and famous; the point is to get our innovation out to everyone, and see our tools in as many hands as possible.” Salon professionals soon took note. Sutra was among the first companies to effectively use infrared technology in hair straighteners and irons. Infrared rays, projected from the top plate of a tool, combine with ultra-violet frequencies discharged from the bottom. No direct heat is ever applied to strands, yet uniform heat is conducted in a safer, more efficient way, reducing dryness. Results point to tresses that are healthier and less frizzy over time.

INTO THE FUTURE

Starting with two friends selling tools to at-home consumers, Sutra now has 25 employees, all of whom grew with the company from the ground up. “We feel very connected to our industry, because we listen to what stylists and consumers want, and then respond with solutions that actually work,” says Ben-David. Sutra Beauty has been quietly finding its place. Now the company’s ready to take the professional beauty world by storm. “We’re amping up to something big,” says Ben-David. “The year 2020 holds a massive rebrand.” Though details remain secret, expect a new product family focused strictly on, and geared specifically to, beauty professionals. “A separate sub-category will be for consumer use, but stylists are getting their own premiere brand,” says Ben-David. “The world of distribution, along with the beauty system, was established well before I got here—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for someone with a different point of view to come and shake things up.”

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