Vanguard by Shopify Studios is a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment.
Gloria Noto is the founder of NOTO Botanics, an all-natural, multi-use, gender-fluid cosmetics line committed to activism and giving back. After almost 10 years as a makeup artist, Gloria decided to start a business focused on making the beauty and wellness space more inclusive.
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Emma Fedderson and Anshuman Iddamsetty
Senior Supervising Producer
Gloria: I had been progressing and progressing and progressing, and I had been climbing the ladder and realizing I was on the wrong ladder on the wrong house at a certain point.
Gloria: And I didn’t know what I wanted to do next, because I didn’t hate doing makeup, I hated what I was doing with it.
Gloria: I had been thinking about having a cosmetics line for awhile, and I asked myself: maybe instead of walking away, how do I repurpose what I know and love and reestablish that for myself?
Gloria: I’m Gloria Jane Noto, founder of NOTO Botanics, an all natural multi-use gender-fluid line that has a really deep base in activism and giving back.
Anshuman (voice-over): This is Vanguard by Shopify Studios. It’s a podcast about how people from unexplored subcultures and unexpected communities make money today. I’m your host, Anshuman Iddamsetty.
Anshuman (voice-over): When Gloria Noto began NOTO Botanics, the natural beauty and wellness space looked incredibly homogeneous.
Gloria: To be totally honest, the images I was seeing was of well-off, well-to-do, white, generally women, that had privilege. I kept seeing this image over and over and over again.
Gloria: And honestly, I saw a lot of cultural appropriation. A lot of traditions being totally used without its representation or even acknowledgement of where these ideas were being taken from!
Anshuman (voice-over): To Gloria, the industry lacked meaningful representation.
Gloria: Inclusivity. I mean honestly, it could be anything from cultural backgrounds to sexual orientation to the way one identifies themselves as far as gender goes or nongender. Like, where are those voices? I’m not seeing them. And I have a lot of these people as friends of mine, so where are their voices?
Anshuman (voice-over): Today on Vanguard, I speak with Gloria Noto, the founder of NOTO Botanics.
Anshuman: Tell me about your first memory of makeup.
Gloria: Oh, that’s a good one. Okay, so I’m the youngest of five. And my parents are from Sicily, so I’m first generation and my sister, she’s about 16 years older than I am. And my mom and my sister are actually quite close in age, ’cause my mom had my sister when she was 18.
Gloria: So I kinda grew up watching these two women become a character in the mirror. I just remember sitting there and staring up at them, watching them, just full-on hair, full-on makeup, lip liner, fake moles, eyelashes, like layers of layers of layers of mascara. So for me, that was kind of the imprint of what transformation could become with this tool.
Gloria: And then leading into observing how their demeanor would change once they had their look on, and once they were out in public, how their responses would be taken—you know, the idea of what a woman is supposed to look like. And it actually really played along with a lot of the antithesis of things that I wanted to become as an adult.
Anshuman (voice-over): Throughout her life, Gloria has fought to protect her voice and her identity.
Gloria: I didn’t really get a lot of opportunity as a child to have a voice. I wasn’t allowed to have an opinion as a child. I came from a very, very, very strict family. And then by the time I kind of was around, my siblings had pretty much all moved out because I’m so much younger than them that I sort of felt really alone and sort of trapped at home.
Gloria: So I moved out at a very young age, I think I was 15, and I got the fuck out, and I just went wild. I just was like, I have a voice, I moved out because I had a voice, I had such need to express myself, I had so many things I had to say and so many things I knew I had to do that I had to leave. And then when I left, I just sort of went crazy into self-discovery. And it felt really good, and I know I needed to do that. It really shaped who I was as a young artist and trying to figure out that infamous question: who am I?
Anshuman (voice-over): By the time she was 17, Gloria had her own apartment and enrolled herself in art school.
Gloria: I was like, I’m determined. I’ve got this plan that I’m going to do. I, like, applied for grants and loans and all the things. I put everything in a row. And then when I was 17, I got my own place. I got my own apartment and I went to art school.
Anshuman: What was art school like?
Gloria: Yeah, it was so cool. So I kind of left out the fact that I grew up in a really religious family. My mom is like super Christian, and I actually went to a private Christian school, so I was pretty closed off from a lot of the world, and didn’t really go out until art school. And that’s kind when I dove into the goth scene and the punk scene and, like, there was all these things that I was pushing myself into that was so new for me.
Gloria: But then things started to shift. The critiques started getting more and more technical, and I started getting really confused at how I was supposed to have my career be based off of what other people ask of me as an artist.
Gloria: Eventually I was working at a thrift store, and I had this sort of, like, life-altering experience where somebody brought up these Kevin Kwan books, who was a famous makeup artist, and I was looking through these books and I was like, Whoa, I could do this? And, I mean, I grew up running home from school to watch fashion TV and Twilight Zone. It was, like, the two things.
Anshuman: So, like, the perfect combo.
Gloria: [laughs] I know! So I would just sit there and watch these runway shows over and over and over and over again. And when I saw these books, it all sort of pieced itself together. I love transformation and makeup, and I can work on a photo set. Like, this all came together for me, and I just knew in that moment that I could do it and do it well.
Anshuman: Do you remember any of the images in the books? Like, is there one standout that you’re like, “Yes, that’s the thing.”
Gloria: I mean, he would turn, like, men into women; women into men. I remember there was also, like, this gender-bending quality to what he was doing that I wasn’t really seeing before. That, like, struck a chord for me in a very personal way that I wasn’t even able to articulate up until points of that reference. I mean, he was a gay man living in New York and, like, the way he presented himself, the carelessness, this like freedom of self-expression. And I decided then and there to drop out of art school because I was done having to answer to people to explain what my work was.
Gloria: I just didn’t reapply for the next year. I just went right into makeup.
Anshuman (voice-over): While art school wasn’t right for Gloria, it gave her tools to excel in the makeup industry.
Gloria: Learning color theory, learning the structural system of the body, the bone structure, like doing live drawing classes. Like those sorts of things, actually, were probably the best makeup school that I could ever give myself.
Gloria: So basically I knew that I was hightailing it into the time of experience. I knew I needed to get, like, the brush to the face, and just over and over and over and over again, redo a lip, redo an eye, redo a concept, whatever it is. And all of that work is complete garbage. Like, I’m so embarrassed when I go to pick it up and look at it, like if it’s in some weird drive from far, far, far away, but it was what I needed to do then.
Anshuman (voice-over): To further her career, Gloria moved from Detroit to L.A. where she would eventually work with stars like Olivia Wilde, Winona Ryder, and Diplo.
Anshuman (voice-over): But after 10 years in the industry, Gloria reached a breaking point.
Gloria: Okay. So I’m a workaholic, and the work that I do defines who I am and I’m okay with that. I finally came to terms with that recently when I started to feel disconnected to what my work actually is, my soul starts to get eaten away, and I start to get depressed, and I start to lose touch with reality and become disassociated to it because I was just making money. And I was working all the time, and I was grateful to be working. But there’s a difference between, like, being grateful because you have it and also then being grateful because you’re making it happen for yourself.
Gloria: And I was in a bit of a psychotic physical fitness stage there. I was doing, like, Muay Thai, running, and weights almost every single day. And then I left, and I went to Thailand to train Muay Thai.
Anshuman (voice-over): In Thailand, Gloria asked herself what she really wanted in life.
Gloria: Thailand changed me in a sense because it really made me sit with myself in a very simple way. I mean, for me, simplification really brought joy and happiness into my life. And I asked myself what are the bare necessities of what I actually need? And I kind of was able to pinpoint a few of those things for me, and they kind of opened up my mind. And then I just felt like, I got to quit my job. I got to leave, I got to stop.
Gloria: But then I had been thinking about having a cosmetics line for awhile, and I kind of came down to the point: do we need another cosmetics line out there in the world? No, but what am I trying to do with this? Because I feel that there’s giant missing holes within this space of what is being presented to us, what the brand stories are and what, you know, the voices that are, I feel, are lacking, should be showcased in. So I kind of decided at that point, I’m gonna start my line. This is actually what I’m going to do, and it’s going to be a gender-fluid line, and it’s going to be fashion and wellness, quote-unquote that evil word “wellness.” How do I make wellness feel a little bit more inclusive and a little bit more approachable?
Anshuman: So you decided to start this company. What are the next steps? What do you do? Like how do you go from an idea to navigating these spaces and then trying to develop ideas and, like, figuring out photo shoots, for example?
Gloria: The photo shoot part was the easiest part. I was like, I felt I knew exactly what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do. I knew every shot. I knew exactly that. The hardest part was figuring out how to tape a box closed to ship it out to somebody. Or, like, how to get a label that didn’t destroy itself with oil or how to make multiple units outside of, like, 20 at a time. Sometimes one might want to wait until it’s totally perfected and it looks pristine before they let it out into the world. But for me, I was just like, I got to get it started now. Like, I want to set this up now, so let me figure out how to do this. So I would just start making, like, really small, small, small, small batches and just messing up along the way, you know, whether that was having the formulas being a little different each time or, you know, changing the packaging every other week.
Gloria: But the technicalities of running a business are way more than one would ever imagine. And to be fully transparent and honest, I wouldn’t be nearly as accomplished as I am right now if I didn’t have Cici, who is my operations manager, and it was really vital for me to recognize, like, okay, Gloria, you’re, like, the creative behind the brand and you need help in the technical. And that, I think, saved my life. ’Cause like I said, I don’t really know how to tape a box closed, let alone create a spreadsheet. So yeah, it’s been a very, very interesting process of learning things that I never thought I would ever have to know about.
Anshuman (voice-over): One of NOTO’s most iconic products is the Agender Oil. It’s almost as if the product reflects Gloria’s ability to shed expectations—from her family, art school, even the makeup industry.
Gloria: Our Agender Oil is every bit of our mission statement. I mean, it’s minimal. It has three ingredients in it. It’s natural and organic.
Gloria: You can use it on your skin, your armpit hair, your pubic hair, your leg hair, wherever you decide to grow your hair. And it’s gender-fluid. I mean, it’s in the name, it’s in the description.
Gloria: It’s our nonprofit product that—when sold from direct-to-consumer—sales go toward rotating organizations that we choose to work with each month. So it kind of encompasses the give back and the stance we make and we choose to support. Yeah, I would say, 100 percent the Agender Oil would probably be our hero product as far as what our identity is.
Anshuman: What was that even like to pitch the Agender Oil? Did you get pushback?
Gloria: Well, the way I run my company at this point—and the Agender Oil actually was a really great push in this direction for me, and a practice for me to realize that I’m going to have a unique voice with my company, whether some people like it or not. And it was a really great practice in not giving a fuck about that, about how to pitch to those people, but also coming at it in a way that didn’t feel aggressive. You don’t have to explain yourself. It was also a time when Trump was running for office, and all that shit was going down, and I was like, I’ve got to do something political here because, sure, we use queer models or nonbinary models or whatever you see on our branding. But I need to do more. And so I launched the Agender Oil as a nonprofit product to create this “give back” system and make a political stance on like, this is who we are. You choose, you get the opportunity to choose whether or not you want to be a part of it or not.
Anshuman: There’s a note on your website for one of your products and the note is: “be as minimal or as expressive as you please. All identities welcome.” Could you unpack that idea?
Gloria: Absolutely. So when you look at my brand, it feels like a minimalist brand. Something that you feel like you can be really clean with, but I want the opportunity for you to also be as extreme with it as you want. I mean, we have colors that are multi-use colors. So you can either, like, pat it lightly on your lips or you can draw a star on your face, or you can, like, color your hair line with it. Whatever you want to do, I want you to be able to feel that you have this product that you can fluctuate within your own personal identity with.
Gloria: A lot of people have a very uncomfortable relationship when it comes to cosmetics and makeup because our society has made you feel like you have to use a lot of it in order to use it at all. We generally see the high-expression end of things, and I wanted to kind of show what it looked like on the more minimal.
Gloria: You know, if you’re nonbinary but you still want to wear a little bit of something, what does that look like? We don’t always have a lot of reference points for that. Or if you are a gay man and you want to wear a little bit of something but you don’t know what that looks like, I hope that there’s a home for that in NOTO for that person.
Listen to more episodes of Vanguard by Shopify Studios, a weekly podcast that explores the human stories of entrepreneurship from unexpected corners of our current moment.Feature image by Franziska Barczyk