Franziska Leonhardt - Freiraum Insides

Franziska Leonhardt

by Nele Tüch, September 2020

Talking personalized skincare, gender-neutral cosmetics and business with the AVE + EDAM founder

When your skincare is smarter than your phone, it’s Franziska Leonhardt’s doing. Her company AVE + EDAM is algorithm-based, analyses your skin via selfie, factors in the water hardness of your home, accounts for desktop-time and travelling-hours. AVE + EDAM’s artificial intelligence compares your skin and your habits against the backdrop of over one million data points – All with the goal to create the ideal day- or night-creme for your face and no one else’s.

Leonhardt had the idea when she lived in the Silicon Valley and noticed some changes to her skin. Together with computer scientist and mathematician Dominik Michels, she founded AVE + EDAM and closed a gap in the market. The creams’ formulations are built upon vegan hero-ingredients such as squalane, apricot kernel oil or the schisandra chinensis fruit extract – a symbiosis between high-tech and natural ingredients. The personalized skincare brands’ base is rooted in individualisation and information, while its belief system consists of a combination of ethical and local production, a made-to-order concept and inclusive targeting. Skincare, matching not only our skin but our lifestyle – AVE + EDAM, a step towards the future in beauty!

We talked with former Rocket Internet manager, lawyer and AVE + EDAM founder Dr. Franziska Leonhardt about the relationship between hormones and skin-problems, the need for more spectrum-thinking and how COVID turned Leonhardt into an equality-fighter.

AVE + EDAM founders Dominik Michels and Franziska Leonhardt

Nele Tüch: Very often brands are founded because the founder recognizes a gap in the market. But a brand can also be founded out of personal need. What applies when looking at AVE + EDAM? 

Franziska Leonhardt: I would say both is true. The first time, I really thought about personalization was in 2017. I did my MBA in America and afterwards stayed for another four months in the Silicon Valley with my little daughter. In the US, at that time, a lot of things were already personalized, but there was no product in the skincare sector. 

NT: How does personalized skincare work?

FL: The skin is the largest organ and it depends also on its environment: Anyone who has travelled a lot or has been exposed to different environments knows that. In America, the water is very different from the one in Germany, the air pollution in Asia is stronger than here. In the Valley, my skin was reacting in a bad way. That’s when I realized that the market had nothing to offer in order to address this relocation and that a personalized skincare product was missing. In conclusion: I personally missed it on the one hand, but on the other, I also discovered a gap in the market.

NT: For me, this was much more obvious with hair: I lived in Rome for two years, where the lime content was much higher than in Berlin. But to be able to include the environmental factors into the production of the right skincare for me, you need a lot of personal data. I can imagine that some customers do not want to reveal this information about themselves…

FL: In America, there exists personalization that is based on genetic testing and people upload their 23andMe tests online (editor’s note: 23andMe is a genetic report service). Data is a question of the customers’ trust, if the customers know they will get a better product, they will be happy to disclose certain information. Otherwise, we can’t manufacture the product. But sometimes people ask if we can delete their data again – we do that, too. Even though, for us, it is important to analyze the data, since the products are algorithm-based. The more data we can analyze, the better we can estimate change and adapt the products and formulations. 

“You always have different stages of life that your skin goes through. For me, a good skincare product adapts to what you need.”

NT: You also have the possibility to provide feedback so that the product can be adapted after the first use, no?

FL: Exactly, my skin has changed extremely during pregnancy and afterwards changed again. You always have different stages of life that your skin goes through. For me, a good skincare product adapts to what you need. This is our approach in a nutshell: Who needs what when and how satisfied is the person with the adapted product – is it better, is it different, is it worse?

NT: What I found very exciting was the percentage of your male and female customers. 35% are men and 65% are women. That’s an amazing amount for a unisex brand and probably due to the technology-based approach. 

FL: In the meantime, we have targeted the men a little less. That means we’re now at about 25%.

NT: Being a man and taking care of one’s appearance is often not yet well understood, it’s even frowned upon. That’s why what’s happening in the beauty industry within the last couple of years is very exciting: You see completely new types of models.

FL: For me, it was important to use different models. We work with  some transgender models, but we never pointed out that they are. I actively wanted to play with the fact that these categories don’t exist – I would describe us as gender-neutral. We try to communicate this through packaging and branding and on the level of formulation everyone can decide for themselves whether to register as a woman, as a man or as non-binary. 

NT: Depending on where you find yourself on the spectrum, you can design your product the way you want it to be. It is not divided into male or female. That’s great, because what is male and what is female? 

FL: Exactly. Anyway, I would try to shift this debate away from these ‘what is male what is female’ characteristics. Yes, we use transgender models, but we don’t write: “This is a transgender model.” I didn’t write “female founder” in our business model either. Yes, I am a female founder, but so what?! 

NT: These are incredibly important issues and they should be normalized, but to normalize these issues you probably have to talk about them. 

“We have always posted natural beauties, no matter if they are male, female, non-binary, no matter what skin color. That is our brands’ philosophy.”

FL: There’s always the question of whether or not to address such issues. We have always posted natural beauties, no matter if they are male, female, non-binary, no matter what skin color. That is our brands’ philosophy. But with such important movements like “Black Lives Matter” should we talk about it now more? 

NT: Right now, we’re all at this point where everyone tries to be as sensitive as possible towards these topics, we question everything twice and do not really know what’s right and what’s wrong. Probably we should just take a step back, listen closely and try to be better. 

FL: Just do it and talk about it!

NT: Like you said that you didn’t want to call yourself a “female founder” in your business plan. 

FL: It’s similar with many topics that are close to my heart. Let me give you another example: the women’s quota. I was against it before, but the sad thing is that we need it. Without the women’s quota, unfortunately, we won’t get where we need to be. All these issues should be self-evident, we shouldn’t have to talk about them. But we do have to talk about them because they cannot be taken for granted. And in the end, this leads to me talking about these issues in order to encourage others and show them that they are not alone in this, even though I don’t want to talk about it anymore. But especially when it comes to fundraising it is, of course, a total disadvantage to be a woman. 

NT: Really? It is? Doesn’t womanhood also work well as a marketing ploy?

FL: There are still certain clichés about women and the role of a woman or the way a woman runs a business, especially if she additionally is a single mother. And the line about how you are portrayed is very thin – whether you are portrayed as a victim or as a “power woman”. I’m not a victim and I won’t let patriarchy turn me into one. But you have to put up with a lot of talk and prejudices. And many investors would rather invest in a 25-year-old male founder than in a single mother. You listen to these things and it becomes clear that women in business are just not the norm, yet. And during Corona I realized this and I mutated into a feminist. Although I don’t like the term “feminist”…

NT: I like it, but it has negative connotations…

“I want to see myself as an equality-fighter, not only for women’s rights but for all rights.”

FL: I want to see myself as an equality-fighter, not only for women’s rights but for all rights. And during Corona it was such a lapse into these old patterns: All my female friends stayed at home, took care of the children while the men were working. And the financial pressure as a single parent is even more extreme. In order to dare founding a company as a woman, you need good financial security.

NT: As a woman, you innately have to have money?

FL: You have to have the security to know that someone will take care of your child if the worst happens. For me it was like this: the pandemic started, we were in the middle of the financing round, my co-founder was abroad and was no longer allowed to return to Germany because international flights got cancelled, my child was no longer allowed to go to school or day-care. I sat there with my child, the financing round, without a co-founder and without staff as we had very early on moved everyone to home office. As a woman and mother, the courage you need just has to be bigger than the courage a man needs to have. 

NT: If you are or want to be a mother, that’s probably the case. There are also some men who stay at home to take care of the children. But that is still rare, which is also due to our system, where on average men still earn much more than women.

FL: We have one employee who wanted to go on short-time work because his wife had just started her own business and he wanted to be there for the children. As an employer, I thought: “Oh, what a cool man.” And that’s when you realize how these things still are not the norm. Corona revealed to me how rooted we still are in these social beliefs. 

NT: On the one hand, it is a cultural thing that we have internalized, as we have just discovered about ourselves. But on the other hand, it is also a systematic, political thing. Particularly in the pandemic period, it has become incredibly noticeable that two full-time jobs now have to be done at the same time. It’s not possible to do a 40-hour home-office week and look after your child at the same time. 

“Parenthood doesn’t come with gender. Your gender doesn’t make you a parent. But somehow it does stick to the female sex.”

FL: It is impossible. But that’s what women usually do. Taking care of ones’ children, or even ones’ parents, is not socially recognized at all, let alone financially rewarded. I always thought it was just the way it is: But why is it the way it is? Parenthood doesn’t come with gender. Your gender doesn’t make you a parent. But somehow it does stick to the female sex. 

NT: I always have the feeling that this is changing and it becomes more emancipated. But we move in our Berlin-bubble, which is just one of many small ecosystems and the problem still exists. 

FL: It’s a cycle, if you earn less money, you’re more likely to be the one who has to cut back. If you’re the person earning less money, then you’re the person that has to take care of the children and then you automatically continue to earn less money while likely also not advancing in your career.  

We should actively work on it and not accept it. Actually, for me, nothing has changed during Corona, but I have decided not to accept it anymore – neither for me nor for others. I have once again noticed that it somehow starts with myself. Corona worked like a mirror for me.

All images via AVE + EDAM Instagram