From Beyonce to Perrie Edwards, this student is helping shape some of the world's most famous brows

Rifah Tansim

Published on 04 November 2019

A student has helped a mum and daughter grow their ethical skincare company from the kitchen table into a global success story adored by celebrities from Sophie Turner, Perrie Edwards, and even Beyoncé.

During a sandwich year on the University of Sunderland’s Cosmetic Science degree, Rifah Tasnim was given a unique opportunity when she volunteered for a placement with Donna McCann-Turner and her daughter Kim Cattin in 2018, to help expand their innovative Soapbrows product, which exploded on social media last year.

Fast forward 12 months and Rifah has seen West Barn Co. flourish from just the three women, to quadrupling staff numbers, moving into much bigger headquarters in Durham and selling their products to more than 100 countries. The opportunity has led to a full-time role once she graduates next summer and gaining experience in all aspects of a growing business.

“I wanted to find a placement that would benefit my career and was local,” explained Rifah, 22, from Sunderland, who chose to study the Cosmetic Science degree as it combined her passions for chemistry and make-up.

“From day one at West Barn Co. I have been given the opportunity to do a little bit of everything, not just making cosmetics in the lab but researching and developing new products, safety assessments, business plans, manufacturing, and fulfilment and even helping to hire new staff. It’s been an incredible journey and I’ve enjoyed every minute. We started off working in Donna’s house to becoming a globally successful business. It’s been incredible and I’ve been able to bring what I’ve learned on my degree into this experience, it’s been invaluable.”

The placement also led to Rifah to travel internationally with West Barn Co. to global networking events, such as Cosmoprof in Italy and IMATS, promoting products using the sales skills the student developed as a part-time make-up artist working for Benefit and Mac.

Donna McCann-Turner/Kim Cattin, co-founder of West Barn Co. said “It was a leap of faith to take on a student, knowing we would be responsible for training and development as well as running the business but Rifah has been a fantastic addition to the team at West Barn Co. We are thrilled that she will be staying with us after graduation and are looking forward to watching her develop as a talented cosmetic scientist.”

Rifah continues to work part-time with West Barn Co. while finishing her degree, before beginning her full-time role.

Dr Kalliopi Dodou, who created the BSc Cosmetic Science at the University of Sunderland and is also the Programme Leader, organises placements for students on this course.

Dr Dodou said: "It's impressive to see the impact Rifah had on the company. She has fed a wealth of knowledge, skills and connections on Cosmetic Science from her degree studies towards the business growth of West Barn Co."

“It’s not just the confidence she’s gained at West Barn Co., it’s also the skills and knowledge she developed during her first and second years on the BSc Cosmetic Science that enabled Rifah to support the business grow. These are skills you would expect at graduate level rather than on placement.”

She added: "Our Cosmetic Science programme is designed to equip students for a successful and innovative career in the cosmetic, fragrance and personal care industry, and Rifah is evidence to that!

"Placements provide the opportunity to work in the cosmetic industry during the degree, and they are highly encouraged by our industry collaborators.”

The Brow Product That Broke the Internet

Donna McCann-Turner and her daughter Kim Cattin are the founders of West Barn Co, based in Durham, which took shape in 2016, when Kim, working as a make-up artist on a photoshoot. Kim wanted to try something a little different to the groomed brow look that was trending on Instagram, to create a 'natural, brushed up, fluffy brow'.

Frustrated that none of the brow products she had in her kit would hold such a look, Kim was inspired by the old Hollywood trick of using soap to keep the brows in place but was extremely reluctant to put hand soap on her client's faces.

At the same time, Donna was extremely interested in organic skincare and formulation, producing samples for friends and family members delivered in a little brown paper bag. Kim asked Donna if it was possible to create a product similar to soap but that was suitable to wear on the face, particularly around the eyes. What Donna didn't know was that her answer would change their lives completely.

Soapbrows was born and with it came opportunities the ladies didn't think were possible. Spending all of their money on small aluminium tins and painstakingly hand pouring each product, news of Soapbrows exploded on social media and it gathered momentum, meaning that Donna and Kim needed more staff.  They approached the University of Sunderland for support and took on Cosmetic Science student Rifah Tasmin in June 2018, working from Donna's home to get orders out to an ever-growing customer base.

As Donna formulated more skincare products, they found themselves needing more space and more hands on deck. A new headquarters was signed for in Durham and today there are now 11 staff working in fulfilment, shipping, manufacturing and marketing. The company ships internationally to over 100 countries.