Illness prompts the creation of clean cosmetics company
Lisa Swengros Agona ’93 was 37 years old with two children under 10 when she was told she had a brain tumor and six months left to live.
“It was November 4, a beautiful fall day here in New York,” she recalled of that day in 2008. “As soon as I got the call from the doctor, I immediately got in the car and started heading to him. I’m driving, and I remember thinking, ’What has my life been about? Do I like what I do on a daily basis? Am I present as a mother?’”
“And I realized I’m not,” she said. “I’m checking boxes and thinking about what’s next. I realized that I was just going through the motions of what maybe was expected of me.”
She did some serious soul-searching to determine how she wanted to live those next (or final) six months of her life.
As someone who was committed to growing her own vegetables and making healthy lifestyle choices, she thought she had done a decent job taking care of herself and she asked her doctor what caused this tumor.
“He said, ’It was likely caused by environmental factors—it could be something as simple as what you’re putting on your skin,’” she said. “And it was like, boom! I knew. That’s what this was all about. I want to educate and empower others to live their healthiest version of their life.”
Until that point, Agona—and any outside viewer—would have thought that she was living a life that was happy and successful.
A Clear Vision from the Start
Throughout her childhood and high school years, Agona had been a strong student, especially in math, and so she determined that she wanted to become an accountant so she could take over her father’s printing business.
Like so many SUNY Oswego students throughout the years, Agona visited campus on a beautiful August day when Mother Nature provided a warm breeze off the water to accompany a spectacular sunset.
“I was like, ’Oh my God, yeah, this is perfect,’” she remembered. “What I didn’t realize was that there would also be the snow, the cold or any of those things, but as it turned out, it was one of the best decisions that I ever made.”
In addition to loving her accounting courses with Prof. Bill Lundy, she also met the love of her life, her husband of 27 years, Chad Agona ’93.
Chad had just transferred into Oswego and was settling into the third floor of Seneca. As a new student, he had a course catalog to review to help him pick out courses. When Lisa got closed out of a class, she needed to scan the catalog to find another course.
“Nobody had catalogs, but then someone said, ’Oh, I think the new guy does,’” she recalled. “I banged on his door and he gave me his catalog. We still have the catalog.”
In addition to getting to know her new floormate and his Alpha Epsilon Pi brothers, she threw herself into academics, becoming president of the Accounting Club and lining up a job with Ernst & Young for after graduation, by her junior year.
“She always took her studies incredibly seriously and never gave less than 100%,” said Jill Consor Beck ’93, also an accounting major, her roommate for junior and senior years and a close friend. “Anything lower than an ’A’ for her was not a good day in our household. Her focus on her academics made her a standout, particularly when she earned a coveted internship slot at E&Y (at the time Ernst & Young) between junior and senior year. She was likely the top student in our year, but also didn’t hesitate to help others who were not grasping concepts as well as she did.”
From the Chaos Comes Order
After graduating, Agona became a certified public accountant and worked at the Ernst & Young job before switching gears to accept a job in HBO’s management international finance division, which enabled her to travel all over the world.
She then moved into executive coaching and created a large greenhouse in her backyard to grow vegetables and plants, and she started to check off all the boxes that she had planned for her life—two kids, yellow lab, certain kind of house, car and lifestyle.
“It was never for me,” she said. “It was just the plan that I had to accomplish. I wasn’t really present in the moment. I was always thinking about the next thing I need to achieve.”
So, here she was, presented with the possibility of dying within the next six months, and that jarring moment brought clarity.
“I need to create change,” she said. “It’s not OK what’s going on in the skincare industry, especially in the United States. I’m going to create a skincare line. It’s going to be safe, it’s going to be effective. I want to make it look chic. And I started formulating.
“When you have six months, you get really creative with how you’re going to spend your life,” she said. “And so when my kids were at school, I was researching; talking to aromatherapists, naturopathic doctors, dermatologists and other doctors; meeting with other doctors to give me a different diagnosis and prognosis and finding out everything I could about the beauty industry and starting to create some products on my own because I was going to find a way to survive and I was going to create a legacy of change.”
A New Identity Emerges
She also began blogging about her experience under the name Indie Lee (short for Independent Lisa) to keep all her friends and family informed about treatments and progress without sacrificing her privacy.
She initially launched her skincare line as Botanical Collection, but she learned that name couldn’t be trademarked. So, in 2011, she officially changed her name to Indie Lee and used that as the new brand name.
“I love my new name,” Lee said. “Lisa was the accountant. Indie Lee is the lover of life!”
The high-end cleansers, exfoliants, toners, moisturizers, masks, skin treatments and cosmetics are all clean, eco-friendly and cruelty-free. The company follows California Proposition 65 and the EU guidelines, which bans the use of more than 1,300 ingredients that are dangerous to humans and the environment.
Ancora Investment Holdings invested in Indie Lee, which is now sold in more than 2,000 stores worldwide, including Ulta, Nordstrom and Bluemercury.
“The coolest thing was when I was at Bluemercury recently here in Seattle and saw a whole display stand of just Indie Lee products,” Beck said. “I told the sales gal that Indie was my college roommate and she almost fell to the floor. When I showed her a pic of the two of us, she was so excited to tell me how much she loves Indie Lee’s products.”
Beck said she was impressed that her friend had scaled the New York-based company so well that Indie Lee products were displayed with such prominence in a store on the other side of the country.
Indie Lee’s beauty goes deeper than the skin.
“When I look in the mirror I see someone who really loves life every day. Every day. I mean, I have wrinkles because I smile so much,” she said.
When her friends and family look at her, they see someone with a strong character, “empathetic, intelligent and, most of all, funny as hell,” Beck said.
“When I think of Indie, the phrase ’courage of conviction’ comes to mind,” Beck said. “She bet on herself to take a path and stick with it when so much ambiguity existed. Indie migrated into the wellness space well before it was even called ’wellness’. No one was thinking about making real money in that industry and taking on the incumbents.”
Lee took a negative situation, flipped it on its head, made something positive and inspired others to do the same, or as she said: “take a lemon and make limoncello!”
“I’m able to cycle through some of the tougher things a little bit faster because my perspective is, ’Like, okay, this sucks, but I’m alive,’” she said. “Also, I do have a superpower, and it’s asking for help. People want to give of themselves. By asking for help in an area that they can be of value, you’re giving them a gift, too. That perspective has changed so much for me that today, I can say, ’I’m here for a purpose.’ 13-plus years after my diagnosis, and I’m still doing it.”
Indie Lee ’93 has set up an exclusive discount code for her Laker family. Use the code: ILOZ15 before April 1 to save 15 percent on your order from indielee.com.