Helga Hefner, Aveda’s manager of Professional Spa Education, has been with us since our early days and she really does it all — travels around the country educating spa professionals, writes the esthiology curriculum that’s used to teach the next generation of spa pros at Aveda Institutes, helps create new products, leads Ayurvedic-inspired retreats and more. There’s basically nothing Helga can’t do; she was also the first educator to receive the Master of the Arts award from our founder Horst Rechelbacher and won American Spa’s Women in Wellness Mentor of the Year in 2017.
Helga’s journey spans decades, from setting up her own salon in Wisconsin to running a spa in India. Learn all about it and get inspired by her travels, curiosity and talents.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Tell us a little about yourself, and how exactly you started your journey into the spa and wellness world.
I was born in Austria and my family came over when I was two, but I basically grew up in Milwaukee. After graduation, I was sitting at my kitchen table trying to decide what my career was going to be for the rest of my life. I did secretarial work, but I knew that wasn’t really making me happy. Believe it or not, I was sitting with the Yellow Pages. I started going thru it and I came to Cosmetology. I thought, “Oh, that’s creative, I’m interacting with people versus a computer and I think I would really like that.” I told my parents that was what I wanted to do, and my dad looked at me and said, “So you’re going to wash dirty hair?” Through my secretarial work, I had enough money to pay tuition. If I didn’t like it, my parents hadn’t lost any money.
At that time, they didn’t have separate skin care or makeup schools. I thought Cosmetology would be my way in. I went to the City College of Cosmetology in Milwaukee and got my license. At that time, there were only two top salons in Milwaukee — it was 1974. I called both places for an interview, and M’Lord and M’Lady salon hired me right on the spot. I ended up working there, and the owner knew Horst.
What was it like meeting Horst?
The owner had called Horst to come in and do a hair cutting seminar in the salon. I had just gotten a promotion to be the manager, and I was in the process of opening a skin care and makeup department. This was all before Aveda, and Horst said he needed a makeup artist to finish his models. The minute we met, we worked together. We found out we were both from Austria, so we had that connection. He started out his seminar talking about beauty, fashion and wellness, and when he said the word wellness, I felt a pull in my heart. I knew in that moment, I was going to work with him. What was interesting, I said work WITH him, not FOR him. I knew I wasn’t ready — you can see where you want to be, but you know you’re not there yet. Through the years, he’d come to town and he always remembered who I was.
What was next for you?
There was a point around 1982 that I had worked for the salon for about ten or eleven years. I had the opportunity to open my own place, so I moved from the suburbs to the hip, trendy east side of downtown Milwaukee. I wasn’t sure if my clientele was going to follow me — it takes a lot of courage to break away! I was looking for an apartment, too, and a girlfriend knew a guy with lots of buildings in the area. He took us to see it; we went into the shared kitchen, and there was a bathroom, plus a long hallway down the center with two rooms on either side. I said, “There’s a door at the end of the hallway, what’s that?” The woman who owned it was a hairdresser and it was her salon! It was a fully outfitted three-chair salon; it had everything. He rented it to me for $50 a month. By this time, the Aveda product line had come out, and I knew I didn’t want to work with any other line. I was one of the first Aveda concept salons and spas in Milwaukee area. Eventually I turned the whole downstairs into a salon/spa.
I don’t think many people know you did hair for so long! How did you find your way to skin care?
I was in my space, doing a guest’s hair and a voice in my head said, “You’re done doing hair.” I thought, “Yep, I’m kind of done doing hair. I’ve been doing hair 12-15 years, I mastered it as much as I wanted to.” That week, an educator named Ginger Boyle was doing a product knowledge class, so I went up to her and said, “I want to do what you’re doing.” She asked if I’d ever taught before, and I said, “No, but how hard can it be?”
She said, “We need a skincare educator at the [Horst school] in Minneapolis.” I got an interview, drove to Minneapolis and they hired me on the spot, so I moved. On my first day, I met the director at the door and she said, “I have eight students upstairs, you have four and a half months, get them licensed.”
As I was teaching, I created the Esthiology curriculum. Through my years it’s evolved and grown but it started at that point.
How long did you stay in that position?
After about a year of that, skin care started taking off in the distribution field but they needed more educators. I went on the road and everywhere I went, skin care sales increased. Because I was having success where I was going, Horst said, “We want to start our own distributorship, show them all how to do it.” I’m all about taking on a challenge, so I said, “How about Northern California and Hawaii?” I had no distribution experience, no sales experience, but I found a warehouse. Nobody told me how to set up the warehouse, so I learned as I went.
My very first shipment, the truck shows up with my first shipment and it’s three pallets. I’m standing there at the dock, and the driver goes, “Where’s your warehouse guy?” I said, “I don’t have one, I’m it.” In the same building, there was a stationery supply business and their 10-year-old son had a red wagon, so the 10-year-old boy and his wagon and I unloaded 3 pallets – that’s how that happened.
I built a sales team, started the distribution, turned it into something successful. Horst said, “Helga, we have someone who wants to buy this, but since you built it, we want to give you the option.” It wasn’t really my passion, so I moved back to Minneapolis and I’ve been here ever since.
When you look back, what’s the most memorable event of your career?
I had heard that the first destination spa in India was taking on the Aveda products, and I’d heard through the grapevine they were going to be sending trainers from London. I was a little disappointed because I have a connection with India — I’d been there in 1983, and Horst went back to India every year. I felt a strong, soulful connection.
I had a talk with myself and said, “If you were meant to go, you’d be going. There’s some reason you’re not aware of … let it go, if it’s meant to be, it will be.”
A year later, I got a call from the Education Team lead and she said, “Helga, is your passport current? We need you to go to India!” I wasn’t sure what the future was going to be like, so I thought, “Let me go to India and see if I can get a clear vision for the next thing for me.”
The spa was in the Himalayan foothills, with a small staff of about 200. I did the training, but they didn’t have a spa director. I felt a tug at my heart — maybe this was my next thing! I went back to my room, did some meditation and contemplation, and then I told the General Manager I thought I might be interested, but I had never run a spa before. It was a huge undertaking. She said, “We’ll teach you whatever you need.”
I said, “The one person I need to talk to is Horst. If I get his blessing, it would be good.” He wasn’t excited. He said, “You don’t want to leave Aveda!” I said, “Well, if I could work for both, that would be awesome.” I wrote a proposal, a three-year plan talking about how we could bring the network there to train, bring in international media and show where Aveda was born, and I found myself in June of 2001 moving to India, once again asking myself, “How did I get here?”
Tell us about India.
I showed up at 6:30 AM for my first day. One of the massage therapists who was setting up the poolside came running in huffing and puffing, yelling “Madam! Madam! There are monkeys in the Jacuzzi!”
In my mind, I was frozen for a moment, leafing through an imaginary book for spa directors, looking for something on monkeys in the Jacuzzi. What do we do? I’m a girl from Minneapolis, what do I know about monkeys in the Jacuzzi? It was happening day after day after day – we’d have to empty it, drain it, sanitize it, fill it up again.
There was one monkey who was the lookout, so he’d watch Kenneth [the massage therapist] and then he’d signal the rest. There were two types of monkeys at the spa, and we discovered the Jacuzzi jumpers were afraid of the other kind. The security guard would put his pet monkey on duty to prevent them from jumping in. That’s how we figured it out! And that’s how my first day started there.
I was there for a year, and it was life-changing to say the least. I would go back every year for the next 10 years. While there, I worked closely with [Aveda’s Ayurvedic guides] the Drs Uphadyay. Part of my job wasn’t only to be a spa director, but to work with the Uphadyays to use it as a “live lab” as well.
After I returned, I took a three-month sabbatical to go back and travel, and I got my yoga certification. Because of that, I’ve taken people to India for sabbaticals and retreats.
Can you tell me a little about the products you’ve had a hand in creating during your time with Aveda?
Most toners at that time were alcohol-based, so the Skin Toning Firming Agent was my idea, it’s alcohol-free.
I also developed the Intensive Hydrating and Deep Herbal masques. I wanted two masques that worked in five minutes or less that everyone could use. I also helped create the Tulasāra Concentrates. We needed high performance, targeted treatment products for the skin.
What are you proudest of?
The esthiology curriculum – it’s the basis of our program taught in all of our Institutes. That’s been my life’s work and I think that’s my legacy. I don’t take sole credit for it; it’s a combination of all the people who have partnered with me and added their gifts and passion, and we work together to create the best of the best. It’s always living and breathing, never stagnant. It’s always evolving and that makes me really happy.
I’ve been in the industry for over 47 years and with Aveda for over 33, so for me to be as excited as I am says something. I’m always trying to look through a new set of eyes, a new lens.
What keeps you inspired?
Everything! I do a lot of reading and studying. Nature inspires me, as does my continual questioning, thinking “How can I do it differently? How can I elevate this?” Challenging my own thinking inspires me. Every year I have to figure out, how can I make things exciting for our network of artists, salons and spas?
What’s the biggest lesson you learned from Horst?
Fight for what you want. Speak up. He always spoke up. He didn’t care if he was popular or not. He was on his mission and nothing would deter him from that — that’s true leadership. He never wanted to be a “me too,” and that stayed with me.
Why Aveda? Why have you been with the brand so long?
I love it. I made a commitment to Horst. When he hired me, he said, “Helga, I’ll do hair and you do skin,” and it was really like that. He really let me guide and lead the skin care for many years. We would work together. There wasn’t a skin care meeting that didn’t have me there. He had a sense of respect for my work and he trusted me. I feel with Tulasāra, I’ve really kept that promise to him, and we now have a skincare line that is so phenomenal. As long as I feel I can contribute and I’m still growing and can inspire and impact people, there’s no need for me to go anyplace else. I continue to grow, and I hopefully inspire and challenge those that I lead to grow. I still have lots more ideas. I look forward to what’s next.