A Mississippi mother of five grows a small, creative idea into Musee, an internationally recognized company that employs the most vulnerable members of her community.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Amanda Jones Broyles and Andrew Welch
When Leisha Pickering was a young girl, she realized a warm bath seemed to have restorative powers for her. Her mother realized it, too. When she was having a bad day or was upset about something, Pickering’s mom would tell her, “You either need a nap or a bath, or both.”
Little did Pickering know then that a bit of motherly wisdom might nudge her to create and launch a bath products company that would become one of the largest producers of bath balms in the country.
The company, Musee (pronounced muse-e) Bath, had its simple beginnings in 2012 in the kitchen of Pickering’s Ridgeland, Mississippi, home. Pickering was the mother of five sons and had been blindsided by a divorce, but the catalyst for concocting the creative enterprise was her heart for others.
After her divorce, Pickering wanted her boys — Will, Jack, Asher, Harper and Ross — to see her be strong and move forward, but there were times she found herself focusing on her pain.
“I began looking outward,” she said. “I looked around my community and focused on the pain of other people. I found that helping others helped in my own healing.”
Living on a 20-acre farm in Madison County, Pickering sometimes had people show up who needed work. She might have fences that needed fixing, mowing or other occasional jobs, but nothing sustainable for longer periods of employment.
“I got to thinking,” she said. “I wondered if I could create something handmade I could teach others to make that could be marketed. It was a simple idea. I had no thoughts at all of a company.”
With the philosophy that one should create around things you love, Pickering recalled a visit to Europe and a company that made something called bath bombs.
“I’d never seen them before,” she said. “I remember looking at them and thinking what a cool concept it was. I also remember wondering how they could be made in Mississippi. It was a fleeting thought, but it stayed in my brain.”
Then in 2012, Pickering reached out to a friend, Adam Pierce, for help in trying to make her idea a reality. Pickering, trained as a pastry chef, and Pierce took to her kitchen and put her many KitchenAid mixers to use.
“We experimented with essential oils and all natural things,” Pickering said. “It was all trial and error. I wanted them all to look and smell different.”
It was decided those first products from the kitchen would be called bath balms rather than bombs.
“Bombs are destructive; balms are restorative,” Pickering said.
As each successful bath balm was created, Pickering came up with names for each — the titles of songs. A blue, sparkly balm became “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds;” a bright purple one was aptly named “Purple Rain;” “You Are My Sunshine” fit perfectly as the name of a bright yellow bath balm.
The bath balms offered aromatherapy, moisturizer for the skin, beautifully colored water, and yet Pickering wanted to add another special touch. In the middle of each balm was a small surprise, a little treasure.
“As the water drains out of the tub, there would be this little surprise,” she said. “It would be something small to remind the person they are loved; they are special.”
The treasures found in the bath products differ from product to product. The “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” bath balm has a smiley face bouncy ball inside; “Lucy in the Sky” has a diamond-shaped treasure.
In the early days, the products were sold at farmers markets. But those are seasonal, so Pickering began looking for other ways to market the bath products.
After only a few weeks of making a massive mess in her kitchen, Pickering moved the making of bath balms to a small house in Flora. Because the creative enterprise continued to grow, Pickering kept moving the business to larger places. In December 2017, she purchased a 60,000-square-foot facility on 8 acres in Canton, where about 50 full-time employees now make all Musee Bath products.
The mission of Musee is to offer a place of employment for the vulnerable in the community. Remember, it’s the mission that moved Pickering to action in the first place.
“We identified several populations of vulnerable in our community,” she said. “Women who’ve been released from prison, because with a felony it is impossible for them to find a job; those with a background of substance abuse; those with disabilities; and those who’ve grown up in chronic poverty.”
Musee partnered with Crossroads Ministry which provides counseling and a place to live while Musee provides a safe and loving place to work.
Pickering can share many stories about employees whose experiences at Musee have been life-changing.
Julie had been in and out of prison, and she had lost custody of her four children. She started at Musee five or six years ago making bath balms, but when the company needed a new receptionist, Julie filled in and eventually became office manager and now purchasing director. She got her children back, got married, has a home and a changed life.
Georgia was a heroin addict, but she’s now drug free and is assistant to the sales director.
Peyton is autistic. In high school, he did a presentation in which he said his dream was to work at Musee. He interviewed and has been with the company full time for five years now. Pickering said he’s an essential part of the Musee family, and if he is absent from work, everyone misses him.
Five or six years ago, a single mother of three working for Musee was trying to put herself through school. Her car was repossessed while at work. Musee bought her a car, allowed her to pay a little each week with no interest. It gave Musee a dependable employee able to get to work, and it gave her a way to get her kids to school.
Another single mother lived where there was gang violence. Her house and car were targeted and shot. Mother and children were frightened. Musee sent a moving van, put her things in storage and put her up in a hotel until she found long-term housing in a safer area.
“The stories are not always like that; it takes a great desire on the part of each person. We can’t do it for them, but we can help,” Pickering said. “But it’s such a gift to be a part of it — to look beyond a person’s past and see beauty and potential, and help them to see it as well.”
Today, the line of bath products has expanded from the original bath balms. There are soaps, candles, lotions and shower steamers. And if there is anything at Musee that equals the high quality and creativity of its products, it’s the packaging.
The unique packaging is created by designer Amanda Jones Broyles and Pickering. There are colorful boxes and labels for Christmas and other holidays. A recent series titled Women of Change features the creative likenesses of five inspiring women: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo and Maya Angelou.
“The beauty and uniqueness of our packaging adds depth to who we are,” Pickering said.
At some point along the journey, Pickering had realized that the business, co-owned by Pierce, needed a name.
“When my son Harper was a little boy, I told him he was my musee,” she said. “It was just a little term of endearment I came up with, but when he was older, he didn’t want to be called that anymore.
“But when he was 14, I asked for help coming up with a name for the business. He said I could name it after him. Of course, what he meant was Harper Pickering Bath Balm Co. When he realized I meant Musee, he laughed and walked away. But Musee sounds cool and organic, the Muses were associated with water and some with song. We created bath balms with song names. Musee just made sense.”
While Musee from beginning to now is certainly a large part of Pickering’s story, she is adamant that she had much help. The Ole Miss graduate is quick to share her truth: She took absolutely no business classes at Ole Miss. Nor did she have a great business model.
“We created our own by thinking out of the box,” she said. “So many people helped make this happen. Musee is like a family, where everyone is essential and has great value.
“This has been a beautiful, unexpected journey. You can have a challenge in life, but you can still have a beautiful story. You just have to pivot and know that you get to help write the ending.”
More About Musee
In November 2022, Musee’s Words of Encouragement soap bars, each stamped with an encouraging word such as Courage or Love, were chosen for Oprah’s Favorite Things list. It wasn’t a first. Musee’s Women of Change bath balm bundles were named one of Oprah’s favorites in 2021.
Musee bath products have been featured in The Oprah Magazine, Vogue, Elle, Allure, and on the “Today” show, “The View” and “Rachel Ray.”
Musee products are cruelty-free, paraben-free, sulfate-free and are safe for all skin types.
Musee Bath products may be found at Oxford Floral in Oxford and Elizabeth Clair’s in Tupelo. Or order online from museebath.com