The philanthropist and pioneer in the cosmetics industry passed away Nov. 23.
Flori Roberts was always ahead of her time.
The Sarasota philanthropist wore many hats throughout her life and wore them well. She was a successful businesswoman in a time when women were rarely prominent in industry. She was one of the grande dames of Sarasota’s philanthropic community — a grandiose performer who loved the limelight. She was a loving parent, doting grandmother and, for many, a good friend.
After decades of pioneering and making the most of life, Roberts died on Monday, Nov. 23. She was 91.
Roberts was larger than life, though she was small in stature. The cosmetics industry icon who established an enduring makeup company producing a high-quality line of products for women of color had a lasting legacy well before she moved to Longboat Key in 2003.
“Up to then, there was nothing that wasn’t patronizing,” her son, Bruce Roberts said. “Her vision of the line was it would make no compromises in quality or sophistication while still being very much proudly targeted to Black women.”
She was committed to her company even as she raised her two children, Doug Roberts and Bruce Roberts, with her husband Dr. Craig Roberts in Deal, N.J. Though she was more the type to be traveling for work than organizing the school bake sale, Doug Roberts said her professional and personal life never clashed. She was always home for dinner and spent the weekends with her family, and they were a tight-knit group as a result.
She and her husband sold Flori Roberts Inc. in 1993.
“She mentored a lot of women, particularly Black women, and it seems like she continued that even after she retired as well and was an icon for a lot of people,” Doug Roberts said.
Molly Schechter, a colleague in the fundraising scene, admired her hard-earned fortunes and business acumen as being hard to come by for women — especially in the era in which she grew up.
“She had not one, but multiple successful businesses,” Schechter said. “She thought like a businesswoman, acted like a businesswoman and approached philanthropy like a businesswoman. That was very unusual in this community.”
Her need to help underserved communities carried over to Sarasota, where she threw herself into the work supporting nonprofits. Some local figures donate widely, but Roberts preferred to focus her generosity on a handful of groups, particularly those in the arts and in the human services field helping minority groups. In her time she was closely involved with the YMCA Foundation of Sarasota, Asolo Repertory Theatre, the American Jewish Committee and others.
Brian Lipton, director of AJC West Coast Florida, first knew of Roberts from her makeup and cosmetic items — his mother always wore the Roberts dark shade of lipstick. He grew close to her during her time as an AJC board member. In time, he considered her a mentor.
“For a little person she packed a huge package of style, energy and personality,” Lipton said. “... She had so many life lessons — not gossiping, always look your best, always have a smile for people.
She was known to make a fashion statement when attending the various fundraisers and functions across Sarasota — Lipton said she had a new wardrobe for every season that, when combined with her sparkling blue eyes, lit up a room.
Her performer’s spirit paired well with the philanthropic scene’s grandiose atmosphere. Well before she was a staple in the business world, Roberts, a native of Brooklyn, was an enthusiastic stage actress after studying drama at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. One of her fond Broadway memories was performing in the popular “Lend an Ear” revue as Carol Channing’s understudy. When Channing stepped out of the role, it was Roberts who took over on stage.
It was no surprise when she soon became involved with supporting Asolo Repertory Theatre upon her arrival in Sarasota.
Something her children admire most about Roberts is how she never really stopped growing. From launching a makeup business for women of color in the ’60s to keeping on top of developing technologies and social media, she always wanted to see what was ahead.
Life was good, and she wanted to make the most of it.
“She was human, but she would just keep moving forward, and I think that’s what she really would want for us as well,” Bruce said. “... She didn’t look necessarily at her death as an end but just as another step in moving forward.”
Roberts is survived by her children Doug Roberts and Bruce Roberts, and her grandchildren Elizabeth, Alex, Jenna, Daniella and Cecilia. A celebration of her life is planned for the future.