We met Akshata Nayak, scientist turned small-business owner and creator of natural skin-products line The Orange Owl, when we were at the Expo West natural-products trade show last month. We were immediately taken with her intelligence and her enthusiasm for making simple, eco-friendly versions of everyday products, and we’ve become addicted to the cinnamon-and-cardamom lip balm that she sent us home with. Here’s how she turned a passion for natural ingredients into a business.
Have you always wanted to have your own business?
If, a few years ago, you had asked me if I wanted to be a businesswoman, I would have said no. Emphatically. I was busy earning my master of science degrees in biochemistry and applied clinical nutrition, and being a lab rat in general. However, if I really think back on it, the idea for The Orange Owl took root in my mind soon after I moved to the U.S. for my graduate education. It just needed a few years to blossom into the company it is now.
Tell us a little about how The Orange Owl came to be.
Ingredients and deciphering labels—that’s what got me motivated. People say that you need a degree in chemistry to understand or even read the labels on products that we use every day in our lives—this applies to food, cosmetics, bath products, everything. Unfortunately, it’s sort of true. Fortunately, I had that degree. It bothered me that chemicals required for my research experiments in the laboratory were found in most of the products that I used on a regular basis. Once I noticed this, there was no going back.
Why specifically natural skin-care products? Did you have an “aha!” moment?
The first product that I ever made was a lovely ginger-infused soap for a final project at school while earning my masters in applied clinical nutrition. Our professor for pharmacognosy asked us to make something out of herbs. I decided to give traditional soap-making a go. It was a huge hit and earned me an A to boot! I gave some away as gifts and got many requests for more. That was the “aha!” moment where I thought I could turn this into something more than just a good-smelling hobby.
Once I started doing a little research and digging around to see what all-natural products were out there on the market, I realized that “all-natural” is probably one of the most abused phrases in the skin-care industry. Many harmful ingredients, even chemicals, are allowed in formulations that are labeled all-natural. Knowing that our skin is the largest organ in our body and that it absorbs almost everything it comes in contact with led me to focus on creating skin-care products—soaps, lip balms, body creams, bath soaks, and scrubs—made from botanicals and nourishing oils.
Once I had a sense of what ingredients I wanted to work with, I went a little crazy formulating recipes. If this conjures up an image of a mad scientist with her hair in disarray playing with glassware and colorful liquids while chuckling to herself, that’s about right!
What’s behind the name?
I like to think of The Orange Owl as the bright and wise choice! It’s a fun brand offering common sense and simple solutions to complicated situations we find ourselves in. Getting back to the basics without compromising on quality or the environment is our mantra.
How has your science background helped you with your business?
My educational background has helped in a number of ways. During the seven years that I spent working in laboratories, I worked in the fields of toxicology, immunology, and neuroscience. In addition to providing me with a good understanding of chemicals and other toxins, this also helped me tremendously in formulating recipes and designing protocols that can be easily scaled to meet any requirements. Most important, it gave me the ability to conduct in-depth analytical research on all the ingredients I use to ensure that the recipes are effective, with no harmful side effects.
Tell us a little about your making process—the ingredients that you use and how you source them.
Our ingredients are sourced from companies based in the U.S.; however, obviously some of the ingredients have to be imported. We have done extensive research to ensure that everything is sourced from vendors that believe in minimal processing and have eco-friendly practices. For example, one of the most common scents I am asked about is sandalwood. I’m South Indian, so sandalwood oils and fragrances were a big part of my childhood. However, I did not formulate any recipe to include it for three reasons—one, there is no sustainable way to harvest the oil; two, true sandalwood is a threatened species; and three, the fragrances out there, like all blends, are a mix of chemicals made to smell like the real thing. There are absolutely no added harmful chemicals in our formulations—no parabens, dyes, silicones, phthalates, sulfates, fragrance oils, or petroleum products. The recipes are straightforward; we are not trying to score points by hitting all the buzzwords. Fads will come and go. We believe that in most cases the simplest solution is the best answer.
Do you work with any special or unusual tools or equipment?
My customers always tell me that The Orange Owl products look and smell good enough to eat. I guess it is fitting then that we use a lot of professional kitchen gear to make the products—giant stand mixers, spatulas, pots, and pans are what you will find in our studios. We are currently excited about expanding into a larger production facility to meet the demand for The Orange Owl eco-luxury products.
Your website mentions that a percentage of profits from sales goes to The Schooling Project—what’s that?
I remember my grandfather saying that education can make the biggest difference in an individual’s life, and my family has always helped support schooling for kids who could not afford it themselves. When The Orange Owl was established, I wanted to carry that idea forward.
In a country with a big social divide, such as India, underprivileged kids who drop out of school work on the streets and fend for themselves. I know some fabulous people who are working very hard to change this trend. The Schooling Project is an organization based in Bangalore, India, that works to amend this problem in one simple way—it locates donors to support the education of underprivileged children who want to stay in school but don’t have the means necessary. The funds collected are transferred directly to the schools, cutting out all the middlemen and commissions. In addition to keeping them in school on the weekdays, it organizes lovely workshops for the kids on weekends and holidays to expose them to new trades and emerging ideas. I hope to attend or even host a workshop with them the next time I am in Bangalore. Fingers crossed!
Knowing the team personally and having worked with them over the past few years, The Orange Owl is very proud to be associated with The Schooling Project. Five percent of every sale is donated to them, and from the sales of last year, we are supporting four kids for three full years of education.
What inspires you?
Every product that I make has its own story, and that makes each one special. For me, food has been a huge inspiration. (I also work as a nutritionist at Alternative Roots Wellness Center, which I established with my husband in Vermont, so food is a big part of my world.) The Orange Owl’s Summer Sorbet body scrub was inspired by a crème brulee I ate at a restaurant some years ago. Neembu Paani (literal translation: “lemon water”) soap is based on my memories of India in the summer and the cardamom-spiced lemonade that we drank to cool off. My closest friend makes the world’s best masala chai (literal translation: “spice tea”), which inspired its namesake soap. Also, having lived in New England for most of my 10 years in this country, I’m very much inspired by the outdoors. I have my husband to thank for introducing me to this fascinating world—all those fabulous smells, textures, and experiences got distilled down to his favorite Walk in the Woods soap.
Tell us a bit about your studio. Where is it? How’s it set up?
The Orange Owl studio is in Essex Junction, Vermont. What started out as a small project in a corner of a basement has now expanded enough that we are looking for a larger production space. As I mentioned previously, it is set up as a professional kitchen, with multiple workstations for all the products we offer. We are careful about cross-contamination and are hoping that in addition to being vegan, The Orange Owl will be a gluten-free and nut-oil-free company by the end of the year. The main idea is to be a company that is inclusive rather than exclusive of people with allergies and sensitivities.
What’s the best thing about being a small-business owner? The scariest thing?
The journey of seeing an idea grow into a business has been the best experience of my life so far. The independence that comes with making decisions based on your convictions and philosophies is invigorating. The Orange Owl is an extension of me—I established a business that I would personally love to buy from, and it is exciting to hear from customers who believe in the same ideals. There are many ups and downs, especially in the financial environment we find ourselves currently in. Small businesses are the most vulnerable to national economic swings, and that is the most frustrating aspect of starting your own business. Patience and confidence have to be your best friends!
Any advice you’d like to give others who are thinking about starting a business?
The Orange Owl is still very young, and most of what I have learned has come from other people’s experiences. When I started out, I wanted to venture in many different directions for a huge line of products. I learned very quickly that just as with research, you have to be focused and know what your goals are. My father, a successful businessman, always reminds me: Dream big. Plan for the best and always prepare for the worst. I am learning how to do this every day!
What’s on the horizon?
2013 is going to be an exciting year for The Orange Owl! As mentioned, we hope to become a gluten- and nut-oil-free company by the end of the year. We are also working on some fabulous travel kits, so that you can carry The Owl wherever you go. You can connect with us on Facebook and Twitter to stay updated on all these events.
To learn more about The Orange Owl and to get your hands on some of its products, visit theorangeowlshop.com.