DIG DEEPER: The Beauty Interview with Soapwalla's Founder Rachel Winard

When I first started Reed Clarke, I asked friends if they had any products from smaller brands that they were madly in love with, and a dear friend told me she was obsessed with the deodorant from Soapwalla. I bought some and instantly fell in love. Like, I cannot live without this product in my life kind of love. I had been using natural deodorants for years and simply couldn't stand them. Not only did they not work, but they made me smell weird, but I used them anyway because I find the ingredients in traditional deodorants unsavory. I just like to be mindful of what is absorbed in the skin surrounding my lymph glands, color me crazy. Now most people don't have their armpits in people's faces at work, or like, ever, but because I'm a makeup artist, I do. And I work in some pretty intense situations and in some pretty extreme weather, and I cannot be stinky. Stinky can lose you a client. So when I used the Soapwalla deodorant in New York City, in the middle of July, after getting off a red eye (and not showering or reapplying--I had showered and applied before I left LA) and I could do my job with confidence knowing I would not offend my client while applying her makeup, I knew I had a winner on my hands. And I also became obsessed and have been using this product on the daily for 3 years now. This stuff is by far one of my favorite products on the site because it seriously works, and it's a solution to a problem, which is, you know, the real point of a beauty product.

 

I really wanted to interview Rachel because:

A. I love her products.

B. I knew exactly nothing about her and I really wanted to learn more.

 

So Rachel kindly took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions and I really loved reading them and kind of wish I could ask her about a dozen more.... Maybe I'll do a follow up, who knows. Here's a picture of Rachel so you can put a face to the “voice".

Out of curiosity, what were you doing before Soapwalla? What lead you to create your own line? What was the impetuous for starting your own skincare line? Was it a dissatisfaction with what was out there? Was it a reaction to ingredients? It's a lot of work starting a line and I love to hear the stories and mythology behind the company.   

Great question! I've had several lives...I started playing the violin when I was 4 years old and became serious about it quickly. I became a professional classical violinist at the age of 12 and was sure that was going to be my lifelong career. I graduated high school early, went to Juilliard right after I turned 17, and then relatively quickly realized that it wasn't as perfect a fit for me as I thought.

I left the music world at 19, got an undergraduate degree in political theory, and ended up at Columbia Law School (long story). During my first year of law school, I got very sick. Overnight I went from being perfectly healthy to having all sorts of medical conditions crop up. It took a year, but I was finally diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus for short), a chronic autoimmune illness that has varied symptoms but nearly always affects the skin, as it’s our largest organ. Like others who suffer from lupus, I get terrible skin rashes, hives, and irritated skin patches. When it was at its worst, I could barely use water on my skin without irritation. The concept for Soapwalla was born one late night in early 2002, after months of unsuccessfully hunting for face and body products that wouldn’t aggravate my sensitive skin. I tried everything on the market I could find without any luck - and I mean everything. If the product said it was 'hypoallergenic' or 'sensitive' or 'natural' or 'organic' I bought it. And then threw it away when it made my skin feel worse.

Finally, after trying hundreds of products that ultimately went in the garbage, I decided to start making my own products that were as healthy and wholesome as possible. The product line grew from there. My guiding principle when I first started formulating and our overarching philosophy still is: The skin is our largest organ and for it to function at its best, we must feed it wholesome ingredients. If I refuse to put something in my body, I don't want to put it on my body.

I graduated law school in 2004 and practiced land use and zoning law at 2 large NYC firms for four years. In 2006 I had a health crisis – I was on chemotherapy to try to get my illness under control, with little success – and left for India for four months to see an Ayurvedic doctor in Mysore (in the state of Karnataka). We worked together every day for those 4 months and he got me feeling better than I had in years. When I returned to NYC, I knew my days at the law firm were numbered; the stress was just too much for my fragile immune system. I left the law firm in June 2008, and struggled for a year and a half to figure out what I was going to do next. During this time, friends and family gently prodded me to sell my beloved skincare products to the public. I premiered Soapwalla Dec 1, 2009, and we are in our 7th full year of business!

What was your first product? What was your second product? 

When I first started formulating, I figured I needed something to cleanse and moisturize my skin. My first two products were the Lavender French Clay Soap Bar and Restorative Face Serum. I still use these products daily.

 

Who was your first customer? 

Me! And then friends and family members, as they realized I'd become full-on obsessed about creating skincare products. My spouse likes to say that she's the "not tested on bunnies" part of our testing process. I've got a whole host of supportive people in my life who have been there for me and the company since day 1. Well, really, since way before day 1!

 

What was the company's first break? 

A couple months after Soapwalla premiered, we got some lovely and unexpected press from a blogger. Her review of our Deodorant Cream was glowing and took off. From there, we saw an immediate uptick in sales and press requests. It was incredibly lucky and amazing, and I am still so grateful to that blogger.
 

I have to ask about the name.... Like Teawalla? How did you land on the name? 

"Walla" means maker or master in Hindi. I'd already been making soap and skincare products when I went to India in 2006. When I got back a friend dubbed me the Soap Walla. I LOVED it, and knew I had to name the company that.

Image courtesy of wellroundedny.com

Image courtesy of wellroundedny.com

Was this a "I mixed it in my kitchen" and had friend put stickers on bottles kind of beginning? I feel like that's how so many lines start out. Isn't it amazing that businesses can be started from such humble beginnings?  

That's exactly right! This was seriously an "I mixed in my kitchen" start because I was using ingredients I ate each day. It's a fantastic way to learn formulation and basic business practices without a $500,000 loan hanging over your head. I feel very lucky that I was able to start the business - with a lot of trial and error - in this way.

 

It isn't often that you can say that a beauty product can be life changing, but I feel like that's the case with the Deodorant Cream... you have made an alternative to traditional deodorant that actually works.  How have you seen Soapwalla changing people's lives? 

Hand's down, it's the most amazing thing about this journey. When I receive notes or phone calls from customers who tell me how our products changed their lives, I cry. 

 

What would be your dream product to create? 

An SPF that works, is water resistant, and doesn't streak or feel chalky/splotchy!

 

What have been some of your biggest challenges, some of your biggest set backs and what have been some of your biggest successes? 

There are always challenges in this line of work - people stealing ideas, getting bullied by large conglomerates who see us as a threat, balancing our strong principles with ensuring we make a profit so we can pay our employees a living wage and continue doing what we love doing. 

But that's part of the experience, I think. We set out to change the beauty paradigm, no small task. It gets lonely and can feel overwhelming. 

The biggest success was helping to make natural deodorant more mainstream, and to make the concept of a deodorant cream a normal thing. But probably my biggest success was getting my father-in-law -- a man who doesn't believe in organic anything -- to use and even request our products!

Any advice for those who choose to walk a similar path? 

This is the unsexiest advice around, but the best thing to do: put your head down, do the work, and try not to listen too much to all the noise around you.  Also, make sure you have a good cheerleading team. You'll need friends and family to help get you through the periods of self-doubt.

 

Being your own boss has perks and unique challenges, what's your biggest take away so far? 

It's a lot of work being my own boss - and the boss of 5 others. I'm responsible for our livelihoods. BUT I wouldn't trade it for the world. I get to create things every day, things that make people feel good about themselves. That's pretty amazing, and I know how lucky I am that I get to do this.

 

A million thanks for your time Rachel, and thanks for sharing how you built your amazing company. You can follow Soapwalla on Instagram at @soapwalla,