THE TRAILBLAZER:

Women Leaders

2021

Mia Saini

It wouldn’t be a miscalculation if we say that the beauty industry has been overwhelmingly focused on women's skincare in comparison to men. Except for basic grooming and hair styling products, there are hardly any male-oriented brands striving to fulfill their skincare needs. Based on a brief overview of the market value, the skincare industry is projected to reach $139 billion in 2021 and as of now, men contribute less than 10% to this stunning figure. However, for the past few years, factors such as rising disposable personal income, growth of global distribution channels and ultimately increasing self-awareness in men surrounding skin health have been shoring up the demand for male-specific products worldwide. One of the few existing brands looking after the discerning needs of men is Oars + Alps, founded by Mia Saini Duchnowski and her co-founder Laura Lisowski Cox after they realized their outdoorsy husbands have been using their products to protect their skin from damage against the sun, sweat, wind, and pollution along with the dirt and grime of daily life. To dig deeper into the story behind this venture and how it is redefining the men’s skincare with its powerful product line based on all-natural ingredients, we sat down with Mia Saini, and here’s what she has to say.

Aspioneer (A): Please share with us a little bit about your past experiences that prepared you for the position you are at today. Most importantly, what was your inspiration behind this venture?

Mia Saini (M): “Starting a company wasn’t what I said when I was young and I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Nonetheless, I started a company in 2015, Oars + Alps- a men’s skincare brand designed for guys who lead a very active on the go lifestyle. The genesis for the brand was intensely personal. The idea came to me when I was a TV Anchor and Reporter for Bloomberg TV. I had access to lots of skincare products and my husband who is not a metrosexual and not your average Joe, was always using my products. I told him to get his own, but there were hardly any options to choose from. You see, his grandfather had skin cancer. His father had skin cancer. He assumed that using the products on my side of the bathroom would help him minimize the risk. So, I quit my job at Bloomberg TV to launch the brand that my husband would buy, offered to him in a way that he would buy it. My mission was and is to reduce the mortality rate of skin cancer among men and to educate men about this very important way that they should be taking care of themselves.”

(A): Although this gap in the beauty industry is quite noticeable, only a few are motivated or equipped to actually do something about it. How do you propose your brand will make a difference?

(M): “Our motto is ‘Take to the oars.’ It is derived from the Latin Proverb: ‘If the wind will not serve, take to oars.’ It essentially means- use your inner strength to continue to preserve and don’t wait for the wind to help you out! I’m paranoid about making sure every customer is happy and really enjoys the products. That starts with product development which I am very involved with. After extensive research funded by our own money, the company raised $1.3 million in seed funding and grew consistently over the years. We cultivated Oars + Alps into becoming a brand at the forefront of the men’s natural skincare revolution.”

I feel like so much about entrepreneurship is a performance in the moment and storytelling. It's been critical to my journey. I do not accept “No” for an answer. When someone says “no” to me. It means no for right now not no forever. Persistence and resilience are really important.”

(A): Starting in 2015, how have you used your learnings as a Harvard MBA, a double major from MIT in neuroscience and media studies, and a double minor in civil engineering and management science in addition to your professional experience in the TV industry to shape Oars + Alps’ future as per your mission? And are there any defining moments that you would like to share with us?

(M): “I’ve learned a little bit about a lot of subjects which has allowed me to have a different point of view. Trust me when I tell you, that I never thought being on TV would help me the most with being an entrepreneur. Sitting in a room of Target buyers, and you're just one person. It's a different kind of performance. I feel like so much about entrepreneurship is a performance in the moment and storytelling. It's been critical to my journey. I do not accept “No” for an answer. When someone says “no” to me. It means no for right now not no forever. Persistence and resilience are really important.”

“At the end of the day, I’m cognizant that we are a consumer products company headquartered out of Chicago, where there aren’t many skincare or consumer product companies. This is a challenge because a lot of the beauty industry is on the coasts and thus, there is a lot of information circling in those circles (press/investor access/other CEOs/etc.). To overcome this, we spend a lot of time pre-COVID traveling to the coasts and in-COVID networking with like-minded brands. There is a lot of shared learnings that apply to us all: saving on shipping, customer retention, branding, etc.”

“As for the defining moments, a highlight is when we signed on DeAndre Hopkins from the Arizona Cardinals. He reached out to us and said he loved our skincare products. He is currently a Brand Partner. Another highlight is when we quickly pivoted in early March 2020 to use our extensive manufacturing relationships to secure hand sanitizers for our customers. We never had it in our 2020 product pipeline to do something like this, but we quickly pivoted.”

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(A): As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career? How did you overcome it?

(M): “So, what did I have going for me that I leaned on? They weren’t things that I would necessarily brag about to friends, or highlight on a resume, or even tell an investor. But I realized that I had some attributes going for me that actually made me more successful. And these attributes weren’t obvious. I’m a working mom. I have four kids and am pregnant with my fifth child. I don’t think this is a barrier, but am hyper-aware that the perception may very well be that I have other priorities. And while that is true, that doesn’t mean that I don’t focus on my job at hand. I think moms are some of the best multitaskers out there! We are always in sales mode. We are true masters of negotiation. I mean, which is harder: Calming a 3-year-old down from a tantrum in public because you won’t let them drive the car or selling a retailer like Target to stock your products? Most importantly, we know our priorities and know which battles to fight to win the war. Building a company is extremely hard. You need to constantly justify the huge time and effort to yourself and your family.”

Our motto is ‘Take to the oars.’ It is derived from the Latin Proverb: ‘If the wind will not serve, take to oars.’ It essentially means- use your inner strength to continue to preserve and don’t wait for the wind to help you out!

(A): What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader? What is next in your life? What do you hope your legacy will be and what would you like other ambitious women to know about how best to move their careers forward?

(M): “I’m learning to trust that I’ve built a great brand with my co-founder and the next phase for me is not to run it but to find the right team to handle the day-to-day. Besides business, I’m on the Auxiliary Board of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and I actively interview for my alma mater, MIT.”

“For the generation of women behind me, I would say- Demand a seat at the table. The decisions are still being made by men (hiring, strategy, finance). Get a seat at the table. To do that, you have to put yourself in positions where you are the minority in terms of numbers. Also, you are the limiting factor in your success. Doubt is not a productive strategy. It’s better to invest in hope. If you don’t believe in yourself, should others?”

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