Made in New England Series: Beth Hopkins of Shamanuti
Growing up in a gardener’s cottage in Bernardsville, New Jersey, Beth Hopkins became dazzled by Mother Nature early on. In fact, when she was just five years old, she began concocting floral waters made from violets and lilacs to sell to the local community. Little did she know that years later her childhood craft would lead to the start of Shamanuti, a buzzing natural beauty brand utilizing plant-based ingredients from nature. We spent some time with their founder Beth to chat about finding joy in your beauty routine, how the seasons in New England have played a huge role in product development, and her inspiration from the Japanese culture.
RK: What made you start your brand? How did you first get the idea?
B.H: It was really out of curiosity, a passing conversation that led to this deeper question of what’s missing from skincare that leaves it a little lackluster to my taste. I was immersed in aesthetic appraisal, and fashion has always been an inspiration, and of course nature. When I started thinking about beauty, I felt that the ingredients were alienating and I didn’t relate to them; they didn’t evoke a deeper connection. It felt like skincare was kind of a chore. This led to a deeper investigation and it really started to snowball from there.
I grew up in the Garden State, which also played a big part. But I did not set out to start a skincare company. It just organically unfolded and evolved, and it’s been great to connect with that appreciation for nature. What a gift it is to be able to have that reflected in a brand, and something you can capture in a bottle!
Where did your passion for natural beauty come from?
I come from a long line of naturalists! For instance, my dad is a consultant for an an international organization that promotes safe farming and good pollination practices. I grew up in a gardener’s cottage in Bernardsville, New Jersey on this amazing estate and there was a whole field of Lily of the Valley. There was also an orchard, herb garden, and an asparagus patch. My room was literally attached to this prize-winning orchid greenhouse and it just has that “vibe!” I was thinking of my first gig when I was five years old. I would make these beautiful floral waters with my cousin and I would always wait until the violets and lilacs bloomed, and they would actually turn out really beautiful. We’d sell them to people who lived in the community and friends of my grandparents. It’s so fantastic for it to come full circle back to some really great childhood memories. I think it’s important to ask yourself that, “What made you happiest as a kid?”
On the other hand, I’m definitely a foodie and care about careful preparation and I find it such a sensual pleasure. It’s sort of the “sexy science.”
RK: Tell me about the name Shamanuti!
B.H: I love that different people have read different meaning into the name. It’s a made up word reflecting a respectful nod to the Native American traditions and the Shaman meeting point between the natural world and the spiritual world. It’s that meeting place between the aesthetic of beauty and real beauty of the Earth. Shaman literally means health, and “uti” is Latin for utility, so usefulness. In my early research it was fascinating how the use of beauty was about practical use.
The joy factor is very important in this brand as well. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed in the natural beauty space and I really want to stay away from it being a fear-based decision. There should be joy in your products, and I believe in good ingredients. It’s really nice to have a product that you’re excited to use and want to use up!
RK: How did it all begin? What was the first thing you did when starting off?
B.H: For me, it was this in depth inquiry. In my work as an art and antique dealer, you really drill down on what something is made out of and you put it into a context. Part of my initial process was looking at everything that was out there. What was available that was natural? What ingredients have been used for the longest time throughout history for the greatest benefit, and why ? Seaweed and charcoal really stood out to me in that research. And then you open up the whole realm of the botanicals which is an amazing world in itself – from the medicinal use to where the topicals started to show up.
So I asked, “What’s it going to be made out of and why?” The research was the first part, then I mixed up some prototypes and discovered the leaders in preservation. I also asked a lot of questions, and talked to as many different people about it as possible. Four or five years ago this conversation was so different, and it’s been beautiful to see people embracing natural beauty.
R.K: What did you have to learn the hard way?
B.H: There was a little naivete and I took some things a bit for granted. Wearing so many hats, you want to be excellent at everything but we all have strengths and weaknesses. As for scaling, you want growth but at what cost? I’ve had to navigate all of those issues, but it’s all good problems to have. It forces you to really appraise what’s right for you, and it’s important to have a very strong sense of self.
And stay true to the vision! I’ve had to really remind myself of that, so it’s helpful to have a company mantra to return to. Sometimes you have to take a financial step backward to maintain integrity. It’s funny to get sucked into your own sense of defining success. I think I underestimated a little bit how vigilant you have to be on every different facet of the operation.
R.K: How do you source your ingredients?
B.H: Within the industry, there is a lot out there and it’s a matter of research. There is such a broad spectrum even for instance cocoa butter…there’s a huge difference in the variety of cocoa butter out there. I’d equate it to a beer-maker or a commercial chef making bread; they’re going to look for the highest quality ingredients and that’s what we do as well.
We have our preferred sources who we can rely on, and we try to vet ingredients prior to batching which is really important. We attend supply shows that you can go and see what’s out there. For me, it’s tapping into the resources like American Botanical Society, Medicines of the Earth, and other holistic practitioners in this space.
The best part is you can feel good about using these ingredients. Your skin really does respond to clean ingredients differently. As an art dealer, I’ve had to ask,“What are the materials and how well are those materials put together to achieve an effect?” so there’s a surprising amount of parallel between the two fields.
R.K: What’s your favorite product or one you think everyone should have in their beauty cabinet?
B.H: Certainly the Activated Charcoal by virtue of being one of the first products! It’s so versatile and good for so many different skin types. Right now I’m obsessed with the Chamomile Cucumber Eye Gel for allergy season. It’s so soothing and takes that irritation away. It’s magic! That’s the beauty of something like a great cup of tea; when something really delivers you’re like “Thank you.” Its subtle, but its profound. We’ve also introduced a Verbena Scrub that’s completely delicious. They each have their virtues!
RK: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
In New England, there is this real engagement with the outdoors which is somewhat unique. I love the change of seasons and for someone like myself who is so affected by my environment, it’s a wonderful place to draw inspiration.
We have such a startup culture, and there seems to be a lot of support for entrepreneurs and a real enterprising spirit which reflects the New England character. We are hearty souls and as darling as Shamanuti is, being a startup is not for the faint of heart. New England represents that perseverance; we endure the winters and it makes the spring all the sweeter. Also, there are so many places to learn from, and the research is getting tested and challenged as well; you’ve got to really know what you’re doing and you earn your expertise. There is a premium put on education and the inquiry is very much supported here. I really feel that making natural products and elevating peoples understanding of ingredients is helping make connoisseurs out of customers!
R.K: What would you love to see in the New England wellness scene that you don’t now?
B.H: I’ve been really proud of how collaborative and supportive the community has been overall. It’s been a wonderful way to build sisterhood for people supporting each other. I’d like to see a stronger link between the arts-creative expression in wellness. Opportunities to give as well as receive instruction as part of participation.
R.K: What other local wellness brands are you a fan of?
B.H: I’m a big fan of Candlewick Press, a small publisher of children’s books. There’s also a chocolate company out of Brooklyn, Elements Truffles, that makes an amazing Ayurveda-inspired chocolate. Some more local greats are SOFRA for spices and seasonings, Flowerfolk for teas and Karma Coffee Roasters for beans. I love supporting artisans whose furniture, fabrics, and ceramics can greatly enhance a conscious lifestyle like Peter Fasano’s hand-block fabrics.
R.K: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
B.H: It falls into two camps; there are a couple of Naturopaths whose work has been so solid and then some of my business advisers who have really helped to create structure where I was not as strong. Aesthetically, I’ve taken a lot of cues from the Japanese culture – where our kitchen cabinets have become sort of our “medicine cabinet.” Home spa is really elevating that, and so many of the Japanese traditions have translated to the aesthetic that to me feels innately American.
That being said, while I’ve had some amazing teachers, none have taught me more than my son Ford.
R.K: What’s your favorite quote to live by?
B.H: “Purity of Purpose” is a statement we use to hone our focus. We agree that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” and embrace thinking with the whole body as an important concept to live by.
R.K: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
B.H: Spa is an underutilized tool particularly in America; it sort of seems like a vanity thing. But I’d love to see that whole realm elevated into something that’s practiced as a preventative part of healthcare. Hands-on body work, facials, all of that! We are so adamant about getting to our spin class, but relaxation and attending to yourself has such a powerful implication and it’s underutilized. I’d love to have this brand help to facilitate a better holistic experience. We have a great global following, but expanding that further!
R.K: How do you maintain a work life balance?
B.H: Boundaries have been helpful, which came by necessity. If you are walking the walk and talking the talk as a wellness company, you’ve got to live it. You make time to prioritize. It’s so interesting, but when I do take the time to go on a run or spend meaningful time with my son, it really translates into better quality work. If you’re running on fumes and overextending yourself, you’re not doing yourself or your work any justice. You learn to recognize that flow! It gets easier to get back into that flow when you’re literally smelling flowers and looking at the essences that they make.
R.K: Here at The W.E.L.L. Summit we like to say “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” How would you describe your vibe?
B.H: Ha, you should ask my team that! I think I’m a pretty casual but fairly intense person. Committed. And I tend to be pretty generous. Energized in the spirit of beauty. We definitely try to tap into that and make it part of the company DNA. Beauty is an amazing tool for health, and it’s not just a vanity thing. It’s self esteem and it’s something that everybody can really take ownership of and utilize for the amazing tool that it is.
R.K: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own wellness brand?
B.H: Think it through. You want to know what your costs are going to be, look realistically at things, and know what your priorities are. As I said before, it’s not for the faint of heart. You don’t want to put yourself in financial jeopardy. Also really be sure you are so in love and interested in what you’re doing that you’re going to get energized by it! You’re going to be called upon to use every skill in your resources you never even knew you had to tap into, so be sure that you love what you’re doing!