Women We’re Watching: Rachel Winard of Soapwalla
Rachel Winard is the founder of Soapwalla Kitchen, an all-natural vegan skincare brand based in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Beloved for its best-selling natural deodorant and products for even the most sensitive skin, Soapwalla enjoys a global cult following. Rachel’s commitment to using only pure ingredients, making formulas in-house by hand and her tireless activism make her a woman we’re watching.
Your journey to making skincare is a fascinating one! For those readers who are unfamiliar with your trajectory, tell us how you came to found Soapwalla.
I was a very serious violinist from an early age, and I attended The Juilliard School at 17. After two years, I realized that becoming a professional musician was no longer something I wanted to pursue, so I left and got my undergraduate degree in political theory; I then decided to get my law degree at Columbia Law School. During my first year, my health took a sharp turn. After another year of testing, I was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic autoimmune illness that often affects the skin.
My body was essentially attacking itself, and that resulted in reactive skin: rashes, hives, sensitivity to sunlight and horrible irritation. Everything I tried to use—all marketed to sensitive skin types—only irritated it more, so I finally started experimenting and making my own products that my skin could not only tolerate, but that it loved! I was in the throes of working at a law firm when my lupus became so severe, I needed chemotherapy to get it under control.
In 2006, I made the life-changing decision to study Ayurvedic medicine alongside a doctor in India for four months, and I began to heal. When I returned to New York, I knew I had to change my lifestyle. I left the law firm in June of 2008, and on December 1, 2009, I launched Soapwalla Kitchen with the same products I had created for my very sensitive skin!
Soapwalla has enjoyed impressive success, both as an editorial darling and as a cult-favorite brand across the globe—including throughout Europe, Australia and the Middle East. How have you managed to scale successfully while still making everything by hand in your Gowanus, Brooklyn studio?
That’s the eternal challenge! Part of it is that I chose to grow organically from day one—I chose to not pursue big box retail or traditional production methods. We’ve been in the black since day one. I started really, really small because I wanted the business to be able to sustain itself. We’ve never had a loan or investors, and we didn’t go after accounts that, while are often measures of success, would have put a lot of strain on us. I wanted this to be a fun and sustaining project.
In the more than nine years we’ve been in business, we’ve learned a lot about scaling. It’s a continual thing to think about; it’s always on my mind. Because we use only natural ingredients, we don’t have the luxury of calling a lab and asking them to manufacture “x” for us with “x” ingredients; we’re beautifully beholden to climate, season, draught. We had a period where there was a worldwide jojoba shortage and after that, shea butter. That taught me to have multiple suppliers so I don’t put too much pressure on one supplier, but also so that we’re covered, no matter what. The flip side of making things in house is that because we know the formulas inside and out, we can sub out an ingredient if we need to.
You’re a queer person running a business in an industry that is still very much marketed toward heteronormativity and a very narrow definition of beauty. How has that informed how you run Soapwalla?
In every possible way! On a cellular level, actually. Since day one, the brand has been unisex; our demographic is if you have skin, you can use our products. There are always certain skin issues that need to be addressed, but they can be without addressing them in highly gendered terms. We don’t use models for that reason: I want you to envision you using our products. The products stand for themselves, and we want you to have your own experience with them.
Not only are we a queer-owned company, but I’m a female business owner in a male-dominated industry. That’s a surprise to many people, but more than 90 percent of personal care and beauty companies are run by men. We’ve structured the business so differently; our bottom dollar is not the bottom dollar. We have a set of principles that guide every decision we make. While we are profitable and we’ve been in the black since day one, I think that’s played a large part in how I’ve structured that company.
Profits are not my driving force. We measure success in many different ways: client happiness, employee happiness, quality of life, environmental footprint, in working with suppliers who share our dedication, and also putting out thoughts and ideals that make people feel better about themselves, not worse. I never want anything I do or Soapwalla does to make someone feel bad about themselves.
Activism is a very large part of your business. What advice would you give other business owners who feel very strongly about current events, but are afraid to mix their business with political activism?
Well, I will say this: Being an activist really does put you out there. I get a lot of hate mail. If you choose your business platform to have a political stance, you’ll reap amazing benefits— but it will come at a cost. If you feel hesitant or shy about using your business as a vocal platform, you can always donate money to a cause you believe in. Maybe one month, you support one cause, and 10 percent of your proceeds will go towards that. Or you can give your workers paid time off to protest, which we do. You can write an op-ed piece on something you care about. There are so many ways to be politically engaged. I decided to use our platform to discuss political matters, but that’s not for everyone, and I understand that. Find your avenue, and run with it!
What’s the most frustrating thing about being in green beauty right now and owning your own green beauty business?
The most frustrating and most rewarding thing about being in green beauty is double-edged: the movement is exploding, which is wonderful for the consumer and the movement itself, but it’s hard to have your own voice heard with so many brands now out there. Owning your own business is like having a therapist 24/7, because you’re in your “stuff,” all the time! If you’re starting your own business, be prepared to frequently face all your insecurities. Some days I want to take a two-year nap, or sometimes I fear the business won’t be here tomorrow. Being responsible for other people’s livelihoods is a huge responsibility, and I take it very seriously. Then again, I created this from scratch, and I get to do this day in and day out—and I love it.
What motivates you when your business feels like an uphill battle?
The customers. We have the most amazing customers! We get hand-written notes, and sometimes they send me care packages! I’ve become friends with customers all over the world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Why are you passionate about this industry? Does it come from a core value you hold?
Yes. I’m passionate about this industry because I don’t want anyplace to be exclusionary. Your skin is your largest organ and it’s a public health issue. Everyone should have skin care products that are safe, that care for your skin and are beautiful to use.
What advice would you give to a woman looking to create worldwide change or social impact with her idea?
First, yes! Do it! Second, start small. Bite off something you can chew comfortably. You don’t have to start a Fortune 500 company off the bat. Do something every day! It can be emailing a friend and asking to talk about your passion or dropping off samples to local retailers. Take the step.
Get inspired by other female leaders by following along with our entire Women We’re Watching series.