While traveling on her honeymoon, Melissa Fensterstock was a mosquito magnet in Southeast Asia. Tempted to try what the locals created and trusted, she started using a native repellent. Not only did it smell great, but it worked, preventing the usual bulging welts she experienced in the hot, sticky summer months. She found herself inspired by this surprising product, and with a rich background in business and biotech, she started to form an idea.
What pushed her to truly dive into her entrepreneurial calling, however, was that earlier that year, her then-fiance (and now husband and business partner) had to have emergency open-heart surgery. Today, they both see that as their wake-up call.
“He had been in top notch shape, even was a professional squash player just a few years prior. We knew we wanted to create a brand that had to do with healthy living,” Fensterstock shares. “We both wanted to have ownership over our careers and commit ourselves to creating something unique and of value. What better way to control your own destiny than to run your own company.”
Women often are more risk-averse than men. That being said, in order to grow, pivot, and evolve, we must all take risks and incorporate the learnings into our businesses.
Once they were back in the States, they pursued the start of Aromaflage, a company that specializes in perfumes, candles and oils, all of which fight against bugs, while smelling great.
Fensterstock took the time to talk about her company’s success and what’s coming next:
What a cool concept. What’s your background? How did you land in this beauty-meets-health industry?
“I was always interested in the intersection of science and business, in particular, commercializing science. I was on the pre-med track and in the ninth hour decided it was not for me. I couldn't tolerate the blood and gore!
My first job after my BA in Neuroscience from Johns Hopkins and my MPhil from the University of Cambridge, was at a boutique strategy consulting firm. It was a great way to learn a lot about the healthcare industry and work with senior leaders in the healthcare field. The problem I always had with consulting was that as the consultant, you're just thinking hard and recommending solutions, not implementing them. I wanted to operate a business.
From consulting I went to work at Stryker, the medical device company. As you may know, it is consistently rated as one of the top companies to work for. The people were great and the work was interesting. Although I already had a master's degree, many of the jobs that interested me required an MBA. I knew I needed to get an MBA under my belt and applied to the top programs. I was thrilled when I was accepted to Harvard Business School. It felt surreal and I still remember every detail of finding out.
If we could get covered in the New York Times or if we could get our brand into a major department store, our business will be revolutionized!
Aromaflage Photo Courtesy of CDN
Business school is a two-year program and internships are required between the first and second years. I always felt that finance was a weak point of mine, so I figured the most tangible skill set I could garner in a summer would be an investment banking skill set. I worked for the summer at JP Morgan investment bank in the healthcare banking group. I worked harder than I ever had and learned a ton. That being said, I certainly was far from the best banker, and felt similarly about banking as I had felt about consulting.
I really wanted to be in a business, making decisions, and creating something as opposed to recommending solutions or executing transactions.
For personal reasons, I wanted to be back in New York. At the time, and still to date, there are not a ton of life science companies in the area, despite the local development initiatives. I joined a health technology company called Elsevier in a general management rotation program. It was a fantastic opportunity to move across the various business units and work with senior leadership across the company.
One day I received a call from a former boss of mine who was running a NASDAQ, publicly traded biotech company. He wanted to know if I wanted to run corporate development for him (out-licensing and in-licensing of assets). I felt that I would thrive in a smaller, more intimate environment where I could have real impact on the bottom line. Biotech is quite risky and either companies crush it or implode. The company took a turn for the worse and it felt like the right time to leave.
It was then that I joined Michael at Aromaflage full-time. The company was growing and I wanted to give it my all, not treating it as a side project any longer.
What sets Aromaflage apart?
“Most perfumes are all about the celebrity and the packaging. We take quite a different approach with an emphasis on function and quality of ingredients. We have pioneered the category - fragrance with function.
Our products are free of harsh chemicals and carefully formulated based on science. Our flagship line of products are fragrances and candles that naturally repel mosquitos. They have been tested and are effective. Quite in demand these days!
We have also launched a sleep fragrance that is designed to help induce sleep and promote restful, deep sleep. In addition to our scientific angle, we have worked with fine fragrance houses - the ones that make many designer fragrances - to craft a well-balanced, sophisticated, yet effective line of fragrances.”
What’s surprised you most about becoming an entrepreneur?
“The ups and downs and the importance of securing many small wins. One day you feel like you're on top of the world. The next day you might be ready to quit. It is a cycle that never seems to cease. I've learned so much about resilience and persistence. My thick skin can get me through almost anything.
It’s all about amassing small wins that eventually will amount to something meaningful. There is no silver bullet or replacement for brute force and hard work. I always gave more credit to milestone events: If we could get covered in the New York Times or if we could get our brand into a major department store, our business will be revolutionized! While these wins do add up, there usually is not one thing that will transform your business. I really believe it's all about moving the ball forward, one roll at a time, and keeping your head up through the steps forward and steps backward knowing that you just need to keep continuing to execute on your vision."
We love that. What’s been the most rewarding moment?
“The most rewarding moment was seeing our brand featured in a Daily Candy mailer just a few weeks after we launched our company. We had just started out and had no clue what the demand was for our perfumes. We had hundreds of hundreds of orders and had a proof point that people did in fact want Aromaflage! We totally weren't prepared for this spike in demand and hustled all night long for days on end to fulfill orders, even dropping packages off in person in NYC. All had hand written notes.
At this point in time, we have processes in place to handle this type of spike in demand such as a warehouse and fulfillment center with automation. Hearing all of the positive customer feedback and love for our brand has made it all worthwhile!"
What advice would you give to other aspiring female entrepreneurs?
“Take calculated risks. Women often are more risk-averse than men. That being said, in order to grow, pivot, and evolve, we must all take risks and incorporate the learnings into our businesses. When making decisions, I often ask myself: 'If I make this decision could it bankrupt my business?' If yes, I don't do it. If it's a risk that will provide a learning experience but we could financially continue should it fail entirely, I consider it.
Think about what type of business you are running. In a self-funded, bootstrapped company you must be concerned with not only revenues but profit. Profits are what will keep your lights on and business alive. Those who are venture backed can afford to focus on revenue and operate a loss. They are very different business models which impact the decisions you make on a daily basis.”
“We will continue to grow our retail distribution but our next focus is to invest in digital marketing and grow our e-commerce business. We are beefing up our content strategy as well, trying to provide a more holistic experience for our customers.
As for being a woman, I'm happy to be a new mom. It has been the most rewarding, yet challenging experience of my life. Given that I have been running Aromaflage, giving birth didn't give me a break from the business.There was no such thing as a real maternity leave. I was back up and running within days. That being said, I want to try to find the happy medium of continuing to push forward and prioritizing my career while also being the best mom I can be. I know that people talk about work-life balance. It is a bit of a myth. I think it's about staying focused on the task at hand at the moment and doing it to the best of your ability. Too often we are in one place but already thinking about what's next later in the day or what's on our to-do list. My personal goal is to stay focused on the moment and give it my all."
This post was first published 7/17
Starting with a little background, I am an anti-bullying advocate and have recently graduated from The Parent Leadership Training Institute, where as part of our studies we were asked to come up with a community project close to our hearts and put it into action. My cause was bullying, and I began a blog and Facebook page to address issues pertaining to all forms of bullying. Implementing this project was followed by a thre- minute speech to my peers, and, after all this, here is what I have learned about bullying.
Bullying makes people feel bad about themselves, leading to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem and even physical symptoms. The repercussions of bullying can cause people to miss school or work as well as countless other negative side effects.
I have been bullied both at school and at work, and I know of others who have suffered the same plight. It is not fun!
My first bullying experience was in seventh grade as a young teen. There was a group of three "mean girls" who harassed me and, I later found out, several of my friends; they thought it was funny to pick on others about their clothes, their looks or whatever else they could come up with (who knows). It felt awful at the time. Supposedly, I was chosen to get picked on because they claimed I bought my clothes at the Goodwill. That wasn't true, but really who cares? Why they were picking on me was never really the point. Luckily, after a while, the meanies went on to the next victim(s) like a never-ending cycle. I tend to think once a bully, always a bully, which goes to show how good a lifestyle that is, because those "mean girls" never amounted to much. In hindsight, I feel sorry for them. Watch the movie The Gift if you're really curious about what happens to bullies when they grow up.
And bullying was not just an issue when I was a teen, since then nothing much has changed. My own nephew was bullied in eighth grade, and he recently talked to me in depth about of how the bullying took a toll on him. Especially because I had the same experience, I could relate to him in ways that some others couldn't. Like reliving my own memories, I was incredibly broken up to hear how it made him feel.
Even worse than that, bullying does not end in the school yard. Employees are being bullied on the job at an alarming rate. When you are bullied on the job as an adult, it taken an even bigger toll. Further it doesn't just go away like those middle school "mean girls." Unless you can quit your job, you might just be stuck. There are all kinds of physical symptoms, stomach pains, migraines and even panic attacks. Beyond the physical, people's mental and emotional state is extremely sensitive to bullying, and as a result work performance might suffer. Furthermore, it might feel like there is no recourse, no one to believe you. You can hope that the HR Department is willing to listen and do something about it, but the whole process can be so disheartening. And in the hierarchical corporate environment, sometimes the bully seems to get ahead and you are left lagging behind in a subservient position. This is what happened to me as a victim of workplace bullying. It started with me being told by a co-worker that my boss was following me to the bathroom, staring down the hall whenever I left my desk to make sure I came right back to my seat. Then it was standing over me as I typed, ordering me to get in a car with them, not allowing me to sit somewhere if it wasn't within their sight. The list of offenses could go on endlessly. There were times I felt like I couldn't breathe. And then, the bully torturing me got a promotion. Like the character of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, the classic bully is revered by her peers, despite the fact that all of her employees are terrified of her. Yet, she is in a role of high stature and praised as a bully. We live in a culture that is not only complacent in the existence of bullies, but one that actively allows them to thrive.
It makes you realize how unfair life can be. Of course, no one said that life would be fair; maybe you just assumed that bad people would not get ahead. But, they do. Even now, I cannot help but to shake my head in disbelief. I often wonder what makes a person feel the need to laud their power over another. Are they insecure? Were they bullied themselves? They must feel bad about themselves in some way? Do they feel the need to do this to make themselves look good? Whatever the reason, it certainly isn't nice at all. I have found myself at different times in my life standing up for people who have been bullied around me. And I certainly do not allow anyone to treat me in any way that I find disrespectful. I truly believe in karma, and I tell myself that at some point in time, the bullies will get it back in some way. I have seen it happen, and in the meantime, I just say to myself "What goes around, comes around."
Bullying shows no sign of slowing down, and in this day and age, it's even worse than I have experienced in the past. Cyber bulling, rumors, fist fights, knifes, guns and other forms of both mental and physical cruelty, it truly sickens me. I know that I cannot save everyone, but I try to be an advocate as much as possible and encourage others to do so as well. NO ONE SHOULD BULLIED! It is disgraceful to say the least. You should always practice grace as much as you can. With every person who chooses to do so, the world gets a little bit better. I will be writing more on this topic on a regular basis; I feel it helps to talk about this subject aloud and spread the word. and, if nothing else, be kind.