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
Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.
In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.
What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.
Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.
Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.
While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.
According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.
In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.
Source-Alex Brandon, AP
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.
Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.
The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.