Minding Their Own Business

Marisa Vara Arredondo

BUSINESS: PHACE BIOACTIVE

STRIKING THE PERFECT BALANCE
Spend time with Marisa Vara Arredondo, and it’s hard to believe she has ever suffered a moment of insecurity. Smart, vivacious, accomplished, Marisa had what sounds like an idyllic childhood: parents who supported her, two sisters she adored. She was a standout athlete, and an honors student. But throughout high school she was plagued by severe cystic acne; as a young adult the skin affliction resurfaced, albeit in a less severe form. “I was always worried about my face,” she says. “Once you suffer from acne, you don’t really forget those feelings of insecurity.”

Because of that experience, she vowed to one day create a skincare line that would help women heal their skin and feel good about themselves. Last year, she made good on that promise when she launched her company, PHACE BIOACTIVE. “When I aspire to something, I generally try to make it happen,” Marisa says. “I’m a big believer that anyone can manifest any kind of dream they want or have. When you put your energy and focus on something, it’s amazing how fast that happens.”

Born and raised in Greenwich, the forty-one-year-old comes by her entrepreneurial chops honestly. Her father is a real estate developer and entrepreneur who founded Westys Self Storage, among other successful ventures. Her older sister is the founder of Yahoo in Europe.

Marisa attended Greenwich Academy for ten years before transferring to Deerfield as a sophomore. She did her undergraduate degree at Stanford, where she majored in science, technology and society. It provided exactly the skill set she needed. “It taught me to think critically, to analyze complex topics, and boil them down to three succinct points,” she says. Most important, it reinforced her desire to pursue her dream. “When I graduated from Stanford, I knew I would start a skincare line.”

Upon graduating, she began to put the pieces in place. First step: She spent six years as an analyst and assistant portfolio manager at a mutual fund, covering the cosmetic, biotech and drug sectors. Second step: She pursued an MBA from Harvard to learn leadership and operational skills. Third step: She spent another six years in New York, working as a portfolio manager for a hedge fund. Once again, she covered the cosmetic and biotech sectors. She expanded her network to include dermatologists, industry experts, heads of R&D and sales and distributors. “I learned, soup to nuts, how a company operates in this space,” she says.

It was a routine meeting with the head of research at Merck Pharmaceuticals that gave shape to her vision. “He talked to me about the importance of pH levels in skin,” she recalls. “Especially in the outermost layer called the acid mantle. It acts as an antioxidant, seals in the moisture and inhibits bacteria and inflammation.”

As she learned more, she realized all the years she spent scrubbing her face with soap and other products had been hindering—rather than helping—her fight for clear skin. A lightbulb went off. She would create an all-natural skincare line that focused on nurturing the skin’s optimal, slightly acidic pH level. The goal? To help prevent dryness and wrinkles and restore a youthful, radiant glow. As she says, “I give women a solution. I’m not creating world peace, but at least I’m making them happier, and happier people are more productive people.”

In January 2011, with the financial resources and connections in place, Marisa left her full-time job. She moved back to Greenwich, bought a townhouse downtown and got to work. She spent four years developing the current seven-product line ($38-$104), which inludes a vitamin C-based illuminating serum, a detoxifying gel cleanser, and a regenerating night cream. The products are packaged in sleek glass bottles; they are nontoxic, fragrance- and paraben-free, hypoallergenic, and dermatologist tested and approved. Each features a unique combination of biotech and botanical ingredients (think willow bark extract, licorice root, grapeseed and pomegranate). “I use these products every day, this is what I live by,” she says. In a nutshell, the brand is a true reflection of the balanced life Marisa seeks. “Simplicity is key,” she says. “It’s important in the way I live, the products I make and the way I convey my message.”

Initially, she launched on her website. From there she established a partnership with several high-profile vendors including Saks and Saks.com. “They hadn’t taken on a new, unknown brand to sell in their stores in years,” she says. “Now they have rolled us out across the country.” Next year, she will become the face of PHACE, when the brand launches on QVC. She is in talks with Amazon about becoming part of its new luxury beauty platform. “From an awareness and a business perspective, it’s a huge win,” she says.

From the outset, Marisa has been a very hands-on manager. She works with a team of twenty-plus consultants—from chemists in Florida to bottle manufacture designers in Milan, to graphic designers in New York—and she is involved in every part of the process, developing formulas, designing the packaging, overseeing marketing and communications. She is capitalizing on the move from standard brick and mortar stores to the world of online shopping, and has embraced the fast-growing world of bloggers and vloggers (video blogger). “The world of marketing has changed,” she says. “The power of celebrity is declining or being diluted by bloggers and other influences.”

Bottom line: It’s no easy task launching a niche brand into an extremely competitive environment. But she has an edge. “I can relate to my customers,” she says. “For me, it’s truly a labor of love. Having that degree of authenticity is very relatable.” phacebioactive.com
Megan White Mukuria

BUSINESS: ZANAAFRICA FOUNDATION

GIRL POWER
Megan White Mukuria grew up in a world of privilege and opportunity, of country clubs and private schools. But when she graduated from Harvard in 1999, instead of following in her father’s footsteps and building a career in finance, she followed her heart to Kenya.

That was in 2001. Six years later, when she was just twenty-nine, Megan launched a foundation, ZanaAfrica, whose primary mission is to help Kenyan girls stay in school and gain the tools they need to step up and out of poverty, through the provision of sanitary pads and girl-centered reproductive health education. For Megan, ZanaAfrica represents a deep desire to make a difference in the world. “Initially, it was more about living my purpose than living my dream,” she says. “I have always been interested in the interconnectedness of the world and girl empowerment.”

Megan’s ties to Greenwich go back four generations. Her great-grandfather, Alonzo B. See, was one of the founders of the Round Hill Club. Her mother, Beverly White, and grandmother, Mary Louise See, are alumnae of Greenwich Academy. Megan credits her experience there with instilling in her the belief that “anything boys can do, girls can do better.”

She first went to Kenya in 1998, when she volunteered for Homeless Children International Kenya (HCI), where she helped street kids transition to school. It was an eye-opening experience. “That was when I became aware of the barriers that poverty can throw up,” she recalls. “There is a misguided belief that it’s a question of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. But it’s different than a lack of opportunity. There are systems and structures in place that do not benefit poor people.”

One memory in particular stands out. “I taught this eight-year-old girl how to do her multiplication tables using bottle tops,” she says. “I saw how our roles could have been reversed. She might have gone to Harvard and I might have ended up on the street.”

She graduated with a degree in psychology with honors, then spent two years as a volunteer with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Black Campus Ministries, while she figured out what to do next. When HCI asked her to come back to work full-time in 2001, she bought a one-way ticket to Nairobi. She arrived a month before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. “That really brought home the reality that life is fleeting, and that you really have to follow your dream,” she says.

It was during her work for HCI that Megan came to fully appreciate how hard it is for young girls in Kenya to get ahead. One of the primary reasons? Lack of access to sanitary pads. “They are the second biggest cost to a family after bread,” she says. As a result, more than 1 million Kenyan girls miss up to six weeks of school each year. In some cases they engage in transactional sex in order to earn money to pay for pads, which puts them at greater risk of HIV, STDs, abuse and pregnancy. Ultimately, they are two times more likely than boys to drop out of school. “This is unacceptable for the girls of this world,” Megan says.

In 2004, in a groundbreaking initiative, the female members of the Kenyan Parliament waived the luxury tax on sanitary pads. Two years later, as incoming president of the Rotary Club of Nairobi South, Megan launched the National Sanitary Towels Campaign in partnership with Proctor & Gamble, Girl Child Network and the Kenyan Ministry of Education to raise awareness of how essential pads are to girls’ health and human rights.

But she wanted to do more and left HCI (now Teule) in 2006 determined to find a more efficient and cost-effective way to help a greater number of girls. She launched ZanaAfrica in 2007 after she and a friend
drew up plans over coffee at the Starbucks on Greenwich Avenue. A year later she and her business partner, Lawino Kagumba, a material scientist from Kenya, founded ZanaAfrica Group, the business arm of the organization, which seeks to create affordable and accessible pads for the East African market. “I wanted to think big,” Megan recalls.  We were trying to create inroads to beat poverty. What if pad products could help that?”

To achieve its goals, the foundation utilizes a multi-pronged approach that includes policy and advocacy at the local and international levels, as well as distributing school kits (with pads and underwear) to girls throughout Kenya, and creating tools to facilitate shame-free reproductive health education. Today, the foundation distributes kits to more than 10,000 girls a year, through a network of fourteen local community-based partners, while ZanaAfrica Group produces and sells its NIA brand of sanitary pads to more than 4,000 girls and women through local supermarkets and NGOs.

Growth has been slow but steady. There have been victories: In 2010, thanks to Megan’s advocacy work in conjunction with other partners, the Kenyan government became the first government in the world to write sanitary pads into budgets. And setbacks: “Five years of my life was 100 percent grant rejections,” she recalls. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’d hear, ‘It’s a great idea, but we can’t help you.’”

Indeed, in 2014 ZanaAfrica was awarded a grant from USAID to complete and test its first round of girl-centered health comics, to help them navigate puberty in a fun and engaging way. “We needed to find a way to help girls become comfortable talking about their bodies,” Megan explains. “It also creates standardized messaging that we can test for behavior changes and health outcomes.”

In its biggest victory to date, earlier this year, the Gates Foundation awarded ZanaAfrica with a $2.4 million grant to study cost-effective strategies for amplifying outcomes for girls. “It will help ZanaAfrica develop learnings outside its areas of expertise,” says Megan, “which in turn will help create more fundraising opportunities and will add to the global evidence base, helping other organizations and policymakers see how critical menstrual health interventions are for female empowerment.”

Having lived in Kenya for fifteen years, Megan knows better than most the challenges that lie ahead. But she is up to the task. “The thing that keeps me going is the change that we’re having. Women are responding so positively to the brand. We are really creating a movement and now we are exploring how to build on that.”  zanaafrica.org
Laurette Kittle

BUSINESS: WALKER&WADE

THE SUNNY SIDE
On a wall in Laurette Kittle’s design studio, a collection of family photos traces a life spent surfing some of the world’s most beautiful beaches—Hawaii, Costa Rica, Bali. There are pictures of her sons Cody and Henry surfing. A stuffed and mounted sunfish carves a graceful arc above a rustic side table topped with a white orchid; a Buddha; an alabaster seashell; and Enlightenment, a book by her photographer husband, Kit. Across the room a seating area with rattan furniture opens to a small terrace overlooking the Byram River. Down the hall, another room holds rolling racks of clothes—the dresses, caftans, tunics, shirts, rompers and dusters that comprise her new retail line, Walker&Wade. Throughout, the mood is breezy and bright. No small feat on this early-June day, when the rain is coming down sideways. It speaks volumes about the designer, her clothes, and her sunny approach to life.

A fabric designer for twenty-five-plus years, Laurette has created collections for Schumacher, Waverly and Martex, among others. Two years ago, backed by her oldest son, Cody, who works in the financial industry, she directed her passion in a new way. No one is more surprised than she at the unexpected turn her life has taken. “This is the greatest gift my son has given me,” she says.

“My design business comes in waves and I had a lot of free time. I could have seen myself spending way too much time going to luncheons and coming home to watch Ellen. This has unleashed my creativity.”

The clothing business started through a convergence of events: A family trip to Bali for a friend’s birthday. A visit to a tailor named Gog. A couple of quick sketches—a coat, a dress. “My sons and husband got clothes made, and I decided to get a few things, too,” she recalls. “We did the coat in a turquoise gabardine and purple gabardine and a little dress made of excess shirt material.”

A few days later, the family returned to life back home. Then a most unexpected thing happened. “In the spring I started wearing the clothes to luncheons and social events,” she says. “People went crazy for them.” One friend in particular—Greenwich-based fashion designer Alease Fisher—took Laurette under her wing. “She said ‘You are going to design my resort line.’ My son Cody said, ‘You’re going to do this.’ Honestly, I was petrified at the thought of diving into a world I didn’t know.”

She dove anyway. That summer, with Alease as her mentor, Laurette had a crash course in Fashion Design 101. In January, she flew back to Bali with little more than a handful of ideas. One of them—the Goddess Kaftan—has become the mainstay of her collection.

“I was thinking about women over forty-five when I designed it,” she says. “Women who want to feel sexy, and vibrant, and carefree, like a goddess.” The kaftans—short and long—have subtle design details (fluttery cap sleeves, for instance) that are meant to hide flaws and play up assets. “It’s drapey and a little sheer, but not too sheer. It’s fitted but not super fitted.” A tie-dye version goes one step further: “The pattern goes from light to dark, which creates a slimming effect,” she adds. (Goddess Kaftans have been such a hit among her younger clientele, Laurette now offers a version with peepholes in the sleeves.)

An artist by training—she graduated with a degree in fine arts from the Rhode Island School of Design—Laurette says the genesis of Walker&Wade (her sons’ middle names) can be traced back to the early days of her marriage. “We are beach people,” she explains. “We love the ocean and water.” When the boys were young, the Kittles lived in Manhattan and spent summers in East Hampton. “They would spend six to eight hours a day surfing. At the end of the day they were always starving. There wasn’t time to go back to wherever we were staying and change. I’d pour water over my head, throw on a sarong and out we’d go.”

This same easy vibe, what she calls a “beach-to-table” philosophy, informs all her designs. In just two years, her collection has grown to include mini-dresses, and easy no-wrinkle travel dresses, billowy tunics, tailored shirts, breezy lounge pants and rompers, and more. All the fabrics are sourced, printed and hand-dyed in Bali, though last year Laurette introduced a line of silk tunics embellished with ornate beadwork from India.

What is most striking about the clothes are the unusual prints and vivid colors. “For me the excitement is picturing something and designing it. I see fabric and I’m not even sure what I’m going to make yet.” Many of the clothes feature beadwork—a Walker&Wade signature. “It’s a dying art,” she says. “Our bead workers come from families who have passed this craft down for generations.”

Since hosting her first trunk show in May of 2014, Laurette’s line has been picked up by retailers across the country, including a shop in Stuart, Florida where her parents live. “I met my first retailer at a nail salon there,” she recalls. “She bought fifty pieces for her store, Matilda.” Locally, Walker&Wade is sold at Patricia Gourlay, Dakor and Delamar Greenwich Harbor Spa, as well as Lilies & Lace in Armonk.

Among the top-selling items is the white Italian lace “Beach Blazer,” which has a hint of glitter. “It’s a no-brainer,” she says. “So versatile. You can wear it with a cami and jeans. It’s like a high-low thing.” Some of her dresses have a preppy Palm Beach vibe, while others are clearly designed for Club 55 in St. Tropez. She even makes versions of some items in black—her least favorite hue to work in. “Every time I do something in black, it sells out in three seconds. That’s New England for you.”

Laurette is involved in every step of the process. “I’m often up at 1 a.m. sketching things and sending them to Bali.” She spends a month there each year, working alongside the team of sewers and bead workers. “I love it. I’m really a people person. When I designed by myself, I was alone a lot. I’d spend a month working on something, and the client would say they didn’t like it. That was hard.”

She also sells online and through trunk shows. In addition to the clothes, there are chic beaded clutches, Malas (featured in Nicole Miller’s fall runway show during Fashion Week), serenity beads and fun beach towels. Marketing is through Instagram and Facebook. She has a muse, a young fashionista named Kelsey White with more than 60,000 followers. Laurette sends her clothes, and Kelsey posts pictures of herself and her friends wearing them in exotic beachy locales throughout the world.

“I’m learning as I go,” she says. From the kitchen counter she reaches for a small pottery tray that has the words Never Give Up on it. “I look at this every morning,” she adds, with a smile. walkerandwade.com

 

 

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