Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Founder Feature:
Alisha Stephens of Umanos

Meet Umanos: the personal care brand championing change through everyday routines

Before founding Umanos, Alisha Stephens had spent her career working in both health and wellness brands and the non-profit sector in East Africa. That said, she had always dreamed of striking out on her own. She explains, “My dream was to blend my background in both business and nonprofits, but I didn’t know what I wanted to create.” Then, Alisha says, “A couple of years ago, my husband and I were trying to have a baby, and I was going through an ongoing tussle with fertility. I became super diligent about reassessing my everyday products, and I wanted super clean and sustainable products. I felt there was an opportunity to create refillable options with sleek designs versus the traditional eco look and feel.”

As Alisha began brainstorming, she approached her idea from a functional standpoint, asking, “What products do we use most in our everyday routines that are the hardest to find clean versions of?” Her answer? “The things I use in my shower.” From this idea, Alisha spent two years in development before launching Umanos in 2023 with their first three products: the Marine Greens Superfood shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. Still, Alisha’s vision goes beyond these products alone. She explains, “We’re on a mission to champion change through our daily routines with responsibly made products that raise the standards of what we put on our bodies.” Alisha also tied in her non-profit background with Umanos’ social impact mission. With every purchase, they dedicate 1% to partner non-profits working to bring clean, safe, and accessible water to communities in East Africa.

Pandemic r&d and finding the right partners

Alisha left her full-time job at the end of 2019 to create Umanos without knowing what 2020 would bring. She explains, “I worked for health and wellness brands, but I didn’t come from the beauty industry. I had to figure everything out. How do you find a formulator? How do you work with an organic chemist? And then the pandemic happened and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve lost my mind. What am I doing?’ It was that moment I think that every entrepreneur goes through — You either stop, or you decide to keep going.”

Not one to be deterred, Alisha spent the pandemic doing research and development for Umanos. “It was hard, but we found fantastic partners and all our products are made here in the US. We were relentless in our search for someone who could meet our standards. All of our products are formulated to Made Safe standards and EU standards. Our products are plant-based, nontoxic, cruelty-free, and made without SLS, SLES, DEA, PEGs, parabens, phthalates, synthetic fragrances or dyes, silicones, PEGs, or more than 1300 other suspect ingredients found in most products.”

In formulating her products, Alisha also knew she didn’t want to create another clean product that didn’t actually work. She says, “I tell people that I am my own consumer. I try to reduce my waste and use clean products, but I also want it to work. I don’t want to give up anything. My vision was to create a super high-quality product that could sit on the shelves of green salons…We had to figure out — if we want these [products] to be loved by professional stylists, how do we get the efficacy and performance level where it needs to be? I’m super thankful I found organic chemists with over 25 years of working in skin and hair care who could help.”

The challenges of haircare

Launching a brand with haircare at the center, Alisha explains, is not for the faint of heart. “If I had approached it from a traditional merchandising standpoint, I would not have started with haircare. It’s the hardest and has the least profit margin. From a formulation standpoint, haircare is hard because you’re using a lot of actives and everybody’s hair is different. We were trying to create a versatile formula that can work for wavy, straight, fine, thick, and curly hair — how do you balance all that? Speaking to product margins, it’s not uncommon for people to spend $40 on a moisturizer or eye cream, but it’s a completely different mindset to spend that much on a haircare product… It was important for us to be approachable, so how do we get the efficacy levels we want while maintaining an accessible price point? There’s a reason other brands do skin and body care but not hair. I didn’t know any of that until I started this journey, so I was like ‘Well, we’re here now, so we’re going to figure it out.”

Though Umanos began with hair care products, Alisha is adamant that Umanos is not “just” a haircare brand. She says, “We are a personal care and wellness brand. We have haircare products, but we will also have skincare products and more body care products [in the future]. Umanos is about our overall health and well-being.”

Talking about finances and looking towards the future

Alisha is eager to see more founders talking about the financial resources required to start a business. “I don’t think enough people, especially women, talk about how they did it. How did you find the resources to start a business? Did you have money saved? Did you use your own money? I started Umanos with a small portion of my personal finances and a small business loan through the Small Business Administration. I also tapped into my local Score network. They’re all over the US and you can connect with mentors in marketing, legal, finance, and other things, and it has been invaluable to me as a founder.”

Beyond the nitty-gritty of numbers and financing, the best advice Alisha has ever been given is, “Don’t stop before the magic happens.” She explains, “When I have those days where I’m so tired, I’m working so hard, and I wonder, ‘Can I do this?’ I say that phrase: Don’t stop before the magic happens.”

Alisha isn’t planning on stopping anytime soon, and she is currently working on launching refills and travel sizes of their products in response to customer demand. She explains, “We’ve built a loyal fan base by being scrappy, using word of mouth, and creating organic growth. This year is all about getting [Umanos] out there in a more significant way so we can amplify and fuel our grassroots momentum.”

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