We’re thrilled to feature Dr. Sarah Villafranco on our blog, the founder & CEO of Osmia. Sarah practiced emergency medicine before diving into the natural skincare industry. Through Osmia, Sarah is able to blend her medical knowledge and love of chemistry with her passion for the environment and organic ingredients. Learn the story behind Osmia, her three must-have products, and what advice she has for other women starting their own business.
A Savvy Rest Women’s Council Interview
Were you always interested in natural and organic ingredients or did that passion really take off once you started making soaps?
I was definitely interested in natural ingredients long before I started the company. When I was growing up, my mom used Clarins facial oils, which at the time was more on the plant-based natural spectrum than a lot of other stuff. You could tell that some of the scents came from nature. I don’t think it was 100% natural but it had a very evocative effect.
I remember watching my mom, who was a partner at a DC law firm, actually slow down for a second when she would use these oils. I could see her take deeper breaths. Looking back, I know that was the first moment I turned my attention to the effect that a smell or a product could have on not only your skin but your wellbeing.
You practiced medicine in the ER for a decade before diving into the skincare industry. How has your medical background influenced Osmia?
In almost countless ways. On the more practical end, I really understand not only skin, but how it’s part of a system. I think so many skincare brands and products are focused on just the skin but the skin doesn’t work independently from the rest of you. You can’t not talk about what you’re eating and how you’re taking care of yourself when you’re talking about skin.
I use joy as a motivating factor instead of shaming people or trying to make them afraid. I find those things, even if they are effective, very unpleasant.
For me, it was always about making the most beautiful products possible and just saying, “try this.” When you find out later how awesome the ingredients are, that’s a great plus but you’re using the product because it’s gorgeous and smells amazing and makes you feel cared for.
I know you also love chemistry. Putting together ingredients and figuring out what works and what doesn’t must have been a thrilling process for you.
I’m sure I picked it up faster than the average Jane because of my background. The first soap-making class I took was with a friend who was a veterinarian. The two of us were in the class and had this huge science background. We were 20 steps ahead of the rest of the class because we already had a lot of experience with weighing and measuring and understanding how chemical processes work. That was the moment where I was like, “I can do this.”
It gave me the confidence to just go into a lab and start mixing stuff up. There aren’t many places you can go to learn cosmetic chemistry. A lot of it is homecraft type of stuff, which is where I started, but you have to scale up the sophistication of it in order to launch a real product line.
What were some of the challenges you faced early on in starting your business?
The biggest challenge for me was giving myself permission to do it. I worked hard to become a board-certified emergency physician, and I did that while I was having babies. My husband, my dad, my brother were all so proud so it was a little hard to tell myself it was okay to walk away from the ER. It was a lot hard.
When I asked myself why the idea of leaving medicine upset me, most of the answers weren’t good enough for me to stay.
I was tired of the kind of medicine that I had to practice in the ER. It was really fun and there were a lot of great dinner party stories but in the end, I wanted to empower people when it came to their health and that’s very hard to do from the emergency room.
I think you absolutely are still helping people and using your medical background but you’re doing it in a different way that is really creative and fulfilling.
More so than I ever could have done from the ER.
Whether it’s just helping someone feel like they are paying attention to self-care, or all the way to “I haven’t left my apartment in months because I have such bad dermatitis and your products and information on your website have helped me clear my skin up and find myself again, and I have my first date in a year.” Really beautiful stories of people making simple changes.
What’s so frustrating to me in medicine is how quickly we’re running to take out the prescription pad. But it’s a lot harder to say,“Let’s start at the beginning. What laundry detergent are you using? What’s your diet like? Are you doing any active stress management?”
Those conversations take longer and I totally understand why my colleagues in medicine can’t do it because they’ve got 10 minutes per patient. I started feeling like this is not good medicine and Osmia is.
How did you settle on Osmia as the brand name?
We played around with a lot of different names at the beginning. I was just looking up scent-related words. The word “anosmia” is the inability to smell. And when you’re pregnant you have “hyperosmia” where you can smell things from miles away. And then sometimes you can have something go wrong in your brain which is “parosmia,” an altered sense of smell. I kept looking for the word “osmia” and it doesn’t really exist other than it’s a genus in the bee family.
For me, it could mean literally “a sense of smell,” or more broadly, “a sense of your life.” I wanted people to take a second to tune in when they are doing the little daily actions that make up the fabric of 24 hours. You can go through them mindlessly or you can go through them mindfully, and the difference is life-changing.
Mundane moments can become precious with a little bit of attention and intention. That’s what Osmia really means to me when you move past the literal sense of smell part of it.
What were the original Osmia products when you first launched?
This is something I would have done differently had I known better but I launched with over 30 SKUs which is just insane. We had a little of everything when we first launched in 2012. Soap was the first thing that I mastered but we had an enormous array of products, which made it really hard to scale because people love their products. You can’t start with 30 products and then scale back down to 5—that would have hurt the company. So, we had to grow a lot of products at once.
Was there one product that sold the most?
The Black Clay Facial soap has been one of our bestselling products since the beginning. Part of the reason for that is the number of people who have perioral dermatitis. It’s a really common condition where people get angry, inflamed skin around their nose and mouth. The way to fix it in the dermatologist office is antibiotics and steroids but the leading cause of the condition is steroids so you can see that’s a pretty toxic cycle.
I just wanted to make a beautiful bar of black soap and I had dermatitis at the time. I started using it and was like, “What’s going on? This is finally starting to go away.” And then I stopped using it, and it came back, and I started again and it went away again.
Black Clay Facial soap has been a godsend for people with dermatitis, eczema, and acne.
Do you have a favorite scent to work with?
No, it’s sort of like asking me which daughter I prefer. They are all my friends, even the complicated ones I have such an appreciation for after working with them for so long. They all have personalities and bring something different to the table.
What about a favorite ingredient?
Aloe is one of my favorite ingredients. It sounds so simple but it’s the most incredible, nourishing ingredient that is in a lot of our products.
There is an oil called kukui oil that we use in our body oil and will be in our new version of Purely Simple that we hope will come out later this year.
If you could only use 3 Osmia products for the rest of your life, what would your 3 be?
What is the best piece of advice that you’ve received in business that you wish to pass along to other women starting their own business?
I think that trusting your instinct is probably one of the bigger pieces, especially as you start to build a team. If you find yourself flexing and bending around somebody or tiptoeing around in your own business, you need to listen to that feeling of upset in your stomach and fix it. You know what’s right for your business.
Osmia has grown over the years. You have a team of around 25 people. How has it been finding people to join the Osmia family who also share a passion for natural products?
We live in a town of 7,000 people, 3 hours west of Denver. It’s a very seasonal town since we’re near Aspen. We have a lot of people who want to work for the winter and leave for the summer, or vice versa. It’s actually pretty hard to find people but I find that we try to be very specific with the type of company we are and it tends to attract people who want to live in a way that aligns with the message that we’re putting out to the world. We’ve assembled an amazing crew of people, and for the most part there is harmony and incredible cooperation and collaboration.
I saw your Instagram Stories of how your team planned you a birthday celebration!
They were so stealth about it that I was completely in the dark. I was so surprised that I like ugly cried as I walked into that room filled with pies and yummy treats.
Who are other women in business who inspire you? You just spoke in your Instagram Stories about Tata Harper so I know she is a big one for you.
It was lovely how she wasn’t threatened or petty. She put me in touch with her lab manager and they told me what type of mixer to buy, what kind of containers to buy. There’s nobody else to tell you that stuff. She wasn’t worried about sharing the information. It set a tone for me. I think that tone is really present in the green beauty industry.
I could go through my phone and pick 20 other founders in the green beauty industry. Shirley Pinkson, one of the co-founders of W3ll People makeup, May Lindstrom, Kari Gran—it goes on and on. It’s an amazing group of people.