After two decades in art direction, Theodora felt her career was stagnating and knew she needed a change. A trip to Greece, her family’s home country, was the catalyst to her next act, the introduction of her YASOU skincare line.
Tell us a little about yourself…
I am a first generation Greek American who was raised in the inner city of Chicago, Illinois. Both of my parents came from Greece but met in Chicago while attending night school to learn English. My father’s family was from Athens, Greece and my mother’s family was from Archia Feneos, a small mountain village located in the Peloponnese region near Corinth. My family was very close and hard working.
My mother stressed the importance of education, especially for her daughter (me); she also wanted us to maintain our Greek heritage. My father loved America and believed in assimilation, but he also wanted us to know who our grandparents were and where we came from. When I was four years old, my brother, mother, and I lived in Greece, in my mother’s village, for over a year (my father visited often), then we visited every summer until I was 13.
Living in Greece as a child was a great experience, which I credit with establishing my sense of self and my spirituality. I was exposed to old world culture, which seldom exists anymore, by living in my mother’s village. We enjoyed the freshest food and my grandparents made most of their health and beauty remedies from local ingredients and native plants and flowers. I learned to speak Greek as a child but only attended Greek School in the US for a year, so I don’t read or write the language very well.
I went through the public school system in Chicago and was teased miserably when I started Kindergarten because, speaking Greek in the home and having just returned from my year in Greece, I didn’t speak English very well. I discovered art in elementary school; being able to express myself in art class helped me feel like I fit in, finally. I also fell in love with fashion and beauty. I started practicing commercial art in high school by getting a job as a production artist.
By the end of high school, I knew I wanted to study some sort of art in college. I started in the interior design program at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, but eventually moved into the Advertising/Marketing program, which was through the School of Journalism. I met my first husband, a fine artist, in college and, after graduation, we moved to New York and settled in Brooklyn. After working in New York for a year, I decided to go back to school for my Master’s degree, with the goal to become a visual communicator.
I was accepted at Pratt Institute’s Master program for visual communication. It took me a long time to finish because I had to put myself through school. I worked full- time as a production artist and then as a graphic designer. I ended up living in New York for about 13 years and met a lot of great people, establishing friendships that still exist today. During my time in the city, I felt very blessed to have worked in most of my dream environments like the Village Voice, Allure, Elle, Rolling Stone magazine, and Pentagram design. This was a time when print was really something, i.e. before the digital era.
When my first marriage ended, I decided to move back to Chicago where my family was. I took a job with Reed Business Information, a global company where I can say I really thrived professionally and personally. It is also here where I met my second husband, Raymond Roth, who always makes me feel like the smartest, prettiest, and most special person in the room.
I have been in the field of visual communications for over 20 years, transitioning from X-Acto knives to computers, print to digital, from very small mom and pop establishments to global corporate environments. I have had a successful career starting as a production artist and moving up to become an art director then a creative director.
When did you start to think about making a change?
Around 2001, at 41 years old, I began to feel somewhat disenchanted with my career. I liked helping people and companies solve their problems and elevate their visual communications, but I knew I eventually I’d need something bigger for myself, something that had more value to others. I chose to stay at Reed while I figured out what that next thing might be.
In 2006, I became ill and (luckily) caught the early stages of thyroid cancer, which only convinced me more to think about reevaluating my career. I have been cancer free for seven years now!
I finally left Reed Business Information in 2007 because I didn’t feel the company was moving in the right direction—or maybe I wasn’t moving anymore, meaning I wasn’t growing fast enough and was feeling very stagnant. It may have been a little of both.
My plan was to take a few weeks off then start searching for an art director or creative director position. But when I started getting a lot of phone calls for freelance opportunities—my colleagues at Reed had been referring me—before I knew it I had launched TNR Design, my own boutique design firm. I held this title and still do (only on a referral basis to make money to put back into my next act).
I did well but again started feeling unhappy; I wasn’t doing anything that really helped anyone in a bigger picture sort of way. At the same time, a great deal of my unhappiness came from the fact that I had distanced myself from my heritage and all of a sudden I had this huge need to reconnect with it. Who knows, maybe going through thyroid cancer had something to do with that as well.
My mother had become elderly and didn’t cook Greek food anymore, something I missed; all of a sudden all I wanted was good Greek food. I wanted to go to Greece, visit the small village in the mountains where I lived as a child, reconnect with our remaining family members, and see where my grandparents are buried.
So three feelings were coming together at the same time: unhappiness with my career, unhappiness with the distance I had created with my heritage, and unhappiness with not doing something that was for the greater good. I knew I needed a change.
I decided I wanted to take a trip to Greece and visit my family and a close friend of mine, Anna, who I met in graduate school at Pratt Institute (my one true Greek girlfriend)!
Was there an “aha” moment that precipitated your next act?
My trip to Greece in 2011, when I was 52, was exactly what I needed. I reconnected with family and spent time with my good friend Anna. I had fun shopping in Plaka and visiting the ultra-modern Acropolis Museum in Athens. I also went to the small village where I lived as a child, Archia Feneos. I visited my grandparents’ home and saw where they were buried. I also went to the market, where many of the locals sell their handmade products. It was there I came across a 100% organic beeswax salve that contained 10 essential oils made from local flowers and plants. The smell was heavenly and it reminded me of my childhood. I started thinking how great it would be to import this product, repackage it, and brand it. I even thought about what I would call it and really felt very excited about this possibility.
I spoke to the maker of the beeswax salve and we exchanged information. I brought one jar home with me and ordered several 12-unit quantities of the product to be shipped to the US. Unfortunately, each batch was different; there was no consistency in the product. It was handmade and it seemed like the makers were improvising each batch. There was no way my great idea was going to work and, with the political situation in Greece, there was a lot of uncertainty doing business there.
I became really sad and my husband said to me, “Terry you have all these great ideas, why don’t you just create your own skincare line, made here in the US, and I’ll be your first investor?” This was my “aha” moment. I wondered if I could really make this happen and got excited about making quality products that are really, really good. My heart started racing and, before I knew it, the last few years’ observations and thoughts started falling into place. I saw a niche market for a luxe wellness product that not only was good for you but felt good as well.
I knew I wanted to create a plant-derived skincare line made with natural and organic ingredients that felt like the high-end skincare lines in the department store. As I mentioned, I wanted it to not only be super good for you but also feel really good while you were applying it! I wanted it to be Greek-inspired in honor of my heritage, and I wanted to make sure that a certain amount of the proceeds (once I came out of the red) would go into a fund that would do good. I called a friend of mine, Patience Pierce, and started telling her my thoughts about this new endeavor; she thought it was a great idea and before I knew it she said she would like to invest as well so now I had two investors and it was going to happen.
OMG, what if I failed and I was taking money from two of my favorite people!
How hard was it to take the plunge?
It was very hard. I continued thinking maybe I should just try to get a full time creative director’s position and work for a company but that just left me feeling unexcited and empty. I would be working for someone else’s benefit and was not so sure if my ethics, philosophy, and morals would truly align with this company.
I had to take a look at why I was so scared to proceed with starting my own business. I realized, with some help from my friend and life coach, Cindy Dove, that I wasn’t scared of failing—I had failed plenty in my life and picked myself up and started over again—but I was really more afraid of succeeding. This light bulb moment was huge for me. I also said to myself that I have two people I admire who really believe in me so I should believe in myself as well.
I remember telling my brother and mother what my plans were and they both were very supportive and said I should go for it – so I did!
What is your next act?
I am the founder of YASOU Natural Skin Care. I launched my company in 2013. My products are available online via my website and at other online marketplaces or stores which can be found under my store locator in the top right corner my website.
Presently, I offer a cellular day cream, a cell renewal night cream, a hydrating body cream with essential oils, and in two months I will be launching a second variation of the hydrating body cream that will be aroma free. I am thrilled that I will also be introducing a moisturizing, reparative hand cream that contains mastic and lemon essential oil. For the holiday, we will offer a made-to-order body scrub and body polish. Lots of exciting things!
Here is what differentiates my products from others on the market:
- YASOU is an eco-luxe wellness skin care line, meaning it’s ecologically-friendly luxury. It feels like the high-end products you find in department stores, but at a much more reasonable price.
- It works on a cellular level, penetrating deep into the skin.
- It is vegan (except for the body cream because it contains beeswax and honey extract) and gluten-free. It is also Leaping Bunny certified, the international gold standard for non-animal tested consumer products.
- It contains certified organic extra virgin olive oil, among other certified organics.
- It is made in the USA.
- It works!
My primary audience is women 30 years of age and up who are into wellness, health, and beauty, as well as men 30 years and up who are into wellness and now getting into skin care products.
I love what I do because I’m creating products that are healthy and good for you at a reasonable price. I’m doing something good!
How did you get your company off the ground?
I started doing research and came across a beauty association, here in Chicago, Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors (ICMAD). While exploring their website, I noticed they had a map of all the vendors participating in their upcoming show, so I jotted down each company that was from the Chicago area. I then started calling each one, telling them I was interested in starting a skin care line, and asking if they knew of a chemist—they kindly corrected me and said, “Oh, you mean a formulator.” I took down names and numbers and proceeded to call each formulator and make appointments with them.
It was during this process that I met my formulator, Nestor Tomasi of Microbiological Testing & Consulting, Inc. I had an instant connection with him; he loved my concept and seemed genuinely interested in working with me. He also was agreeable in signing a contract giving me complete ownership of my formulas after payment of my fee to him.
I gave Nestor an ingredient list and he formulated my products. He made samples and then we refined the ingredients until the product was exactly what I wanted. We started with my inspiration product, my hydrating body cream with essential oils.
How did you come up with your list of ingredients and finalize a formula?
I knew that I wanted the line to be Greek-inspired, Vegan, Natural with as many certified organics as I could get and I wanted it to be really good for you—meaning great plant-derived ingredients that really work. I wanted the ingredients to be good enough to eat. I also, wanted my products to feel good when you put them on, not greasy or gritty.
So I began with my certified organic extra virgin olive oil because, just like food, this gives you the most benefits vs. regular olive oil that goes through a synthetic process. From there, I just started creating a list of ingredients that I felt were Greek and really good. I researched ingredients that benefit the skin, for example for fine line reduction or cell regeneration.
I am not a chemist so I knew Nestor would need to tweak my ingredient list to give the product its desired consistency and properties. I would go through his suggested ingredients and cross out the ones that did not fit my requirements, for example, that were animal and not plant derived. We went back and forth until we found the right formula, then we’d move on to sample production.
Nestor usually gives me two or three samples to try and we tweak those until we get the formula right. This all actually takes a really long time, anywhere from three to six months, and then we need to go into testing to make sure that it will not become contaminated with temperature changes, etc. The overall process before going into production can take nine months.
Once you had a proven formula, how did production work?
Nestor referred me to several manufacturers, including Rose Labs, Inc. The owner, Rose Kuchar, also has a passion for creating a high-quality product with top ingredients and she too didn’t hesitate to sign my contract (which was drawn up by my lawyer and cost me plenty). Rose always says that she believes when someone pays for a formulation, it should be theirs.
Rose is a small to large batch manufacturer so she can create small batches made in small tanks (with machine and human participation); these can then be filled by hand or machine. It all depends on the quantity and what may be involved, meaning if we are applying labels or packaging the product to shippers for wholesale.
The manufacturing stage with Rose took another four to six months because we had to wait for the ingredients and packaging to come. There are challenges to deal with, like how much of the ingredients to order. If I order a larger quantity for a better price, will its shelf life allow me to use it in my next production run?
How did you go about creating your brand and marketing your products?
I chose to name my brand YASOU because it’s a common Greek greeting that means hello, goodbye, but also “to good health.” What could be a better name than a toast to one’s health!
I did all of my own creative work, including my logo, packaging, and website design, so I guess my art director background has been a huge asset!
I based my pricing on the cost of ingredients, formulation, manufacturing, insurance, packaging, printing, packing materials, postage, marketing, website development, etc. And of course you have to factor in how much profit retailers need to make to come up with retail and wholesale pricing.
I am still trying to figure out how to promote my products and do so primarily online. I have had successful networking opportunities with bloggers and beauty industry people via Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram. Facebook has been particularly helpful for sales.
I’ve been featured in Crain’s Chicago Business, Modern Salon, CS Magazine, SunTimes, Beauty Sweet Spot, and more. (Check out reviews here.)
I also participate in wellness events and local markets (such as Dose and the French Market) in Chicago. And I cannot leave out the YWCA events: Their YSHOP carries YASOU skin care and 15% of the proceeds go to this wonderful organization!
While sales are good, I’m not in the black yet. Research shows it takes about 5 years!
Has the Greek community been supportive?
The American Hellenic California council was the first to approach me; they inquired inquired about receiving samples of my product to put into a goody bag for one of their largest events. I jumped at this opportunity to promote YASOU natural skin care.
This led to a call from the LA Greek Film Festival, who asked if I would sponsor them by also doing a giveaway and bringing samples to the event, which left me overjoyed and honored. They advertised YASOU skin care in all their media for the film festival and they told me they were really proud of the brand and what I had developed.
I also had news media from Greece write about YASOU skin care and Living Postcards showcasing one of the YASOU products. Many Greek-Americans have purchased YASOU, letting me know they were Greek and I had a Greek-American friend, Ephi Maglaris, here in Chicago help me immensely by introducing me to events and opportunities that I may not have known of.
What challenges have you encountered?
Little did I know how time consuming this profession was. I had just spent 15+ years as an art director and often worked under extreme deadlines and turn-around times; I had now entered a profession that was completely opposite. This avenue was all about patience and testing, not meeting deadlines. I’m two years into my venture and am still working on being patient with the process.
I also have encountered the difficulties of being a start-up boutique brand manufacturing locally in small batches. It’s difficult to find the jars or bottles I would like to use, eco friendly, made in the USA, and available in small quantities; everything comes in bulk and from China. But with a lot of research and inquiry, I was able to find the packaging I needed here in the USA.
There are constant challenges in being a startup small-batch manufacturer in a very competitive industry, and I sometimes think to myself, “What did you get yourself into?” So I have to take a deep breath. Thankfully, there is always something positive that keeps me in the game. I also tell myself that people need to have good quality skincare; they deserve it. So many skincare products are filled with preservatives, parabens, and just not good things and if I stay true to my vision, I will make it! I also have my husband and family encouraging me not to give up and reminding me how far I’ve come. I love and thank them all the time!
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I have learned so much about myself during this process and continue to do so. I love creating, nurturing, and building something. I think most women are naturally great leaders and innovative start up business owners because, by nature, we create, nurture, and grow life; new businesses are just like having a child, in a strange sense. I can do whatever I put my mind to as long as I believe in it! I have the power to say no if something isn’t up to my standards and that’s okay; I don’t need to feel guilty about it. It’s not personal, just business!
What advice do you have for women considering starting something new in midlife?
It’s never too late to start a new journey, no matter what your age may be. I think for women, midlife years are the best; they can decide to make life changes and they feel comfortable and more secure in those decisions than in their earlier years. I also believe in joining women’s networking groups and book clubs, for the connection. These are great avenues for meeting other women who may share similar experiences with you ,which can help you to focus on which paths may be next for you, either professionally or personally!
What advice do you have for women entrepreneurs in midlife?
If I can pass anything on to future women business owners I would say:
Be passionate about your idea. I think you really need to feel there is a need or interest for what you want to launch and your really must believe in that need or interest.
Make sure you want to make money! If you don’t, you will not have the desire to grow, no matter how passionate you are about the idea. You need that drive to make money in order to drive that growth.
Take advantage of the free services that are available to you around your local area. For example, here in Chicago, I approached SCORE with my business idea to see what the volunteer business mentors had to say to me about it. I found this invaluable, particularly when I was deciding to proceed with my company. They also started me on my business plan and mentored me through the process.
I also recommend looking for associations in the field or area you are considering and approaching them with your ideas and thoughts to see if they can recommend books or people to talk to before taking the plunge on your own.
Always be open to what someone wants to offer you, whether it’s a referral or advice. You never know how helpful it will be to you. For example, when I was calling around to find a formulator, I spoke with a gentleman who sold essential oils to formulators and companies and, through our conversation, he told me to make sure I found a good lawyer and to create my own contracts for my formulator and manufacturer in order to make sure that I always had full rights and ownership to my formulations. Otherwise, in most cases, even if you pay a formulator or manufacturer a development fee, the fine print on their contracts still states they own the product formula.
Get a lawyer you like and trust!
Lastly, make sure you trademark or copyright your name, logo, etc.
What resources do you recommend?
Product formulation: Nestor Tomasi of Microbiological Testing and Consulting, Inc.
Manufacturing: Rose Kuchar of Rose Laboratories, Inc.
Website content and PR: Joanne Costin and Mary Klest at Content for Biz
Public Relations: Dina Elliot of Exit One Solutions
Web development: Simple Machines Marketing
Legal counsel: William Walker of Nisen & Elliott in Chicago, IL
Accounting: Joseph W. Siepka
Product photography: Janet Mesic Mackie
Fidelity Container/Xpedx: designed the box for YASOU skin care packaging
Printing: American Litho Inc.
Portrait photography: Iwona Biedermann of Dreambox foto studio
What’s next for you?
I plan to continue growing YASOU by adding several new products, such as an eye cream, soap, moisturizing face serum, and shaving serum. I’m also concentrating on promoting through video and will be launching my first creative video on my YASOU site. I believe there’s always a next act or an extension to the path I have chosen or am on so, I’m always open because businesses are just as organic as personal growth if you allow it!
In addition, once I am out of the red, my goal is to contribute 15% of my sales to a fund “for the good.” I would love to be able to send some money to Greece to create something that could help unemployed people get by until they become employed. Other ideas include helping sponsor a youngster through college here in the US and in Greece, helping an area get water so people can learn to grow food and become self sufficient, or starting an animal shelter. There is so much that can be done to help others all over the globe so finding what to do with the money won’t be a problem. I just need to concentrate on sharing YASOU and hoping it will be embraced by consumers.
Contact Theodora Ntovas at email@example.com or 630-956-4163
Remember Love Your Self, Love Your Skin. Here at YASOU we believe that Health=Happiness=Beauty.