…Nothing great comes from doing what’s ‘safe’. We put our life savings into this crazy idea, my husband left his ‘safe’ job in finance all while we were about to start a family. I don’t want to look back on my life and say, “I’m glad I stayed in my comfort zone.” I want to say, “wow that was a crazy adventure!”. The best things in life come from getting out of your comfort zone and accepting failure as some of life’s greatest lessons. We celebrate failure in our family and our company, and make sure we understand the lesson learned to then quickly adapt and improve.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kori Estrada. Kori is the Co-Founder of the new natural oral care company RiseWell, and co-CIO of Axon Capital, an asset management firm in New York. With a focus on consumer, technology and healthcare related investments throughout her career in both public and private markets, Kori is passionate about innovative companies and brands that are moving the needle in these specific industries. Prior to joining Axon Capital, Kori was an Associate at Shumway Capital Partners and an Analyst in the Investment Banking Division at UBS Investment Bank. She received her BA from Columbia University majoring in Economics and Philosophy. In her spare time, she can be found fishing with her husband and fellow Co-Founder John in the North Fork of Long Island, spending time with her 10-month old son Leo or cooking healthy recipes for her personal blog KoKoButter.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My career has entailed a decade in finance investing for healthcare and consumer companies. I never would have imagined that I would embark on a journey to create a new toothpaste, but about two years ago my husband and I started thinking about having kids which led me into a new passion project. I have a condition called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) which can make it more difficult to have kids. After meeting with doctors, I learned that I would have to go through the IVF process in order to have children. As any woman who has undergone this process knows, you want to do everything you can to make it successful. My doctor advised that I should focus on eliminating any products that could contain harmful ingredients for me and my growing family. I went through my apartment and threw out anything with questionable ingredients. The one thing I struggled to replace was toothpaste. I learned that conventional toothpaste was full of toxic chemicals like anti-freeze and irritants like SLS and Triclosan (which the FDA banned in hand soap). My brother Derek (who happens to be a dentist!) told me that most natural toothpastes are as effective as water due to the fact that although they eliminate harmful ingredients, they don’t end up replacing the effective ingredients with any alternatives. That’s when I brainstormed with Derek and my husband John, who’s an engineer, to see if we could come up with a toothpaste that is 100% clean but also just as effective as conventional toothpaste. We scoured the world for the best ingredients and came across an ingredient used as the gold standard in Japanese oral care but that was all but unheard of in the United States. This ingredient, hydroxyapatite, is a natural mineral that makes up 90% of our tooth enamel and has been shown to be just as effective as fluoride at remineralizing teeth. A few hundred prototypes later, RiseWell was born, along with my now 10-month-old son Leo. I continue working at my finance job during the day, while spending nights and weekends on RiseWell, which is my true passion project.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In our early research into the oral care industry, our journey took us to Japan to find out what would be our key ingredient, which turned out to be hydroxyapatite (HA). HA is the gold standard in Japan and has been used for over 40 years. This natural ingredient has been shown to be just as effective as fluoride but at the same time is totally safe and bio available. When we found this ingredient in a drug store in Tokyo, a lightbulb went off that we needed to bring it to the United States. In this tiny drugstore we decided that day to go all in with RiseWell.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We did a pre-launch program to help get the word out about RiseWell hoping to reach a few hundred of our closest friends and family. We offered free products depending on how many people they were able to get signed up with their email addresses. Within a few days, it went viral and tens of thousands of people were sharing our pre-launch program. Eventually, the traffic caused Twitter to shut down our company account! At that point, we worried whether we even had enough inventory to fulfill all these orders. It was a good problem to have, but it also taught us to be prepared for the downsides of going viral! As result, we had to quickly add resources (internally and with our suppliers) to help us scale faster than we originally anticipated.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’re reinventing a category that hasn’t seen much innovation in over 70 years since the introduction of fluoride. We’ve created a toothpaste that is safe enough to eat, and is just as effective as conventional toothpaste, and is also backed by science and leading dentists. You’ll look forward to using our products and leaving them out on your bathroom counter with its aesthetically pleasing packaging. Most natural toothpastes take out the active ingredients (i.e. fluoride) but don’t replace it with anything. We’ve taken a different approach to ensure that even the most demanding dentists can get behind our products. We’ve been obsessive over only including the safest and highest quality ingredients that work like they should. That’s why it was important to us to partner with the leading doctors and dentists to create a line of oral care products that is backed by science, proven to work and safe enough for the entire family.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! Some of the most exciting new projects we can’t talk about yet, but we do have a mouthwash coming out and a floss that will be a first-of-its kind. When we started this whole process a few years ago, we only wanted to create products that would be a material change from what already existed on the market. I was horrified to learn that most commercial flosses use Teflon as its key ingredient. Manufacturers aren’t required to label ingredients for these types of products, so most consumers have no idea what’s in their floss. I knew that we had to create a better option and be completely transparent with exactly what’s in our floss. Most cookware companies started replacing their non-stick pans with Teflon alternatives years ago, but consumers have probably been unknowingly using Teflon on their teeth for as long as they’ve been flossing! Using Teflon daily in your mouth, where chemicals are easily absorbed through the mucosa, is not something that anyone wants or should have to do.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Take advantage of the amazing women’s networks we have at our disposal. One of the best resources I’ve had were my fantastic women’s and mommy networks. If I ever had a late-night question, needed to hire someone quick or simply wanted advice, I’ve been able to leverage both of these fantastic online communities.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Unfortunately, we’re a lean start-up that only launched this month with just a handful of employees so I’ll report back once we are a larger organization! For now, it’s heads down, being as scrappy as possible and multi-tasking between running Risewell, my current job as co-CIO at Axon Capital and mom to my 10-month old Leo. The benefits of running a lean company mean that every single person in the organization is forced to think creatively about everything we do, and we are all better off because of that.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Yes — I owe almost all of my success to my husband and co-founder John. We were probably one of the first couples that met through Facebook back in 2005 when it only launched at three universities. During my junior year, I friended him, and he moved into my dorm room a few months later and the rest is history! He’s always been my biggest fan and supporter — no matter what. I honestly don’t know where I’d be without his unwavering support, ability to challenge me intellectually and his belief that we can do anything in the world. It’s also worth mentioning that he believed in my idea for RiseWell enough to leave his job at a hedge fund to pursue this company full-time. He’s incredible and without his smarts, ability to problem solve and stay calm under pressure, RiseWell wouldn’t exist!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
It’s one of our goals as an organization when we turn a profit to put those dollars behind an organization and cause that we really believe in. The one nearest and dearest to my heart is the PCOS Challenge. They’re a fantastic organization shedding light on a condition that impacts at least 10–15% of women (myself included) and has had almost no funding behind it which is why the disease continues to be such a mystery to doctors and patients. We also believe that if we are successful as a company, we will bring joy to people’s morning and night routines, rid them of the nasty chemicals found in conventional toothpastes and protect their teeth like toothpaste should! Our company and scientific council are committed to creating only the highest quality products that are backed by science and safe enough to eat.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Embrace failure — nothing great comes from doing what’s ‘safe’. We put our life savings into this crazy idea, my husband left his ‘safe’ job in finance all while we were about to start a family. I don’t want to look back on my life and say, “I’m glad I stayed in my comfort zone.” I want to say, “wow that was a crazy adventure!”. The best things in life come from getting out of your comfort zone and accepting failure as some of life’s greatest lessons. We celebrate failure in our family and our company, and make sure we understand the lesson learned to then quickly adapt and improve.
- Think outside the box — you’re not going to achieve anything great by recreating what’s already been done. It wasn’t until we expanded our research to Japan that we discovered what would be our key active ingredient, hydroxyapatite. This is an industry that hasn’t meaningfully changed in over 70 years and to break into the market successfully we knew we’d have to revolutionize the status quo and create products that are truly game changing.
- Be authentic — it would’ve been really easy (and much cheaper!) to stray from our brand values, but our mission is to be totally honest and transparent with everything we do, whether it’s sourcing only the highest quality ingredients, going through 1,000 iterations of each of our products to make sure it’s truly differentiated or obsessing over the perfect tube that is more luxurious than anything else on the market.
- Resilience — the ups and downs of startup life are inevitable and the ability to keep moving, even when you can’t see the finish line are critical to life as an entrepreneur (and a mom!). I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve had our doubts, whether it was perfecting the flavor of our signature toothpaste, getting inventory to a customer in time, sourcing ingredients, etc. The examples are endless! The key is embracing these challenges, learning from mistakes and moving on.
- Networking — you might think that networking is only important when you’re trying to find a job, but I found it to be instrumental to figuring out how to build a company, especially coming from a background in finance where we knew very little about science, branding and marketing. I met with as many people as possible and leveraged new and old networks / communities to move fast and grow our company. We had my dentist brother involved from the beginning, but it wasn’t until we brought on some additional dentists and doctors who are considered the best in the industry, that we were able to up our game.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Number one, we believe consumers should demand more from the products they put on and in their body. The days of needing to put up with toxic chemicals to have an effective product are over. Number two, if we can also shed light on two conditions that impact the lives of so many people — PCOS and infertility — and use our influence as an organization to improve the lives of this community through donations to organizations that make an impact, education, awareness and/or deliver better quality products, then we’ve been extremely successful. I want women to know that they are not alone — 10–15% of women struggle with PCOS, often alone and in the shadows. I want to bring awareness to the fact that this is a common condition and there is no shame in it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” — Michael Jordan
Embracing failure and staying resilient are the two biggest keys to success in my mind. Life’s greatest moments are built on the ability to do these two things and there’s no better quote than this one from Michael Jordan that captures that spirit. Moments of failure and doubt have always been the best source of opportunity.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Oprah Winfrey. Is there anything Oprah can’t do? No! She’s a media mogul, actress, entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. I have so much respect and admiration for the empire she’s created. I always strive to learn from the best and there’s no better example of a woman who has achieved it all than Oprah.