Mia Duchnowski & Laura Cox of Oars+Alps: “Identify what makes you uncomfortable”

Laura: It’s actually often said that immigrants have a very high level of resiliency in order to adapt and grow into their new surroundings. I moved to the US when I was eight years old and couldn’t speak any English. After college I put myself into a similar situation and moved to Hong Kong. Resiliency […]

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Laura: It’s actually often said that immigrants have a very high level of resiliency in order to adapt and grow into their new surroundings. I moved to the US when I was eight years old and couldn’t speak any English. After college I put myself into a similar situation and moved to Hong Kong. Resiliency is confronting a task head on, every day, without being thrown off guard. It’s easy to stay in your comfort zone but getting uncomfortable will only help you grow. It’s also knowing that sometimes, not all problems have a “right” or an easy solve but being able to pivot your thinking or be okay in solving part of the problem at a time.


In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mia Duchnowski & Laura Cox.

Laura Lisowski Cox is the Co-Founder and CMO of Oars + Alps, a direct to consumer skin care brand for people who lead an active, on-the-go lifestyle. The products are made with natural premium ingredients. The company launched in 2015 after Laura quit her high-profile job at Facebook

Laura has spent most of her career focused on the digital space. She started her career at Digitas NYC in Strategy & Analytics advising Fortune 100 companies on digital acquisition and retention strategies. Clients included American Express and Delta. She then become Director of Consulting at OgilvyOne in Hong Kong helping companies such as Louis Vuitton and IBM on integrating customer data in their digital space to drive overall growth. Finally, Laura ended up at Facebook advising companies like Apple and GoPro on how to best advertise on Facebook to drive both revenue and brand — and closely working with their teams to measure and optimize budgets across channels.

Laura holds an International Master of Finance from the Brandeis Business School. She has a double major from Brandeis University in Economics and Psychology. She has always held a fascination with data and human behavior.

Laura raced downhill skiing for 7 years and was the captain of her ski team in high school. Her husband is an avid skier as well and has completed a handful of marathons — he is currently training for his first triathlon.

Mia Saini Duchnowski is the Co-Founder and CEO of Oars + Alps, a direct to consumer skin care brand for people who lead an active, on-the-go lifestyle. The products are made with natural premium ingredients. The company launched in 2015 after Mia quit her high-profile job as a TV Reporter with Bloomberg TV, one of the largest financial TV networks in the world.

Mia spent over three years with Bloomberg TV in Hong Kong and in New York City where she was responsible for global economic, political and business coverage. She was the first person at the network to interview the Chairman of Microsoft, John Thompson, after he became Chairman. She’s interviewed hundreds of CEOs and heads of states including the former CEO of Burberry, Angela Ahrendts, and Virgin founder, Sir Richard Branson. She’s routinely covered breaking news stories, such as the disappearance of MH 370, Nelson Mandela’s death, and Steve Job’s passing.

Prior to joining Bloomberg in June 2011, Mia served as an Anchor and Reporter for Forbes TV. She reported from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland as well as interviewed prominent business leaders including Warren Buffett, former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair, Blackstone co-founder Pete Peterson, former Bear Stearns CEO Ace Greenberg, SAP CEO Bill McDermott and more. Earlier in her career, Mia was a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, working in hedge fund sales and marketing. There, she helped establish strategic relationships with hedge funds representing over 1.2 billion dollars in portfolio value.

Mia holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School. She has a double major from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in neuroscience and media studies, and a double minor in civil engineering and management science. While at MIT, she interned at NASA Ames Research Center doing artificial intelligence research. She was featured in Glamour Magazine as one of their Top Ten College Women in 2004.

Mia currently sits on the Auxiliary Board of the Chicago Lincoln Park Zoo and the Junior Board of Greencity Market in Chicago. Mia has served on the Board of Directors for the MIT Club of Hong Kong and the Harvard Business School Club of Hong Kong. She loves cycling and yoga and has four kids.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

Laura: My parents escaped communism in Poland and came to the United States without knowing the language or culture. They were both engineers and it was instilled in me at a young age that men and women should be treated equal in the workforce and that I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard for it. My parents really pushed me into math, numbers and finance even though, in the US, there were more gender norms set that is was more traditionally a “male” role. I found a love for STEM and eventually got my Masters of Finance from the Brandeis Business School. While working in the field I wore many hats and grew more interested in problem solving, rather than just numbers. The ability to have and learn from this 360 approach, I feel, really helped me be able to build Oars + Alps to what It is today.

Mia: Growing up, I was always told to go after my dreams, and both my personal and professional lives have somewhat echoed that mantra. I was accepted into Harvard Business School and, after three semesters, decided to drop out to pursue an opportunity that I could not pass up, a career as a TV reporter covering financials. I was told, when making that decision, that I was the only person to drop out of Harvard Business School at the time in their 100 year history after three semesters, but I knew that I would always regret it if I hadn’t taken the job (I since went back and finished my final semester and now proudly hold an MBA). In 2015 I left my job as a reporter at Bloomberg TV to start Oars + Alps and have never looked back.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Mia: It’s difficult to pinpoint just one but I think the through line was allowing myself to “see the forest for the trees.” I left Harvard Business School to pursue my dream job in TV and left that dream job to pursue starting my own business. Leaving that stable career in New York City and moving to Chicago to start Oars + Alps is not something that anyone could have imagined I would do, but ultimately it is what led us to an amazing partnership with S.C. Johnson and a successful, growing business.

Laura: When I first started in finance, my mentality, like most immigrants, was to put my head down, work hard and get the work done. I noticed that my colleagues that didn’t have as much experience as I did would go into a room and completely captivate their audience with just sheer confidence. From there, I realized that I had to be my own advocate as I knew just as much as the next person. This leads me to a time when I negotiating with a manufacturer in Hong Kong on behalf of a friend. The conversations were going well until it was time for me to make a trip to Hong Kong and when I arrived, realized that the entire thing was a sham and the factory didn’t exist. From my time in learning that I had to be confident in my convictions I was able to stand up for what was wrong in the situation, respectfully, and right the wrongdoing. While being kind and forging relationships is important, having that confidence to question and do your due diligence will serve you even more so.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Laura: I think what really makes Oars + Alps stand out is that we come from a place of authenticity. Both Mia and I wanted to create better products for our husbands. We aren’t creating products for ourselves so we really stick to the data and what our customers want, not just making products that we think would be great for us, but ones we know our customers want and need. Too often founders let their own instinct lead the way when they’re trying to build products for the population.

Mia: Echoing what Laura said, we crated this brand specifically for our husbands. Our insight was, and still is, unique as we were two women playing in the men’s space. We didn’t approach anything with rose-colored glasses as we knew we weren’t making products for ourselves, we wanted to test and scrutinize at every corner. Our brand has since evolved from strictly men’s focused to unisex, as women who traditionally hold the buying power were falling in love with the products they bought for their men.

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?

Laura: My husband, Stoney; running a business as a mom would be incredibly difficult if he wasn’t as supportive or encouraging. Not only as a partner in raising our family, but also someone who motivates me through the dark days and is willing to take on that extra workload when, inevitably, work follows you home. Stoney is the “alps” of Oars + Alps as he is an avid skier. He suffered from eczema and couldn’t find a product to help his skin so that is where a lot of my inspiration is drawn from.

Mia: My husband has been such an incredible force throughout my entire career. When I graduated, he pushed me to take a TV reporter job in Hong Kong as he knew it would be an enriching experience. He is one half of the muse for Oars + Alps and has been so generous with his time, helping me with his professional expertise and personal opinions. We both knew we wanted to have a big family and he supports us in parenting our four children. I’m constantly grateful for his personal and professional support!

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Laura: It’s actually often said that immigrants have a very high level of resiliency in order to adapt and grow into their new surroundings. I moved to the US when I was eight years old and couldn’t speak any English. After college I put myself into a similar situation and moved to Hong Kong. Resiliency is confronting a task head on, every day, without being thrown off guard. It’s easy to stay in your comfort zone but getting uncomfortable will only help you grow. It’s also knowing that sometimes, not all problems have a “right” or an easy solve but being able to pivot your thinking or be okay in solving part of the problem at a time.

Mia: Resiliency is knowing that bad things will happen but being super elastic and being able to jump back and change your course of action to the new circumstances. This doesn’t always mean you’re happy about it, but the ability to be able to get the job done with a clear-head.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Mia: My mom is someone who I feel is the ultimate picture of resiliency. As an immigrant, she had to rebuild herself in the US and did so through her daughters. She put her heart and soul into raising her family and I see that same resiliency today as a grandmother to my children.

Laura: I think all mothers show the ultimate resiliency. You don’t get a manual how to raise your child so a lot is figuring it out as you go. I especially think entrepreneur moms show the ultimate form of resiliency. When my mom moved to the US she couldn’t find a job. She interviewed for a position five hours away from our home and when they asked her if she could commute to the office, she didn’t bat an eye and said yes. She landed the job and would spend her work week at an apartment closer to her office and commute five hours back to her family on the weekends.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

Laura:When someone tells me I can’t do something, it makes my blood boil and really makes me want to prove them wrong. It’s truly one of the biggest satisfactions to be able to do so. When I was initially exploring raising capital, I lot of my acquaintances in the finance world, mostly men, would try and steer me away or not take me seriously because I am a woman. This motivated me to learn as much as possible to play the game by their rules. I learned to both talk the talk and walk the walk by asking the right questions and gaining the knowledge base I needed to feel confident in my asks.

Mia:I never heard the word “no” so many times until I became an entrepreneur. I fully agree with Laura, there is a lot of bias in the industry against women, and especially against mothers. It is truly such an honor to partner with S.C. Johnson as they really believe in the power of female founders building in our space.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

Laura:I don’t like to look at the word setback in a traditional sense, but as in more of a pivot. During COVID-19, Oars + Alps pivoted our production into making highly in demand hand sanitizer which isn’t something that was in our pipeline. We worked day and night to get this out quickly, effectively and safely, and knew that we wanted to give back to our community in doing so. We partnered with A Better Chicago to aid in providing these essentials for our local underserved community.

Mia: Being an entrepreneur, you have to be prepared for every day to be very similar in the sense that there will be a handful of people who will be mad at you or who will fail you that day. It’s very easy to let those failures eat away at you but you have to learn how to celebrate the wins, even small. There are many that come to mind like our manufacturer putting the wrong fragrance in our product or products not arriving to a big out-of-state activation in time. You have to learn how to roll with the punches and have a sense of humor in order to figure out the best solution for the immediate problem at hand.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

Mia: Living in a mostly white town in the Central Valley in California, I was teased and made fun of a lot. When you’re bullied you have two options, to shrink into a corner or stop caring about others liking you and do what you love. I chose the latter and joined the cheerleading squad, Scholarship Federation and mock trial, anything that interested me. As a founder, I see that a lot of other founders are really wanting to be liked by everyone and that’s not the best strategy. You have to be uncomfortable with not being liked or people not liking your point of view, and still feel comfortable voicing your opinions. Now that I look to invest in other companies, I look for those founders that aren’t trying to appease everyone but are confident in their convictions.

Laura:When I was hired for my first internship it was in competitive evaluations for an automotive group. One of the requirements was being able to drive which I was able to do. In my interview, I was asked if I’d be able to drive stick shift which I responded that I was an excellent driver and I’d be have no problem driving stick shift when I started the following month. The moment I was hired I enlisted my brother to teach me how to drive stick, which I hadn’t previously done, in knowing I had to hold true to my word. Putting myself in this, what could be deemed uncomfortable, situation and having the stamina to learn a new skillset is something that I feel really showed my resiliency and is a trait that I continue to build on, even today.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

Laura:

  1. Identify what makes you uncomfortable: for me, it was always public speaking.
  2. Figure out what your goals are: especially in those situations that you’re most uncomfortable.
  3. Put yourself in that uncomfortable situation: Having moved multiple times, my husband, who is a self-proclaimed extrovert, would always bring me to networking functions which I was very uncomfortable at. After time, I learned to be comfortable with the uncomfortable and it has helped me to grown and progress.
  4. Find tactics to help you through those situations: for me, I liked to come prepared with two stories and three questions in case I felt like I was in a jam.
  5. Have genuine curiosity to learn about others: Once I got over my fear of public speaking, I was able to really lean into the conversations I was having and gain knowledge and hear the most fascinating stories from my peers.

Mia:

  1. Acknowledge a situation — now, especially is the ultimate test of resiliency for new business but there are multiple paths to thrive.
  2. Build the courage — it takes a lot of mental strength and stamina to create the playbook to pivot.
  3. Formulate a plan — know that not all thriving brands currently have a clear and linear path towards thriving, know that you may have to pivot in order to be successful.
  4. Execute the plan — be mindful that this isn’t evergreen and you may have to pivot.
  5. Reflect on how it all turned out — again, especially now, anyone who has a business should be proud of the resiliency they’ve shown.

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?

Mia: Especially during this unsettling political climate, I think the power of patience is something I’d greatly like to instill. Lack of patience for others is severely impacting our empathy for humanity. Though I don’t agree with certain people on their personal, professional or political views, I feel like most people are so gung-ho about defending their own views that they don’t take time to listen to others. As a TV reporter, you’re taught that you are not the most important person on camera, the person you are interviewing is, and to really listen and you’ll find that when you’re quiet, you’ll learn who people really are. Having this patience can lead you to ask the right questions and, in turn, get the answers you want and need.

Laura:I think that giving everyone the tools to build a financial acumen is extremely important. Finance is viewed as a man’s world but it is something that everyone should be savvy in, no matter your background. My mom worked in finance as a computer engineer and instilled in me at an early age the importance of learning finance. She set me up with an investing platform which taught me how to manage money from an early age. This is why I’m so passionate about working with Project Entrepreneur, a growth accelerator for female founders, to help them understand the many facets of building a business like fundraising and what makes a company attractive. I think having these skills puts women on a more level playing field and helps them build the confidence to be resilient.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders 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?

Laura:Richard Branson — his spirit, excitement and curiosity about life is so infections. I love how he is so philanthropic and business-minded, yet he’ll always try and take what can seemingly been a monotonous experience and make it fun. I would love to live my life in the same vein that he does and continue to practice empathy and be an all-around good person, like I believe he is.

Mia:My answers is the same today as it was when I was a kid, Oprah Winfrey. I was always fascinated by her and she is the real reason I wanted to pursue a career in television. I think her ability to unite people of so many different backgrounds is truly remarkable.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram: @oarsandalps @mia.saini @lisowski

Tik Tok: @oarsandalps

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/oarsandalps/

Twitter: @oarsandalps

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