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Nisha Dearborn of Fresh Chemistry: “Being a founder is an individual sport”

I’d rather ask, why shouldn’t more women become founders? The phrasing of the question is important. One puts the burden of proof on the woman, and the other puts the responsibility on society as a whole. But if we must continue to share proof points as to why women make great founders, let’s look at the […]

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I’d rather ask, why shouldn’t more women become founders? The phrasing of the question is important. One puts the burden of proof on the woman, and the other puts the responsibility on society as a whole.

But if we must continue to share proof points as to why women make great founders, let’s look at the most common place you see women in leadership: the family unit. Ask any family who the “boss” is, and they all point to mom. That is likely because it is common for a mom to oversee all the moving parts, including household operations, partnerships, human resources, and often, finance. She anticipates obstacles and makes sound decisions for the family to succeed as a whole, often while not breaking a sweat. Those are the skills of an incredible founder.


As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nisha Dearborn.

Skincare has been a part of Nisha’s life since childhood. Her passion started as early as kindergarten, where she would pretend to concoct fruit and vegetable-based beauty products during nap time. In 2016, Nisha left New York City and the corporate world behind and relocated to Maine to be closer to her husband’s family. Armed with knowledge from years of listening to her dermatologist mother and experience in managing global brands, Nisha set out to solve the problem of women using stale, over-processed skincare, for herself — and Fresh Chemistry was born.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

It’s funny — on one hand, I never expected to be a Founder of a skincare company, but on the other hand, all of my life experiences lead perfectly up to this point. People say it’s like I was “born in a skincare handbasket” because my story starts at a very young age. I clearly remember skipping nap time in kindergarten and instead of pretending to make banana and cherry-based products for my teacher’s hair. My mom is a retired dermatologist, so I grew up spending summers working in her office, and would even go with her to professional dermatology conferences when I was in high school. I went to Wharton as an undergrad, and while all my classmates were vying for internships on Wall Street, I aimed for 5th Avenue. My first job was as a marketing intern at Estee Lauder. I then went on to spend nearly a decade managing billion-dollar brands like Aveeno, Listerine, and Tylenol, where I learned the general management skills required to run all parts of a successful business.

In 2016, my husband and I moved to Portland, Maine, to be closer to family. A healthy lifestyle is part of the culture here, so I started to pay closer attention to the groceries I was buying and the ingredients that were going into the meals for my family. I wanted to use fresh ingredients from my refrigerator or kitchen counter first, and rely on items from my pantry less because in general, the items in your pantry are not great for you. Pantry items were made a year ago and are intended to sit on a shelf for an indefinite amount of time, and don’t have a lot of nutrients left in them. That’s when it hit me- I knew from all my years listening to my mom and managing skincare brands that great ingredients are the key to great skincare. But just like food, the ingredients in skincare can get stale and weak over time. We don’t eat all our meals from our pantry, so why are we all using skincare products that were made a long time ago and formulated to sit on a shelf? I knew there had to be a better way — I felt women deserve better. So I set out to figure it out myself, and Fresh Chemistry was born.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Shortly after I soft-launched my company, I was attending a beauty industry expo event in NYC. As a new business founder, I was handling all aspects of the event by myself, including traveling to New York with suitcases of fragile display items, setting up the booth the morning of the event, etc. I had heard that QVC was interested in meeting with founders that were in attendance, and while I’m not one to ever turn down a meeting, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to squeeze it all into my busy trip. I found a way to get the booth set up, run back to my hotel to shower and change, and make it to the QVC meeting. I’m pretty sure I was out of breath when I got there! We had a nice chat, and I was so focused on the expo event ahead of me that I didn’t think much of it. About ten days later, QVCcalled me to say I was a finalist for their Beauty Quest Award and they’d love for me to come to the show! I tried not to show it, but I was pretty much speechless.

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?

How about launching a new company a few months prior to a global pandemic? Obviously, that wasn’t a conscious decision, but thinking about it makes me laugh. As if startup life wasn’t hard enough? I verbally accepted QVC’s offer to come on the show the day before I got the news that schools were closing. So there I was, faced with the challenge of sourcing raw materials and packaging components, while the suppliers were figuring out new COVID protocols and closures. Balancing changes throughout the industry, I was also figuring out how to be a full time teacher to my two kids. As for the lessons I learned, we’re still in this pandemic, so I’m sure I’ll have more perspective with time. But for now, I can tell you that a mother’s capacity to GET IT DONE, both at home and in business, is unlimited.

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?

I learned so much about skincare and breaking through societal barriers from my mother. But the unsung hero in my success is my dad. If all little girls had a father like mine, the world would be a better place. Despite his upbringing in India, a culture where male children were openly preferred and prioritized, my father always believed in the equal and unlimited potential of women. He didn’t just teach me “girl things”- whether it was watching sports together or teaching me about cars or computers, he showed me through his actions that girls can do anything they set their mind to. So when I went on to undergraduate and graduate business programs that were predominantly male, I wasn’t intimidated. That still holds true for me now, as a female entrepreneur.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

If only 20 percent of funded companies have female founders, we can’t presume the answer is to get more women to start companies. The research shows women have a more difficult time when it comes to funding. The article highlights this point, and there’s been a lot of discussion around it, so I’ll focus on your original question — what is holding women back from founding companies?

I think there are many reasons, and I’ll focus on three. First- and this may be both obvious and yet unpopular- but I would say having children makes it difficult for women to start companies. I believe having children is an amazing female superpower, with great power comes great responsibility, and the responsibility is particularly heavy when the kids are young. Yes, you can find your village to help you, but you’re still the CEO of that village! There are windows of opportunity for women to start companies in the phase of life before kids, and in the phase of life as your kids get older. There is just a seasonality to life that women have to balance.

Second of all, there aren’t a lot of examples of successful female founders in our society. Just like there are less female commercial pilots, and in turn less females aspiring to be a pilot. It is a chicken and egg game, and with the amazing, trailblazing female founders that are out there today, the landscape should look very different for the next generation.

Finally, there is research that shows that men are more likely to apply for a job if they feel they are partially qualified, whereas women feel that they have to be more than qualified (even overqualified?) to apply for that same job. The “job” of founding a company for the first time is one that nobody has experience in, and even if you feel qualified to jump in, you soon realize there is so much that you don’t know. Men are more likely to take that risk than women.

All of these reasons can be changed, whether through cultural evolution, societal programs, or individuals who buck the trend and create a path for others to follow. I am confident that with every decade moving forward, the number of companies founded by women will increase.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Absolutely. As individuals, there has been some focus on teaching our daughters that they can start companies, lead countries, go to the moon, anything they want to do. I think it is just as important to teach our sons that girls can do those things, also. It is not enough for women to believe in themselves — they’ll need men who believe in them, too. As a society, we need to continue to focus on getting women in visible leadership roles. For example, corporations have made an effort to have at least one female on their board. One is not enough, we have to keep pushing until corporate board seats look more like the population as a whole. As for the government, if we know the female founder population is underfunded, then why not create funding opportunities dedicated to female founders? There are currently large corporations that have set up small business grants focused solely on female founders, and the federal government could do the same.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

I’d rather ask, why shouldn’t more women become founders? The phrasing of the question is important. One puts the burden of proof on the woman, and the other puts the responsibility on society as a whole.

But if we must continue to share proof points as to why women make great founders, let’s look at the most common place you see women in leadership: the family unit. Ask any family who the “boss” is, and they all point to mom. That is likely because it is common for a mom to oversee all the moving parts, including household operations, partnerships, human resources, and often, finance. She anticipates obstacles and makes sound decisions for the family to succeed as a whole, often while not breaking a sweat. Those are the skills of an incredible founder.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?

All the stories you hear about founders include intimidating stories of sleepless nights, compromised family time, and an overall feeling of intense pressure. This can be true, but it is typically associated with companies that have a significant source of external funding, and the investors have expectations for growth milestones to be hit within a predetermined amount of time. If you are bootstrapped or funded through a round of friends and family investments, everyone wants to see a return on their money, but this scenario will generally not result in the pressure-cooker environment that is highly publicized (and likely scares away many potential founders). I am currently funding Fresh Chemistry, myself. This meant that when our schools went virtual during the pandemic, I was able to teach my kids and keep the business going. Of course that means growth will take a little longer, but you can test out an idea, understand your consumer and your messaging strategy, and keep full control of your business at the start. Then by the time you seek significant external funding, you’ll already have an identified path to success.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

As a founder, you need to enjoy taking on the roles of both worker bee and queen bee. You will be rolling up your sleeves and doing a lot of heavy lifting yourself, especially at the beginning. But you also have to like being in charge. While that sounds attractive on the surface, it means being able to take the pressure of making important decisions with imperfect information, convincing others to follow your lead, and owning the outcomes.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Being a founder is an individual sport.

I have a theory that people fall into two categories — those that prefer individual sports, and those that thrive in a team environment. I find that if you ask people which sports they played in high school, you’ll find either they were the basketball/soccer/volleyball type or the cross-country runner/swim/track type. Personally, I have always been the person who has enjoyed and thrived in team sports. I played soccer and volleyball, got my MBA (traditionally very team-based, as opposed to law school or getting your PhD), and had multiple team-based jobs throughout my career. Being a startup founder is entirely an individual sport. You are often working on your own, making decisions on your own, and there isn’t the inherent socialization built into the typical work day. This will change as the business develops and the teams grow, but as a founder, there will always be responsibilities that you need to take on as an individual.

2. Building a business is a marathon, not a sprint.

You always hear overnight success stories. If you look carefully at any of those stories, there are many years of actual work that went into the company prior to the (seemingly) overnight success. I think founders are always waiting for notable inflection points in the business — you have to be a bit of a dreamer with some level of irrational hope in order to start a company. And I do believe if you put the work in, those inflection points will happen. But you have to start the company with enough passion that you will continue to grind it out day after day, regardless of when that inflection point happens for you. Because the reality is, once your business has that success, it means there is now a lot more work to be done, not less.

3. The feeling of accomplishment happens intermittently, but not daily.

In many corporate jobs, you can start your day with a list of to-dos, and by the end of the day you’ve checked off many of them (and added others). As a startup founder, it is not that simple. Even identifying the tasks that need to be done can take time. Once you know what you have to do, you will begin to notice that those steps involve learning something new. Maybe it is finding a raw material supplier, or even before that, figuring out what raw materials you may need. Chances are, this process of exploring, learning, and asking questions will take some time. There aren’t as many to-do list boxes that get checked at the end of every day.

4. You can be a mom and a founder.

As I said earlier, it does depend on what type of investment you’ve taken on, and the timeline the investors have set for you. But I have found that a mother’s ability to GET IT DONE is unparalleled. If you think you have to abandon your children to work night and day to start a company, and that is preventing you from taking the plunge, go ahead and start slow. Just one step at a time. You’ll see that you impress yourself with how much you can take on and how you can manage that balance in your daily life.

5. Significant growth takes significant money.

The caveat to #4 above is that significant growth often takes significant money. Especially if you are an e-commerce business, the once nascent world of social media advertising is now an expensive place to compete. Creating awareness and trial takes money, creating significant trial takes significant money. However, I don’t think this should dissuade women from starting companies. If you have passion for an idea and are willing to put the work in (see #2), then start slow, and hone your idea and your approach to driving revenue. You’ll be able to find the formula that drives your business, and then by the time you take on significant investment, you’ll be ready.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I always think about being generous with the “3 Ts”: my time, my talents, and my treasures. I don’t believe you should wait for success in order to do this. On the contrary, I think being generous in these three areas is part of how I define success. In my current stage of life, with two elementary school-aged kids at home in a global pandemic, I spend a lot of my time and talents focusing on teaching them and making sure they are going to be amazing contributors to our future world. I also donate my time to helping their schools by volunteering on various committees. For the third “T”, or treasures, I have a personal annual goal of significant philanthropic activity that increases every year. It will always be a part of who I am. My current passion areas for philanthropy focus on fighting hunger, encouraging racial equality, and increasing female access to education.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I am a strong believer that educating girls will change the world. Almost 100 million girls around the world today are not currently in school. Research shows that by getting girls access to education, you reduce poverty, help the economy, and have better health outcomes in that community. If you educate girls in a society, the whole community benefits. Just think about the brilliant minds that the world is not tapping into, the improvements across society that will result by simply giving girls an educated chance. I am the product of an educated mother, and even better, a father who saw women as his educated equal. Female equality will never be fully realized until girls around the world get access to education. Michelle Obama is doing incredible things in this space, you should check out the Girls Opportunity Alliance (www.obama.org/girlsopportunityalliance/).

We are very blessed that some very prominent 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.

I have to say Mindy Kaling. I identify a lot with her experience of being a child of Indian immigrants (her mom is a doctor, too!), her smart confidence, as well as looking a little different than most people in your profession. I love her positive attitude, she cracks me up, and she is so supportive of her fellow brown females going after their dreams. Plus, we’re both moms! Mindy has discussed how Oprah has played a role in teaching her to invest in things she believes in. I would love to have a zoom chat with her, for sure.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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