An industrial designer who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, she is the founder and CEO of CoCoChi. Her “mission,” based on product integrity as well as sustainable practices, is to produce a line of topical skin care products made of food-based ingredients, like coconut oil, beeswax, carrot, ginger and spearmint, that nourish and feed the skin, thus: SkinFare. She sees her business as a platform for creating sustainable, pervasive, even massive change.
[dropcap]U[/dropcap]pstairs in the bright, spacious, refinished attic of the house on Hendersonville Road where her company has their central office, six full-time employees, clearly a collaborative team, all work at various computer and production stations 70 hours a week. But the secret here is that Kara’s husband Tyler is in charge of production; she has hired her mother as bookkeeper, her brother is the IT consultant, and friends Paul and Krista, respectively, are in charge of sales and support. Kara and her husband and three year old daughter, who attends preschool, live downstairs. I am stunned, as I move around the room, by the beauty of what I mistake for elaborate wooden displays, in German Creche shapes, but Kara explains that these sales display units are made of cardboard. She explains the “radical thought behind the design” of her units. Recycled, biodegradable layers of corrugated cardboard, laser-cut, they can be disassembled and are put together with screws. Their slogans, that read “Leave No Chafe,” “Save Your Skin,” and “Bring On The Snow,” are easily changed, with minimal waste at the shelf. Kara’s talents as an industrial designer are on display here, and after learning that she earned a degree in woodworking from Haywood Community College, the penny drops. She has an intense interest in materials and materiality; wood, cardboard, paper, all these come from the trees she reveres. “I suppose North Carolina turned me into a tree-hugging dirt-worshiper. These mountains inspire me on multiple levels, from bio-mimicry to spirituality. I have felt truly blessed to live here. My deep respect for natural materials was shaped at Haywood Community College while I was learning the craft of furniture making. A true craftsman strives to understand the intricacies of his medium, and for me woodworking is the exaltation of trees.”
Kara was drawn to this area, craving a different culture. She was “driven to change herself, to take her talents and be somebody different.” “That language of change was industrial design and the potential for mass production.” She grew up in Fort Lauderdale and worked in theatre production at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, where she met the magician David Copperfield. She became his personal assistant in New York and acknowledges how much she benefited from his example and mentorship. She was inspired to follow her dreams and first moved to North Carolina to pursue her education in art and design thirteen years ago.
“It’s hard to be an environmental activist living in a community that doesn’t support those values.” She admires the entrepreneurial and pioneering spirit at work here, the ethos of local production, which she observes and marvels at as she talks about engaging with a local grocer, shop owners and restaurateurs. Errickson’s personality and initiative are perfectly suited to the integrated spirit at work in Asheville.
“I first went to Bali during college to spend the summer researching bamboo with the Environmental Bamboo Foundation, which was founded by one of my mentors, Linda Garland. One week before my arrival, there was a devastating earthquake on the neighboring island of Java. I was eager to lend a hand and ended up designing a bamboo house, which was used to rebuild 300 dwellings in a small village called Tembi. I was encouraged to return after completing school, so after much contemplation, Tyler and I packed our bags and moved to Indonesia.”
Errickson’s design skills and her inventiveness are reflected in the SkinFare product itself as well as its packaging. The company has secured a foothold in the marketplace because of its organic certification, obtained by Tyler Errickson, as Production Manager, which SkinFare sees as crucial to their business development. SkinFare is the first product to bear the newly developed “Blue Ridge Naturally” seal, which certifies products to standards for this region. Advantage West, the public/private partnership that supports regional economic development, allocated SkinFare a seed loan; it also supports Blue Ridge Food Ventures, where SkinFare is manufactured. The six full-time employees work collectively on manufacturing days to produce the beautifully designed push-up pillars, like a giant chapstick, which melts on contact.
The three and a quarter inch, twist-top tubes, made of 90% recycled, 75% post-consumer waste, are biodegradable. The five coconut-oil based “flavors” are color coded, and have names like “Verdant Remedy,” and “Thunder Cake.” Thunder Cake will “energize, relieve and protect;” with ingredients like clove, nutmeg and anise,” it smells good enough to eat. Verdant Remedy smells like a grassy field. The sweeter and faintly spicy “Apothecary Prime,” delivers chamomile, sage and thyme. The scents are related to the colors, so Apothecary Prime’s tube is brown and pink. Verdant Remedy is, of course, green. In one section of the workspace, color samples are laid out next to the tubes, and there are shelves of essential oils like wild carrot, helichrysum, chamomile, sage, thyme, rock rose and bergamot. It’s an alchemist’s dream, and the team works collaboratively in developing each product, but Kara admits there have been failures, concoctions that didn’t smell as good or feel right on the skin.
Errickson’s dream is to see more botanicals produced locally and organically. The SkinFare product is composed of just seven ingredients, five of which can be grown in this area, but are not grown organically and in large quantities. The company had wanted to source most of their ingredients from this region, ideally within a hundred mile radius, but Errickson was disappointed to discover that crops here are not as diverse as one might imagine. In 2004, Congress closed the federal tobacco program, threatening an agricultural endeavor that had dominated this region for a century. So many farmers have been accustomed to producing tobacco. Undaunted, she understands that farmers need replacement crops for tobacco and wants to support a movement to diversify regional crops by purchasing organically grown agricultural products, medicinals and native plant species. The company wants to guarantee good manufacturing practices as well as purity. Incredibly, Errickson relates that “there is no oversight and no regulatory process for the manufacture of cosmetic products in the United States. There are 11,000 synthetic chemicals in use; less than 10% have been tested for long-term safety factors.” “Manufacturers in the U.S. can use any ingredient or raw material,” with few exceptions, “to market a cosmetic product without government review or approval.” Johnson & Johnson just agreed to remove all carcinogens in its products by 2015.
As Errickson makes clear, “SkinFare is a company with values that will tie values to profitability.” She expects to succeed because of her mission, not despite of it. Although she has no business background, she has relied on her training in industrial design. She explains that “it’s the same process to design a product, to design a company.
My business plan is a continuous progression of a business vision.” SkinFare has total control of its integrated supply chain: they develop their own products, source locally when possible, have made changes in response to consumers and will continue to do so. “The last point in our mission deals with our mentality toward conservation and sustainability. Our search for packaging that wouldn’t end up in a plastic gyre in the middle of the ocean was an enormous undertaking. Making that decision meant that we couldn’t use typical suppliers and would battle decreased margins, but eventually the packaging became the key differentiator for the SkinFare products at shelf level. Consumers can instantly see the difference and that is hard to achieve.” Their first product was in black print, and consumer feedback led to the new colorfully packaged line, now diversified into five products, the five different “flavors” of SkinFare.
The tubes of balm feel almost like colorful toys. And I have to admit I’ve been using them, on my feet, dry hands, as a lip balm, and on my crow’s feet. After our interview, I wanted to see the product in situ and drove down Hendersonville Road to a Walgreens, where I consulted Dawn, an employee who was able to describe the benefits of SkinFare and how I should use it. I wondered who had educated her so well on the product! The company has no marketing budget, and their sales success is based on grassroots word of mouth and community support. In the year and some months it has been on the market, sales have exceeded 25,000 units. SkinFare is carried in over 300 retail locations nationwide, including Earth Fare, Whole Foods and Walgreens. Kara has been surprised by the sense of responsiveness she feels in relation to the consumer. She recalls a ninety-year old woman, who wrote her a letter to thank her. At a local Earth Fare demo, a wonderfully supportive woman was talking to Kara about her product. She pulled out a photo of her son, an infant who had a massive number of surgeries for cleft palate. This mother knew SkinFare didn’t burn because the first time she used it on her son, he didn’t cry. As she conveys this story, Kara and I both get tears in our eyes. The woman believed SkinFare had helped heal his scars.
In fact, it was the birth of Tyler and Kara’s daughter in Bali that led to the inspiration for SkinFare. During the time she attended Rhode Island School of Design, she met Tyler, who was studying glassmaking. “Since we first met in college at RISD, we have structured a single existence, working together, playing together, living together, and loving together.
“Our daughter Kaia was born into Tyler’s arms in a small, open-air house in Bali, Indonesia, three years ago, solidifying Tyler’s unwavering commitment to our family and our desire to create a better world. My daughter is my muse; my husband is my strength, and somewhere in the middle, I have found the courage to exist and move forward in spite of the obstacles.”
Kara relayed how the birth changed her as it changes many mothers, who are now responsible “for a being who matters beyond themselves.” During her pregnancy she wanted to use safe and affordable cosmetics. All foreign products offered for purchase in Bali are very expensive because of the duties levied on imports. The locals introduced Kara to coconut oil, which has no carcinogenic ingredients. She used it on her skin, in her hair; by the time her daughter was born she was cooking with it. She wondered why it wasn’t used in the United States. During the 1950s, to make way for the marketing of corn and soy oils, used in margarine and other products, tropical oils became part of a smear campaign, and citizens associated products like palm oil as being bad for them. “Coconut oil changes from a liquid to a solid at 77 degrees. It has a small molecular structure so skin absorbs it easily, and it is an ideal carrier for beneficial ingredients since it can deliver them directly into one’s bloodstream.” Errickson explains that a product is difficult for a consumer if it isn’t convenient, but she knew the company could make the product convenient. Consumers know how to use a product that resembles a lip balm or a chapstick.
Kara’s relationship to her products is deeply personal. She related the experience of losing her father to cancer. “My father’s passing was a tremendous loss. I modeled myself after him and continue to experience a profound sadness that I can no longer enjoy his presence. In November of 2011, Kevin was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer called Sarcoma. Less than one year later, the battle was over. Having watched him decline from a remarkably healthy man in such a short time was devastating. I openly share our personal family experience in hope that I can encourage people to consider the relevance of skincare products for exposure to carcinogenic chemicals.”
And did I mention that Kara is beautiful inside and out? Tall and lean, she has a Scandinavian bone structure, and lush and beautifully colored tattooing. “I am constantly fascinated by the world around me and embrace any opportunity to experience unique and exotic experiences. As a designer, there is always a battle between form and function and as an artist, there is always a balance between ornamentation and simplicity. My tattoos are an exploration of surface decoration on a living, breathing, changing medium and to me, they express a willingness to experience life to the fullest!”
Her latest project is the Flora Series, just released, a co-branded product with Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. All of the products contain hops as well as extracts from plants native to the Sierra Nevada. She intends to continue to maintain control over the development of products, quoting Charles Eames, who said, “Never outsource knowledge.” She intends to follow every step in the process, a competitive advantage, since many cosmetics manufacturers outsource their product development. She wants to appeal to a mass consumer. Her enthusiasm is infectious, but she is also canny. During the first year of marketing and selling her product, she considered where to sell SkinFare, investigating how retail stores dealt with a small company, testing relationships with companies, whether their structures were ethical. She asked the questions, “How do they work with a small business?” “Who is growing their company in a Green direction?” Walgreens has a system that supports its sale of local products, for example. A manager at a local Walgreens was watching television on a day she appeared on WLOS. That fortuitous convergence seems emblematic of the way Errickson’s life and ambitions have developed. Kara Errickson believes “Every day brings another opportunity;” within the week she was flying to London to meet a potential backer, because “Someone in London got hold of the product and loves it.”