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Family Businesses, Entrepreneurs Marrying Entrepreneurs, And Mentoring Each Other! With Ada Polla

If you love what you do, you don't feel like you're working. What joy it must be to be passionate about running family businesses and sharing your parents’ legacy with the world. Hayley Foster’s guest today is Ada Polla, CEO of Alchimie Forever. Alchimie Forever is Ada’s family-owned skincare business from Switzerland. After graduating from Georgetown Business School, she brought the business to the United States. Join in the conversation as Hayley and Ada bond over what it feels like to run a family business and to be an entrepreneur who marries an entrepreneur. Tune in and enjoy this episode!


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Family Businesses, Entrepreneurs Marrying Entrepreneurs, And Mentoring Each Other! With Ada Polla

I'm here with Ada Polla of Alchimie Forever and we are going to talk about all things beauty and skincare. I'm excited that you are here, Ada. Thank you so much for joining me. I just want to have you do a quick little intro of yourself because I'm sure you could do it better than I can.

Thank you so much for having me on your show. My name is Ada and I am originally from Geneva, Switzerland, where I spent my childhood through the end of high school, and then I came to Boston, Massachusetts to go to college. For years, I'm dating myself. I stayed here in the US and I expanded my family's medical/skincare business in this product brand. I have been doing it ever since. I worked with my father and my sisters. Our mission is to improve your self-care through skincare products.

How long has the family been in this business?

My father is the leading dermatologist in Switzerland and he started his solo derma practice in 1986. The people always ask me, "How long have you had your product line?" This is a very organic family story not a corporate, “Let's have a focus group and launch a line,” type of story, the answers are never simple.

My father created his first product at the end of the 1980s to help heal the skin of children following laser treatments. He was the first physician to have laser technology in Europe. This was a product to help heal the skin post-procedure and technically its birth date is 1989, but it wasn't a brand. It was one product.

It was in a white jar with a sticker on it. It didn't have a name. It was given to his patients as a gift following treatments. That's when our first product came to life, and we still have this product. If you think more about the brand, as it exists with a brand name called Alchimie Forever with the packaging and an assortment of products. That birth date is closer to 2004, which is when I graduated from Georgetown Business School and started doing what I'm still doing.

Did you go to business school with the idea in mind that you were going to stay here and bring the product line over here?

I went to college at Harvard and I then wanted to show my family that I could get a job outside of the family business. I worked in consulting for a couple of years. This was at the end of the '90s when consulting and investment banking were the only two proper paths unless you are working on medical school.

I then started thinking about joining the family business. I had an experience working with the laser manufacturing company called Candela Corporation, which is no longer in existence but I worked with them for a couple of years. That was my return path to medical aesthetics. I thought, "This is interesting. I'm interested in this industry. I liked the idea of helping people take better care of themselves but I need an insurance policy,” and that's how I decided to go to business school.

I thought if everything else fails, I tried this expansion of the business and I don't succeed, I will have two very nice pieces of paper that should make me relatively hireable outside of the family business. I went into business school with this plan of expanding the family business but also, I needed a little bit more security in a way both in terms of my business knowledge. Also, in terms of self-confidence or just the idea of being able to have that extra degree.

This will just be such a huge success that you will never have to pull those pieces of paper out and go venture out into the world of working for someone else. Do you feel like you work for someone else because you work in the family business or do you still feel like you have that entrepreneurial freedom?

I feel definitely like I have entrepreneurial freedom. My father and my sisters are shareholders in the business and certainly have always had strong opinions in terms of new product development in particular. This is where my father's contributions come in. Also, with some general strategic direction in terms of channels of distribution and things like that.

We have annual shareholder meetings and we do all of the proper things, even though we are family. I definitely feel accountable to them but I feel like I'm my own boss, which is a nice mixture. I think everybody, including entrepreneurs, needs that accountability, where you need to have to report to someone.

If only because for example, when we have our shareholder meetings, I take a look at the past year and I do some data analysis and most of the things I already know in my gut but it's always nice to have something. A meeting or someone that forces you to do all of that and put your thoughts to paper, it's a helpful exercise.

I just had this conversation about, "Are you a gut person or are you a research person?”

I am a total overthinker, over researcher, analysis-paralysis person, which is something I have been working on but it's not easy. I have learned over the past several years to trust my gut. Every time I have made a decision, I thought I had all the right analysis, data points and research, even if it didn't quite sit right. If I couldn't explain why it didn't sit right.

If I couldn't pinpoint something tangible, something real to explain, what is this feeling I have. I made the decision based on the data and the research, and then it came back to bite me behind later. I have made that mistake a couple of times and I'm hoping I'm not going to make it again. I try very much to not do the research or not do the analysis but to have that be in line with what I just feel is the right decision.

I deal with many people that go through with the analysis-paralysis and I have to say, I couldn't be more opposite of that. I'm one of those people that I'm like, "I'm going to jump off this cliff and I'm going to build my parachute on the way down." I guess I have that Daredevil like, "I'm willing to give anything a try and see how it goes," but I do consult a lot of women in business that are very similar and we spend a lot of time working on that.

Many people think that entrepreneurs are the most risk, comfortable people. If you are going to go out on your own and for your own company, you must be willing to jump off a cliff, take that risk and know that the parachute will be a bolt before you hit the bottom. I'm not sure that that's true. I'm quite risk-averse.

A lot of entrepreneurs that are my friends or that I know from various industries are also quite risk-averse, which doesn't mean not to take the risk but I like to take very calculated risks. I don't think there's one good way and one not good way. It is innate to who you are but I do think that this general idea that entrepreneurs are all lovers of risk is not 100% accurate.

It's not to say that one way is better than the other way. It’s good to probably have a mix of both in you. One of the things I did want to ask you about is the family business. I previously was married to somebody that was in a family business. I know that there's a very interesting dynamic that goes on there. How has it been for you to be in a family business that was established before you came into it?

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Like everything, there are definite pros and cons for me. The thing I love the most, there are two points. One is I get to know my family members in a different context. I have three younger sisters. The relationship between sisters is a special one but not all sisters get to understand their sister from a business perspective like understand her, how she thinks as CEO, how she handles HR problems, how she handles challenges. It's almost like I have the privilege to know my family more completely because I get to work with them. That is something that I love. The other thing is, I like to think this is true of all family businesses but this might be naive but at least, in our family business, we all have the same agenda.

We might question, have debates about how are we going to get there but we never have debates or question each other's loyalties. There's no politics. It's just, we want to grow the family business and we want to have it be there for the next generation. The end goal is very clear and works 100% in alignment, which is not always the case in corporations.

As I said, we might debate how we are going to get there but we don't debate the goal. There are the things where we never separate life from work which I personally don't mind, but that might weigh on some people. I go back to Switzerland less in 2020 but I usually go back every quarter and spend a week together.

There's not where the business doesn't come up at some point because everything is just like that. We can't help it. It's interesting because my husband is also in a family business. I'm only really involved in one but I see his family business and it's different when it's yours. They are also my family but I can pinpoint things, you can be like, "This is why I react this way." When my father tells me this and this, that I don't necessarily see when I'm in the middle of it with my dad. It's just a very interesting, fun and sometimes funny dynamic.

As an entrepreneur I know for myself is that I'm never really not working. My husband is also an entrepreneur and he's never really not working either. As we said before, being an entrepreneur is freedom. I always say that I worked all weekend but I didn't feel like I was working so I was super excited about what I was doing.

There are times where I know that I have to pull myself away from the business so that I can spend more time with my children and do life things, which is difficult. I also have to do life things with my husband as well so we have to pull each other away from the businesses. Do you find that as an entrepreneur? Do you get caught up in what you love?

For an entrepreneur, it's easier to be with another entrepreneur and vice versa because there's an understanding of working all weekend. There's no such thing as 9:00 to 5:00, Monday to Friday. Being married to an entrepreneur, I don't have to explain that. It’s similar to a family business. Being married to someone who's also in a family business, I don't have to explain why every family dinner ends up being business-related.

It can indeed go to the extreme, which becomes unhealthy and then you don't have those moments where you are stepping away from the business. My husband is really good at reminding me that we need to do that regularly. We call it calendaring. We are going to calendar a couple of hours where we say unless there's an actual emergency, we are not going to talk about either of the family business. It takes discipline to do it.

The same happens in this house. I had a product launch for my company so all weekend, my husband was like, "How much time do you need in front of the computer? Are we going to be able to squeeze and snuggle time, and then moving in?" We are second marriage so we didn't have kids to speak on. I was all excited like, "Yes, no kids. I'm going to have time to get more work done." He's like, "We have no kids. We need to get our work done." I'm like, "I know. I will squeeze you and I promise."

I'm very familiar with those conversations.

We are second marriage, we absolutely love and adore each other, have such an appreciation and respect for each other. I always say like, "I wouldn't be able to do what I do without him being my biggest fan." All morning he's like, "How's it going? How's the launch?" To have somebody there cheering me on, even with all the things he has going on in his life.

It's wonderful. Not to get too personal but we are also on a second marriage and we celebrated our ten-year anniversary this past January 2021. My first husband was neither an entrepreneur nor a family business person and so what I was mentioning about, that's easier. This is actually from experience and not hypothetical but you had also asked me to think about who is my mentor.

I think I have had many mentors throughout my entrepreneurial journey, even before when I was working for other people. I definitely feel like my husband is that person. As you say, the biggest supporter and fan when I'm like, "I don't know if I can do this." He's like, "Of course, you can. I know you can. Just go and do it.” He's also in the beauty industry, not skincare but on the hair side so we are also able to have conversations about strategy and things like that. That goes back to this idea of we are always talking about work because it is our life basically.

We have that in common. Second marriage, my husband is the biggest rock star that I know and I just adore him for everything that he does. You and I are on the same page when it comes to that. I'm always taking a page out of his book and he's always taking a page out of my book. He's in the security world so it’s very different. Do you guys get to travel together since you are both in hair and beauty?

We do. We actually met at a beauty conference many years ago. When you work all the time, it’s where are you going to meet people or at work? Obviously, the travel over the past year and some have been a bit different but we attend the same conferences, which is really fun, and we will start again to be fun imminently.

I know that you have a passion for travel. Have you felt like the pandemic gave you a nice slowdown or are you missing the craziness of airplanes and traveling?

Both. I have missed going back to Europe as frequently as I have been for the last several years. That's also the privilege or the benefit of family businesses, is I get to go home for work and I get to see my family at the same time. I have definitely missed that. At the same time, it has been nice to take a breather. Pre-pandemic, I was probably on 4 to 6 airplanes per week with one day in the office and the rest of the time on the road. It never weighed on me. I liked it. I do really good work on airplanes and then the airplane lounges. I have been doing that for a long, I never really questioned it. I went back on the road for the first time. I went to San Francisco and spent four days on the road.

In the end, I'm like, "How did I do this all the time?" I was just like, "This is exhausting." At the same time, my husband and I lived between DC and Louisiana and the way that we lived for 9 years of our 10 years of marriage was that we were both on the road during the week, and then we would meet up during the weekends.

This obviously did not happen in 2020. Since March of 2020, we have probably spent more time together than we have ever before. In terms of like, "What did the pandemic teach you?" It's actually really fun to spend every day with your husband is one of the things that I learned. There are both benefits and downsides to traveling less.

What will be one thing that you started doing during the pandemic that was different than you did pre-pandemic that you want to carry over into this new normal that we are living in?

Spending more time with Edwin, for sure. We also adopted two kittens. They arrived in our chicken coop in Louisiana, somehow in April 2020 as I would like to think of it as a gift from the universe. Having that in my life is definitely a joy and something that we will continue. The flip side of this is, I'm not sure if there are a ton of things that changed that I want to continue. I miss the real in-person interactions with my friends as I'm sure everybody does. I know this is probably the least original thing to say but it's the message. We have started hanging out outside and having cocktails again and that is something that I look forward to getting back into more.

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We almost made an impulse purchase and a pool. We need something, and then we realized it was an impulse purchase so we decided to not get a pool. I don't know if you hear the banging in the background, which I was not expecting during the interview. Some construction going on, I may have to go tell them to quiet it down. Although, I tried to keep this to 30 minutes. I feel like the podcast you could either take up a ton of somebody's time or you could just give them a little bit of info and some fun nuggets so that they come back for more. What has been one of the biggest challenges for you in your business, whether it be family business or just being an entrepreneur in general?

I think my two biggest challenges related to the beauty industry, which is the industry I plan is one, it's an extremely crowded field. You can't count how many skincare products there are in the world because there are too many. The challenge is creating awareness and creating a voice that people hear amid all of this noise and brands. We are family-owned, bootstrapped and self-funded.

I don't have an incredible marketing budget to go hire these million influencer people or ad on TV. Finding a way to create that space in people's minds to wonder about my brand and to stand out from all the noise is definitely an ongoing challenge. It was a challenge when we started and it still is now and then keeping up with all of the new social media platforms.

That was not a challenge years ago but since 2019, we finally have Instagram down and now it's like Clubhouse. I was reading about Neoness, which is even a new word. There's always a new one and I'm like, "This is additional. This is not instead of, it's just more.” What's our voice? Which ones should we be on? Who should be on it? Should it be me? Should it not be this? That is a headache. I have to admit.

What was the one you were reading about?

It's called Neoness. It's a live-streaming platform.

I will say that I do love Clubhouse. I am Clubhouse obsessed. We could talk about that for a long time. We could talk about it offline too if you want to talk about it when we are done. I am finding a lot of success in Clubhouse in terms of people. It's a way to find your tribe. I have found that it has been super helpful for someone that does what I do in terms of consulting.

Instagram, I can put myself out there in a million different ways now obviously with Reels and IGTV but it sounds like when you are putting yourself out there, you are sharing bits of content to sell yourself. When you do it on Clubhouse, you do it in a much more authentic way because you can just talk to different people and have a real conversation instead of like this bite-size nugget of information. I am loving Clubhouse. I'm happy to share more on that with you but I do have a question for you because I want people to understand what your products put out there to the world given that there are many other skincare products out there. What would you say is unique to Alchimie Forever?

We position ourselves as clean and clinical or some people call it cleanical, which now is more common but we have been that from the beginning. It's about this association of science, which includes chemicals and synthetics, not only botanicals but with the proper botanicals. People need to understand that nature is good but natural is not the end-all and be-all, and a lot of people associate all-natural brands with sensitive skin, which is not the case.

We love naturals. We are 95% natural in our formulations. My father is a Western-trained dermatologist. He injects Botox for a living, which is a synthetic molecule made in a lab. For us to then come and say organic only as the way to go for skincare would be completely incoherent. It's really trying to almost reeducate in a way people's views on synthetics and another way to talk about it as safe botanicals and safe synthetics. I tell people, "Do you want poison Ivy in your skincare products? That's not very safe for your skin." It's finding that the best blend of the most powerful botanicals will make a difference in your skin and enhancing those with the safest and most powerful synthetic molecules.

I'm all about synthetic molecules in my skin. Anything to keep the cheeks lifted and the skin looking fresh and dewy. I'm all about the synthetics along with the naturals. I definitely appreciate what it is you are putting out there. I will say I have tried the products. I love them. It's funny because I started my advertising career working on Oil of Olay back in the day.

Talk about a cult product.

My mom got me into using Oil of Olay when I was a teenager, and then when I went to this ad agency, I’ve got to work on Oil of Olay so she was getting a lot of free Oil of Olay products at the time and she still uses Oil of Olay, which is funny. I have been bouncing around as a consumer that wants to try all things. I have been bouncing around between some of the beauty counter products because they don't have any harsh chemicals in them. It’s funny like an oxymoron. I'm like, "I don't want the harsh chemicals but I will put Botox and filler in my face.

At least you are self-aware about that debate happening and that's possible not a fully consistent philosophy. In the world of beauty and the world of skincare, my underlying philosophy is, "Whatever works for you, works for you." I'm here to provide something that will work for you and will benefit you when your self-care and skincare regimen but ultimately, you are the one who knows and I'm not here to judge and say, “This is good or this is bad.” I'm just here to tell you, this is what we think is the best and why, and then you decide.

Is there anything else that you want to share with people reading?

Only to say that if you are thinking of starting a business or becoming an entrepreneur, it's challenging but mostly a rewarding thing. I love everyone who has the passion and courage to start doing something. I would encourage you out there who were thinking about that to really think about the why.

For me, it's ultimately why I wake up every day is to change people's skin and to make you feel better about your skin. That is a really powerful, motivating, strong why and to have a successful entrepreneurial journey. That is why needs to be strong because some days are even challenging.

You have to find the why within yourself versus if you are working for someone else, they can give you the why, remind you of the why, and in some ways, it’s easier. If you are thinking about it, make sure that you are super aware of your why and that it's a strong one that will help you get up at 4:00 in the morning many days as you go.

That is one of the biggest things that I coach women on when we first get started. Finding their why is the first thing we do because it is that thing that is going to lead them down this path and it's going to get them out of bed the next morning when the day before may not have been a great day. You and I have a lot of similarities. We are very much on the same page. I love it, too. This is awesome. This is a new friendship. Which one of you gets to live in New Orleans in which one of you gets to live in DC?

My husband is from Louisiana, born in Baton Rouge and raised in New Orleans, and then I came to DC for business school and I stayed but we go and forth. Talk about two beautiful and completely different cities, I feel very fortunate to get to experience New Orleans and Louisiana, and then I know he feels very fortunate to come, too.

When's the next trip to Switzerland?

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June 22, 2021. I cannot wait.

Are you a skier?

Yes, I am. I was home for Christmas fortunately so we’ve got some skiing done at the end of 2020.

I'm a huge skier, Switzerland and Chile are on my bucket list.

I have heard that skiing in Chile is amazing. I have not traveled to that part of the world but please, when you get to Switzerland on your bucket list, let's talk more about where to go and we will have a lot of opinions.

I will be sure to reach out to you. Thank you much for being here and for podcasting with me. It's something that I love doing and I certainly love meeting amazing women entrepreneurs that are following their passions and I just love what they do every day. Thank you, Ada.

Thanks for having me, Hayley.

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About Ada Polla

FYP 20 | Family Businesses

Ada Polla, CEO, Alchimie Forever

Well-traveled + well-read Swiss-born brand founder and entrepreneur with incredible tenacity, drive and a “figure out how to figure it out” mentality. As passionate about SPF (so it goes when your father is a dermatologist) and red lipstick (her signature) as she is about the powers of Botox, Ada’s refreshingly candid about aging, choosing herself and a career over having children and why she thinks the idea of balance is BS.

Ada [pronounced Ah-duh] Polla (43) is the CEO of Alchimie [pronounced Al-she-me] Forever: Clean-ical (clean formulations, clinical results), vegan, dermatologist formulated skin + body care with Swiss roots.

The eldest of the four Polla sisters - all of whom are involved in some way or another with the family business of beauty, Ada left her native home in Switzerland in 1995 to attend Harvard University, where she graduated Magna cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in art history. While her passion for art history expresses itself in her contemporary art collection, her career path went the way of business. She earned her MBA at Georgetown McDonough School of Business, where she fell in love with the DC area.

During her senior year of business school, she wrote her thesis on bringing her family’s skincare line from Switzerland (Ada’s father is Geneva-based dermatologist, Dr. Luigi L. Polla) to the US. In 2004, that thesis became a reality with the official launch of Alchimie Forever. The line has since expanded to include 17 SKUs (including fan favorite, Kantic brightening moisture mask), ranging $25-$99, as well as four travel-sized items of the top-sellers, and is sold nationwide via amazon, Dermstore, Walgreens and more around the world.

Ada is “based" in Washington, DC, though she uses that term loosely, as pre-COVID, she was flying three or four times a week (about 150K miles/year), whether it was to New Orleans (where her husband is based), Geneva (where Forever Institut and Ada’s family are) or to key accounts, stores + spas across the nation.

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