Laura Umetsu, Editor in Chief
When I first met Svetlana Sanchez over a decade ago, she was a Russian ESL teenager, new to America, and experiencing a tidal wave of culture shock. Now in her late 20s, she is powerful, trilingual, and sassy. She is mother to a beautiful baby and mother to Gressa, a new luxury skincare line being showcased by Whole Foods. Today she sits down with CGN to tell her story of immigration and finding the American dream.
1. Tell us your story of immigration to America.
I came to the United States at the tender age of 14 with my immediate family. Behind, I left everything, my family and friends, my dance school that I attended since I could barely walk, music school, the streets on which I jumped the rope, got my first scraped knee, walked my dog and held hands with the cutest boy in my class.
Back then, packing everything we owned and waking up for the early train to leave our town seemed like a dream. Little did I realize that I would never come back. I remember the tears on the train that didn’t stop until I fell asleep in my mother’s arms on the way to the airport. We came to Seattle as Jewish refugees. I was born and raised in Birobidzhan, Russia, a Jewish autonomous region where Yiddish was spoken as a second language.
My great grandparents spoke fluent Yiddish, as did my grandparents. I attended Yiddish school, where I was taught to read, write and speak it fluently as well. To my great disappointment, I have lost the ability to speak it as well as I used to. Birobidzhan was a Jewish place, but we were still an ethnic minority. We often got discriminated against, threatened and assaulted, which is why most of my family and friends live in Israel now.
2.Tell us some of the challenges that you faced as a young ESL student in America.
I learned English at school and with a tutor in Russia. The language was still very foreign to me, since I had grown up with learning British English versus conversational American English.
Perhaps I benefit from my childhood English now, because I often hear how ‘proper’ my English is. I attended 8th grade at a private Hebrew middle school (this school gave me a scholarship becuase my parents would have never been able to otherwise afford it) the rest of the first school year that I was in America. That is where I ‘assimilated’ and got comfortable with my English. Or so I thought. Then, came public high school and a huge culture shock. Kids seemed bigger, louder, and talked faster. I was in ESL classes for maybe a week. Then, I got really bored and was ahead in math and decided to go with the rest of the ‘normal’ kids. I got moved into advanced algebra and regular Language Arts. I had lots of challenges, but probably learned way faster than I would have in ESL program.
3. Who was your biggest role model in business and why?
I didn’t have a role model for business. My role models were my honest, hard-working parents. My parents gave me every opportunity to become whatever I wanted to become, and the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do to get there.
4. How did you start Gressa? What were the biggest challenges in launching Gressa?
Gressa started a little over 4 years ago at an Organic Chemistry class at Portland State University. I distilled my own essential oil with a steam distiller that I built myself. It all went uphill from there. In general, my science background and obsession with nutrition and the breakdown of nutrients and ingredients in human biological systems is what drove me to really dive into formulating my own skincare. With that said, Gressa has deeper roots than my academics. I grew up in the Far East, where traditional medicine isn’t an ‘alternative’. It is the medicine my grandmother practiced, as did my mother. As, now, do I.
One of the biggest challenge has been overcoming my fear of failure. But, about 2 years ago I lucked out with the best business partner and supporter that set my head straight with his encouragement, belief in me and support. That business partner also happens to be the best husband and father I could have dreamed of.
5. What is unique about Gressa? How do you select your product line?
Gressa is unique in many ways. In fact, that is just about the first thing I hear skincare industry professionals say about it. There are hundreds of organic lines out there. Gressa stands alone in simple sophistication backed by tradition, purity and uncompromised quality of ingredients.
I outsource everything myself. The ingredients are the highest potency, freshness and are sustainably cultivated. The bottles are imported from the Netherlands. These are luxurious and are highly priced for preserving the bio-energy of ingredients through protection from light. In general, I choose with the Earth in mind. We have minimal waste because our manufacturing practices allow for that.
I don’t go by the trend of the skincare industry. I rely on centuries of tradition or herb infusing, oil cleansing, and relying on plant oils and extracts to create the most effective products anyone can find. I want to inspire women. This line has done it for me so far. The inspiration does not just lie in the physical beautifying experience of Gressa. This line comes with the philosophy to inspire self-love, kindness towards yourself every day.
6.What are some of the biggest challenges of running your own business?
Well, first of all, I never stopped working all through pregnancy, labor and delivery, and now, with a 9 month old baby. That’s the biggest challenge. Balance. I think generally, anything you do in life in order for it to be successful, you need to balance your priorities. Of course, financial side of things is always a challenge for any start up. You put in way more than you get out to begin with and when you break even you’re succeeding in the initial years. As our accountant puts it, when you can afford to pay yourself, you know you’ve done well. So far, I’m daily exploited for all kinds of labor. I wear many hats: shipping and receiving, research and development, filling, accounting, marketing, customer service, mommy, wifey and so much more!
7. Describe the typical day for a Gressa CEO.
I am awakened by the sweetest face on planet earth. 6 A.M. No alarm isnecessary. Because I stay home with my lovely Elise Romelia, she is my #1 boss and takes priority over any business activity that may require attention. I like to have a slow, peaceful, calm start to our mornings. We cuddle, read books, play the keyboard and sing a little. I believe in taking the time (even if it’s only a few minutes) and really embracing the start of each day.
Once Elise is changed and fed, she plays while I get to my second baby, Gressa. I grab a cup of tea, check and answer my emails, fill orders and get them ready to ship. I am distributing at the Mecca of natural markets, Whole Foods, so they take a high priority of reorders; communicating with buyers and making sure we have plenty of samples out at each location and so forth. Besides Whole Foods, I have a few wonderful retailers that I am working with. They are as unique as Gressa Skin itself and I am thrilled to unveil what they are in the near future. You’ll have to stay tuned for that.
By the time I’m done with the communication/administrative part of my morning, it is lunch time and naptime for my baby girl. I walk with her every single day since day 5 of her life. Literally, haven’t skipped a day. So, it’s something I must have for balance as well. I usually walk with her while she naps in her stroller. This is a huge 2 hour window for me to work, so I will be on my phone or lap top plugging away. By the time the evening rolls in, my husband gets home, we eat, we play, we talk family, we talk Gressa. He gets his precious time with our sweetheart and I get to do my favorite part of the business, the reason why I love what I do: my magic. Or, formulating, as someone silly called it. Often, we bathe and settle baby to sleep and I will work through the night crafting concoctions to come up with something as precious as my 8 products that are currently in the line.
8. What is the best part about running your own company?
My company allows me to get inspired every day. I get daily comments about what Gressa has done for someone with acne, rosacea, age spots, etc. My dream is to leave a footprint of positivity and beauty in people’s hearts. I smile, knowing that twice a day, there are women [and some men] that open up a black bottle with a delicious potion that makes them feel beautiful, helps them overcome an insecurity while doing no harm to their health or the planet. It is very intimate, in my opinion. We’re not just providing a soap to cleanse their faces. I want to inspire the most important love affair in anyone’s life, the one with yourself.
9. Where do you see Gressa in ten years and how do you plan to get there?
My dream is to have a Gressa Ritual Spa franchise across the United States and maybe overseas. I tend to dream big. My parents couldn’t get my head out of the clouds, I doubt anyone ever will. My plan is to invade everyone’s hearts with the love Gressa is created with on a daily. It really does make one more beautiful once they’ve experienced the goodness of what’s in those elegant black bottles.
10. What is some advice you have for young women who want to become entrepreneurs?
I think to be successful in business, a career or even on a personal level, you should set goals. If you don’t set goals and stay afloat, your life becomes stagnant. As a result, so do your attitude and the way you think. I think starting small with daily goals (I call them dreams) is the best way to get yourself started on a positive pattern of achieving those big dreams. I never stop setting goals (or dreaming, without sounding too cliche). As Rabindranath Tagore said “Reach high, for stars lie hidden in you. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal.”
Also, while you are dreaming away, don’t forget to pace yourself and flow in the moment and enjoy every step of the way. You have to love what you’re doing and what the moment brings you. From this love will nurture more dreams and motivation to achieve them.