Small Business Profile: Athena Ellen, Founder of Monastery - San Francisco
Hi Athena! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I'm an esthetician/aromatherapist in San Francisco and I also make a skincare line. I'm married to my business partner. We love hiking and camping with our son and dog and an occasional estate sale on the weekend.
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
I have been a CIDESCO certified esthetician in San Francisco since 2002. Before opening my own skincare studio in 2010 I was the lead esthetician and esthetic trainer for a medical spa with a location in the city and on the peninsula. I represented and sold a high quality botanical brand along with a high quality pharmaceutical brand. I experimented with essential oil mixing and aromatherapy since my time in beauty school and finally went on to get a few certifications in the art of natural perfumery.
When did your interest in natural skincare begin? Did you grow up in the Greek Cyclades or just visit your grandmother there?
One could say that it fell in my lap. My mother's family farmed olives in Greece and sold their oil to a local skincare brand.
My mother moved to the US and met my father; when I was born she taught me all of her practices of picking and pressing local herbs and turning nuts into oils. She was very much into skincare in general and it just seemed like a normal part of my daily life. I left for esthetic (beauty) school in San Francisco pretty much right after high school. It just seemed like the obvious path for me. I did not get to grow up in Greece like my mother, I'm just a California girl. We visited my grandparents nearly every summer in Greece until they closed the farm and came to live with us in the US.
What steps did you take to open your skincare therapy studio?
Opening my own skincare studio was actually fairly easy because I already had an established clientele, this added a level of security made it a lot less scary. I went onto Craigslist and found a studio for my practice in Noe Valley. My new studio was just down the street from my last place of employment.
Did working with different patients and interacting with their skin influence the start of Monastery? What is the mission behind your brand?
Absolutely! I opened the doors to my studio with a basic offering of products that I had made and these were the products that I used in my facial treatments but none of these products really exist anymore. All of the Monastery products that are sold today were inspired by my clients and their preferences. The mission behind the brand was to create a high-end skincare line for a health, conscious, urban woman.
As you're hand making all of your products, what does your process of creation and sourcing ingredients look like?
Messy! I'm kind of a messy person. Thankfully my husband is very tidy. The process of creation is not something that I am always tapped into. I have to just wait until it comes to me, I've realized that it's not something that I can force. I usually think about the product that I want to make for at least a couple of weeks before I actually get into the studio to make it. Sourcing ingredients can be fun but also stressful. I source the products myself whenever possible, and this is the fun part. When I cannot source an ingredient with my own hands I have someone who helps me.
We set up what we hope to be a simpatico and lasting relationship with these farmers so that we can keep an ingredient that we love accessible. Sometimes outside factors like climate can play a role in the production of a crop and we can lose a source. This can be very stressful.
What are a few of your current favorite ingredients to use?
I love an ingredient that we source from Africa, it is the wax taken from the stem and leaves of the rose bush. It's divine. It's in our Attar Repair Concentrate. I also love sourcing Pine resin by hand. We plan camping trips in the Northwest just based on the locale of specific pine species and I go around scraping trees and picking pine cones.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
I love my clients and I love fixing people's skin with the power of the plant. Earth's medicine is all around us.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face with Monastery?
I hate to say it but money is always a challenge. It takes quite a bit of capital to start a skincare brand and whole lot of commitment. It isn't something that just happens overnight, you have to fully commit to focusing all of the money that you can squander and most of your time into the brand for the foreseeable future and that can be a hardship.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other? How have women supported you?
I can't even count how many women have been instrumental in the building of Monastery. Ninety percent of my clientele are women so all I do is talk to women all day! There are so many challenges that arise constantly being a small business owner and being a mom on top of that just adds to the level of chaos. It's so helpful to commiserate with other women/moms in business. Just knowing that I'm not alone on a tough day can make all the difference.
What women bring you inspiration?
My clients, my friends and other women in business that I may not actually know in person but I follow on instagram. There are so many women that are being transparent on instagram these days. To those women, thank you. There are so many of us out there that appreciate your raw honesty.
What have you learned from creating your own business that you think can apply to any creative endeavor?
To welcome advice but not to let people influence you. Stick to your initial plan, you are unique and your ideas are valuable.
Do you have any resources that have been helpful to you that we should know of?
I took a business course at Renaissance Entrepreneur Center in downtown San Francisco. They helped me to write my first business plan and build the confidence to do a friends and family round for my seed capital. Having a solid business plan has been even more helpful than I imagined it would be. The power of writing taps into the logic based hemisphere of your brain. Just the act of writing down your dreams and goals ignites an entirely new dimension of consciousness and this is the powerhouse of your subconscious mind. It might sound hippy but I believe in writing thorough descriptions of your wants and needs and a business plan is just a bigger version of that.
What are you trying to learn right now or what is something that you are wanting to learn?
I have been getting back into meditation and also teaching myself to sew. Both are slow going but thats ok.
What are some of your favorite places in SF?
All of Golden Gate Park, The conservatory of Flowers, Chrissy Field, The MOMA.