Entrepreneur Series: Take a Leaf Out of Her Book

**This article was originally posted in the St John Sun Times and written by Kelly O’Brien. You can find the original article here.

Yard work on a tropical island goes a bit beyond taking your ride-on for a turn around the backyard. The jungle is constantly in a state of rapid growth (you’d swear some of these ferns get bigger overnight), and keeping your front path (or even your driveway) in the clear can be a major challenge. Still, there are lots of great reasons to put up with our overzealous plant life – fresh-picked pineapple for breakfast, home-grown guacamole, the smell of the bay rum trees after the rain. But here’s a reason you’ve probably never thought of before: botanical abundance = small business opportunity.

Meet Julie Williams, founder of Leaf People, an organic skin care company based outside of Aspen, Colorado. Before becoming a small business owner, Williams traveled all around the world learning about botany and herbal medicine. “My goal was to study botanical medicine on all the continents,” she said, but it was in the Amazon – another jungly locale – that she had an epiphany. Her hard-earned understanding of our planet’s healing plants could be used to create a stronger link between people and their environment – and thus was born Leaf People.

Williams has been in business now for five years, and Leaf People is not only covering its own costs, but it’s also turning a profit. Nearly 70 percent of her ingredients are grown and sustainably harvested (according to a very strict code of ethics) within driving distance of her center of operations. Now keep in mind that, by island standards, Colorado has a pretty short growing season – not so here. Our tropical climate means we can sustainably harvest one botanical or another virtually year-round. With this abundance of flora to serve as a starting point, Williams says St. John is a perfect home base for starting a botanicals company.

For her own company, Williams used her background in herbal medicine – she went to school for Western herbal medicine and studied traditional herbalism privately – to make Leaf People’s products as natural and environmentally friendly as possible. This is a direction that any newcomer would do well to follow, she says, as the market is getting smarter everyday about what makes a product truly organic.

“There is a big shakedown starting to happen which is going to improve the quality of [the botanical products] available ,” she says. She’s hoping this will put pressure on what she calls “reasonably organic” manufacturers (who often use only one or two organic elements) to make their products more environmentally conscious. With that kind of economic climate, a locally owned, ethically harvested, all-organic product line from the Virgin Islands could really be competitive.

With her own line, Williams took “a grassroots approach” to growing her business. She started out, after a year spent in formulations, with a personal skin care line that she sold at farmers’ markets and craft fairs. Word of mouth was enough to jump-start her business and eventually get some of her products into the hands of the head aesthetician at the exclusive Aspen Club & Spa. The spa staff was very interested in Leaf People’s products, Williams says, as they were quite different from what the staff was accustomed to working with. Different is good, it seems; Leaf People now produces a professional line exclusively for the spa.

Coming at the market from several different angles is a smart way to go, says Williams. For someone hoping to start a botanicals business on St. John, Williams suggested three logical (and potentially lucrative) paths:

Herbal products based on local bush medicine – “Some of these natural remedies are better than anything you can buy in the store,” says Williams. There is even grant money, she says, that is available for studying and preserving herbal medicine traditions around the world, and there are also opportunities for grants and tax breaks if a business is run by women entrepreneurs or if a percent of the proceeds go to support non-profits. (Leaf People donates three percent of their earnings “to non-profit organizations preserving native medicinal plants and indigenous forests world-wide.”) All of these things make a product line more appealing to an increasingly socially and environmentally conscious consumer base.

Like Aspen, St. John has a good opportunity to create a healthy, environmentally friendly line of balms, lotions, masks and scrubs from locally harvested flora. Williams imagined a tamarind scrub or a pineapple enzyme mask or a series of bath products with passion flower oil. Coconut, avocado, and aloe are also versatile (and abundant) ingredients. Like Leaf People, a botanical business here could produce a mid-range retail line as well as a professional line simultaneously, without the need for additional equipment. (Williams processes virtually all of her ingredients by hand in her lab.)

Essential oils and essences. Although this option would, Williams says, require a little more in the way of start-up cash, it has a lot of potential. “The geographical location and the type of weather [on St. John] would mean that you have some flowers that aren’t found in many other places,” she says. With all of the tropical flowers that grow here like weeds, we could be “producing world-class, delicate, sophisticated essential oils,” she says. Not only could they form a solid foundation for a line of retail products, but they could also be sold wholesale – to companies like Leaf People – as individual ingredients.

Regardless of what direction they might take, Williams has some good advice for anyone getting into the business. “I think it’s really important when you start a business,” she says, “to think about how it’s going to benefit others.” And in an industry as varied and environmentally conscious as botanical products, that requires a good amount of research. Aside from botanical study itself, there’s industry research that is equally important. Trade shows, she says, are a great way to “get out there and see what the trends are.” Williams also stressed the value of having good mentors, a handful of people you can trust to bounce ideas off of. But she’s also careful to pass along a piece of advice she received when she first started her business: “Be very careful who you take advice from.” It’s all about balance.

“Leaf People started with a dream and a vision,” Williams says. “It’s about making that personal link between people and plants.” Getting in touch with nature is certainly a familiar concept here on St. John – just one more reason that a botanicals business might well be a perfect fit.

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