The founders of Raeka Beauty, Understated Leather and The Beeswax Company share how they pursued their passions and built their businesses.
By Hannah J. Phillips, Photos by Taylor Prinsen
Author and humorist Dorothy Parker once wrote, “Creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye.” But how does a creative convert passion into a full-time profession? What inspires creativity in the first place? Three local female creators came up with their own answers to those questions and paved individual paths on their journeys to success.
Inspired by her grandmother’s homemade remedies, Raeka Panda created the world’s first turmeric peeloff mask, featured on The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed and included in Ipsy’s monthly beauty-product subscription box. Jennifer Kassell became a fashion buyer by the age of 19. When she moved to Austin with no natural next step in her career, she started her own fashion line. Christine Flores bought a fledgling beeswax business a month after giving birth to her daughter, and her candles are now carried by retailers throughout the country.
There may not seem a direct link between turmeric-based beauty products, leather jackets and beeswax candles, but the makers behind Raeka Beauty, Understated Leather and The Beeswax Company share that, regardless of the industry, the ability to create while also leading a business requires a capacity to balance risk and freedom, a resilience to failure and a commitment to craftsmanship and care.
Raeka Panda always had a passion for DIY skin care, but when her grandmother died, she started incorporating natural ingredients she knew of from her Indian background into homemade beauty products.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think that was a coping method for me,” she says, sharing childhood memories of her grandmother’s natural remedies. “I had very sensitive skin growing up, and she would always tell me to go to the kitchen, mix turmeric with water and wear it as a face mask.”
Years later, as Panda experienced the results of using turmeric in her DIY products, she started researching the benefits of the golden spice. Turmeric is very popular in Indian culture, used not only in food, but also in ancient rituals. During the haldi ceremony, for example, a turmeric paste is applied to a bride’s face to bring about, among other blessings, that pre-wedding glow.
Known for its anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric is an ayurvedic ingredient. Ayurveda means “the science of life” in Sanskrit and is one of the world’s oldest holistichealing sciences.
The guiding tenet is the inextricable connection between mind, body and spirit. Identifying one’s mind-body type, or “dosha,” allows you to change your lifestyle and support your unique nature. Turmeric, says Panda, is the only ingredient that balances all three doshas.
As she continued studying both the properties and the market for ayurvedic ingredients, Panda learned customers in the U.K. and Canada were more familiar with herbal skin care than their American counterparts. The research also revealed a startling statistic.
“I started learning about FDA regulations and how the U.S. only regulates 11 ingredients, while the rest of the world bans 1,400,” Panda says. “That made me want to enter the clean-beauty space, but I wanted to go a step beyond and bring ayurvedic ingredients to the U.S. market.”
Living in Florida at the time, Panda decided to move home to Texas to surround herself with the support she needed to start a new business. When her handmade products sold out during her first holiday pop-up in Austin, she knew she was onto something. She started working with doctors and chemists to start her ayurvedic-based beauty line, launching the world’s first turmeric peel-off mask in the spring of 2017.
“I chose peel-off masks because I wanted something less time-consuming,” Panda says. “Combining that with the ayurvedic ingredients, I wanted something with low alcohol content to leave the skin hydrated instead of drying out.”
Within six months of launching, Raeka Beauty products were featured on Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post. When Ipsy featured the products in its monthly beauty subscription boxes, the company catapulted to national recognition. With recognition came new logistical hurdles for a small but growing beauty line, and Panda had to quickly master the entrepreneurial challenges of marketing and distribution.
“I learned quickly to go with the flow and not be in control of everything,” she says. “Distributing was one of the biggest challenges, but I found that a lot of the bigger companies are eager to help small businesses. You just have to reach out, build a network and be confident in what you are doing.”
Her goal is to make ayurvedic ingredients accessible to everyone, elevating their presence in the U.S. market but also catering products to South Asian communities that most beauty lines overlook. With her line launching in Kuwait and Germany this year, Panda’s confidence—both in herself and in her products—is what propels her through each new business challenge. And passion is key.
“Don’t ever do something because you think it’s going to make money,” she says. “If you love what you are doing, the money will come on its own.”
When Australian-born Jennifer Kassell moved to Austin, it felt right. Growing up in Sydney, Kassell became a fashion buyer at Australia’s largest online retailer by the age of 19 and a fashion director by the age of 21. She moved to New York to run a showroom and later pursued fashion buying in Los Angeles before settling in Austin because, at last, it “felt like home.”
“You feel like you can breathe,” she says. “It’s just an easy place to be. And the people are so wonderful.”
Knowing she wanted to stay in Austin, Kassell wasn’t sure how to pursue a fashion career in her new town, so she started her own business. While extensive international buying experience armed her with a strong knowledge of both the product and the consumer, she had no experience in design, marketing or business management.
“We started without any investments and built it from the ground up,” Kassell says. “And we’ve never plateaued. It just happened because it was supposed to happen.”
She applies the same serendipity to the genesis of the product itself, calling the company’s original leather-engraved denim jackets “a happy accident.” When her husband started experimenting with laser-engraving techniques in leather, Kassell wondered whether she could turn the products into a viable business. They started adding leather patches to jackets from a thrift shop and posting the photos on Instagram.
Still one of her most popular designs, the tongue-in-cheek Go Sit On a Cactus jacket sold out immediately. Inspired by 1970s denim trends and biker patches, the custom products gained rapid traction on social media. Soon, the biggest problem was learning how to scale quickly. With 300 new orders to fill, Kassell couldn’t buy secondhand jackets from thrift shops any longer, so she learned how to make her own denim.
“Suddenly,” she says, “I either had to let down a lot of people or I had to figure it out.”
As the company grew, Kassell started focusing on leather jackets as her signature product. Prioritizing a classic fit and ageless style, she sources heavy, high-quality materials to achieve the luxury feel and structured look of a timeless piece. As a result, her jackets are soft and beautiful yet powerful and strong—just like the customers she aims to serve. The brand name Understated Leather came from the idea that products should help the wearer stand out, not the other way around.
“We don’t need our branding and our label on everything,” she says. “We want the person wearing our jackets to have the confidence they need. It’s all about you, girl.”
This commitment to authenticity has paid off. Her personal attention to the craftsmanship of each product has garnered support from celebrities like Lady Gaga and musician Lzzy Hale, both repeat customers. One of Kassell’s favorite memories involves watching Saturday Night Live one weekend and realizing Ryan Gosling was wearing her Studded Easy Rider jacket in a sketch.
“My husband was asleep and I woke him up screaming,” she says, laughing. “It was actually a woman’s jacket, but we got so much attention from it that I had to make it a men’s jacket.”
Celebrity or not, Kassell and her team treat each order with equal care, which is how a custom Understated Leather jacket ended up in a shoot for Vogue Paris.
“All of our orders are equally important,” Kassell says, “so we didn’t notice that [fashion photographers Vinoodh Matadin and Inez Van Lamsweerde] had purchased a custom jacket. A few months later, there it is on a two-page spread in French Vogue and I only learned about it because [they] tagged me.”
That kind of unexpected support has been one of the best parts of starting her own line, she says, and it constantly affirms her commitment to authenticity with each new business decision.
“There are struggles every day,” she says, “but it’s just about making the right decisions for your brand. At the end of the day, I can have a vision, but it’s also my life, so it has to feel right for our whole team. I think that mantra really resonates with everybody who works with us.”
The Beeswax Company
Christine Flores is the embodiment of patience. In her line of work, you have to be. The Beeswax Company harvests beeswax from local farmers throughout Texas to create 100 percent pure beeswax candles. Not only does hand-pouring each product require a high degree of precision, but harvesting the beeswax relies on what the land—and pollenating flowers, in particular—provides, which varies from year to year. As with all of Mother Nature’s processes, timing is key, and the outcome isn’t always predictable.
Pregnant with her daughter and with no experience running a business, Flores first heard about The Beeswax Company in 2010 when her father came across the listing through his work in mergers and acquisitions. Intrigued, she remembered her maternal great-grandfather had been a beekeeper. As she started researching family history and the craft behind beeswax candles, Flores felt called to build a company that would preserve and build upon that legacy.
“I’m a seventh-generation Texan,” she says, smiling, “so I really value heritage and legacy. And I thought, ‘What am I inheriting? What am I building upon that’s already been built that I’m going to leave behind and teach?’”
Flores and her family bought the company when her firstborn was 1 month old. The decision was daunting, but she believes running her own business provides autonomy and flexibility as a working mom. She attributes that freedom to her staff, confident she can delegate to a team that shares the same commitment to the quality of each artisan candle.
At the same time, being a maker and a business owner means she’s never not working.
“It doesn’t leave your veins just because you exit the building,” she says.
Rather than take a toll on her family, business challenges often remind Flores of the support they provide. She recalls coming home in tears one night, telling her husband she was ready to quit.
“I didn’t know my daughter was in the room,” Flores says, “and she runs in crying too, saying, ‘You can’t quit!’ It was so special.”
As it is with many business owners, one of the biggest challenges for Flores was marketing. After immersing herself in the product and the business for the first three years, she focused on building the brand, sourcing the right packaging and working with the right retailers to represent the high quality of her purebeeswax candles. Not every relationship worked out, but Flores learned to prioritize brands that aligned with her values versus increased visibility.
“Our price point didn’t always translate at certain retailers,” she says. “We are at a higher price point than our competitors because we are really particular about our beeswax.”
The Beeswax Company exclusively sources pure Texas beeswax rather than importing underregulated and often highly adulterated products from outside the state. Plus, sourcing local beeswax supports Texas farmers and ranchers, one of the company’s core tenets.
“We value hardworking Texan men and women that are out there every day putting food in our stores,” Flores says, “and we really care about maintaining that connection to the land.”
Ultimately, branding and packaging are just offshoots of the company’s biggest challenge, which is to educate customers in such a way that not only changes minds, but also hearts. As consumer trends revert more toward sustainable businesses, Flores hopes to see The Beeswax Company candles in national retailers throughout the country.
“I want The Beeswax Company to be a name that carries weight,” she says, and not just for the sake of the product, but for the sake of the planet. “As humans, we have a responsibility to preserve the longevity of this finite resource we have.”