Updated: Jun 26
On today’s episode we’re learning from Babba Rivera, the Latina founder behind Ceremonia, which is a clean hair care brand rooted in her heritage, inspired by the rituals she grew up with.
And we’re talking through all the things! From Babba’s upbringing in a small tiny part of Sweden to big shiny startup life in New York City and the drive she got from her childhood and heritage to start this brand and have representation in the Latinax community for the next generation of founders. And Babba also shares some crazy stories like how she launched her brand from the nicu - and what can go terribly terribly wrong if you don’t have the right accountant. And trust me - that is not one to skip over it’s right at the very end of the show.
And if you’re listening to this on the day this episode airs it’s exactly one week out from our Majic launch date. Our tool for founders and future founders enters the world on December 12 where you can access vetted resources, our video masterclass library, weekly calls with other founders annnnnd a bunch of other good stuff. To see in the know you can sign up to the waitlist at femalestartupclub.com/waitlist
Lets get into this episode, this is Babba for Female Startup Club
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Thanks for making time. Yeah, of course. Now I'm so excited. Let's get straight into this episode and rewind back to your life before Ceremonia. A where do you like to start your story? Where do you kind of like to kick things off? Well, where to begin, I guess honestly in many ways this story goes all the way back to like childhood me because in many ways ceremony a is sort of like the result of, you know, so many things in my life and it really starts with my upbringing. I sometimes introduce myself with a Swedish Latina. I grew up in Sweden, but both my parents are from chile and, and I grew up as, you know, your typical immigrant kid with, you know, two parents who did not speak the language. I had to be their translator a lot. And yeah, I, I just remember having to take a lot of responsibility from an early age. Um, but then on the flip side, um, I also gained so much inspiration from my parents and they taught me a lot that has set the foundation for my company today actually, although back then I would never imagine going in any sort of direction, even remotely close to my parents. Um but a fun story is actually that my dad was a hairdresser back in chile and when he moved to Sweden, he was never able to get a job in the field due to the language barrier, so he just ended up practicing it on me. And literally, we, like, we grew up very humble, like we had barely any furniture at home, but he had his like little sort of like hairdresser corner and in the living room because we had space since we didn't have any other furniture and with a little cards filled with products and every day I would come down in whatever crazy outfit I had put together as like, you know, an eight year old young girl, um and he would do my hair and like match my hair clips to my outfit. Um so yeah, I, I grew up with this very rich relationship to beauty in a way and, and also very sort of like, healthy relationship to beauty that pertained more about self care and self love and my mom, she's like, she has no clue how to, you know, do a makeup or a contour or, you know, or a hairdo for that matter, but she's incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to the care aspect of beauty and she, you know, would do hair masks together with me. She taught me to like mix oil with my body lotion because we had really dry skin and you know, like all these like hacks that were rooted in this idea of using beauty as a form of self care. Um and that's today, A huge part of the inspiration behind my brand, wow, that's so amazing and so intrinsically linked to what you've put out in the world today. Do you think when you look back at that time, you could see yourself being an entrepreneur, Did you want to start a business or it wasn't even on your radar? So truth be told, I did not even know what that was and I like I did not have any role models and I don't mean that as in like, oh, I didn't see any like Latina boss women, like, you know, I did not see anyone have an academic job period because my mom was even struggling to get a cleaning job. And like all the people in our community were either, you know, cleaners or they did dishes at a restaurant or they had like very sort of like blue collar jobs. And so I didn't even know of this world beyond that of like office jobs. Like what was that? I and I wasn't introduced to that until I would sit down and talk to my friends parents and I was like always so fascinated by like one of my friends, her mom, she wore like a pencil skirt and like a shirt like a block. She came home from work and I was just like, she worked with like you can't clean in those clothes, you know like and I was just fascinating. I started have a great interest in this alternative universe which was you know, my my white friends realities and I actually would spend a lot of time kind of like interviewing their parents and like they would find me in the kitchen talking to their mom about like her job or interior design and whatnot. So I didn't know what entrepreneurship was, but I I think I knew that I wanted something different than what my parents had. So I I knew I was very determined to get an education for that reason and and to do well in school, I think most kids, they have their parents motivate them to, you know, be good in school for me was quite the opposite. My mom was worried for me because she felt like I was stressing myself too much with school and she would be like okay after nine p.m. No more books, you know? Whereas I I feel like usually it's like okay no more screens. Like no my mom was like no more books like you you're working too hard. Um so I was just very self motivated from a young age and I think just like had this idea and vision and dream of a different future, wow, that's so cool, you definitely created that different future, different life, how do you get from, you know, Sweden growing up starting to get this desire to want to change your circumstances to new york, brand owner entrepreneur crushing it. Yeah, I mean it's, it's when you sometimes, when I think about it, it's actually quite insane to think about, I feel very fulfilled with my life today and I feel extremely privileged to truly believing something that was not even a dream for me growing up. I it was something that I did not even knew was possible. So it's it's quite a leap from where I come from because not only you know, am I an immigrant kid, you know who comes from a humble beginning, I also grew up in a tiny tiny town in Sweden, so my first step was that okay, I want more, so I need to move out of this tiny town, like that was my first realization and my wildest dream was to move to the capital of Sweden, like oh my God, can you imagine going from a tiny town to the you know capital of Sweden? So I moved to Stockholm for school and I started studying there, I graduated at the top of my class and it felt you know like I was ready to conquer the world and and I landed an internship at you know this very prestigious um brand that was based in Berlin. So then I moved to Berlin to pursue this internship and I think those two experiences made me comfortable going out of my comfort zone because once you've pulled yourself out of your roots once and survived you know you can do it again. So yeah I moved to Berlin and then moved back to Sweden and I am embarked on my career for real and my sort of like I guess it was my first job after graduating and like after like internship and trainee program and it was Uber and so Uber at this time was a small startup from SAn Francisco who were you know looking to test the waters internationally for some random reason they had picked Sweden as part of their roadmap and and I mean Sweden has a deregulated taxi market so that's why but still it was so bizarre to me and they were looking for someone to run the demand side of the business. The way Uber set up new businesses at the time was that they would have an operations person do all the driver sort of like the supply side and then they would have a community slash marketing person do the demand side and so like My job was to push demand and then this other guy's job was to make sure there were cars on the road so the two of us get this job and it's kind of insane because I am 22 at the time and they did not know that it was 22 by the way. Um but I, I honestly don't even remember how I got the job. Like I sometimes laugh about it because I think honestly I was just the the only one that was crazy enough to take the job to be quite honest. It wasn't that I was the most qualified and that's why they gave it to me. I was the only one naive enough to be like, this sounds fun because we were not really set up for success and they were opening up the satellite office, there was going to be no one from the US here and the first week into the job, they like they fired the general manager suddenly it's like just me and this other guy and we have No support, no budget, but the expectation is that we're going to grow the business 20% week over week, we're gonna do that. Yeah. And I don't think I fully grasped what it means to grow 20% a week over week. Like people wrote that year over year like, no, this is a week over week, like talk about exponential growth expectations, but the reality is naive is like the biggest asset and I think that's something that when I look at young talent, I'm like, oh you haven't, you know, it's like this like can do attitude that is so contagious and if you believe it, others will too and and and it's it's so crazy how like this world works because we're all just you know, part of energy in a way. So like if you believe something so deeply like you're attracting it, you're like if you can think it, it can happen. So we full heartedly believe that all of this was possible and the reality is Uber Sweden became the fastest wearing market at the time for Uber. So suddenly these tiny little country starts to get a lot of attention at HQ and our VP of operation flies out there and he's like okay I need to know what you guys are doing and I thought he was gonna fire us and I was like what's going on? Like why is he here? And then he's like puts out like pen and paper and he's like whatever you guys are doing here, we need to write it down, we're doing this everywhere. And I was like okay is that a good thing, what were you doing? Like what was the marketing initiatives? I mean I think what it was, was that like when Uber launched in SAn Francisco, the value proposition was pretty clear, it was like now I can certainly get from A to B because in san Francisco was actually really hard to even get a cab so Uber was revolutionary just by hygiene factor like oh my God I can get a transportation in Sweden that's not really the case. We had reliable taxes, taxes that were safe and the taxi companies even had apps themselves, you know, Sweden is pretty high tech, the subways, reliable, like people bike everywhere, like transportation was not an issue, so Uber had to provide additional value for it to, you know, strikethrough. And so my sort of early on initiative was to build a really strong brand around it. We were like Uber is a choice, it's a lifestyle, it's a better way to get around, it's not just about getting from A to B. And this was during the time that Uber only had the black car service and so we were sort of like really pushing this idea of democratizing the private driver experience. Like also taxes in Sweden are really expensive, so kind of around the same price as a regular taxi, you could now get more of a black car experience and we did this photo shoots and we partner with all the cool nightclubs, we did V. I. P. Parties where like if you strike certain points with Uber you would get to skip the line to the hottest club and you know, it was like very much like building a brand and hype and kind of like a lifestyle and movement around it, wow amazing and I'm guessing this story goes along the line that somewhere in America, they're like we need Babba, she's coming to work for us. I mean I was such a dork to be honest, I, I think like I fitted at Uber so well because I Uber was a dorky company, like there was a bunch of engineers, like everyone was super data driven, but then at the same time it was also operating at the heart of pop culture, like suddenly like rappers were you know mentioning Uber in their songs and it became part of you know, like this movement, but we were not really equipped for that cool factor internally because most of us were dorks and I think it worked into my advantage that I had a little bit of both. Like I was sort of like the dork that you know worked really hard, I'm a good girl, I want to do well, but then I also love to have a good time. A lot of my friends were in like you know, in the hospitality, you know, party music artists, creatives, A lot of my friends were in tech, so I naturally, you know were able to understand many different sort of like communities that were important for Uber. So eventually I embarked on a really exciting journey with Uber where I got to travel to different markets, host marketing summits and really bring together new talent that were you know newly hired as marketing managers and sort of like relay the playbook and like this is how we launched to bring Sweden, these are like the key learnings, these are things that are very replicable in other markets and start to like create more of like a summit and mentorship and playbook environment and then after two years I was offered the opportunity to relocate to new york and this was like I think for for some people that would have been like a dream come true. But for me I didn't even really like new york at the time, I had just like visited twice and I thought it was like, I don't know, too big, I was just stuck in traffic all the time, like literally but my husband was in love with new york, he was also in the tech industry and he was opening up an office in new york for his business because he had gotten a new york based investor so I had that as sort of like the incentive for us to why in new york and yeah, I decided to you know move over to new york with him and I was working at Uber, he was running his startup and I'm so glad I did, I'm still here and literally someone will have to drag me out of the city, I'm obsessed, this is my home, I love it. Um I have two kids now and I'm still here like you know everyone always thinks that like new york is you know temporary, like wait until you build a family but I can't think of a better place to live and what a magical place to build a family. Gosh, it is so much fun in new york, isn't it? Such good food, such good vibes, you spend, you know, a couple of years working in these amazing startups, you then go on to create your own marketing agency and kind of flourish from there and then you start to launch ceremony to talk to me about deciding to start the beauty brand. What gave you that inspiration to like switch gears? Yeah, talk about switching gears. I, you know, my experience that Uber had nothing to do with beauty and it was all about an app and software, whereas, you know, beauty's about physical products, but I think for me there were sort of like two driving forces. So on one hand I started to pick up an interest in beauty from a, from a marketing standpoint, because I was running a brand marketing agency and many of our clients were in beauty, we were advising brands such a last year for instance, who were, you know, kind of like pioneers in like this new era of beauty brands and, and we had a hair brand, we had a skincare brand and whatnot. And it was during this time that I started to do a lot of research within the beauty sector and I realized that the future of beauty is clean. I think that was like the first like, aha moment for me to the point where the future of beauty is clean period. So being a clean brand is not even like a unique selling point that's gonna be table stakes, so is sustainability. And then the third leg into sort of like the future beauty is inclusivity. It was very clear to me how the customers were demanding greater representation and the brands were falling really short in delivering that. So, knowing that the future of beauty was clean, sustainable and inclusive. It was interesting to me to see how most brands in the market were none of those things. And then when I started to break down what that means in the different categories within beauty, hair was the one category that really, you know, sparked my inspiration because it became very clear to me how a lot of what's happening in the beauty sector and a lot of new brands were popping up. It was kind of a very crowded space. But most of the innovation was happening in the skincare category and even in makeup to some degree at this point, but very little what's happening in the hair category. So hair for some reason was this like dusty, you know, forgotten about category within beauty that was very dominated by a styling first approach. And it's interesting when you think about it because most people's hair routine has only to do with styling, which is the equivalent of putting makeup on your hair and that's totally fine, like I put on makeup sometimes, you know, and like I wanna enhance you know, my look for the day, but my foundation is not gonna reduce my breakouts on my face, right? So my hairspray is naturally also not going to rebuild my hair. And when you started to scratch the surface on the hair category, it became very clear that the industry was dominated by a celebrity obsession, celebrity hairstylist brands and a styling first approach that was very toxic, not only from a beauty standard perspective, but also from an ingredient standpoint. And then when you look at the skincare aisle so much what's happening, we were seeing more diversity. We were seeing natural ingredient powered formulas, we were seeing brands that were sustainable and free of a long list of toxins and I was like what about that for hair? Like where is the skin care ification of hair care? And it got me running on this, you know, deep research and quest for a hair wellness approach, basically flipping the script of hair care and bringing a wellness approach to the hair, I'll and I felt particularly motivated to do so when I found the next part of my research which became my other driving force and that was this mission to illuminate the next generation of latin X. So as a Latina woman, I never saw myself represented um I was gonna say in the media, but honestly period, like I just never saw myself represented in any success stories. I never opened a magazine and saw a Latina woman building a big business. I never saw a campaign with people with natural hair like this, that was just like, you know, big frizzy, not currently not straight, you know, the begin between. Um I was born during an era of straight pin straight hair. It had to be straight and chinese and blonde. So I embarked on what I today referred to as a beauty prison. I started straightening my hair, I started coloring my hair and essentially I just embarked on this journey of damage. I was just damaging my hair over and over again. And more importantly, I lost touch with my heritage because in an effort to assimilate and fit in, I started to subconsciously shave off part of my latino lab and little by little I started feeling less and less proud of my heritage. And now as a young adult, I was looking back at this sort of like realization and I started to ask myself why would it have been like for me, if I would have seen people from my culture winning? Like why would have been different for me if I would have seen myself represented if I would have seen other people with my kind of background doing awesome things and being highlighted in a beautiful and celebratory way. So When I then looked at the data for the Hispanic demographic in the us, it really fueled my fire because we account for the biggest minority in the United States were already 20% of the population were the fastest-growing demographic were growing seven times faster than any other demographic. And more importantly, we're obsessed with beauty and I can testify to that as someone who grew up, you know, with all these beauty rituals at home And we're seeing it in the spending power too. And I think historically there has been this limiting belief that Hispanics don't have the spending power that they're this, you know, immigrant community that can't afford anything that they don't speak, the language that they have sort of like weird shopping behaviors or whatever. But nothing could be more outdated than that belief because the reality is that 65% of the us population today, 65% of the Hispanic population today are people that were born in the us. So the majority of the Hispanics in the United States are actually born and raised here. They're equals like we are no different than our white counterparts and were vastly different from our parents generation. So the time is now to bring something to market that really authentically represents the richness of our culture and I also think it's way overdue because so many of the sacred beauty rituals that are proven and and so many of the powerful natural ingredients stems from our culture and our region and we just haven't owned it. So ceremony is the answer to all of this, you know, to all of these voice from a beauty market standpoint, from a personal mission standpoint and the answer is a clean hair care brand that is very proudly rooted in my latin heritage and that is offering a hair wellness approach through modern day rituals that are powered by natural ingredients from latin America Gosh, amazing. And now there will be new generations of women looking in the media and seeing themselves represented by people like you who are you know, forging their own pathways. I read that you were One of a really small number like 58 Latino women to have ever raised your first million dollars in capital and money is a big part of what we love to talk about on the show, it's very important, especially as women, especially as Latina Women. What was your approach to the funding piece? Why did you decide to raise and not bootstrap and how did you kind of get started on that journey? Yeah, I love that you bring this up because something that actually most people don't know is that in all these equality conversations about like women make you know, whatever cent on the dollar to men, the percentage of the dollar just goes down and down based if you're a woman and then if you're a woman of color etcetera. Latinas are at the bottom of that bucket, we actually make even less than black women per dollar and not that it's a competition between, you know, race or you know different just to put in perspective. And I think what's interesting when you think about that is that Latina women are constantly overlooked. Not only are we not even really part of diversity conversations were also at the far like end of the spectrum when it comes to earnings. So truth be told, that's why it was so important for me to fundraise. There are many ways to build a business and I'm not saying that the fundraising experience is, you know, Easy or fun or you know, for everyone, but I knew that it was the right one for me and for my business because I want to build a category defining business. I'm really here to disrupt the hair care category. This is not my pet project. This is not a cute family run business that's gonna grow 5% year over year. Like we're quadrupling the business every year On that 20% week over week. Like actually, so in order to do that successfully, I needed funding to accelerate And I also felt like it was important. I felt like it was important to create a benchmark in the industry and hopefully we become one of those success stories and we can then be the benchmark for future founders to come and be like, oh, we're the sir the ammonia for X because benchmarking is incredibly important and I say this, I don't say this often enough, but I'm so grateful to some of the other trailblazing women that paved the way for me, I might be the first Latina to, you know, be walking this trail, but there are other women who walked this trail before me that is even making it possible for me to be the first Latina. So it's like, yeah, it's very personal and very um, mission driven for me. I love that. I want to jump into the marketing side of things and your launch. You know, you come from this marketing background, you've got so many ideas, you've got so much experience, You go out, you start this brand, you raise capital. How did the launch go? Like, what were you doing? What were those grassroots kind of initiatives in the early days to get the word out there? Yeah, so a lot of people obsess a lot over their launch and it's like, they are really like, oh, the launch has to be, you know, this big thing and whatever. I think I was coming at it a little differently because at Uber we never had this like one launch day and then that had to be like the record day of the year or anything like that. We were more in the business of things are better than than perfect and get something out the door quickly so you can start getting feedback and iterate. So we actually launched with one single skew, we launched before we even had a full routine and that was very intentionally so because we wanted to get the brand out the door sooner rather than later so that we could start acquiring customers and learn from them and get their feedback in what, where we should go next. So I'm a big believer in like launch and iterate versus like sitting behind closed doors, you know, spending all your capital on this, you know, imaginary launch day that truthfully no one cares about, like on launch day, you're the only one who's sitting there like on needles. Like it takes time to build a brand is the reality. So like just because you hit go live doesn't mean that people are gonna run across the internet to find you and you need to earn that and it takes time. So we launched in the height of the pandemic, it was far from ideal. We couldn't do a launch party, we couldn't do a press event, we couldn't do desk sides, We, you know, couldn't even do focus groups, like it was just like suddenly we were left with what's happened instagram as our tools. Um and but we did what we could with what we had and I'm really grateful that we weren't sitting around waiting for better times because in these past two years we've now built a really big and successful business when some people have been on somewhat of like a standby. So I don't know what I'm making of that more than like, don't overthink it and like, just get started somewhere and one ft, like in front of the other, I don't know that's a saying in spanish. And yeah, for us, the early winds were really to learn from our customers and our community um get something out there and start getting feedback, get that feedback loop going. Yeah, so, and we still work that way. So in the early days it was just very D. I. Y we had a WhatsApp group where I just literally like, found people who were, you know, our target demographic and I had them try early samples and record themselves to give us their verdict. And then we ended up loving the footage and I asked if we could use it for launch because we didn't even have any photo shoot materials because it was covid. And literally everyone was in lockdown and these early community members just became such, like, vital parts of the brand and they were like, my emotional support. And they also in turn felt like we were really creating something that they wanted and needed and today that has grown and become a fully fleshed community strategy for the business. I love that. And it kind of goes back to that, you know, done is better than perfect, like just it can be scrappy, it can be D I Y it doesn't need to be some big fancy, you know software that you're collating and which it probably is now but it's just getting started and just pull in those voices and listen however possible what's shifting the needle for you now in marketing? Like how have you evolved over the years since Covid and since the whole pandemic thing that we're still kind of on the back of house, your marketing evolved. Yeah, so I think it's constantly evolving and and and that's I think the beauty and the challenge with being a growing business is that nothing is constant, the only constant is change, but we have tried to like hold on to the parts that you know made us successful in the first place which is our like product development strategy, our community, but then as we grow we have put a stronger emphasis on brand building and really to like make it more clear where in the market we belong. And it's like starting to say no to things. Um for instance everyone asks us like oh we should partner with a hair salon and like why are you not in hair salons etcetera. And that's a great example of a strategic decision to say no because we don't belong next to all the toxic styling products and people go to the hairdresser too, color their hair and they usually get a blowout and like straighten in and a lot of the hairdressers were schooled in the old school era of using silicones to give the illusion of shine on your hair and like the use products filled with a lot of ingredients that we ban. So we actually don't belong there. We would belong much better in a spa actually. So it's really constantly thinking about what is the brand and what is not the brand and then living by that truth through all of your decisions and then more practically we are now starting to scale up these things that we have seen work. So for instance, influencer marketing actually works really well for ceremony to, we see that like content is key for us and we like the duality of being this recognizable, relatable brand with, you know, like real girls. But then at the same time being aspirational and sort of like polished, it's like that duality that is interesting and gives the brand depth. So we try to keep a balance between some more polished high end campaign shoots um that are, you know, more glossy and in studio and then mixing that with iphone footage and ideally mixing these two together. I love that. Gosh, iphones, the quality of iphone content these days is like so good. So good. I feel like it should be part of everyone's strategy. I mean as it is, we're all on reels, we're all on Tiktok, but having that kind of brought to a website is very cool. I agree. And I think that um, nothing like, I hate nothing more than amateur photography trying to look polished then it's so much better to just own that it is, D I Y, like the customers love the realness. So, like, even when I do tutorials and stuff, like, I literally, like, I'm without makeup, I put the phone in my back, I don't even have a tripod. Like, it's just like, very, like, authentic. And we see that that's really what resonates because people see themselves. Yes, I love that. People see themselves and people need to see themselves in social media in brands on shelves and you believe it when it's, it feels, you know, perfectly perfect. You know, absolutely. When you think about the lessons you've learned in starting this beauty business, is there anything that you wish you knew before you got started that you can share with our listeners? I mean, take a department. We, we've learned so much on the supply chain side of things. I could go on and on, but it gets very granular and like, very, you know, specific to my type of business. But honestly, and, and here is actually one thing to know about me is that I don't really live a life in regrets. I'm really grateful for all experiences, even the hardest ones, because usually those are the ones that allow you to grow the most. So, sometimes it's hard for me to look back and think about like, oh, what is like the biggest like mistake we made or like one decision I could undo. Like I wouldn't change anything. It's all part of the journey. Absolutely only do here today. You mentioned at the start of this episode that you're going through a race at the moment. Is there anything you want to shout about? Anything you want to kind of end on before we get into the sixth? Quick questions. Yeah. I mean I can just give a little like a gratitude moment for where we are and this is truly thanks to our community. As I said, we launched two years ago with one single skew. And today we have a full assortment of 15 products and they're all made fully in house. We have our own chemist, our own R&D. Lab which allows us to create products from scratch on our terms without compromise. And more importantly, it allows us to co create with our community because we can in our own kitchen get 300 samples if you want to and send out to our community. Whereas usually when you're working with a traditional country manufacturer, they will send you three tiny samples. And then they're like, Okay, so did you like the formula like based On these three tiny samples? Like and we're going to produce 20,000 of them. That's insane. And that's usually how it works. And so I feel really proud how we have really flipped the script for how beauty is done um by bringing much needed representation not only in front of the camera but also around the table. And The market is noticing we're getting so much momentum through pr and you know awards. We've won over 10 awards for our formulas which is so incredible and we launched with Sephora this year which was a true pinch me moment and and we're expanding with them next year which is really exciting so more to come there. Yeah I feel like it's like this first two years was all about establishing our brand, improving our product market fit and now we're in this high growth acceleration point. So exciting, so exciting. Love that for you.