In 2020, the global organic and natural feminine care market was $1.25 billion. Kimba Williams and Barbara McLaren, MD, are part of that market. Their personal needs drove them to launch a company specializing in products that safely and effectively treat everyday feminine health concerns.
It was kismet that they met in 2016 while on a girl’s cruise. A year later, they returned to the cruise with product samples to test.
In 2018, the pair launched Kushae by BK Naturals. Year over year, the company is doubling and tripling revenue. The pandemic has been both a curse and a blessing to the growth of the business. As a consumer packaged goods (CPG) company, they needed to have lots of inventory on hand to meet the growing customer demand. Financing inventory and developing new products proved challenging but ultimately doable. The pair recently closed a $1.25 million venture capital seed round.
Williams has 15 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, where the goal is to make people super dependent on medication, commented Williams. “I decided to move out of the business of sickness and into the business of wellness.”
Even though she was employed in the pharmaceutical industry, she started to detoxify the way she did things at home, from cloth diapering her babies to making her own baby food to getting rid of toxic cleaners in her home. “Even though I could find non toxic alternatives for everything from shampoo to body lotion, I struggled to find natural solutions to feminine health and hygiene products,” she said.
McLaren is a board-certified OB/GYN who was diagnosed with a particular deadly form of breast cancer. As a result, she had a double mastectomy and is now in remission. Her breast tissues showed evidence of toxins that were related to everyday personal care products.
The two decided to do something about what they thought was a big hole in the market. They worked with a chemist who helped them develop formulations that were made from plant-based, botanical ingredients, and are fragrance free. No chemical, synthetic or artificial ingredients are in Kushae’s products.
Most natural feminine wellness products are for menstruation and menopause. They don’t address itching, yeast infections, odor, and chafing. Kushae’s first four product lines were:
- A cleanser that didn’t dry out people’s vaginas.
- A deodorant spray for athletic people who struggle with sweaty odors.
- A skin balm that protects against chafing and vaginal dryness.
- Products to help with irritation caused by shaving and waxing products,
On January 1, 2018, they officially launched. Williams gave notice and started working full time as CEO and cofounder. McLaren maintains her full-time medical practice and oversees R&D for Kushae. She is president and cofounder.
Sales were strong, but they dramatically accelerated when women turned to online shopping during the pandemic. A vast majority—85% to 90%—of Kushae product purchases are made online. The social consciousness-raising of the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter Movement drove interest in purchasing from Black-owned businesses and media, such as Vogue and Essence, wrote about Kushae products. In 2020, 33 Whole Foods stores started selling the company’s products. And in 2021, Kushae started selling products on Amazon.
The company was on track to triple sales. But sales for their number one product came to a crashing halt last year when, from March to May, the packaging was stuck at port waiting to be unloaded. The ingredients for the Kushae products are sourced in the U.S. but its packaging comes from overseas.
“I turned lemons into lemonade,” said Williams. She sourced a refillable pouch made in the U.S. “Though we missed our three-fold revenue goal from 2020 to 2021, we doubled revenue for that period. And added an eco-friendly, reusable packaging solution to the product line,” she said.
Cash flow is particularly challenging for early-stage CPG companies that need to have inventory on hand to meet surging demand. This was no different for Kushae. Big banks turned the company down. Williams had won $350,000 in 15 pitch competitions including IFund Women, the National Association of Women-Owned Businesses (NAWBO), P&G Ventures Innovation Challenge, and TiE Access. The company did revenue-based financing with Clearbanc (now called Clearco), inventory funding from Shopify, and longer-term financing through Fundbox. Williams also became a Tory Burch Fellow.
However, to fund product development, the team decided to raise angel and venture capital. Black and Latinx female founders raise less than half a percent (0.43%) of VC investment in 2020, down from a share of .67% in 2018-2019, according to 2021 ProjectDiane by digitalundivided. It was a struggle, but the duo was victorious, raising $1.25 million from Fearless Fund, TiE Global Angels, TiE Access, TiE SoCal, and Tech Coast Angels—San Diego.
“I’m proud to be an early investor in Kushae,” said Arian Simone, General Partner and CEO of Fearless Fund. “The feminine wellness category desperately needs products that women can feel confident in, from both an efficacy and safety standpoint, and Kimba and Dr. Barb have successfully created a line that does just that. To support this company and these amazing co-founders was easily aligned with our mission and a no-brainer.”
How are you turning challenges into opportunities?