The Mamalode Starter Series is an exciting opportunity for us to introduce you to some of the amazing people we get to meet. Starting something takes enormous amounts of work, faith, help and community. Every week we'll share another story of starting. So, community of Mamalode, read up, get inspired and check out these wonder-folk.
Today our Starter Series features an interview with Susan Houlihan, founder of Alpenglow Skin Care.
Tell us a little bit about your business and how you started it.
In my 20s, I was very dissatisfied with the many products I had purchased to clear up my adult acne, uneven skin tone and extremely sensitive skin. I would break out, rash or burn using creams and cleansers marketed for sensitive skin, claiming to be all natural or organic. This caused me to become cynical and a label reader, so I started researching ingredients. I was (still am) indignant at how unnatural and unhealthy most commercial skin care products are.
I’ve always been a do-it-yourselfer so I borrowed a couple books from the library and made some recipes with simple and truly natural ingredients. Soon my skin became balanced, acne-free, no longer sensitive, and dare I say, radiant. People noticed. It was through sharing my first batches of facial cleansers, face creams, balms and soap that the positive feedback came pouring in. In 1999, Alpenglow Skin Care was born. Alpenglow is the radiant light that appears to glow from within the mountains at sunrise and sunset at our northern latitude. I chose it as a name because with healthy, beneficial ingredients our skin can glow from within as well.
My husband Patrick and I used to be Interpretive Park Rangers in Denali National Park and it was there I developed my interest in ethnobotany—traditional native uses of plants. I have always loved gardening and plants so it was natural for me to go the extra step to grow and wildcraft (harvest from wild plants) herbs and flowers to make infusions and extracts with for their beneficial properties to include in my products. Skin care products are like food for your largest organ and I want the healthiest ingredients possible for myself and my family. Turns out, I’m not alone.
I love that my work allows (demands, really) my very methodical, scientific side. I enjoy formulating and being precise. But what I do is as much an art as a science. Blending essential oils to create incredible scent combinations, working on attractive but simple packaging and labeling. Also working with people—we sell at our local Farmers Market during the summer. It’s all a joy to me and I find my work a nice balance of different skills. I really appreciate working with nature, with plants, harvesting flowers, drying herbs—it’s a labor of love and very rewarding. I honestly feel I have the best job in the world. I’m good at managing, multitasking and manufacturing. What I’m not good at, I hire out. Patrick not only built our house and workshop, he helps in many ways. Alpenglow really feels like right-livelihood. I’m not marketing chemical-laden skin and hair care products to unaware customers who presume if it claims natural, it must be safe. Alpenglow is fully transparent in all regards. There is nothing to hide. Our products are as pure and organic as can be.
What do your kids think about your job?
When I asked Alana, age 9, and Liam who just turned 12, what they thought of my work, I felt as if I asked them what they thought of their arm. It’s always been with them, part of our everyday lives. “What do you mean, what do I think of your job?” was the first reply. When pressed, they both said they really like what I do. They like helping. They love the Farmers Market. They like using our products and really enjoy the scents. I know they take pride in what we do. They earn money making fun shapes with soap scraps and customers adore them. Liam and Alana both help packing orders for shipping to customers and stores. They are essential in our wildcrafting and in the high tunnel (large greenhouse) and garden. There is a level of intimacy with a home business where our children really know what it is I do. As opposed to a parent that leaves to go to work, all the child knows is that they aren’t home. I am grateful for how my work teaches a strong work ethic in my children yet also shows them that family comes first.
A continual goal in my work is to maintain a high quality of life. I try to never lose sight of that. I’m constantly making decisions in the business that preserve the integrity of our family—it’s not business first, not the almighty dollar. My kids are growing up so fast and I don’t want to regret not having spent a LOT of time with them. I work very hard at Alpenglow and I think my kids know that, but I don’t think they feel it. I don’t think they feel I’ve prioritized work over them. It’s hard to juggle and the demanding holiday season gets the better half of me, and summers are super busy, but winters allow a lot of rejuvenation and some downtime.
Tell us about a total mom + biz fail?
I’m embarrassed to share this. My daughter Alana was born in July and summer is crazy busy in Alaska. There is such a short summer season to pack in all that you need/want to do. Combine that with 20 hours of daylight and I resemble a hummingbird, I don’t often slow down. I was determined to get back on my feet as soon as possible after Alana was born, which was at 5:00 a.m., at home, after only 3 hours of labor. Later that day I made a large batch of soap which takes a few hours and lots of heavy lifting. The day she was born I also took a long nature walk/stroll with my then two-and-a-half year old Liam. I believe my reasoning was this; as a baby Liam was a mama’s boy. I wanted to make sure Alana attached to her father as well so I left them to bond while I made soap. I also didn’t want Liam thinking this new baby was going to take all of my time, Mama was still there for him. Somebody should have slapped me. I should have stayed in bed with my newborn for days, adoring her, adoring my son, and my husband. Not rushing into work and normalcy so quickly. There will always be work and a list of things to do. But the opportunity to stare into the eyes of our brand new baby, in awe of their perfection and the miracle of life, this is a rare gift not to be wasted.
I have finally seen the light and now appreciate not working so hard. Not pushing myself too much. Allowing time for exercise and music each day. Not rushing through our family dinners but recognizing how quickly life passes. I’ll never regret the time I spend with my family. Business comes second. And making decisions with this ‘quality of life’ compass has never served me wrong. Bigger is not better. Quality is better.
Share with us a total win (brag away!)
My work is very rewarding. I receive emails and phone calls almost daily from happy customers. People tell me Alpenglow products have changed their life. I have a 10-year-old customer that has a very challenging skin condition that makes her very itchy and keeps her awake at night. Our lotion has helped her tremendously. She reached out to thank me personally. I’ve had women send me unsolicited photos of their face ‘before’ and ‘after’ Alpenglow and the difference is profound. I hear from folks that have been fighting a problem area for months, even years—painful cracks on their fingers or feet, serious chronic rashes, major burns, and they tell me how our Cottonwood Balm has healed them.
I have numerous customers that have been buying my products since the very beginning, for 15 years now. They love watching my business grow but really appreciate that the quality, and 100% natural ingredients have never wavered. It feels really good to make products that are healthy, beneficial, honest, ecologically sound and handmade. We are not a corporation selling toxic products through misleading advertising and clever marketing. I love sharing Alpenglow with people for all these reasons. And the positive testimonials sure help me see the proof of my efforts.
What's your relationship with Mamalode?
Elke grew up in our town of Homer, Alaska. She loves Alpenglow Skin & Hair Care products and reached out to me to share our story. I’m excited to spend more time reading your articles. I really appreciate the down to earth nature so apparent in Mamalode. Thank you for the opportunity to share my story.