Interview with Adina Grigore, Creator of S.W. Basics

Recently I sat down with Adina Grigore, Founder and CEO of S.W. Basics, an all-natural sustainable skincare line based in Brooklyn. I asked her some questions about how she built her business from scratch (literally in her tiny kitchen in Greenpoint), and being an overall wonderful and inspirational woman (although she’d be the first one to cringe at such hallmarky words because she’s as down to earth as it gets and simply doing what she loves).

Why did you start your company?

I went to nutrition school, worked as a personal trainer, and I felt like health and wellness were extremely exclusive, luxurious, and very much like a club that draws a line. One side is healthy, and one side is unhealthy. The industry says if you want to move to this side of the line, you need to pay them, you can’t do it by yourself. I felt skincare was the worst culprit in the industry because it sends the message; you’re flawed, you have to buy these things we made to fix yourself, and p.s. you’re going to need these products forever. I put on workshops and showed people that there’s stuff in your own kitchen that’s good to use on your skin, and afterwards people would ask me if they could buy the things I just taught them about. So it was simple to take the next step to package and sell people something that’s good for them.

Who’s a woman you look up to?

Recently I met the founder of this nonprofit called I Am That Girl, and it was just so cool to hang out with her. She thinks girls aren’t really getting to connect with each other and that it’s too common in media that women tear each other down instead of being supportive and positive, and she addresses that through her organization. So meeting her just made my day, right? Her work is helping people, and she really actually gives a shit about it. I get stoked when I meet people like her who give a shit, who are like, “This is what I don’t like, and this is how I’m going to change it.” I look up to any woman like that. Also, my sister, Anca. She’s a public interest lawyer helping low-income families faced with housing issues, and she doesn’t make much, but it’s what she wants to do. It’s especially inspiring to me when people could pick something easy, something financially secure to do with their lives, but that’s not what they’re after. That’s definitely not what a lot of advisors or investors tell you in how to run a business, but I think if you’re not doing something you love or you’re passionate about, what’s the point?

How do you deal with that in running your business – this for-profit paradigm?

It’s so hard. It’s really a daily struggle. Constant communication with Adam, my husband and business partner, is a big part of how I deal with it. We talk about it every day. We go through how our selfish desires affect the business, how money is affecting the business, how external advice is affecting the business, and how we stop it all from interfering. You can’t totally stop these forces, but what I've realized is; I just need to be aware, especially when I’m doing something for financial reasons. I think the real risk is when you’re in denial about the moves you’re making.

Sometimes you have to make tough decisions in order to survive, professionally and personally, but everyone has to make them right?

Totally. Bottom line is; there are certain business assumptions, widely accepted models about long-term price points and such, but it’s odd to assume that’s what every business wants. Those definitely aren’t our main goals. We don’t make all decisions based on money – that’s just not how we operate.

What’s your favorite time of day and place to work?

Fave time of day to work is nighttime because it’s quieter - I’m no longer getting emails and phone calls constantly. I love to work from home in my special spot on my red couch by my window with my blanket facing the outside. It’s funny because we’ve had two other offices, but I feel best, most powerful, on my couch at home. It’s always been there. The offices change. My home is my throne.

Do you ever feel uninspired? What do you do when that happens?

Yes. I do what I need to do until the feeling passes. I just keep going through the motions because if I try to make it go away and put this pressure on myself to get inspired, and it doesn’t happen, then I get judgmental and hard on myself. It’s like working out for me - I don’t want to do it, but if I do, I feel better eventually.

Do you feel like your gender has altered or informed your experience as a business owner?

People treat women so differently than men in business. One example; people ask me how old I am during professional meetings. It’s a hard thing because if I say I’m not answering that, it’s kind of a response that meets their level, so instead I say how old I am, and I tell myself I’m not going to give a shit that they asked because it doesn't affect my ability. I also get asked if I want kids in a way that implies if I do, it’s a downfall for the business. It’s very subtle, and if I say that anything offends me, people will always respond with, “Oh my god! That wasn't my intention at all!” This kind of treatment comes from other women too. I’ll get advice to use my “female charms” when I go into meetings, or people will tell us that Adam should bring the “guy energy”, and I should bring the “girl energy”, implying he should dominate, and I should flirt. Often though, that’s just our personalities - he’s more serious, and I’m more light. It’s hard to separate our personalities from our gender roles and also what’s so engrained.

I was just having a conversation about that the other day - about how at a molecular level, in the grand scheme of things, females aren't that different from males, and a lot of what makes us different seems to come from social constructs and learned behaviors. Gloria Steinem says we have to unlearn. (“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.”)

Totally. On the flip side of the fact that I can be “girly/flirty”, I actually act a lot like a “dude”. I get comments pretty regularly about how much I curse, and I exhibit masculine characteristics in a lot of different ways. The truth is that the social construct is the problem - the entire concept - not the specific ones like “masculine” and “feminine,” but the fact that we feel the need to put people into boxes at all. And then on top of that, we feel the need to judge them and tell them it’s weird that they curse a lot or don’t act “ladylike” or “like a man.” It’s all so stupid. What we really have to do is first figure out who we are minus the box, then unlearn how we judge ourselves, and then unlearn how we judge others. Also god bless Gloria Steinem.

What or who can always make you laugh?

Anca can always make me laugh, but to be fair I think everything and everyone is fucking funny. But really, my sister is hilarious. The other day I texted her, “I just met someone enlightened. How can I get that way?” She wrote back, “That person is lying.” It was perfect.

Where’s one of the coolest places you've traveled to or visited?

Can I do more than one? I’m doing more than one. France and Ecuador. Paris is fucking awesome. I went there on my honeymoon. I went with my family when I was young but going back as an adult was so different. We did Paris and Nice. The food in Paris was amazing, but the thing that really made an impact on me while I was there was seeing how much Parisians just hang out. Here in the States it’s like we hang out and drink, but in Paris everyone you look at is just having the craziest conversation, and you want to be a part of it. They’re all planning their coup on the government. And Nice is just so breathtaking, so beautiful. And Ecuador I think about all the time for very different reasons. Going to France was a luxury vacation, and Ecuador was like “expand your mind”. I think going somewhere where you can’t speak the language expands your mind no matter what, but in Ecuador I felt way outside my comfort zone. That kind of trip changes you. We went to the Amazon, which was fucking crazy. We saw snakes and spiders that are so much scarier than what you would see anywhere in the States. I was so deeply transported; we had to put nets down over us at night to keep ourselves physically safe, and combined with the epic-ness of the moment, the fact that the Amazon is deteriorating; it was so much emotionally and so different from what I’m used to – it was just such an intense trip.

What’s something a lot of people don’t know about you?

I’m from Eastern Europe, Romania to be exact. I don’t really speak Romanian anymore, but I understand it. English was my third language. Romanian first, Spanish second.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to start their own business?

I want you to know that if you asked me this last week, my answer would be different, and if you ask me next week, it will probably be different then. But right now: don’t pursue something you’re not good at, which sounds kind of sad, but it’s just true. I think if you need advice, don’t do it; if you want advice, that’s different. Do what you’re good at and what you can efficiently deliver to people, whatever form that comes in. I think people should allow themselves to fall into things. Let yourself find things, and understand they’ll change.

What kind of support system did you have when you were starting out with your business, and what kind do you have now to help maintain every day?

In the beginning, it was friends and family, and Adam of course was insanely instrumental and motivating. When I had no idea if any of this was going to work, my close friends and family were all, "Go for it, do it, we’ll still be here for you no matter what." Now, I think it’s a little more targeted. The people who work with us are the most important influences on me every day because no matter how bad the day has been, I’m working with people who have chosen my mission to get behind. They’re really great and really believe in me, and they see me through all of it. And of course my friends, but especially my friends who are going through similar things. I've become a lot closer to my entrepreneur friends because we have that in common. Business is what I like to talk about, and it’s also what I want to hear someone else talk about, which may bore a lot of people. For example, the details of conversations with my investors are easier to share with someone going through the same thing. It’s always super constructive and helpful to have these connections. And the entrepreneur community here (in New York City), these young professionals, are very powerful. Commiserating and celebrating with them is great and really important for me.

That’s really awesome. I totally agree on the importance of shared experiences. At She/Folk we’re always looking for people to collaborate with, and it’s nice just bouncing ideas around with someone, and it’s not in competition; it’s just about learning from each other and each other’s experiences.

Totally. It’s sort of how to get an education about it all. Where else can you learn this stuff if not from other people trying it and telling you about it? I’m not going back to school at this point to figure it out, besides which sometimes you don’t learn these things through classrooms or books. And sometimes you don’t want to figure it out intuitively, you just want to ask another person questions and have a conversation.

Does that scare you at all - the realization that maybe you can’t really learn this stuff in school; that there’s not one perfect formula so to speak?

It scares me a little less each day. Each day I don’t fold, I’m like, "Okay, this is fine," and I can trust myself and what I’m learning. It’s empowering.

What are some of your fears?

Personally, I think it’s figuring out if I want children too late or having kids and then figuring out it’s not for me. Divorce scares me. Professionally, I have a huge fear of getting kicked out of my own company because I’m surrounded by examples of that. What’s even scarier is if it was the right thing to do; what if one day I’m not good for my company? It’s really common in our industry to get acquired, and to get pushed toward acquisition where a bigger company buys you and changes shit. It’s weird because I don’t want to stay in the same place forever though; I want to find a middle ground, but I have no idea what that is, and I just figured that out in this interview, whoa. That’s terrifying. I know I do not want another company to take my company, and I don’t want to be kicked out. I don’t want to compromise the values which I based this company on. But I don’t know what any of that looks like exactly. I’m still learning and evolving every day. One of the best assets to have as an entrepreneur is agility. I think it gives you such an edge over everyone else. To be able to evolve when someone else can’t - you’ll win and they won’t. That’s just how the world works. You have to constantly be ready to change. The hard thing is figuring out how much to change. Like with us, we’re not ever going to be okay with adding chemicals to our products. Some stuff has to stay true the whole time.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Do I care about my gender? Of course. I hate when people say no. That is the dumbest shit you could say about feminism unless you do not understand what feminism is. Feminism, by definition, is the fucking belief that women are equal to men. It’s so simple. Everyone who’s sitting around saying, “No, I’m not a feminist because I don’t think women are better than men,” – hello?! When did that become a thing? When did feminism become equated to anything other than, “I like men. I like women. And they should all have a happy life”? 

And with that, we clinked our glasses and smiled in agreement.