28 Oct 2020

Q+A with Keta Burke-Williams (MBA 2021), Co-Founder of Aspen Apothecary


Keta Burke-Williams (right) and her sister Kaja Burke-Williams (left).

by Cullen Schmitt

Deciding on a career path comes with unexpected twists and turns from all aspects of life. In the case of Keta Burke-Williams (MBA 2021), a former Rock Summer Fellow and current Rock Accelerator participant, it started with memories from her childhood, the power of scent, and finding a medical solution for her mother’s dog that started her on a path to becoming an entrepreneur. Keta is the co-founder (along with her sister Kaja) of Aspen Apothecary, a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) founded startup that produces CBD-infused perfumes. We corresponded with Keta via email about her entrepreneurial journey, the challenges she has faced, and how she hopes to balance business school while launching her company.

What is Aspen Apothecary?
Aspen Apothecary is a niche fragrance house. We create clean, conscious, vegan CBD-infused perfumes for modern womxn with the goal of making self-care less of a hassle. Our first line, which launches this fall, has three scents inspired by stories that my sister and I created together. We are especially excited because they combine ingredients we love, like palo santo, Haitian vetiver, and bergamot. More importantly, they are clean (we have a long list of "no" ingredients such as nitromusks), and vegan.

Why did you decide on CBD and perfume as your products?
Scent was a theme throughout our childhood. Our mother, a Jamaican immigrant, would tell us a lot of stories about her earlier years. One story was about a visit to Tunisia. While the details change, her memory of the midnight jasmine trees stays the same. We realized just how powerful scent can be to evoking a memory, and knew we wanted to capture that.

Many years later, my sister and I were comparing our favorite perfumes at that time. We were dismayed to find three main commonalities:

1. They were made by huge conglomerates with old, white men at the helm.

2. They sometimes made us sneeze.

3. We couldn't tell you what was in them.

We decided we deserved better and that this needed to change, so we started to conduct research and speak to folks. We were surprised and excited to learn that one of the two big drivers of growth in the global fragrance industry is niche and indie perfume.

The idea to add CBD to our products came after treating my mother’s dog for travel-related anxiety with a CBD bone. It was the only thing that was effective. We wanted to infuse self-care into an everyday item we use—perfume. That way, you can practice self-care and smell good. Aspen Apothecary was born through sweat equity and long nights.

What are some of the potential benefits of your perfumes?
While our product isn't a replacement for living a healthy, balanced life, I have personally found it to be helpful in a few key ways. First, I'm often rushing from one commitment (now Zoom meetings), to another. When I pull our Moon Dust fragrance out of my backpack, I pause what I'm doing, roll it onto my pulse points, close my eyes and breathe deeply. This 30-second pause is a great reset when I'm stressed. Second, I often have swollen lymph nodes. When I use our perfume at my pulse points between my jaw and neck, I find that they generally shrink over the next hour or two. Of course, CBD acts different in each person's body, so what happens to me might not happen for someone else.

You came to HBS without the idea of starting a company. How has the HBS entrepreneurial community influenced your change in career path?
It threw a wrench in my plans, in the best way possible. I realized in my Entrepreneurial Manager class that there isn't one perfect background or personality required to be an entrepreneur; what is common across us is scrappiness, grit, and resilience.

You have been selected as one of the Rock Accelerator Teams this year. What are you hoping to achieve through this program?

First, hone our value proposition; how do we translate what we are excited to build into a memorable statement that resonates with our consumers? Second, to get guidance as we look towards pre-sales in November and a launch in February 2021. Third, connect with the community of fellow founders who experience the same highs and lows.

How has your Rock Summer Fellowship helped to launch your company?
The Summer Fellowship was integral. In addition to the funding, the program required us to structure our summer and plans, which was extremely helpful given that creating something new is an ambiguous process. We leaned on the Rock Center’s Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, who provided much-needed insights and from them learned that when you ask, people are often willing to listen and offer guidance.

Do you have any advice for other women and BIPOC founders?
I've noticed as a BIPOC founder that we have the opportunity to reframe mindsets. While we might get more questions and skepticism than founders of a different background, we use that as an opportunity to explain what we are doing, and to bring the questioner on the journey with us. We have been extremely fortunate to have mentorship from other founders of color, one of whom is an HBS graduate. A secondary mission of our company is to amplify the voices of trailblazing womxn of color, which we accomplish through our blog and other publications.

It's important to note that these past six months have seen a lot of attention focused on the Black Lives Matter movement. Our brand is the vision of two black womxn, and every month we interview womxn of color who are absolute trailblazers, but who may not have a platform to have their voices heard. We feel it is our responsibility to amplify these voices, and when you purchase our perfumes you amplify them too.

You are launching your company this fall. How do you plan to balance your company responsibilities with your MBA classes/activities?
I think balance is relative. I once heard an executive explain how he was able to accomplish so much—he believed humans are like rubber bands; we look fixed, but we can stretch much farther than we realize to get things done. When work ebbs and flows, we forget how it was ever possible to stretch so far. Fortunately, I've geared lots of my classes towards entrepreneurship, so it feels like I'm getting an immersive experience from end-to-end, from an independent study to partnering with students in the Field X class, to the Law, Management and Entrepreneurship class. We are incubating at HBS.

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