Episode 1: Ashley Prange, Founder and CEO of Au Naturale Cosmetics

Meet Ashley Prange. Founder and CEO of Au Naturale Cosmetics, a brand laser—focused on delivering the cleanest, greenest products in the widest arrange of shades, formats and textures. Listen as she shares the story of how an extreme shift in career and frustration with commercial cosmetics led her on an entrepreneurial journey.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty, hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzWe are joined by Ashley Prange, founder and CEO of Au Naturale Cosmetics based in Green Bay Wisconsin. Welcome Ashley.
Ashley PrangeThank you so much.
Jodi KatzWe're excited to have you on Where Brains Meet Beauty. Our listeners are curious about the career paths and journeys of executives in the beauty industry, but not the glossed over and picture perfect PR story that many people tell, but the honest and authentic one. You certainly have an incredibly interesting story to tell us. Before we dive into that story, let's just get to know each other a little bit. Why don't you start with telling us about what's differentiating about your brand.
Ashley PrangeGreat. First of all, so happy to be on this podcast, it's exciting and eager to share our story. Au Naturale is my baby, I started it properly five years ago, although the research that I needed to do before it could come online was about two years. In total, I've been working at this for about seven. Au Naturale is different because it's organic, as clean as it possibly can be.

We have color cosmetics, we have over 200 [inaudible] at the moment and I employ a staff that works in our lab producing things like lipsticks and foundations and lip glosses and then a staff that is in charge of fulfillments and then the actual brand portion, which is, I'm telling the world about us and how we're working in this small town in Wisconsin using the cleanest ingredients we can get our hands on to give people fresh, clean color.
Jodi KatzHere's a hard question. If your brand is a color, what color would it be?
Ashley PrangeOh my goodness. I think green, even though we don't make a lot of the color green, we are green. That word's almost overdone used here, but yeah, everything, and we're sitting and we're making even a tube of lipstick, it's like, "Okay, can this be recycled, where is the waste going. How can we make this eco, more clean, better for the world and better for our customer." That would be the color I would pick, and then second would have to be pale pink, because I feel like that's the most popular color in the lab.
Jodi KatzReally, [crosstalk 00:02:41].
Ashley PrangeUh, huh, across all. We're just making gorgeous pink blushes. A lot, or maybe I'm just feeling that way because we've been doing so much for the last six months, but it's always popular.
Jodi KatzThen, on a personal note, what's your favorite movie?
Ashley PrangeOh my goodness, [inaudible 00:03:01] but probably The Goonies.
Jodi KatzOh cool.
Ashley PrangeI've always really loved that movie.
Jodi KatzIt's a goodie. So let's [inaudible 00:03:14] career change. It's a super relevant theme right now and you're an example of a pretty extreme shift from one career to another. I think when our listeners hear your story, it will be one of those mouths wide open, how does that happen. Why don't you tell us what you were doing before the beauty industry.
Ashley PrangeSure, sure. Before Au Naturale, I was an analyst at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington DC, so worked for the Federal Government, primarily helping regulate things like uranium mines and reactors that were aging. So, very, very, very different than what I'm doing now and I wouldn't even say it's because we're making a product, honestly it's just the switch from public to private sector, was ... it was a hurdle for me just to fully understand business.

The first couple years of the business, not only just making and shipping and creating the brand, it was also learning how to work with the IRS and to make sure payroll is on time and legal and all of the other administrative things that are tied up into owning a small business.
I had such a wonderful time in DC and never really thought I'd leave that career path, but there was such a need I saw in the market for actual clean color with a broad spectrum of product and the pigments that were in it, so if I wanted to go out and have a vampy dark lip, that I could get that organically and trust what I was reading on the labels.
I made the leap and it was difficult and not just in the way that it was time consuming and you work, work, work, and don't see a paycheck for a long time, but also, just emotionally in training [inaudible 00:05:11] working at this dream that you have and to see it realize, it's not easy. It is the most difficult thing I've ever done for sure.
Jodi KatzYou would have your job in DC, where you're regulating uranium mines. I'm not even sure what the day to day of that looks like, but as you're doing that, there must have been an internal process happening for several years that it wasn't just one day you're evaluating uranium mines and the next day you're researching beauty. Do you remember and recall what that internal journey that led you to make that change felt like?
Ashley PrangeYeah. Maybe it's because I'm a millennial, but I never really loved the idea of being a cog in a big system. I felt like I had a lot to share with the world and that where I was at the NRC and where I was in life were just not what I was meant to be doing.

I remember doing the pros and cons. I did start a business like this even before I had the idea for the business, or just leaving the NRC, is it worth it? My pay was so good, my benefits were so amazing and everyone always calls the Federal Government the golden handcuffs because it's so good, you can't leave. At some point, you just end up retiring from that agency, which is attractive and certainly it's why a lot of people want to be working there. I always felt like there was a larger calling to do something more, that my gifts were not best used at the NRC.
I didn't have that feeling before. I didn't have that feeling before. I did work the Hill for a little while, on Capital Hill, for a congressman and I felt like then I had the opportunity, I was able to give back in ways that I couldn't in other jobs, but I did feel like the NRC was limiting. Not that it wasn't a great place to work, so if anyone listening is from my old office, just know that I had so much fun with you, but I really just wanted to do something more and living a green lifestyle and giving women, we have some men who work for us too, my team that's ever expanding, a wonderful place to work with a product they can trust and love was so empowering. I wanted to work towards that.
I have this one vivid memory of sitting with a friend who worked in HR at the NRC and then just noticing that every single person at our agency was referred to as one piece of human capital and I felt so yucky about that. I was like, "I'm one piece of human capital, that's terrible. I don't want to be here anymore."
That internal dialog ... it was years before the company actually came into existence.
Jodi KatzWith that internal dialog of wanting to do more and not being a cog in a big system, why beauty?
Ashley PrangeI think it was meant to be. I say that because I had so many experiences oddly, of women who were playing with pigments in their home and selling them on Etsy, which was interesting to me. Some people were making lip balms. These people kept surfacing in my life who were creating really nourishing product that I couldn't find anywhere else.

I looked at that and I thought, "That's pretty cool, but why not make it vegan, why not make it organic and why isn't there something in the market that is that." I am so careful and thoughtful in all other parts of my life and make up is something as a professional I was putting on every day. I like it. I was thinking about art school, back when I was 18, I like playing with color, it's fun for me. To not have access to clean color didn't make sense.
I also don't like being lied to and I felt like even walking down the aisles of Whole Foods, the word natural doesn't mean anything. As someone who was a regulator, I can say, after doing so much research, natural doesn't mean anything, green doesn't mean anything, you say clean beauty, what does that mean? You really have to dig deep to understand if you're using make up that is non-toxic, that is actually okay for you.
Things like living down the street from the Environmental Working Group, all of these factors came together and really inspired me to start this. I felt like I needed to because your skin's your largest organ, women are putting so much onto their skin, it's all accumulating in their system and having at least a choice to apply healthy color that works, they should have that. I felt a calling to move into that space.
Jodi KatzIt's interesting how you identify the tie between your old job and your old career and when you have [inaudible 00:10:27] which really still is as a regulator, right? It's not about uranium mines anymore, but you're a regulator, an activist regulator in beauty to be able to make sure that women do have those choices and that honesty in labeling.

Are there other career skills that transferred over from your old position in DC to what you're doing now?
Ashley PrangeDefinitely. In my old position, I was always on teams with a lot of lawyers and scientists and it took me a while ... I started at that agency when I was 22, so it took me a few years to really look at documents and problems with a critical eye and a keen desire to understand details. That's been helpful with Au Naturale, not just on the legal side of it, but when it comes to this advocacy, even understanding some of the efforts that we've been working so hard for.

Senators Feinstein and Collins introduced a measure that we were so happy to support and add our two cents to, but that even to me was a good first step but not comprehensive in to offering a whole lot of regulatory measures for personal care products. Even just sitting down with the 25 page document and reading it really closely and reading the fine print so that you can get an in depth understanding of what that effort is and how to make it better, that is what I did in my old position. So, just a lot of high level thinking to get something finished and I do that every day with Au Naturale for sure, but with the DC work, I'm so passionate about it because there really is no regulatory measures in the personal care product space, so even working with some lawmakers right now on forming a new bill similar to the one Feinstein and Collins introduced last Congress, that's everything.
Just taking that language, making it more critical, more refined and introducing something that does more takes a lot of thought. A lot of thought, a lot of writing and foresight and that certainly is something that we're doing every day and at least on the Hill, it's something that I care a whole lot about and that we're not struggling, but we're always working harder to be better than we were before in framing something that can be passed. One day we will.
Jodi KatzIf I'm hearing this correctly, it almost sounds like you left one career and actually start two careers, one as the founder and CEO of a beauty brand, and one as an advocate for customers in the government with regards to beauty. Would you say that you sort of have two jobs now?
Ashley PrangeYes. I would. I would. I take both very seriously. No one else ... that's not true, there are other people who are on the Hill signing on and supporting, but to really shake up some specific lawmakers who I know will introduce something that could then be signed on and supported by other companies and other groups like EWG, which is the Environmental Working Group, who does do so much, or the Center for Food Safety who is always such a supporter. You need to have the idea first in order to make it actionable and that is where I see us.

We're not always given credit and that's okay, what matters to me has nothing to do with that. When I am in DC and I'm seeing little girls who are around ten years old with no hair or eyebrows because they used Wenn shampoo and the FDA absolutely has no authority to tell Wenn to put a label on the bottle that says "Could cause hair loss," or has no authority to even pull the products when it's known to be a hazard, especially for small children, that is what keeps me going. It has everything to do with wanting to protect people and that's innate in who I am.
Jodi KatzSwitching gears a little bit. On a hard day, and I'm sure there are some hard days, what's your daydream, Plan B job? What is in the back of your head that if this doesn't work out, what's my next thing?
Ashley PrangeI try not to think about that. When this is so successful that I give it to someone else who can help me with it or should something terrible happen, I think I would be happy just working on an organic farm, truly, and being in Wisconsin advocating for the environment here. That means a lot to me. The Midwest is not give enough attention on what industrial farming is capable of in compromising the environment, so I see so much that needs to be done right where I live. So much promise and so much potential, but so much sadness too with big agriculture and what it's doing. I think I would find myself in another advocacy role paired with growing really yummy organic food. That's what I would do.
Jodi KatzLet's go back to talking about the meat industry. No doubt, we could say that when you started in this industry you were an outsider, you had no prior experience in the beauty industry. Did you feel like an outsider when you started this business and if so, when did you stop feeling like an outsider?
Ashley PrangeI always felt like an outsider. I remember going to my first events in New York City and thinking that honestly every single make up line has a lab, because how else do they make their make up? I was not being laughed at, but they were like, "What do you mean? You have your own lab?" I'm like, "Because we have to make the product that I'm advertising." Obviously, we make our products and I found myself to be the only person at this particular event that actually made their own products.

I did start understanding that the way I went about starting Au Naturale is completely different than other brands. There are brands that I have since worked with who I adore, that are doing similar things in skin care that we do here for make up and it's so nice speaking with the founders of those companies, because they have so much in common in that way, but definitely an outsider, no experience at all and it makes it hard because the beauty industry in a lot of worlds, especially in New York I find, are a bit cliquey because they all came from a background that is Estee Lauder, L'Oreal, just not in this green, niche area of makeup.
Some people call that indie beauty and I do have more in common with people in that space, but even then it's a bit different. We're not using a third party contract manufacturer, and because we take it very seriously when we say our product is natural and organic, telling that story and talking to people about what that means to them, it's like we're speaking two different languages.
Depending on my crowd now, for instance next week I'll be in LA for Indie Beauty Expo they'll understand a bit about my world and the larger genre have CEWs at events. For example, I feel like we're talking a different language and I still feel like an outsider, because what we're doing is in sharp contrast to what most people in beauty are working on. If that makes sense.
Jodi KatzIt makes total sense. You're telling us that you started your business in beauty not having any experience in beauty. You built a lab to develop and manufacture products because you thought that that's what everybody did and then you realized when walking into a New York sphere of beauty, that that's what almost nobody does. Has that lab become an asset to you?
Ashley PrangeIt's everything, it's everything. Not only do I have a skilled staff now who's capable of turning over a ton of product in a short amount of time, we also have the control and ability to quickly become even better. I say that ... I'll give you an example right now that I'm dealing with. We have access to the first clean, organic, raw palm oil that's also sustainable coming from Ecuador. I've never used that ingredient before because if you're using palm oil, you're basically giving a thumbs up to deforestation in Asia, so we never used that ingredient.

Now that I have access to this beautiful ingredient that I can use in a lot of different things, but the first will be a lip product, we can quickly change formulations to reflect, I would argue, the cleanest lip product in the world, to be honest. I know that's a bold statement, but it's awesome who quickly we were able to put that together, because we have the lab and if we want to work until three in the morning on something like this, we will, and we can. We have all the tools now. That's exciting.
Jodi KatzIt's so interesting how walking into the industry blind actually created this huge opportunity for you. But if you worked at a strategic before this, you never would have built your own lab, right?
Ashley PrangeCorrect, I never would have, because it was a lot of work. It still is, but building what we have right now, that was a lot of the last four years of my life.
Jodi KatzDo you think that when you left DC, you could have just gotten a job at another brand that existed and be able to accomplish what you're accomplishing now?
Ashley PrangeNo. I don't think I would have been very desirable, because my background didn't reflect anything in beauty. I had no marketing experience formally. My skill set before Au Naturale would not have been conducive to helping another brand grow, so my position in the space I'm in right now is definitely forced my just me and my efforts and certainly hiring some wonderful people on our team now has helped us really hold a firm place in what green and natural is for color.
Jodi KatzCan you think back to your first year in business, because now you're really at almost seven years, two years of research, and five years of [crosstalk 00:21:25].
Ashley PrangeYes.
Jodi KatzCan you summarize what that felt like, year one, being a new entrepreneur in a new industry?
Ashley PrangeYeah, it was hard. It was exciting because you form these relationships online with bloggers and just a few taste makers who give you enough attention where you're starting to build your customer base. That part is exciting and it's validating, because you're like, "I have this concept, I have this idea and it's working and it's amazing," and it's resonating with some people, with perfect strangers who you don't know, who are ordering from your website. It's what keeps you going.

It's so time consuming and you get so wrapped up into it, that I remember my work at the NRC was hard, because I did both for about ten months and it was difficult. Also, I was in a relationship at that point too and quite frankly, it was too hard to juggle all three. I left the NRC, I was hoping that I could balance the relationship and the business, but I just became very isolated and working so much on Au Naturale that nothing else was getting enough attention and I wasn't really in a place to entertain anything beyond that.
I sort of became closed off and isolated, and then even further isolated when I moved out of DC because I left my friends and just worked on this full time. I was pretty much alone and that really took an emotional toll that I think is hard to express in words. It was certainly a lonely time. It was an exciting time, but very lonely.
Jodi KatzWhen did that loneliness and the stress, do you remember a point in the journey within the past five years when you felt a shift?
Ashley PrangeYeah, I would say it would be in year two, not year two, probably more like year three, when we had enough of a team where I felt like I was actually going into an office space. Almost have like this work family, who on some level, understands what you're going through and feels comfortable enough with you at that point to say, "Hey, let's go get a glass of wine."

It seems so simple and silly to say, because so much of my life is for Au Naturale, but really that work life balance and I hate when people say work life balance, because as an entrepreneur I don't think that's real. I think it's just integrating work into all of your life where you feel less stressed, entertaining all of it all at once. I don't know if that makes sense.
I feel like if it's two in the morning and I'm answering email, that's okay, that needs to be addressed at that time. There's nothing wrong with that. If you do work that late, carving out time to do breakfast with your Grandmother or a happy hour or something.
You need to have that social interaction, or at least I do, to have a life that's full. It took me a long time to figure out how to do that for me.
Jodi KatzWhy not have started the brand in DC where you had your relationships and your comfort zone, why move all the way to Green Bay, Wisconsin?
Ashley PrangeI felt like I wanted to bring ... I wanted to bring this company here, which is home for me because I knew that the work ethic here was superior. I say that with manufacturing in mind. In DC, I had a lot of friends and high level places that were so important in the beginning with writing a business plan and developing banking relationships, all of these connections, all this advice, there's absolutely no way I could have started Au Naturale here, by myself at that point.

Bringing it to Green Bay meant that I could afford to hire more people, I had space that was affordable, and it seems like a nowhere place on the map for most people, but Green Bay actually has a lot of industry here and I was able to cherry pick some wonderful individuals to mentor me into what I am today. It's not just Green Bay, I travel a lot to other cities and very fortunate and feel very grateful that these mentoring relationships are in those places too.
For Green Bay, it's the muscle really, and the people will work hard for you and I know that because I grew up here. It's wonderful to be part of this community, which is so caring and giving and loves that they have an aspect of the beauty industry in the city even though I am basically the only one, and they celebrate it, and it's fun. I'm happy I did it. I really don't know if we would be where we are right now if we didn't move to the Midwest.
Jodi KatzNow after five years in business, what would you say the hardest part of running the business is today?
Ashley PrangeThe hardest part is ... that's such a hard question, Jodi. Growing, constantly growing, we're growing every year, we have a rebrand coming up, so we'll finally look as great as the products on the inside of a lipstick tube is, if that makes sense. Beauty is a really emotional space and up until this point, I could never have a full rebrand that I thought adequately reflected the ingredients that we have in the products.

Everything coming out is exciting, it's chic, it's everything that I ever wanted and that's happening in March. For me, the hardest part is making sure that goes off without a hitch, which means I need the right team players in place. I had to let some people go who didn't share a vision with me, really nurture some staff members who I need to lean on so we can keep this brand growing at the rate that it's growing and then second to all of that is constantly being innovative with our ingredient list.
I will always have what's inside of a product be the best thing that I have access to, so just that, palm oil will be our biggest thing right now, but then moving into what clean color looks like. We're vegan, we're not using beeswax or carmine, we're also natural to the point where our definition of natural is superior to most, so even digging deep into where we're buying our iron oxide from and our cerussites and our titanium dioxide and making sure it's not nano, making sure it's beyond clean, beyond EU standard, beyond COPA and just being totally pure to our pigments.
The sourcing of our raw ingredients to be short, is my second hardest hurdle.
Jodi KatzMy last question for you and I think it's a really important question for an entrepreneur, aside from financial goals what is your barometer for success?
Ashley PrangeI want everyone who works with me and in my team, to be empowered by what they've been doing here. My goal is to take every single person that this company touches and making them feel that they can do anything. If they want to start their own business, that they should, that I've given them the skills and the opportunity to succeed, and that our ethos as being a charitable company, one that is always giving and always helping that they would take those values and grow them into their own projects later.

That's the first thing that I can think of. There's other barometers for success too, but the people are what's most important to me. The finance is just the goals we have to reach so I can keep growing this and touch more people lives, really.
Jodi KatzThank you so much Ashley Prange for sharing your stories with us. This is an incredible contribution to Where Brains Meet Beauty. Thank you for being with us.
Ashley PrangeI'm honored to be with you. Thank you for thinking of me. I feel appreciated.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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