Episode 164: Sonya Dakar, Founder of Sonya Dakar

Thirty years ago, Sonya Dakar was taking polaroid photos of clients in her esthetician office, fondly referred to as skin boot camp. Today her namesake skincare line is recognized worldwide.

As a skincare expert, Sonya is renowned for building a brand dedicated to educating consumers and treating the skin with clean, effective ingredients. Her iconic clinic in Beverly Hills serves as a center for innovation where clients come to transform their skin concerns into a healthy, glowing complexion through proven, non-invasive treatments.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey everybody. It's Jodi Katz, your host of WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® Podcast. Thanks for tuning in. This week's episode features Sonya Dakar. She's the founder of Sonya Dakar. And if you missed last week's episode, it features the founder of Rodial skincare. Her name is Maria Hatzistefanis. Hope you enjoy the show.

Hey everybody. Welcome back to the show. I am so excited to be here with Sonya Dakar. She is the founder of Sonya Dakar. Welcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY®.
Sonya DakarHi everybody. Thank you for having me as your guest. I'm so excited.
Jodi KatzWell, this is kind of a fan girl moment for me because I've used your products for many years and I don't know that I even knew there was a woman behind it. And there was a name, but it's super cool to meet you. And we've been working with your daughter, Mimi, to set this up, which is so cool. I love family owned businesses. So it's super great to get to know.
Sonya DakarWhen you have family businesses that makes it very authentic and people put their heart and soul into it, they feel like basically, they're doing their own family, but the customers from all over the country or the world, they became like a family.

They care about them an incredible deal. And that's what happened when the family business is doing all the production together. The thought is not about how much it is going to cost? How much profit you're going to make? The products and the ingredients are going to improve and make people's lives different. And that's the difference. It's not just the money.
Jodi KatzOther than Mimi, what other family members are in the business?
Sonya DakarMy son, Yigal Dakar, he's definitely the one, he deals with all overseas developing, and creating just like Mimi, the PR. And me, I'm the hands on. Come with the idea and stuff like this. So it's really me and Mimi, and my son, basically the principal of the business. And everybody has a different kind of mission. And we do it all together. And that's how we developed the business model, the products, the concept, and everything else around it.
Jodi KatzAnd Sonia, when did you start this business? What year was it?
Sonya DakarReally, I started the business if I have to say it, but I still, I feel like I'm 25 years old. So I started the business around 30 years ago, or a little bit more. And I was really in my 20s, mid 20s. So it's a long time. And a lot of things changed since then.
Jodi KatzThe whole industry is different now. Right? Every aspect is different. So let's go back in time. I want to go way back in time to when you were a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Sonya DakarHonestly, I wanted to be a fashion designer, clothing, when I was a super little girl, but I think it changed. Many years afterwards, my concept was became a different vision and different view, and different ambitions, I would say. Yeah.
Jodi KatzYou told me a story about seeing a woman in a grocery store with platinum blonde hair and red lipstick.
Sonya DakarYeah. So when I was a little girl, like really little girl, that's what I want to be, a fashion designer. Every little girl liked to play with a doll or a dress and everything else. And I used to look at some magazine when I was a little girl, like fashion from Germany and France. Even the magazine, I remember the name of it, Burda, I don't know if something like this even exists.

But then after this, I remember my parents used to send me to the grocery shop. I was, I will not say like the tomboy, but the girl which has entity of no worry, no fear, or anything. So seven years old, eight years old, I used to go buy groceries for my mom from the local grocery neighborhood. So the woman, the owner looked like Marlene Dietrich, blonde and porcelain skin, platinum hair like gray.
And she only had one thing on her face… the makeup, lipstick, red lipstick. And I was looking at her all the time. It's like a mirror, like a glossy, today I call a perfect skin. I call it not even just radiant. I call it glossy look. One day I came to her and I asked her, "I'm sorry, but I have to ask you," I was staring at her and I didn't want her to think I'm a wacko girl. "What are you doing? Your skin is so distinguished and beautiful. And I would like to know, what are you doing with your skin?"

Of course, at seven, eight years old, my skin was perfect. And she told me, "I use oil. That's the only thing." She said, "I wash my face with oil. I apply oil. That's all I do." And she made it so her voice came to my heart and concrete like a root in my brain and my head. I didn't put oil on my face or anything like this. But a long time after this, when I chose my background, what should I do? I thought I will be a chemist. And that's basically what it is.

So after a while, I decided I cannot be... My mother teach me how to be more healthy, into super healthy food, everything she did from bread to baking, everything from A to Z at her home, more gourmet. And I decided, I came from natural, healthy concept. I cannot be a regular chemist and fill people at the time, with the injections and penicilli, and all of these things. So I've decided later on, I'm going to switch my life completely to alternative. But then at an age of 14, 15, a lot of my friends started to have puberty. It's a lot of acne, interruption in the skin, and at the time, really honestly Jodi, they didn't know what to do with this.

So Jodi, the only thing they know, they used to go to the doctor and some of them, every day had the nurse injection, penicillin. So I was lucky not to have any of this because I didn't go through obstacles like this in my life, but I'm still traumatized by seeing my best friend going to so many doctors... And the self confidence or self esteem, everything went down completely.

So I remember when I graduated from high school, going to college and everything else, I changed my mind later on. And I said, "I cannot be one of these to give penicillin and antibiotic to people. Even today, we know not all the drugs are healthy, it's not vitamin drug. Sometimes you have to have it to kill bacterial and I'm not against it, but it's a lot of things you do through holistic. And I decided I'm going to convert my life, my vision, everything, to skincare and the skincare, I want to go more holistic to study. And I took a lot of classes and converted my life completely all the way, on how to produce and develop a line which is going to be green with no stabilizer, no fragrance. I didn't want to have any obstacle of chemicals with my product. That was 30 some years ago, which something like this did not exist in this planet at the time. I was the pioneer, really.
Jodi KatzWhen you went to the labs to request the formulas be free of all these chemicals, how did they react?
Sonya DakarJodi, I didn't go to the lab. I created myself. I didn't go to the lab. Basically, I had the book of how to do milk cleanser, how to do face wash, how to do moisturizer, I did it on myself. I used to go and buy the natural ingredients from the lab, a company with a chemical. We call it chemical because even natural, but with dry herbs or a dry mineral, that's basically what it is.

So I used to go there to buy a sample from them. I used to go and buy them myself and early 20, and then start playing around and develop my own products. And that's what it is. I didn't go to anybody and said, "I want you to develop for me like this." It did not exist. Was not in my dictionary. That's me. I used to go in the kitchen with warm water, and create and crashing minerals. And that's what I did. So no doubt, that was me. I did it. And that's what I wanted. So I started from day one of natural ingredients with no chemical, no fragrance, no color.

Even at the time, 30 years ago, we know lanolin is a residue of oil, which they used to mess a lot with the products, big, big companies. Revlon, Helena Rubinstein. At the time, the biggest thing, even Estee Lauder, but I decide, I don't want to have this in my product because they're going to clog the pores, and going to create more acne. So I decide this is my path. This is what I'm going to go for, even if I'm going to be a small, tiny chemist and the circle will be around me very small, but I stick to what I believe and I did it.
Jodi KatzAnd when you were cooking these products up in your kitchen, where were you living at the time?
Sonya DakarYou know what? I lived in Israel at the time. Honestly, I lived in Israel at the time and I started my career really, when my second child born. And that's what it is. I started then, and I started creating products. And I had a studio at my house at the time in Israel. And then I started getting clientele, and the product, I used to put it in a simple jar, whatever I find to buy. And put a sticker, and write it in my own handwriting. This is going to be your cream. That's going to be your mask. That's going to be maybe a bottle. That's going to be your wash, so that's what I did. I created seven products in the very beginning and the rest of it's history.
Jodi KatzAnd how did people hear about the products? Was it because you were taking care of their skin as an aesthetician? How did this happen?
Sonya DakarYou know what? To create the products and how to develop it, was not enough for me because I wanted to know, okay, how I can melt with the crowd and hear their pain and hear their need, and hear their goal? So I decided I'm going to go melt with this crowd, melt with the population, melt with my neighborhood, or my friend and biggest circle. I'm going to have to do hands on, the scene to hear myself, what do you want? What is your ambitious to be? What is painful for you? So I decided to be an aesthetician.

So hands on, just for semi laboratory, to learn from life experience with the client and hear their voice and creating more to develop for the population need. So I became an aesthetician and then since I graduated, I found really from my client direct, from firsthand exactly the need.

And that's why I started developing more and more products. But when I saw how amazing I turned the skin… because my philosophy is no massages. Massages is not going to heal skin because they're stuck with the issues like acne, scarring, discoloration, and then I developed a rosacea dermatitis. All the medical needs today, which is a lot of people, they still go to a dermatologist. I developed it at the time. I found out how I can take care of rosacea, how I can take care of psoriasis, I can take eczema, how I can take seborrhea. Even people used to bring a baby and I’d say, "I don't have it in my stock," and now my mind, thinks how I can come up with that, I hope in a year from now, with baby stuff, baby products.

So anyway, after all of these things, when I started the skin turn amazing, without medication, without going to the doctor, without swallowing pills or injection, I decide this is what my life going to be. I'm going to develop products, but I would like to heal people the same time.

And when my customers come in, of course number one, I want to heal them and make them the goal, what they imagine or what they want. It makes me, I think equally happy, to see them achieve the best possible goals and dreams. But also, it's because they're coming here and I see the obstacles and every time I see something, not every case looks the same.

So I started to develop for certain issues and the result became so... you cannot even describe. I decided, this is what my life going to be. Make people happy and make me happy. And because of this, I can develop a lot more variety from the need. And also I was turning to the chemical lab and then getting the information, what's up there, what's new? And I can afford it because I'm not a corporate company.

They have a lot of politicians and they love the schedule. I decide on my own, what I need. And what is this? And I find that later on, a lot of like companies, they start coping me, for example, like oil. I was the pioneer to invent oil. And 30 years ago, I find the glycolic acid start, microdermabrasion start, but the microdermabrasion at the time, was with a crystal and all kinds of silica, residue of sand, all of it, it's like they didn't know it's a new thing, but it kind of became the new in fashion, a new discovery.

Not even nurses know how to do with this. So they came, they said this, "This is better." So a lot of the customers used to come with lesions on the skin, cuts, infections and bleeding and scarring. And also, they used to do the glycolic acid. So even in a pharmaceutical, they sell glycolic acid, 45% and 70%, which nobody will even touch this thing, not even me. So people came with incredible, incredible injuries, I will say, definitely from all of these processes. So I decided, how can I heal them?

So I start looking. At the time there was no internet, like today, iPhone or anything. In two minutes you can discover the whole study. So I used to go to the library and find out what I can do with this, because at the time, I started to do something like antibiotics, like Neosporin, Polysporin because it's healing the lesion and everything else.

But at the same time, clog the pores and people start developing acne, like a new one. So when I discovered in the 14th century, people used to use Omega oil to keep bacterial. There was the mad cow in England, the whole thing, the whole farmer, the animal timed out. And it's kind of like the pandemic today with the people, there was an animal at the time of diseases. So they took the blue-collar people, the workers, and they used to find that. I don't know how they discovered it. Omega oil, which is not some fish, from flaxseed, they clean the floor of the farms with the cow and that also the cow themselves, they brush the skin inside and then they find that they start to heal. It kills the bacteria completely. So this is a discovery, the new antibiotic without harming anybody else.

I thought, wait a minute, I'm going to try this. So when I ordered from the lab, the Omega oil, I start bottling it with a small sample bottle. And I telling people to do it three, four or five times a day, that's it, that's the only thing. Start doing it. And I find that the lesion starts to close up, the redness fades away, and then the skin starts developing more skin cells, scars start to fill up.

And I thought, wow, this is a discovery. Like I said to you before, it's like the Gold Rush in California, about a few hundred years ago. And I thought, well, if that's going to work, I'm going to make a category. I'm going to make it for dry skin, normal skin combination and sensitive skin. So I start adding essential oil, depending on the type of skin.

So I started with Omega oil. And that became the most amazing thing to ever happen to your skin. I remember one customer used to come at the time and she told me, "No, no, no, no. Oil, I'm not going to use oil at all. Oh, I'm not using moisturizer." So I used to be the biggest mouth on the planet, no filter. And I used to take the mirror and just tell them, "Okay, look at this and look at your skin. You just fill out the form."

And I let them fill the form at the very beginning. And what is the goal? What is the wishlist and everything about your skin? And I said, "On your form, you said you have acne, you have scarring, or you have Melasma, you this and those, but you're not using any kind of moisturizer. Only wash it with low sulfate, like a dry cream. Here you go, your acne still exists. The cystic acne or whatever the rash it still exists. So whatever you do, it doesn't work. So you have to wait to do it. Either, my way or the highway. You can take your breakout and your problem home, and I'm not going to see you because I'm only going to treat customers that want to listen to me because I know how I can treat you and help you out."

So immediately the concept of people completely changed. And one time I told an Anchor from Good Morning America came to me and she said, "There are too many people here, like a zoo." She thought she was going to come to me relaxing and with music, and put her to sleep. And I said to her, "I'm not putting you to sleep. I'm not even going to relax you, I’m going to look at your skin." I said, "This is a bootcamp. This is a fitness place for skin." And she said, "What does that means?" I said, "Okay, you're talking about your skin hanging, your discoloration all the way, your eyes baggy. This is the picture." I used to take Polaroid picture, Jodi. It's at the time to document stuff. You're talking about 30 years ago. And of course today, we're doing more on cameras and even my phone. So at the time, when I showed her the picture and when I showed her what she wrote down, I said, "Okay, what do you want me to do?" I said, "You're not getting massages. This is what you're going to do. That's how we can help your skin." So the rest of it was history.
Jodi KatzHey Sonya, can we back up a second? I know that you have a lot of celebrity clients and that've really probably aided in a lot of growth for the products, but let's go back in time. Why did you leave Israel to come to the US? What was that motivation?
Sonya DakarThe motivation at the time, we wanted just to try the land of opportunity, honestly. It's just to come for fun for a few years, to change the environment, to see what happens and the war. We know the US is the land of opportunity, but also the land of discovery. And that's just exciting. We just took the adventure, honestly. It's not because I was living poorly. I had a big, big house. I had a few pieces of real estate. I was very successful in an early age there too.

So just something about it, attracted me to the US. And just like even today, millions of people want to come there, but at the time, the distance was even… think in your imagination… much, much longer, which we know the distance, but it took the dream place to go and try opportunity and adventure. But I didn't know I'm going to be here for rest of my life. It's just like the children were born here and I start to develop my business and the business took off and yeah, just like anybody else.
So just something about it, attracted me to the US. And just like even today, millions of people want to come there, but at the time, the distance was even… think in your imagination… much, much longer, which we know the distance, but it took the dream place to go and try opportunity and adventure. But I didn't know I'm going to be here for rest of my life. It's just like the children were born here and I start to develop my business and the business took off and yeah, just like anybody else.
Jodi KatzSo you thought this would be an adventure, a short term adventure, and it's turned into your life. Your clients are here, the business is here, the family is here.
Sonya DakarIt became my home. Yeah, definitely. This journey instead like experiment and adventure, and it's not just really the opportunity, it's more like adventure and excitement and to discover, it became like home. Because when the children grewn up, the business took off, the clientele grew up and variety of the entertainment industry got a different kind of excitement. And you don't even think about anything else besides grow and make things happen and discover and produce, everything, produce life. It took off. You cannot stop it.
Jodi KatzWas there any moment in the beginning, shortly after you moved here where you're like, "This is a huge mistake. I need to go back to Israel?"
Sonya DakarYeah. In the very beginning. Absolutely. I think if anybody will tell you, otherwise, probably they're not going to say the truth. Even when people come with concrete and very comfortable finances, it’s still just a different country, the language, the different lifestyle and different culture, is definitely exciting, but it's also a shock. And don't forget a lot of people leave family behind them. And that's one thing, you can miss your family. You miss your mom, you miss your brother, you miss your best friend. It’s worked for me pretty well. And I thought for a while, once or twice, definitely I'm going to pack and go back home. But life, it took off. Life is a stronger. Instead, when you go back to reality, you say, "Okay, my children are small, I'm going to make it a little bit and every year say, okay, maybe next year, next year," after several years, you don't even like cheating yourself.
Jodi KatzWhy did you choose California, Sonya?
Sonya DakarCalifornia to me, was similar when I came from Israel. The weather is beautiful, sunshine, orange trees, has a lot of greenery everywhere. And also, I love the culture here because it's like people came from all over the world in California. You can see from all backgrounds, all countries, all colors. I love this mix of the globe. And in Israel also, it's a lot of people coming from all over the world. It's like the mix. And that's what makes it very unique and very different. And we have the same kind of concept of liberation and thought, and a dream and freedom. So it's everything else.
Jodi KatzSonya, before we close out, I want to talk about something you told me. You mentioned that you have the fitness facial, which you registered, and it's like a bootcamp for your skin, but to get there, you had to use a lot of chutzpah. So what does that mean to you?
Sonya DakarFirst of all, I want to speak through something I don't want to forget. What happened in the industry 30 years ago, and 20 years ago, and 10 years ago, you remember we talked about it? So when I started my life in the very, very beginning, people start doing massages a lot and treatments. It's more like you go, you feel good, but you don't changes about your look, zero because all the fashion about fragrance products, massages, but the result was not there.

And that's why at the time, all the products were fragrance, were color, everything. And that's basically what it was, either you go to a doctor to take care of your skin in a way if you have acne, antibiotic, injectable and stuff like this. Injectable like penicillin, not injectable, aesthetic. But then 20 years ago, start everything with a microdermabrasion, treatment-wise, and then glycolic acid, people start with a pill.

They didn't know how to control the pill. It was very massive and very intense and very aggressive. But the product still was not natural. Nobody even heard about product with no color, with no fragrance, with no chemical in them, with a lot of things, comedogenic and all of these, so that still was in the market. 10 years ago, people start turning a little bit. Don't forget, I'm here with my clean products at the time.

And it's green, is that possible, and I discovered the oil 30 years ago. But then 10 years ago, people start turning, a little bit more for clean products and more of equipment, like laser equipment, or not just microdermabrasion, all kinds of tightening and fillers start to be used, the Botox and taping the skin and all of the injectables from doctors and nurses, and also with equipment like laser and everything else.

And then the last, I will say like seven years, start to be more clean products. The companies are more aware of clean product. That's how they start doing the oil 22 years after I started, or 23 years. So they start doing oil for face, so acceptable and they start doing more of the products like, get rid off all the chemicals and many, many company they're doing it and more people doing it.

So the industry changed a lot, completely all the way. And that's what happened, it's a wonderful journey. Not many institutions at the time, they came after a few years, and they're gone, they got children and they disappeared. Very few, I think I'm one of the very few, like chemist and the same time developing even with my equipment I have, I developed certain things, which are basically new treatments.

And that's what made me also different from anybody else. Besides my products, which are amazing, I'm reaching all over the world. I get DM from all over the world, "You changed my life. Doctor could not help me. I try so many lines, so many products and they never helped me. I'm the biggest fan of you and my mom is using it, my friend."

It's very exciting to hear, or sometimes I get emotional because people send a picture before and after to us in DM on Instagram. Oh, and also the social media came today, which is phenomenal. People can discover you from all over the world. We start opening hotels or because of the social media. They know, they see who's coming, who's not.

So we're growing and growing on social media. The whole world has changed completely, Jodi, from 30 years ago to today. I love the journey. I love in between, but I definitely love today. It's phenomenal. Even though the competition's very big, but it's still people learning from each other. Discovery is always there. You always can be the pioneer.

You always have the guts, you can have and be the first one, don't look at anybody else. You just look what you have to discover. What do you need? What do you have the guts to do? It's fascinating. I love this decade, it's absolutely hands down. I'm not looking back. I enjoyed the path, but I enjoy even more the present time.
Jodi KatzThank you, Sonya. Well, this was incredible. I'm so glad that our listeners were able to learn from your wisdom. Thank you so much for sharing with us today. And for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Sonya. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes and for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram @wherebrainsmeetbeautypodcast.
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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