How Jessica Graves Turned a Personal Skin Problem into a Growing Business
by Phil Roberts
For as long as she could remember, Jessica Graves — the Founder and CEO of Una Biologicals — has always been passionate about how plants can be used for natural healing. As a teen, she spent her weekends learning about essential oils, and that interest stayed with her into adulthood. It was a devotion born out of necessity which led to this fascination.
“I have skin that hates the world,” Graves says bluntly. She’s lived in Pittsburgh for most of her life, and describes sensitive skin as an issue that troubles no one else in her family, except for her.
She’s allergic to most non-organic products on the market, which contain chemicals, fragrances, and additives. Using any of those products hurt her both physically and mentally. “I found a lot of commercial products would burn and irritate my skin. The additives and ingredients make my skin red, blotchy, and itchy,” she describes. “In general, I was very ticked off.” In the late 1990s, finding relief for her skin was elusive, and that’s when she realized that she would have to use her knowledge of organics to search for natural solutions.
Unfortunately for Graves, organic products were not as ubiquitous then as they are now. Organic retailers weren’t in every U.S. city at the time, and almost none were in Pittsburgh. Even when Graves found small stores that offered the products she was searching for, they were too expensive. That’s when she knew she would have to make something for herself.
“As somebody who had studied as an herbalist and had a background in farming and chemistry, I decided to create the solution that I wanted. I started making products for myself, and my family,” she recalls. She sought the help of a friend who studied herbalism with her, and for over a decade it was a non-commercial family affair. Graves and her children were the first to use the products, followed by her mother. Then her aunts got hooked, and eventually other members of their extended family. Graves’ husband, who runs his own architecture firm, noticed how her products were catching on and encouraged her to make it into a real business. Surprisingly, Graves was reluctant.
“We incorporated in the middle of the 2008 recession,” she remembers. “The market crashed, and I started a company.” Looking back, she believes she was too timid, didn’t grow fast enough, and missed early opportunities to expand. Back then, she was more eager to take baby steps because she was unsure whether people would pay for her products.
“For me, it’s about making organic accessible,” says Graves. “At the time, organic creams were selling for $80 a jar, which was too expensive for the average household. So, we found a niche where we could create a really high-end product and keep it very affordable.” Beyond comfort, Graves created a product that smelled good and made people feel happy. With her family sold on her products, she needed to see if the general product would fall in love with them too.
That same year, Jessica and her herbalist friend began showing off the products at house parties, where they would teach small audiences of mostly women about organic skincare. When one of their friends was organizing an eco-product event in Pittsburgh, she convinced a hesitant Graves to be a vendor. “She was a big believer in me and told me people who’d never met me would buy my stuff,” recalls Graves. “I thought she was crazy.” The response at the event was better than Graves expected. That’s when she began doing the small vendor market tour around Pittsburgh, selling her products. As she says, “I schlepped this stuff all around the city.”
At first, customers were hooked on her sweet-smelling lotion that properly hydrated their skin. When they became loyal customers, she got them to buy muscle rub, natural deodorants, and herbal tea. Once customers got to this point, Graves saw them as ambassadors of an organic lifestyle. She sold products at local marketplaces on a shoestring budget, relying mostly on grassroots word of mouth. “That isn’t how I would start a company today, but at the time, with the knowledge base that I had, that’s what I did,” she explains.
As her clientele grew, they grew tired of searching her out at farmers’ markets and neighborhood maker events, so they began begging Graves to open a store. “I was like: No,” says Graves. “I’m never going to run a retail store. I make product.” The small scale, slow and steady growth suited Graves just fine. Meanwhile, her customers and her husband felt that she wasn’t capitalizing on the niche that she worked so hard to create. When she finally opened a store in 2015, she realized that there was a lot to running a business that she didn’t know, so she signed up for a Pittsburgh-based monthly peer-to-peer entrepreneurship program called the Management Foundation. As she began to understand the significance to growth in running a profitable company that could provide family-sustaining jobs, she started to regret her slow-growth idealism.
Then in 2019, she heard about the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program during a UMA event in Pittsburgh. The normally apprehensive Graves decided to apply immediately for the program — and is happy that she did.
“That was one of the absolute best things that I could have ever done as an entrepreneur,” she says. “You really have to be in a growth mindset and ready to push yourself. That is what that program is all about. It’s more than just being a good business owner. It’s being a growth-focused business owner.”
Una Biologicals was one of the smaller companies in Graves’ cohort in the program. She learned about financial statements, marketing, consumer behavior, and more. She learned from professors and other business owners from all over the country. “It gave me a much deeper knowledge across the board on all the pieces that helped me really hone in on what’s most important for our company,” says Graves. “It gave me a fabulous five-year plan. I think it really helped me look at growth in a different way and challenge myself.”
An example of the program challenging her belief system is how Graves learned to see the positive aspect to debt. Throughout her life, she’s only viewed debt as something pernicious. “I came from a very working class, working poor family. And we did not talk about money. The thought of borrowing money was petrifying, because then you owe and there’s this pressure to pay it back,” she explains. “The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program taught me to see debt as the way of business. Having the opportunity to hear professionals and business owners talk about how they leveraged debt for growth really helped me see that I needed to level up on that side.”
Currently, Una Biologicals wholesales their 150-product line to about 100 shops across the U.S. and within large hotels, but one of the two aspect of Graves’ grown plan is to open another retail location. Their existing store is six years old, and they used the space above it to manufacture their products. Having everyone in one building was encouraging, but it wasn’t efficient. The building had no elevator — only a steep, narrow set of stairs to move raw materials and machinery. The second part of the growth plan was to find a larger, ground-level warehouse that suits their needs and budget.
Graves delayed her 2020 growth plans because of the pandemic by completely shutting down, forcing her to lay off her staff of 11, and since reopening has found it difficult to rehire workers. Currently, she has a staff of eight. Now that things are back to a form of normalcy, the company just moved into a 5,000 sq-
ft manufacturing space in August 2021, which will allow Una Biologicals to scale their production. Half of her employees work in administration or in the store, and half work in manufacturing. A few of them participate in both, which she says helps the storytelling side of their products on the sales floor. The plan is to market products to larger retailers and more hotels. Graves believes they’re well positioned to take on that growth now because of the Goldman Sachs program.
“There’s a lot more steps that are involved with getting into some of these big retailers that we weren’t prepared to do prior to the small business program,” she says.
In hindsight, Graves sees the mistakes she made in the past as pent-up energy that is now poised to explode going forward. Knowing what she knows now, she says she would have marketed her products differently and paid more attention to branding. She wasn’t mindful of those things 10 years ago, but she is today.
“We’re at that growth stage where you’ve had your loyal customers who’ve been with you since the beginning, and you want to make sure to continue to honor that person and that relationship,” describes Graves, “but at the same time, still experience the next level of growth to attract a new customer base.”
The transformation from cautious devotee of organic products to confident business owner looking to expand is one of many twists, turns, false starts, and missed opportunities, but Graves couldn’t be happier about how things are turning out.
“When we started, I was a maker of things. I didn’t know how to read profit and loss statements, I could not have told you what a balance sheet was, and I definitely didn’t understand growth models. I had clearly been sitting behind the eight ball and some of it because I was afraid,” Graves admits. “So Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses gave me tools to empower myself and to empower our company in some really amazing ways.”