The Microbiome Movement: An AAPI Founder's Vision for Healthy Skin

Audio Description

Celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month with Monique Meneses. She’s breaking barriers in the beauty industry with a new skincare line designed to nourish the skin microbiome.


This transcript has been generated by an A.I. tool. Please excuse any typos.

 Welcome to Women and Wealth. I'm Kim Davis, chair of the Women's Council at Bernstein, and this show aims to educate and inspire women to make the right choices for their wealth.

Hi everyone. I am so excited to have. A fantastic conversation with a founder who is a leading member of the AAPI community, Monique Meneses.

May is Asian Heritage Month, and we are thrilled to feature a female founder who has embraced her Asian heritage, and in return is receiving incredible support from that community.

Welcome to Monique Meneses, co-founder of Iota, a new body care brand. That focuses on skin health. Before we dive into your journey, let's talk about your bonafides because they're incredible.

You spent 10 years as a beauty editor and freelanced on everything from PR to brand storytelling and digital marketing.

Did you always dream about being an entrepreneur and also share with us more of the background and the inspiration to launch Iota?

Thank you so much, Kim, for having me. I'm so honored to be a part of this podcast and, and really here with you to celebrate AAPI month, which is so near and dear to my heart.

So my answer first your question about being an entrepreneur and whether this was something I had dreamed about.

Beauty has always been a passion of mine. Uh, I would say, you know, from when I was really small, five years old, watching my Korean grandmother in Seoul do her whole three hour, 15 step Korean skincare routine and learning, uh, all about how important it is to take care of yourself and the importance of self-care to my journey in college where I was interning at magazines.

I could only hope to aspire to one day work out, uh, work at like Conde Nast Travel or in Vogue to ultimately the brands that I worked with.

Um, I was a beauty editor for over 10 years, like you said. And then I went on to consult for beauty brands, both big and smaller startups. Names that you're f I'm sure familiar with like Peach & Lily, Cover FX and G&U most recently.

And um, I have to say it was working with these female entrepreneurs, Alicia at Peach & Lily and Megan at G&U. That really inspired me to really take a chance and go out there. Champion a cause that I am so passionate about, which is skin health, partner with my husband and co-found this brand together.

Well, that's so interesting and so I'm hearing a few things and, uh, you mentioned that you are of Korean heritage, right?

Anytime anyone asks me where I'm from, I'm like, do you want the long story, the short stories? I'm gonna give you the middle story, which is that I'm half Korean, I'm a quarter Philippina and a quarter Portuguese.

Okay, well I'm half Chinese and half Korean and I was raised in America, but born in Korea, so, um, that doesn't sound foreign to me.

That sounds super cool. You know, when I was born, I spent the first few years of my life living with my grandma until I then moved to, uh, Houston, Texas is where my parents. met, got married.

I spent seven years, you know, in, in Houston. Then moved to Seoul. I spent my middle school years there, and then I moved to Manila in the Philippines. I spent, uh, high school there and moved back to the States for college.

Oh wow. So you've had, um, a more global life experience. Right. Living in a formative years in different countries.

I do wanna dig more into Iota. 

You mentioned skin health, right? We hear a lot about beauty and skincare, but talk to us a little bit more about. The link to your skin and health?

Sure. Um, so being a beauty editor, I had access to thousands and thousands of new products, and I was testing things daily. And what I found was missing, especially when it came to body hair at personal care in general, was a comprehensive solution to truly address skin health at its core.

I think when I was a beauty editor, we were just in the first wave of defining what clean meant. And today the word is still very nebulous. Every person, every brand has a different definition of what clean means. And for us, that means being EU compliant, which to us again, is like the gold standard of clean.

And the next wave that I see for wire clean is going to evolve, is going to be skin health and the skin microbiome.

What is the skin microbiome? What does that term mean? I know that for a lot of people, they're familiar with a gut microbiome. The skin microbiome is still, I think, for a lot of people, very scary.

And it's a topic that people shy away from just cuz there's not that much education around it. So the skin microbiome. 1 trillion microorganisms live on us in a nutshell, and they, our first line of def, sorry, I, you I know saw a really, I,  I understand it is science.

I respect it, but I just had an awful vision and started to get itchy when you said there were millions of things living on all of us.

But yes, please tell us more about the skin microbiome.

Yes. Which is why we want to. We want to make this part of everyone's vocabulary, right?

Like why are we not scared of all of the bacteria that live internally? Is it because we think they're contained inside us? But when we think of them on our skin, it like triggers a a different reaction.

But when I say bacteria, our concept, when the term bacteria can throw a lot of people off, cuz you're like, oh, this is like fungus growing on me and I'm going, no, these are bacteria that protect us.

And what do they protect us from? Environmental, pollutants, UV rays, the sun, just other harmful bacteria entering our skin.

And there are things that we put on it, for example, like harsh chemicals, you know, surfactants that we use in our everyday products and what is usually our natural state. And this then leads to skin conditions like acne, psoriasis, you know, dermatitis.

It is a core and comprehensive pillar of health. And not just wow, something that I need to, for smoother skin or to look more glowy.

You know, it's, it's, this is one of those sort of mind-blowing realizations, right? But it's like this. Barrier, this organic barrier around you that protects you from a lot of the bad stuff that's out there.

And what's even more fascinating is that recent studies have shown that there is a link between poor skin health and a compromised skin microbiome and broader health issues like autoimmune disease, heart disease.

Increased allergy rates. So I think the conversation that we need to be having, um, you know, on a one-to-one basis and just the beauty industry as a whole, is really talking about skin health in the same way that we talk about diet slash nutrition, exercise, sleep, mental health.

So it does make sense, but I do think that we forget that your skin.

As an organ, right. 

You're so correct and some people may not fully like grasp and realize that our skin, like you said, is not only our is an organ, but it is our largest organ.

And there there is so much science behind the communication and connection between the gut microbiome and the skin microbiome.

And its impact on our immune system. So what does the latest research say about that? So there's really, really exciting research that has just come out in the past month.

Um, professors at MIT and Stanford have re-engineered one of the most commonly found skin bacterium. It's called staphylococcus epidermis.

And what they've done is, They, like I said, they've re-engineered it to potentially treat cancer in mice, so human trials are next.

And what is the most exciting about this is that you could potentially rub this re-engineered bacterium behind your ear, and then 10 days later you could see potentially a potent immune response.

To this re-engineered bacterium. And like I said, human trials are coming. We are at the very beginning stages of this research, but this is groundbreaking science. 

That is amazing. I'm so excited to see what the future looks like for that. It sounds like we're very early stages with connecting the dots and really understanding, but um, this is super exciting and um, I'd love to talk about your personal catalyst to think about the impact of.

Health and skin because you went through a lot of really challenging personal events that really drove you to, to explore this. 

Yes. It really was, um, a series of personal health scares that. That brought me down this rabbit hole of research into the skin microbiome. If I backtrack a little bit, um, it took us, my husband and I, a really long time to, to get pregnant.

Um, we tried basically everything and you know, our last resort was I V f combined that with, um, acupuncture and ultimately we were finally successful after two and a half years of trying. Uh, so lucky we now have a soon to be six year old daughter.

Ah, and such a blessing. But we went through every single test, saw so many specialists.

There was not one doctor that could tell my husband or I, I. Why we were experiencing this infertility.

And then when I was pregnant in my second trimester, I had a searing pain on my right hand side, and a doctor found that there was, there was a tumor that had been growing in me since I was 10 years old.

And they couldn't tell me again whether it was benign or not, because it would be very invasive to figure that out.

So I had to wait and make a decision, you know, was I gonna have my, my baby? Was I going to just undergo surgery? And oh my gosh, chance that was, Yeah, it was a lot to go through. So, you know, I went with, let's take a chance and hopefully it's benign.

Um, had an emergency c-section delivery.

Two months later, went back into surgery to remove the tumor, uh, which was thankfully benign.

And then after delivering, and then after the surgery, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. They were all inter interconnected somehow, but point being. I really had to reflect and take a look at my life and, you know, did I, I, for the most part thought I lived a pretty healthy lifestyle.

I tried to eat right, uh, incorporate movement into my life where I could tried to get sleep where I could.

I then had to look at other aspects of my, my daily life and routine where there could be things that I was missing and.

You know, one of the avenues that I looked at was personal care. You know, what were my hygiene habits?

What I took a good hard look at some of the ingredients and, um, the personal care brands that I was choosing to use at the time and that led me to the skin microbiome, our lead cosmetic, and our lead scientific advisor who I had a previous relationship with, um, from my years as a beauty editor, uh, she and I started talking as well.

Well, tell me more about that. It was really important for us to partner with someone who had expertise and knowledge in this space to help develop these formulations, which was no easy feat.

Mind you, it took us two years and 72 iterations. To perfect our body wash alone, which when I say that out loud, sounds ridiculous cuz it's a body wash.

But wait, I'm sorry. Two years in, how many, say that again?

72 iterations to perfect our body wash and wow. Yeah, and the reason for that was because it's like a fine dance between the multivitamins, the multi minerals, our core, the core of our formulation, which is the pre and postbiotics blend that really sets us apart from any other personal care brand.

So question about that, because you're an Asian American founder and there's been more discussion, or I think more, uh, attention paid to the fact that people of different ethnicities and different, uh, backgrounds might. React to different things differently.

So was it tested on lots of different types of women?

Just to see what the reaction is and you know, I'm just curious, is there one formula that universally works for women or, um, how did you think about that? 

It's a really good question. And to your point, the human microbiome, the skin microbiome is like a fingerprint. Everyone's is unique. So when we were putting this together, yes.

To answer a question, we did conduct testing on variety of skin types and different ethnicities, but also at the same time, the reason we worked so closely and it was so important for us to have a cosmetic chemist whose background was in formulating for the skin microbiome was choosing the right prebiotic and postbiotics blend.

That had the most scientific research behind it. That makes total sense. I love your passion for the product.

The science is fascinating, but you know, the fact is you're not just a researcher, you're building a business and you built it with your husband.

So for our audience, I'd love to understand how you took your passion for your product and these health scares and how you actually turn it into a business that's growing.

Yeah, that's a really great question because, You know, while I'm an entrepreneur and so is my husband, we at the same time are consumers.

And when we were building this. We envisioned who our target consumer was. And that really, this is really for someone, the person who is health-minded, we were thinking maybe would skew more, um, aging millennials.

But what we've been seeing is that our audience really ranges from young twenties to all the way into their mid sixties.

And I would say also it has, it's been less gender. Skewed than I would've initially thought. And I really think that's because of our messaging of skin health. And so we are quickly engendering a community who is very leaned in.

I have one-on-one conversations with them daily, whether it's over email. Okay. Pm I mean, you don't hear a lot about a lot of businesses where you can actually talk to the founder about it. So people DM you about Iota.

Yes, I several, I mean several dms a day. We really are, we're not a faceless brand. We, you know, who you're speaking to on the other end.

That's so wonderful. Um, so you talked about community, and this is Asian Heritage Month and it's very important to me as an Asian American.

So, um, I'd love to talk to you about the community because you mentioned when we met each other that the AAPI community has been extremely supportive of you. So tell me what that looks like and how they've shown their support.

It's a really great, great question. It's something that, you know, my husband and I, so my husband's Korean, we knew that we wanted to infuse our brand with.

Uh, an Asian philosophy and we knew that we wanted to bring that to light with some of the ingredient choices we were using. And so our vision of personal care meets wellness is sort of this east meets west.

However, we didn't know how much of that messaging to bring to light to our community. Um, we brought some of it, but I really think it's, it's been dictated by our community and how much they wanna see from us.

And it's. Honestly, Kim, it's more and more, more, uh, we did this amazing, this one influencer her I, I love her.

She's Filipino. And uh, she brought a whole Filipino, uh, like community to our platform and we were getting just dms left and right about how excited they were to find an Asian American personal care brand.

That they were gonna try it, they were supporting, that they were cheering for us. That has been a recurring theme, I would say throughout, you know, we get the question, why Iota?

What does that mean? And you know, yes, on one hand it's derived from the word microbiota, but also Iota, um, means an infinite amount.

And that stems from, from where we come from an Asian philosophy.

That little things done consistently with discipline over time lead to greater results. It's a philosophy that I grew up with, with my husband, grew up with, that we really pass, want to pass down to our daughter Genevieve and, and really applies to our approach to personal care and wellness.

Well, I love that and I'm super excited and I'm very glad that you've had support from the aa PI community.

And I would also say, um, in the business world, in my observation, and the data's out there, there's. Many A A P I community members who are in the professional world or seen as highly educated and successful.

What I'm excited to see is more AAPI community members in roles that might not be the first thought, right?

As, as business leaders, as people who are front and center. I think that that's, Extremely important to have those role models who are taking those risks.

And the other thing I'd love to hear you talk about or just gimme a reaction to, is somewhat off the cuff in that the AAPI communities, a really, really big basket.

Right. And you've talked about the love from this Filipino influencer, and you're from Korea, but well love your perspective on the view or the, the distinctions of the a p i community and, and what, what your perspective is there being somebody who's. Walked a more global path, but in America? 

Yeah. I mean, I think that I had a little bit of a culture shock, to be honest.

When I grew up in both Korea and the Philippines and then I came to the States for college, uh, my freshman year, I was a lot more reserved. I was quiet. I was not vocal. About things that were on my mind. I totally understand. I really had to reinvent myself, Kim, and it was almost like I had to overcompensate.

So when you say that, 

yeah, I, let's, let's recognize this. We all have a, a personal arc of life experience and maturity.

Personally, professionally, and I have a lot of empathy for that. Um, you know, we're an evolved firm, but, uh, financial services in general, in the corporate world, especially going back a number of years, I understand exactly what that's like.

And so there is this self-reflection where you hopefully have the support to, um, find that equilibrium. To be heard and, and and be you, but without feeling like you have to overcompensate.

Yes. There's one other point I wanted to make about the A A P I community and just my experience and I have to say founders there, there is that, that link that we all, that we all share and we wanna do our part to support each other and raise our voices well, I love that.

So looking to the future and philosophy, one of the questions we ask every guest on our podcast is, To share with us their view on investing. Right?

So our motto is Investing with intention, and you define it in any way you want. But Monique, what does investing with intention mean to you? That's a really great question.

I think that investing with intention means investing in yourself. You are your greatest home. It's where you're going to live for the rest of your life. It runs through how you take care of yourself physically, mentally, relationship wise, and so much more.

And when I talk about investing in yourself, it was really important for me as a founder building this brand with my husband, that we went beyond just product, right?

We needed to have a mission, a reason why that we existed.

And you know, we wanted to be more than just body wash. Did we actually have something to add to the conversation that can potentially impact someone's life?

And for me the answer is yes. I mean, for us, Like I said, it really is about starting a skin health movement to help and encourage people to lead healthier, better lifestyles, and you know, to round it all out, invest in themselves.

I love that. 

Well, Monique, this was an amazing conversation and I learned so much from you, and I wanna thank you for being with us today and sharing your story, but also teaching us all so much about skin health.

Thank you so much, Kim. It was an honor to be part of your podcast and, uh, just really excited to see what the future holds.

Awesome. Thank you. 

I hope you enjoyed today's episode. Women and Wealth will be taking a hiatus while we recalibrate to bring you the best possible programming. Be sure to subscribe so you don't miss anything when we return.

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