Michelle Sparck, ArXotica: Skin Care From The Arctic Tundra
For the Sparck sisters, growing up in the Arctic tundra taught them a lot more than survival skills. In fact, this expansive, unspoiled land is the inspiration behind their natural cosmetics company, ArXotica.
Triplets Michelle, Cika and Amy grew up in Chevak, a small village in southwestern Alaska, home to the Qissunamiut tribe. The settlement is surrounded by the Arctic tundra of the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, a vast, treeless land mass that spans 65,000 square miles, and is only accessible via small plane or boat. For decades, native tribes have lived off the land and streams, harvesting unique plants and catching wild salmon, worlds away from the modern ways of the lower states.
Centuries worth of tribal knowledge led the sisters to dream of one day making something of the fruitful land they knew so well, but, as Michelle Sparck explains, it would be years later -- after college, marriages and careers -- that they would get the chance of a lifetime. After winning $90,000 in seed money from the Alaska Marketplace competition for their plan to bring infrastructure and economic stability back to their native village, the Sparck sisters became the faces of rural Alaskan development. "They wanted us to demonstrate that there was fruition -- actual businesses being born and bred out of that program."
Nearly seven years later, the sisters are making strides towards greater awareness -- of their products and their native land.
You and your sisters grew up in a place virtually unknown to the rest of us. What are your family's roots there and how was it growing up?
Our mother is Cup'ik Eskimo, from a very small village in western Alaska, south of the Yukon, though we mostly grew up on the Kuskokwim side of the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. She was the first person from her village to go to college, and she was an associate professor on the university's campus for over 20 years. My father was a '60s radical, liberal advocate who taught in inner city schools in Baltimore and imported his radical sense of justice to western Alaska. He created the first natural resource, non-government organization to protect the land, called "Nunam Kitlutsisti," which means "Protectors of the Land." It was a dynamic household, very well read and independent thinking.
I was a huge political wonk inspired by my father, so after college I worked on Capitol Hill for seven years for several Alaskan senators and congressman. I did a lot of land and natural resource issues, and I used that information to go home and work for my tribe. That's really when I started thinking, "Wouldn't it be neat to start a business?"
You knew you had something special, being from such a unique area. How did you decide what ingredients to incorporate into your line, and how do you manage modern production in the tundra?
After we won the first round of money, we spent our time testing the supply chain. Our landmass is about the size of Ohio -- imagine Ohio without any roads. We handpick our materials and carry them across the tundra, which is like walking on spongy, wet mattresses, to a drying station, and then we pretty much have to stick our thumbs out and catch a plane back to town to get our harvest into storage.
We wanted to pick a plant, a berry and a flower to represent the breadth of opportunity that the tundra provides. First, the crowberry is a hearty berry, about the size of a domestic blueberry and very firm and juicy and prolific, with natural UVA and UVB resistant features. We use Fireweed blossoms, a fun, flirty plant that pops up in disturbed ground. They grow everywhere in Alaska. We also use Arctic Sage, which is natively called "Ciaggluk." The literal translation of that word is "nothing bad about it," and that meant through hundreds of years of use, we knew this plant was special and medicinal. A lot of our people use it in steam baths for sore muscles or slather it on their skin to get a good sweat going and moisturize. We also use it medicinally -- it's a cure-all. These plants grow over five feet tall so harvesting them is a really interesting process -- it's like walking through corn fields. With the extra seed money we received, we hired an ethnobotanist to catalog our harvest, so we have a nice library of all the virtues of all sorts of plants and berries and flowers that we'll use as a go-to when we want to expand our line.
Once we gather our target harvest, we get it into cold storage and then ship it to a drying company that uses low temperatures because we don't want to burn off any of the nutrients. The products contain 11 vitamins and minerals, naturally ionized glacial water and omega-rich salmon oil, which makes one potent anti-aging product.
Did you come across any specific hardships in starting the business, especially since you're dealing with federally protected land?
Before we submitted our plan to the competition, we did our homework and found out whether there was a comfort level among the local leaders and the users. We wanted to make sure that this wasn't something that would offend them. Their support has been resounding since day one -- a lot of them were even suggesting where we should go and what materials we should look at, and we still get suggestions to this day from people all over the state. For the kind of harvest that we're doing now, we don't need a whole lot compared to other commercial operations, so we're not picking anything more than the normal three-person household would harvest. We did need a special permit for refuge operations, but we didn't really encounter much red tape besides the fact that we don't have business backgrounds, and we ended up doing a lot of the stuff ourselves because not a lot of people are going to mentor or loan money or invest in three girls from western Alaska who decided to make beauty products.
Harvesting was actually the easiest thing we could possibly do, because we grew up doing that. While we were out picking in remote areas, we were able to actually bunk with this statewide construction company that has pretty sophisticated bases in remote areas. It was great to have access to their cooks, TV and Internet, but it was pretty humorous -- three girls bunking with 30 men.
Brand awareness is probably our biggest obstacle. We thought "If you build it, they will come," but obviously, it's not that easy. It's a tough economy for an unknown brand, but we truly have faith in this product and we wouldn't have put our name on it or put our resources into it if we didn't believe in it.
In the beginning, after we got some initial media coverage, we really saw a big burst of widespread interest, from really random places, too. Articles about us showed up in the Korean Times and we had a ton of orders from women in Ohio. Ever since, we've had a small, devoted base of customers and we reward them with freebies and discounts for future purchases.
We know the cosmetics industry is crowded, but the anti-aging and organic skin care industry is even more crowded. Wild-harvested, natural things are so far superior to organic labeling because we're not messing with it in any way, shape or form. There's a new shift taking place because people are becoming more critical and hyper-aware of what organic really means. You don't see the word organic anywhere on our site, because that would be wrong. We have nothing to do with how these things are grown. It's the midnight sun, the permafrost and the long days and the clean air. It's just grown in the most ideal conditions and we're just fortunate enough to be there to pick it.
What are your future plans?
We thought we'd come out with our biggest and best product, which was the anti-aging serum, first. But, we do have a moisturizer and cleanser and toner formulated, which are ready to go once we establish ourselves in the marketplace. We spent a lot of money on botanical analysis, and the extracts still have a lot of antioxidant value to them so we designed a toiletry line out of that, which is more of a mid-range line. We have a head and body wash, a lotion and a conditioner. We can't afford to manufacture that just yet, but it's ready to roll as soon as we do. We have also been able to make products from the post-extract fibers. We had those tested, and they still had an antioxidant value, so we started putting that in soaps. We've brainstormed in the last few months to start putting our serum into soaps, so the serum bars are new and will be on our website soon.
Names: Michelle Sparck, Cika Sparck and Amy Sparck Dobmeier
Location: Bethel, Alaska