Sophia Stener: Mali Mali & Limiting Factors to Personal Growth

I remember being heartbroken when my mother failed to appear at my second grade play. Everyone else’s mothers showed up— cameras in hand and cookies at the ready.

It was not until much later that I appreciated having a working mother who taught me by example how to run a large business and still have time to raise two kids. My mother (and my father who always supported her having a career of her own) gave me the confidence and strength to know that as a woman I could do anything I applied myself to.

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And so, at fifteen, I set out to create my own natural skincare line. I’ve applied a lifetime’s worth of cortisone cream and downed way too much Benadryl, all in a desperate attempt to cure my lifelong dermatitis. As I learned about natural, less-processed remedies, my enthusiasm grew, and for two years my cabinets were inundated with various organic concoctions. None of them soothed my skin, but I noticed that many of these companies were grounded in a desire to enhance the welfare of the planet and its inhabitants. I discovered companies, like Seventh Generation, which uplift their communities by actively engaging in environmental policy. The wheels started turning in my head, and the plan to create Mali Mali— a skincare line that uses ethically-sourced ingredients and prioritizes the wellbeing of both the consumer and the planet— began to take shape.

Seemingly endless online research led me to tamanu oil, sustainably farmed from tree nuts in the South Pacific. Its pungent, evergreen scent surprised me, but tamanu oil cleared up my skin, and I was thrilled by its promise as a potential ingredient. Soon, I had compiled a list of complementary ingredients and researched local cosmetic labs. And after a frustrating six-month setback with one company, I found a lab that truly understood the Mali Mali mission. At the time I had next to no money and I remember being completely flustered as I had to somehow come up with the artwork for the logo and packaging. So, I literally just sat for hours on end watching YouTube instructional videos on Adobe Illustrator and on design, struggling to navigate the complex formatting palettes. (My first iterations have since been phased out and yes, there were many many iterations.)

Mali Mali was probably one of the best things I have done in my life. The lessons I gained-- whether it be learning how to market a product and brand (something I am still constantly working on), getting two registered trademarks, or the basics of accounting and inventory management-- will forever be of value to me. But one of the most important lessons I learned is one that I only realized once arriving on Columbia’s campus this fall.

And that would be this: you are your own limiting factor.

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For the longest time, I never really spoke about Mali Mali to my peers but rather only to my close friends. I was more comfortable talking to strangers about my own company than the people I had grown up with. Because in reality I was scared of what my peers thought. And that anticipation and anxiety was crippling.

This fall I realized how detrimental it had proved to my sense of belonging. And so I strove to make a change: to not hide my passions but rather to embrace them. I write this piece to my younger self or perhaps to the dreamer-- be she an entrepreneur, an activist, a musician, or a scholar. Do not sell yourself short. Seek out those around you who will lift you up. Find the people within your community who will help you to realize your aspirations, because I promise they are there. You just sometimes have to reach out and look.

Zehra Naqvi