Episode #8: Grace Colon from Piel NYC - The Fabricant Way
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Episode #8: Grace Colon from Piel NYC

Skincare products from Grace’s home to your home.

Today I’ll be talking to Grace Colón and her husband Tony.  Grace was born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and it’s still a proud member of the community with her family.  She is the founder of Piel NYC, a line of body products made straight out of her kitchen with natural ingredients.

Piel’s origin story is all about family.  Her grandson suffered from eczema and she decided to help him out, and after helping him heal, she thought  how she had something special, and because of her science degree she started working in some formulations.  And from there, she started a line of products that made Piel become a reality.

It started really by accident it was my grandson was suffer from eczema and one day I decided, ``Let me just help him out.`` He had some sores on his joints. I got some olive oil, some soy bean oil. I put it on him to relieve him from the pain. The next day I saw that his skin was so much better. He was more relieved. He wasn't itching. I said, ``You know what, I think I have something here.`` I started to do some formulations.


Jennifer Dopazo: Hi, I’m Jennifer Dopazo, and this is the Fabrican Way. Today we are Piel NYC in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, we are going to talk with Grace and Tony. They make an organic body of products and we’re just going to see what they have in their home studio.

Grace Colon: Hi, how are you?

Jennifer Dopazo: Good.

Grace Colon: Come on in.

Jennifer Dopazo: Thank you. Hi, Grace, Tony.

Grace Colon: Hi.

Jennifer Dopazo: Thank you for having at your home. It’s been amazing and I’m just really happy to be here. I’m super excited for you, for the [inaudible 00:40] Piel’s [foreign language 00:43] story, what’s behind it, how you guys are partners in crime in this. With that I just wondered if you could share the origins and how it all happened.

Grace Colon: Sure.

Jennifer Dopazo: Can you share with us Piel’s story?

Grace Colon: Sure. It started really by accident it was my grandson was suffer from eczema and one day I decided, “Let me just help him out.” He had some sores on his joints. I got some olive oil, some soy bean oil. I put it on him to relieve him from the pain. The next day I saw that his skin was so much better. He was more relieved. He wasn’t itching. I said, “You know what, I think I have something here.” I started to do some formulations. I have a science degree background which I never used, so I started to formulate and then I decided to do a soap bar and that was actually an oatmeal bar because oatmeal is really good for the skin and it worked. That’s where it started from. From that point on. I continued. I figured, “Why not continue to do it. There are other people just like him, who are suffering eczema and psoriasis.” I decided to develop the line.

Jennifer Dopazo: I love that story.

Grace Colon: Thank you.

Jennifer Dopazo: Basically it just started from a need- [crosstalk 02:20] I love it.

Tony Colon: The line itself, as well, as added new products on the line, were based on issues that folks had. A friend of hers had this spot on her leg.

Grace Colon: True, yes.

Tony Colon: She went to the dermatologist. Nothing worked. It sounds weird but she figured it out and she told her to use it and it went away. Right.

Grace Colon: It did.

Tony Colon: Whatever it was. We still don’t know what it was but it helped. That’s how, “All right, we need to make a product for this, a product for that.” It’s based on ailments basically.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s great.

Grace Colon: All the products that I would produce, I would give it away. I would give it away. Have people try them out. Not just in the Latin culture but in all cultures. I have a friend who happens to be Asian. Her skin happens to be very dry and oily at the same time. Whenever I come up with a new product, I’ll first give it away. Have people try it out. Those are my guinea pigs.

Jennifer Dopazo: You say, “Yes, this be a friend [crosstalk 03:29]

Tony Colon: Friends and family.

Grace Colon: Exactly.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s great. I love that. She’s going to give you an honest opinion.

Grace Colon: Of course.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s what you want.

Tony Colon: They do.

Grace Colon: They do.

Jennifer Dopazo: I love that story.

Tony Colon: The ones that survive. I’m just kidding.

Jennifer Dopazo: I know from when we talked before coming here, that you have a background in the corporate world. Then look at you today here with your own line of products. I’m just wondering do you feel like this is re-invention for you? How do you feel about this change?

Grace Colon: Of course. When I was in the corporate world, I was clueless that this is something that I would be doing in the future. I’ve always had taken different types of jobs because I needed to meet a need at home. Some of those jobs I really didn’t care for and I didn’t know why I was there but I always did my best. My best always took me to another realm, another promotion. I remember when I started back in 1995, after being home with my daughters, I went back to work and I started as a receptionist in a marketing graphic design company. They’re really well known. They were the first ones to do Coca Cola and Swatch Watch. At that point they had a need to design some watches for the GAP. They asked me, “Hey, Grace, I need you just to sketch a couple of things.” I did it. It so happens that the GAP ended up taking three of my designs. I said, “This is interesting.”

When I was growing up I wasn’t able to draw or color because my parents were so focused on my academics. Tony always told me, “Grace, you’re very gifted. You’re very talented. You’re able to draw. You’re able to sketch.” He always encouraged me. I decided to, “Okay. While I’m in this company, I’m going to learn everything.” I did. I didn’t know that I was going to have an input on design, on the packaging, but I’ve discovered something that I really love color a lot. That was my first passion.

Everything that I learned back then I have utilized for this business. From getting on the phone trying to do a cold call. That was something I didn’t like doing at the corporate level. Calling Crayola or calling Johnson & Johnson. I really wasn’t comfortable doing it but it served me today. I’m doing it right now. I’m getting my products in the stores. I’m not as shy or timid as I used to be. I feel that it’s been great for me in that sense. To be able to utilize all the years of experience that I have acquired in the corporate world, it’s been really good for me. For him too. We both collaborate together. I’ve utilized it for his business as well. His graphic design.

Tony Colon: Sure. We help each other so the expertise that she gleaned from that design company marketing, she brings that to my company. Then I bring branding, design and craziness as far as design is into her company. We’re always overlapping.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s great. It’s collaboration in both companies. That brings me to my next question. You’re the one behind the brand, the official brand. You’re behind the labeling, the packaging and everything. I’m just wondering if you could just share with us what was your mission. Was there one at the beginning? Or if it was [inaudible 07:53], how did you create it?

Tony Colon: It wasn’t just me. Again, it was discussions that we had about some of the questions I asked, “What did you want it to do?” Branding for me is communication outward, right. “What dialogue did you want to start? How did you want to present yourself?” It was very important to us, being Puerto Rican. One of the first visuals was she created a paper house. “What do you call that?” A shack.

Grace Colon: Un boillo.

Tony Colon: Un boillo. It’s a tin shack that is where folks in Puerto Rico used to live. We incorporated that but she made it out of paper. Her grandfather was a farmer. She was used to working with organic vegetation, fruit, all that. In the Puerto Rican culture it’s normal to create you own ingredients and remedies. This is just combining that with her degree, her science, her background, in the creative sense. Since we have spent most of our time here in the US, specifically in Brooklyn. We also wanted to include that as well.

We wanted to have a very colorful but serious look and feel to it, bringing in our culture which we feel is very passionate, colorful. The word “piel” [foreign language 09:48] comes from in for skin. There’s a little cross about the “I” that’s intentional. That’s where the remedy aspect of it or pharmaceutical aspect of it is. It is a lot going on in the logo. In terms of the whole brand, it’s more about feeling and passion and including our culture in it. Infusing. Like what she does with the oils but infusing all that like a thread throughout the whole language of the brand so it speaks that in different ways in different times.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s great. I love that you mention “piel” which means skin in Spanish. We had a conversation about this when we met. I loved the way you explained why you picked that word. Could you just tell that story again. It’s just so beautiful.

Grace Colon: Sure. Well, I wanted to represent my culture. The way it came about was that when my parents migrated here, my father being Columbia n, my mother being Puerto Rican, they tried to take the identity, “American Dream”, the American identity. Since they had to fight racism and try to fight in order for them to have their jobs and acclimate to New York, they wanted to make it easier on their children, so they gave us American names. I went to school. I studied here. I also studied in Puerto Rico. Out there my name Grace translates to “Graciela” [foreign language 11:47] I used to shun that name. I was, “No, my name is Grace,” and insist on that or Gracey.

Then I got used to it later on. I said, “Wait a minute.” I started learning about my culture. I said, “No.” Once Tony and I got married I ended up with the last name “Colon” so I took his last name. When we started looking for a name for the product being that the origin of it that started with my grandson and trying to cure the skin and bring some relief. It just made total sense. That was the name for it.

I did ask around. One of my concerns were when bringing the product into the market, “Would people have a difficult time saying the name.” For me, after a point, didn’t become important anymore because I would like to say that most of the Hispanic culture, the Latin culture are the ones that are buying my products but that’s not the case. Just to show you, the name is pretty important but it fits for all cultures.

Jennifer Dopazo: It might sound exotic for people who doesn’t speak Spanish.

Grace Colon: Yeah, they say it in different ways.

Tony Colon: There’s always an opportunity to have a conversation. When they mispronounce the word, most of the time it’s mispronounced so they say, “Pie-el” or, “No, it’s Piel [foreign language 13:29] and it means skin.” So the conversation continue. In terms of design and naming you might have that perspective it’s going to be disruptive. People are not going to understand it. To me, it’s an itch that you have to scratch. If you itch, you scratch it. So without saying the name yourself first, they say it or think it and then when you’re communicating it’s an opportunity to really tell the full story.

We don’t just sell products. We sell remedies and fun and joy and a different perspective on life. A different approach to life. That colors everything that we do, especially the name. The name was also selected explicitly to represent who we are. To say that’s the first thing you’re going to see in this company is that this is who we are, we’re proud of it. Once you get to know us and the products you will understand and you will be a fan as well.

Jennifer Dopazo: The first product of Piel [foreign language 14:45] was a soap, oatmeal one, to be more specific. You have a great reach of products right now, I know we talked a bit about it previously, I wonder if you could elaborate more on the process of the new products, how is your process to creating a new product?

Grace Colon: Well first of all, in creating the soaps, or even the first product, my style formulation is that it’s in the combination of oils. It’s about combining certain oils to bring the healing, begin the healing process. Then once I find the right combination then I go out, let’s say I have a friend that I know suffers from psoriasis or any other kind of dry skin or any type of skin condition, then I’ll give it to them. Sometimes they will come to me and say, “Hey, Grace, I have this dry skin. I have these patches or this allergy and I really don’t want to use the steroid. What can I do?” I try to come up with different types of remedy. My formulation, my process is always the combination of oils that I’m going to use. That does take a little bit of time but it does work.

There are a lot of brands out there that create personal care lines that have products and lotions and creams that you put it on your skin and it stays on the surface. For me, it’s more important that it drags into the skin and it starts healing from the inside out. That is part of my process. It always starts with the formulation.

Jennifer Dopazo: It’s also something that I keep listening that it’s about you, again, reaching out to your network. Reaching out to your family, your friends. I bet some customers, they ask you for things. “Oh, I wonder if you have this.”

Grace Colon: Sure.

Tony Colon: Remember Ricky?

Grace Colon: Sure. When I started selling my products, when I started testing, yes, I took a whole year to do all the formulations. Then after that it was time to bring it out to the market. One of the things that I did was find a local market that I can do. A flea market, a farmer’s market, locally that I can just rent the space and try it out.

I found a market called, Artists and Fleas. That first year that was the first Christmas, I went there with my merchandise, they gave me space. One of the things that I did I created a lot of samples to give away. I gave away a lot of samples. People did like them. Based on those samples they would come back and say, “Hey, do you have this type of soap? You gave me a sample. I really loved it. It was really nice. It helped me.” I started to produce what they asked me for or try to match the sample I had given them. Then people started coming and asking me if I had foot cream, if I had hand cream, that they have this condition, that condition. What can they do.

The more people asked for the same thing, I would consult with Tony, and say, “Okay, I think that we need to do this because it’s more than two people asking.” That’s how I would develop a new product. Then bring it to market and then sell it on the market. They would go right away. There was times I couldn’t even book a space because I didn’t have enough time to re-produce the product.

That’s how I started. I started with Artists and Fleas. I didn’t have a lot of competition. There were maybe one or two soap vendors. The competition wasn’t so high because the problem, the issue was bringing solutions to their skin conditions.

Jennifer Dopazo: I love that. Some businesses or some people, they just build products because they wish it was on the market and it’s just a personal need that they have. For you it’s obvious, listening very closely to what people need. I love how you keep talking about remedies. It’s not just skin products. You’re just trying to help them be better.

Grace Colon: Right, right. The other thing too is that when you go to a dermatologist, right, a lot of these creams, insurance doesn’t cover it. They have to pay out of pocket. You take a cream like one called Seravi. Some of those creams are $25, $35. For a family that only the father or mother is working or a single mom, how can she afford that for their child. Part of my process is my price point. That’s really important for me because I really want everyone to be able to afford my products, especially if they’re going to be bring a solution to their skin problems. I think that affordability is one thing. If I’m interested in a product for myself be able to afford it but I want to make sure that it works too. That’s the most thing. I can afford it but it has to work for me.

Jennifer Dopazo: Piel products can be found in many stores here in Brooklyn and you can buy them online, I’m just wondering, when you’ve got your first order, when you say your product in the store the first time, how was that?

Grace Colon: Well, first of all, getting the product in the store was a little frightening for me. I had to get out of my comfort zone. Then I started thinking of how I used to do the cold calling. What I did prior that I created a postcard things I would be able to drop off, begin a conversation, and leave samples behind.

The one store that gave me a break was by Brooklyn and they really appreciated the products. I gave them samples. They tried them out. They’ve been with me this whole time. It’s been really good. Some of the other stores too. I think that getting the word out. Also by word-of-mouth. Being at Artists and Fleas really was the seg-way into getting into other stores because it was always by word-of-mouth, recommendations. They would bring me customers and they would give suggestions. They’ll tell me, “You should go to this store. You should go that store.” I really didn’t have to do too much research into what stores I wanted to leave samples and introduce myself.

It was really great seeing them on the shelves. It gave me a boost of confidence and that’s when I felt like, “I really have something here. Let me continue to pursue this.”

Jennifer Dopazo: Has there been any sacrifices while growing this new business of yours? Do you think there has been any sacrifice while working on Piel?[foreign language 22:50]

Grace Colon: The sacrifice is a personal one. It’s my grand kids. I grew up with not having a relationship with my grandparents. I have two grand kids. I have Lilliana and Elijah. When Elijah was born, I was working. I was working long hours. One of the benefits of being able to work at Piel [foreign language 23:18] and work from home is that I can try and schedule that. Is there a sacrifice? Yes. I wish I could spend more time. The time that I do get to spend with them is quality time. We always do an art project. They can’t leave without doing an art project. They know what I do so they understand.

They know also that I brought healing to their skin. They’ll look at the soaps. They like smelling them. They like the experience.

Tony Colon: Like the deodorant, right, for Elijah?

Grace Colon: Yes. It’s not on the market.

Tony Colon: It’s not on the product line.

Grace Colon: We created a deodorant for our grand son.

Tony Colon: He was going through puberty and his underarms were killing him and his mother. Nothing was working. She concocted something. All natural. It worked. She showed him-

Grace Colon: Out of the kitchen.

Tony Colon: Out of the kitchen.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s wonderful.

Grace Colon: That’s the other thing, the products are made with oils. Thinks that we consume, that we eat. Olive oil, soybean oil, coconut oil. Those are all good things for our bodies. Those are the thing we want to put on your skin. They’re very high in lactic acids. They’re very high in Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Vitamin D, especially with the milks. Coconut milk. Mostly the liquids are not just plain water. We’re using milk. Trying to think. Aloe vera, aloe vera gel, aloe vera juice. It’s not always just 100% water, a small percentage of oil.

Work balance for me it means for me to take time out for my self. To take care of myself. Go to the gym. Go to my doctor’s appointments. Don’t cancel any appointments. I will come back continue to work as late as it is. I make time to spend time with my daughters. We have dinner together. We also try to stop at a certain point of the day to sit down together either watch TV, look at social media. What else?

Tony Colon: Netflix rules.

Grace Colon: True.

Tony Colon: It’s not binge watching. It’s very specific at a certain time. To tear yourself away from what comes natural for us because we’re inventors, creators, artists. We’re, 24/7, doing that. It’s not work at times.

Grace Colon: Exactly.

Tony Colon: Part of it is. There’s certain things that are work. Most of it is just natural for us to be doing this. We do this all of our lives. Being strategic about it, intentional, and saying, “Okay. We have to stop.” She’ll just sit there and creating products in her head. It’s like, “Are you watching the TV?” Or whatever it is that we’re doing, it’s a challenge. We have the flexibility to do it. We’re aware of it. She does it at times better than I do. I try to keep the weekends clear, unless we’re doing markets or things like that. It’s a rarity. We try to control that. During the week as well. Having dinner together, that’s probably an odd thing these days for families but for us we try to do that as much as we can. If we don’t, we won’t ever speak. Informally, or get together and kind of touch base.

Grace Colon: The other thing too, is that we meet on Mondays in the mornings and on Fridays. Mondays is to go over the schedule that we have for each other during the week. That will include our personal appointments with doctors. It’ll include what’s on the agenda. What needs to be done first.

Then on Friday is the conclusion. We sit down over breakfast and look to see and check off our list. I enjoy it. I can do it for hours.

Tony Colon: We do.

Grace Colon: We do.

Tony Colon: We’re good with it. If you never acknowledge that you have a different part of your life that’s a problem. We don’t beat ourselves up about it because we love it. The point of having left that corporate world is that you’re on when you’re there you’re on. Even when you’re not there, you’re on. They expect that you sold your soul to them. This is more an okay selling of your soul if you want to look at it that way.

It’s our passion. We love it. Other folks might think we’re a little strange because they don’t really see why do you love this so much. Maybe not so much in this specific community here. Everybody’s an artist here but outside of it. Our home is our studio. It’s our home. It’s whatever it needs to be. It could be a photo studio when a photo shoot needs to happen. An art class for the kids.

We’ve tried to keep the living room the living room. Essentially, the whole place is a whole giant studio to just do whatever it is that we need. Obviously, we’re always going to be doing art or creating or solving problems. She’s a baker and an amazing cook. Culinary arts. My daughter is a pastry chef. We bring that. It’s part of our DNA. We can’t evade it or step away from it.

We just have to control it. Taking care of your health. Changing the scenery. Doing things that have nothing to do with solving problems or creating. Generally that’s what we end up doing anyway. Let’s say I play racquetball. I’m there and I’m thinking of a nice design for a shirt for these guys for racquetball or a new design for a racket. It’s what we do. It’s fun actually.

Jennifer Dopazo: Why do we need Piel [foreign language 30:49] in our lives?

Grace Colon: That’s a very good question. We need it just like we take care of our bodies by what we consume. We should also take care of our bodies, our skin, we take care of our hygiene. It’s extremely important. Also because of the benefits of the products. They really work. They’re very organic. They’re made with things that we eat so they bring some value to our bodies.

Tony Colon: We have this line that we developed. Title line, we say, “Skin Salvation.” So piel is skin salvation. We feel to have a spiritual side is important. Your salvation that brings your spirit salvation. We feel the same way about the skin. If you feel good if your skin is well, it gives you confidence. It makes for a brighter day. It really helps your well-being in certain ways.

Grace Colon: My grandparents never left the island. There’s this small island called. “Bieques” [foreign language 32:12] In Puerto Rico, in order to get to the mainland, you need to take a ferry. My grandfather never left the island. In two hours you can drive around the whole island. They ate from the earth and what he produced. They also put on their bodies from their vegetation. My grandparents were the inspiration when I tried to find a solution for my grandson’s skin condition. What would they do?

Well, they would just leave the house go to their plantation. For any ailment whether it was a stomach ache, or skin condition, they would just go out to the plantation and pick up herbs and just combine them together. They always used olive oil. They would mash it up and then put it on the skin. Put it on the cut. Go cut an aloe vera plant, open it up and put it on their skin. They produced everything. They never had to go to the main land to get products or get cures. The land produced it all.

Jennifer Dopazo: What’s next for Piel?

Grace Colon: Next for Piel [foreign language 33:43] I would like to do a trade show. Where I can reach more international source.

Jennifer Dopazo: Wow. That’s great.

Grace Colon: That is the big goal for Piel. Would be to do a trade show. To be able to reach more people.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s wonderful. Just to wrap up, what would be your tip or advice to someone listening to you guys. They listen to your story and they really want to start their own business, or they really want to try out, they have this passion for, if it’s skin care products or anything they do, an artist or anything. What would be your advice to them?

Grace Colon: My advice would be, they would do research. Do very good research. Find a niche. Look into your community. What’s missing in your community. Be pretty resourceful too. You might not always have the money to start a new business but you can borrow from your family members.

When I started getting the ingredients to make soap, I think I only spent $25. I went to my local market, I got some ingredients. On the first try it didn’t work out but I continued to try again. I would say just don’t give up. Also, let’s say it doesn’t work out. Re-invent yourself. We have many, many talents. I focused first doing a lot of research. It took me a whole year before I put something on the market. It was by trail and error. Finding what works. Then testing it out. Finding a local market that will take your product. Not to be afraid. Your business and your failures doesn’t define who you are.

What it does do is that it builds your character. Maya Angelou, one of her quotes is, “The better you know, the better you do.” Learning from your mistakes, you just get better at it.

Tony Colon: I would add to that do what you love but if it’s a hobby and you want to keep it a hobby but keep doing it. Don’t turn it into a business. If you want to turn something into a business, understand and realize that it’s a long road and it’s going to take a lot of work, not just a love for it. It’s okay to have a business that you love what you’re doing but understand it could turn into something else.

The other thing is, start small. Incremental. Just take your time. Start small. The world’s not going anywhere. That way you get to make all your mistakes. You get to test if you really want to do this. That’s it. She took a whole year before someone even knew what she was doing. It was more to convince herself and convince me, right. She sucked me into the branding aspect of it. That’s what I would say.

Just do it. Go for it. Everything that she said but stay small as long as you can because that’s going to answer all the questions of most of them. That way you might even be able to save money. The risk is lower. Then when you’re ready, when you feel confident, then you get the investors and take that next leap.

Grace Colon: Tap into your family. Tap into your friends. They have a lot of talent. Those are your resources. That’s your support.

Tony Colon: And your critique.

Grace Colon: And your critique, exactly. Critique is very important, that’s where you learn from. Don’t take it personal. You just grow from that.

Jennifer Dopazo: That’s wonderful. I love it. Thank you so much. It’s been so lovely being with you here in your home.

Grace Colon: You’re so welcome.

Tony Colon: Thank you.

Grace Colon: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.

Jennifer Dopazo: Happy to be here.

Grace Colon: Thanks.