Beauty for you; beauty for the planet.
Gloria Onderdonk’s tagline for her company, Kaia Earth Skin Care, is unwaveringly honest. “Kaia” comes from the Greek word for “pure.” Her mission is to help others maintain clear, healthy, moisturized skin with organic, all-natural, cruelty-free products while also giving back to the Earth through donations and sustainable practices.
Kaia Earth wasn’t originally developed for public use. Onderdonk, a Venezuelan and Italian business owner and self-proclaimed nature and animal lover, initially developed the skincare products for herself and her son. Eight years ago, Onderdonk’s son was diagnosed with polyarteritis nodosa, a severe autoimmune disease that affected him for a long time.
“At that moment, everything changed for us,” says Onderdonk. “He had to change everything including the food he ate, and we couldn’t have any smells in the house.”
Three years later, Onderdonk herself fell ill with a collapsed immune system due to ductal carcinoma in situ breast cancer. She beat her battle with breast cancer, but it was an incredibly difficult journey for her and her family.
Onderdonk’s and her son’s illnesses left them both with extremely sensitive skin, unable to tolerate many skincare products on the market due to the chemicals and toxic ingredients.
“I needed products that were safe, free of harsh detergents, fragrances and dyes or other irritants,” says Onderdonk. “That’s when I decided to take my love of wellness, beauty and the environment and create my own line of pure, sustainable and effective products for sensitive and dry skin.”
Onderdonk was spending time in Italy with family when she began developing Kaia Earth’s first two products: the intensive botanical night cream and the pure moisturizer day/night serum. Her and her son’s illnesses pushed her to be hyper-focused on maintaining an organic and natural lifestyle to feel well and stay healthy, and the product line she created is reflective of her values. It took two years of research and testing formulas before the line officially launched.
“Our products are truly plant-based, sustainably packaged and safe with zero synthetic chemical ingredients or artificial fragrances,” she says.
Transparency is a core value at Kaia Earth. The exact ingredients found in the night cream and moisturizing serum can be found right on the company website coupled with an explanation of what each substance is and how it benefits the skin. Furthermore, the two products are packaged in recycled glass jars.
Ingredients in Kaia Earth’s products are also clinically tested, but never on animals—a testament to Onderdonk’s passion for protecting the planet and all its creatures.
“We love our clients, our animals, our planet and ourselves,” adds Onderdonk. “Our products are carefully produced in small batches to ensure freshness and effectiveness, and we are so proud to be an official member of 1 Percent for the Planet,” which means 1 percent of Kaia Earth’s profits are donated to nonprofit organizations dedicated to protecting the environment.
Onderdonk, who operates out of her Fairport home, says her No. 1 target audience are people with highly sensitive or very dry skin. Following that demographic are eco-conscious customers looking to use a sustainable and effective brand for their skincare needs.
Crafting the perfect products came with many hurdles and a lot of trial and error, but Onderdonk says the biggest learning curve has been starting a business from scratch.
Prior to starting Kaia Earth, Onderdonk was a psychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center. She has a bachelor’s degree in human resources administration from the Simon Rodriguez National Experimental University in Venezuela and a master’s degree in psychology and behavioral analysis from the Central University of Venezuela.
Born on a boat after her family left Italy, Onderdonk was raised in Venezuela. She moved to Rochester 11 years ago with her husband, a Rochester native and Kodak employee for more than 30 years, after meeting him in Canada. Onderdonk is a globetrotter, but she has found comfort digging roots here in Rochester.
“I love Rochester. I love the community and how supportive everyone is here,” she says. “There are so many places for you to learn. There are so many beautiful places where you can get inspiration. Since I’m vegetarian and I love nature and animals, Rochester has been like a gift for me in terms of that.”
In 2013, Onderdonk went back to school and obtained a master’s degree in human resources development from Rochester Institute of Technology. Her reason for going back to school? To build connections with others in the local community and to improve her English speaking skills.
Being a small, budding business in a saturated industry with many bigger names to compete with around the world has not been easy, and Onderdonk has discovered how aggressive the competition can be.
“You’d think women would want to support each other, but that’s not always the case,” says Onderdonk. “When you find somebody that’s honest and has strong values, you really want to hold on to them even if they’re different from you.”
Onderdonk has found a lot of support from other local women entrepreneurs, especially at Latinas Unidas, an organization that brings together Latina women with similar interests and concerns in the Greater Rochester community.
In fact, Onderdonk fostered a friendship with a fellow Latinas Unidas member who happens to have a relationship with Wegmans. That same friend offered to help Onderdonk get Kaia Earth products on the shelves of Wegmans. According to Onderdonk, not only does this mean more eyes on Kaia Earth, but it’s the opportunity to partner with another local organization that is not only an established grocer in Rochester but around the East Coast.
Onderdonk compares starting a business with raising a baby. Every day brings something new, something unexpected that forces you to quickly adapt.
“Creating a new product and picking out pretty packaging may sound like fun, but running your own beauty brand is hard,” she says. “The biggest challenge for me was trying to break into the market against very large, well-known competitors with huge name recognition and marketing budgets. While the market challenges are daunting enough, running the business as a small business owner brings its own challenges and demands.”
Kaia Earth currently has two more products in development—an eye cream and an exfoliating facial scrub—that will be introduced next year. Onderdonk is firm about growing the company organically.
Contrary to most skincare brands with a cornucopia of products, “I believe that less is more,” says Onderdonk. “You only need a few skincare products that are effective.”
Onderdonk is technically a one-woman show at Kaia Earth, but she outsources help with many aspects of the business like social media, marketing, website building, photography and the lab in Italy that produces her line.
As a new business owner, Onderdonk has come to realize that mistakes are going to happen along the way, but it’s important to keep moving and take each error as a learning experience.
“If you’re waiting for the perfect moment to do something, you’ll always be waiting,” she says. “The perfect moment is whenever you choose to start.”
Small Business is a biweekly feature focusing on local entrepreneurs. Send suggestions for Small Business stories to Reporter/Editorial Assistant Nicole Sheldon at firstname.lastname@example.org. (585) 363-7031