About this Episode:
In her conversation with Alya, Sylwia Weisenberg shares the business challenges she faced as an immigrant woman and how she overcame them to create new opportunities for herself. Drawing from her own experiences, Sylwia gives invaluable advice on starting a company, encouraging listeners to believe in themselves and that anything is possible when they set their minds to it.
Alya Michelson 00:10
Welcome to Beautiful Journey, a podcast about the inspiring journeys of women from around the world and their successes. I am Alya Michelson. I’m an artist, philanthropist, and global citizen. I’m also an immigrant. As a journalist, I love storytelling, and I believe it can help build bridges to new people and to new communities. That’s why I started this podcast. Beautiful Journey is about sharing the experience of immigrant women. In my interviews, you’ll hear about the hardships, the isolation, and the stereotypes of the immigrant experience, along with their triumphs and successes. You’ll hear uplifting stories of resilience, the beauty of community, and the unique, singular perspectives of immigrant women. Some of the stories might be familiar to you, and you may hear aspects of your own story in them. Or maybe this is a totally new perspective for you. Either way, I’m happy to have you along for this beautiful journey.
My conversation today is with Sylwia Wiesenberg. Sylwia is an innovator and the founder of several companies in the skincare, wellness, and fitness space. Sylwia was born in Poland, and she lived there until she was 16.
Sylwia Wiesenberg 01:38
I basically decided that the country, as much as I love my country, it’s not the country I want to live in. And I really wanted to always be like Darwin, you know, experience the world, travel – I love geography and people. I am very much into cultures and languages. But most of all, I left Poland because of the system. And as much as one person can love traveling, I think it’s mostly the system that was limiting me as a person. And I discovered this very early in life.
Alya Michelson 02:20
Her first destination was Australia after her 16th birthday. It was supposed to be a short trip, only a few months to study English. And then she would return to Poland. But Sylwia ended up attending high school and college in Australia. and she eventually moved to the United States to finish her degree. From there, Sylwia moved to London, where she began her career in advertising and finance. Then, she had the opportunity to work for two years in the United States on a visa.
Sylwia Wiesenberg 02:51
Six months before I was leaving, I met my husband, and I never planned to get married. I never thought that I would have a family. I came from a sort of broken family. And you know, when you have a tough life as a child, especially where you come from, you might not want to continue the history. So I thought I will just be very independent, I will create things, I will travel, I’ll meet people, and I will just enjoy life. And I met my husband, and now I’ve been here almost 20 years actually.
Alya Michelson 03:32
Sylwia’s story is amazing to me because I think she’s the definition of a global citizen. She lives all over; she’s comfortable anywhere in the world. Barriers don’t become obstacles for her. Sylwia is also a very creative person. She started a fitness company on her own. And then she had the idea for what would become her company, BAWDY. That’s B-A-W-D-Y Beauty. And the inspiration was a body part.
Sylwia Wiesenberg 04:03
My passion since I was a little girl was always the butt. I love asses. It’s like when people ask you, “what do you like the most about yourself?” Besides your brain, yes? I love my ass. I always found it really fascinating, the butt as a ‘movement.’ And as unique as everyone’s face is to me, that uniqueness is also in the butt’s shape and how women and men move. And I wanted to inspire people to feel better. So, the first company that I found was actually a fitness company called TONIQUE Fitness, and I developed a whole workout. Right now, I probably have 65 workouts that I filmed on the streets around the world. I basically put the camera on, no lights, nothing for the rain. I actually filmed in Budapest, in the rain, on the street, because when I was there for three days, I didn’t have nice weather. So I was like, you know what, I’m just going to show Budapest in the rain. And it was beautiful. People were like, “this girl is crazy.” Thank God no one arrested me. I filmed around the world: Uruguay, Argentina, Australia, Poland, you name it. I just finished in Alaska, which was fantastic and very wild. One day, when I was working, I felt there is no company like BAWDY Beauty. Everything created for women’s butts is made to make us feel bad that we have stretch marks – which I have – but they are there because I was doing gymnastics for 14 years, and they are natural beauty marks – my skin has elasticity.
The companies want to make us feel bad that we have cellulite. Cellulite is something that every woman, no matter what her size is, has at one point in her day or month because of our hormonal issues and stress, and what we eat, and if we drink enough water. So I wanted to have a company that makes women and men – but mostly women, because I’m a woman, so I target that audience – to feel good naked, to really embrace their bodies, not shame them, not to point out what’s wrong with their bodies, but to make them play with beauty because beauty is about having fun with yourself.
Alya Michelson 06:46
Sylwia’s company has seen a lot of success. She has a line of BAWDY products, and her messages of positivity, self care, sexual wellness, and connection have really resonated with people and celebrities too.
Sylwia Wiesenberg 07:04
The best email I got was from a woman – who doesn’t know me – who wrote: “Through your brand, I can feel who you are.” And I was like, “no way.” It was so beautiful because that’s – as a female entrepreneur – you want to touch females, as much as we want to be inclusive for everyone. I think woman to woman is how we want to fix things.
Alya Michelson 07:33
Here is more of my conversation with Sylwia Wiesenberg, the founder of BAWDY Beauty, DOPE Naturally, and TONIQUE Fitness.
When you decided to start your company, how did people react to your business? Tell me about some of the challenges you ran into.
Sylwia Wiesenberg 07:53
A.) being an immigrant is incredibly hard. And I hated the BS about female-to-female saying, “I will support you.” I went to so many funds that were female-funded. And they said that they will fund you or help you because you are a female but with their ideas. They want to be safe, honestly, and my product has not been safe. It wasn’t even proven because it’s such a new category. So, I’ve had so many obstacles to overcome.
Firstly, my accent; secondly, I’m an immigrant, so there is a fear that maybe I think differently. I am not in the clique of American entrepreneurs, and it’s a crazy product. Maybe it’s uncomfortable for some fans, even though they invest in sexual wellness, and I spoke to women who invest in sexual wellness. I think that the obstacle of not being fully American – right now, I can vote, so I became American – but I’m still, you know, not American. Even if I became American, I’m still not born here. I have a different culture and different perspective, and my dream is to make BAWDY successful and, at some point, have enough money to just invest in women immigrants. If you would ask me what by far the furthest goal would be to become a woman investor without hurting the brands, without stealing the percentages and taking advantage of you as a woman and an immigrant, and really investing to help, not to just make money.
Alya Michelson 09:43
In your opinion, what can communities do to welcome immigrants and make the transition easier? And what do you wish someone would have done for you when you had just gotten to the United States?
Sylwia Wiesenberg 09:55
I wish there was a guide, “How to Survive as an Immigrant,” that teaches you all the rules and all the bullshit there is in New York, and how many people are here to, like, rip you apart, how many people are here to just steal your money
Alya Michelson 10:17
You know, I’m from Russia, and I’m so surprised how little people know about Moscow when I came here. Like, for example, people were saying that Moscow it’s some little place in Georgia State. Were people recognizing you as Polish, and what ridiculous things did you hear about Poland and Polish people here?
Sylwia Wiesenberg 10:39
One stereotype: I went to a party, and I introduced myself, and a girl was like, “Oh, where are you from?” I’m like, “Poland.” Right away, the girl said, “Oh, my cleaning lady is from Poland.” That doesn’t make me a cleaning lady! – I actually love cleaning – I laughed. I was like, so what? If I say, “where are you from?” And you say you are from America? If I say that I have a friend who is so and so in America, not every American woman is going to be that one thing.
But the funniest stereotype was when I had just come here. When I was going out, before I was even asked my name, whenever I said I am from Poland, people would say right away: “What do you do here?” And I created answers based on people’s perceptions of [Polish women] in the US. I said, “I am a nanny, a cleaning lady, and I’m a hooker!”
From time to time, I’d say, “I am a model,” because that’s the stereotype for Polish women, especially if you are attractive and young. People really think that they can just narrow you to those stereotypes, and it’s very sad.
Alya Michelson 12:11
I also found it really interesting because, for whatever reason, the natural femininity of European women have taken away from their achievements in American eyes. There is a stereotype that brains and beauty don’t go together. But a lot of people that I know have both because only the best of the best aspire to leave their countries and achieve something bigger than what they have.
Sylwia Wiesenberg 12:34
Exactly. I totally agree with you. That goes back to the first question we were talking about, you know, finding investors. The minute you have a sense of humor, you must be crazy and dumb. And I love to joke, as you can see, like, my whole life is a joke. Yeah, I love to joke, I love to be mischievous, I love to be feminine. I don’t want to be a woman who is intense. I want to be a woman in a skirt, and I want to have my power. So I don’t need to dress a certain way to prove something. I don’t need to prove my brain to anyone. And, like you said, we were brought up differently with openness. And it’s sort of like European women have – and I’m not saying that every American woman is the same and doesn’t have this quality – But it’s sort of like, we have lightness around us. I always compare cars. European cars with American cars. European cars have beautiful soft lines. American cars are heavy. The same is with the style. Take big designers like Michael Kors or Tom Ford. They do beautiful creations, but they are still chunky. And then you take Celine, or you take Valentino or Chanel, and there is that femininity inside, there is that lightness that means you assert yourself through fashion. But there is that lightness, and I love that lightness.
Alya Michelson 14:28
Tell me more about the kind of resistance you heard from investors and why you think they should be more open.
Sylwia Wiesenberg 14:35
When it comes to investors, as I mentioned before, they say they want to take a risk by investing money and time into a brand, but they don’t want to invest in innovation. The innovation stops at the marketing level instead of bringing something new. For example, BAWDY opened a market for ‘bad’ beauty, but people were reluctant. Editors basically said they’re not interested in writing about BAWDY Beauty. How come? like wow, [Editors] don’t talk about that.
But women are thinking beyond just the face. You know, now bikinis are getting smaller, and more skin is exposed, and women are into showing their butts. The younger generation is making money out of it by becoming influencers for the body, for thickness, for clothing, for bikini lines; it’s endless. So, I think more women are open to taking off their clothes and flaunting their bodies and taking care of themselves. Also, they now understand that taking care of the body is as important as the face because their skin has to match. They can be like flowers [on their faces], but what’s happening with the 75% of your skin from your neck to your toes?
I think the consumer is curious and wants to do other things. So there are no limits. I don’t think any idea is a crazy idea. I think women, especially immigrants, if they come with different ideas, different views, different perspectives, it’s very positive. Look what happened with K beauty: K beauty came from Korea, a totally different regime, and 16 serums on your face, like who has time for it?
Yet it was accepted for a while; then, it was considered a waste of time and money. But you know, it still had the chance, stayed with some, and, as a trend, Korean cosmetics are very innovative. K Beauty is also an example for many American brands. They are always looking to them for innovation. As much as everyone says, America is the country in the world, that it’s so powerful, [but] I think it lacks creativity. And they look up to other countries. Maybe, in that sense, America is the most powerful country. We’ll see. But it lacks creativity lacks the openness of two ideas. Like everything has to be safe, and there is nothing safe. In life, nothing is safe.
Alya Michelson 17:39
My last question for you is for some advice. What is your best advice for a woman coming here who wants to start a business?
Sylwia Wiesenberg 17:48
Take a chance. Especially women who are coming here, and most immigrants are young girls; they have a whole life in front of them. Don’t fear that it will fail. Nothing is a failure. And from every failure, you learn something new, and you become smarter and more brilliant. With fashion, the European flair, the sensuality and sexuality of the female body, how they dress. It’s incredible. It’s beautiful. And definitely, European women have so much sophistication.
Now, we are bombarded with casual wear. But you can bring some sophistication even to casual wear. You can wear sweatpants with a really nice jacket and still look more sophisticated and put together. But my advice is to be a fighter. Never give up. It’s like a boxing ring. You get punched in the face so many times from both females and males in the industry.
Every industry is super competitive. Every industry is super cutthroat. In the end, as I said, you are in the ring, you get punched in the face, and you have 10 seconds to put yourself together to get up and be like Rocky, the winner. And that’s how I think: I get punched. And I punch myself by having doubts about myself. But then I look around, and I’m like, “You know what, it’s a journey, and it’s my fight, and I will survive it.” We survived communism. If you survived communism, you’ll survive anything. I hope that every female will have the bravery and courage to just come and fight. And this is a good land. America is a great ring to fight in.
Alya Michelson 19:54
That was my conversation with innovator Sylwia Wiesenberg about her beautiful journey. You can learn more about Sylwia and her company at bawdybeauty.com. You can hear more Beautiful Journey stories at alyamichelson.org/beautiful-journey or subscribe to the podcast feed so you don’t miss an episode. And if you or someone you know would be a good person for me to talk with, I would love to hear from you. Find our contact form at alyamichelson.org. This podcast is produced by Emilee Generous, Sarah Fey, and Inside Voices Media. I’m Alya Michelson, and thank you for listening.
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