Published: Jan. 26, 2023 By

Leeds offers students a world-class business education along with access to a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem that’s a hub for sustainable start-ups.

Hilary Nalve Natural Products Entrepreneur

Hilary Naven (MBA ‘15) has been able to capitalize on those resources and bring her career journey full circle through founding her company, Syll Botanics. CESR sat down with Nalven recently to talk about how she leveraged her Leeds education and the vibrant natural products community in Boulder to launch this sustainable skincare company with ESG principles baked in from the very beginning. 

CESR: Tell us about how you came to found Syll Botanics, and what inspired you to go into the natural products industry. 

Hilary Nalven: Syll was born from the cross-section of a pain point and a personal passion, met with a perceived broader need and a deep desire to bring that solution to life. For me, that started with becoming pregnant, developing new skin issues, and getting more concerned that the products I was using were safe, healthy and effective. At the time I was working an intense corporate job where I didn’t have a lot of time or energy and information about pregnancy-safe skincare was difficult to find. Since there’s no standard for what is safe during pregnancy and most brands offer an overwhelming number of products within many types of product lines, it was really challenging to choose what was right for my skin. It felt like the burden of choice landed on me, the consumer. I thought, “No one is offering high-performance yet safe products that honor busy lifestyle needs, don’t clutter my counter, and are good for the planet.” That inspired me to create a minimalist skincare company that is inclusive of all women - so they can use it during any life phase regardless of skin type or tone, and without sacrificing efficacy. 

I’ve always had a personal interest in the natural products industry, in large part because of its synergies with sustainability. This interest grew deeper when I moved to Boulder and began to cultivate a network in the industry while at Leeds, and realized I wanted my career to align with my values to consume products that are healthier for both people and the planet. 

I’ve also been a natural and organic skin care formulator for 10 years. It started as a hobby, and then I undertook more formal training and education to learn about proper formulation techniques, cosmetic chemistry, and skin biology. My unique superpower and passion lies in the product development process. If I could spend all day everyday studying new ingredients, designing and formulating, I would. 

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"If we can create fewer but better quality products, I believe it will help to both reduce consumption and improve the overall customer experience - and we will all be better off for it,"

says Nalven

CESR: How do you incorporate ESG and sustainability into your company?

HN: It starts with the design process and the why. Minimalism is at the heart of that. Everything I make has to be multi-benefit, and used on more than one part of the body. If I’m not able to design a product with innovation, efficacy and reduced waste at the core, then I don’t make it. We all need to buy less and be more thoughtful about what we purchase, but brands need to make it easier for consumers to do that. 

Part of how I wish to disrupt the industry is by pushing back on simply selling more things to fuel business growth, which is problematic for sustainability. If we can create fewer but better quality products, I believe it will help to both reduce consumption and improve the overall customer experience - and we will all be better off for it. 

Then it involves really thinking about how to design a product, and how that product will fit into a broader product line. For Syll, that will always be multi-functional, maximally efficacious products that fit together into a simple, streamlined product line. 

I am very intentional as well about what’s in the product, how the product is packaged and how it will be thrown away. Where do the ingredients come from? How are they grown? Where and how are they manufactured? In what materials will I package and ship my products? It’s complicated, especially for a small brand working with larger suppliers where you have less influence and buying power. It requires asking hard questions, being persistent about getting sufficient answers, and finding suppliers who are aligned with your values. 

I have had to accept that it’s never going to be perfect, but if you incorporate ESG principles from the beginning, the baseline is higher and it’s easier to make improvements. The key is to be honest about the places where there’s room for improvement.

CESR: Boulder has a vibrant community of natural products entrepreneurs, connected by Naturally Boulder, and has been recognized as one of the best places to start a business. How did being in this location help you to launch Syll Botanics?

HN: It’s a great community for idea sharing and support. Because we’re in such an entrepreneurial area that is also rich in knowledge about natural CPG products, it allows for easier innovation. I don’t have to figure out everything in a vacuum because I can be more resourced through my network. I’ve gotten advice from many incredible women entrepreneurs and professionals who have been willing to advise me throughout the journey of launching my company. I worked with freelancers who come from some of the best CPG marketing agencies in the country to build my brand, and now I’m networking with people who have amazing expertise in natural CPG marketing. It’s incredible to have so many talented people here. 

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"When we each shine our lights, we give other people permission to do the same,"

says Nalven

CESR: How did the Leeds MBA program support your skills and development as a sustainable entrepreneur?

HN: One big thing about Leeds is it introduces you to what’s possible as an entrepreneur within an incredibly innovative ecosystem that is unique to Colorado. I became educated in areas like entrepreneurial finance and had access to classes like Venture Capital Law. Because of my education and the subsequent career opportunities Leeds provided, I have been able to invest in my own business and gained the business acumen to make informed decisions about how and when to capitalize my business. Right now I'm going to grow in an organic way so I can enjoy life and my family and build my business accordingly. I want to be able to have more control in these early stages, as I’m learning, making mistakes, and honing my market. Leeds helped me to understand what choices I had and how to make informed decisions, which all require various tradeoffs. There are narratives that tell you what you are supposed to do to be successful, but always focusing on fast growth isn’t a path that serves everyone. I feel very empowered by my Leeds education to make the right choices for me and my business. 

CESR: What advice would you give to current and prospective students who want to make a positive impact through business?

HN: Know that your career is going to change and evolve. To be able to roll with that and identify and act on opportunities as they arise, versus preconceived notions about what your path is going to look like, can feel both risky and empowering. I think it leads to a richer career vs. having to fit into a narrow box that many of us feel we have to conform to or can’t deviate from. If you decide to be a parent (particularly if you become a mom), you are going to have to make trade-offs in your career. Those decisions are really personal, need to be what’s right for you, and will evolve as your time availability and energy requirements shift. The key is embracing that reality and not being ashamed of it. 

When we each shine our lights, we give other people permission to do the same. That’s what Syll stands for - Shine Your Light my Love. Entrepreneurship takes courage. It’s surprisingly vulnerable and personal. You have to say, “I’m going to try this even though it’s scary.” When one person does that, and especially when one woman does it, it gives permission to others to do the same. 

The Leeds MBA program offers a plethora of resources for natural products entrepreneurs and others who are passionate about this innovative industry. The Natural and Organic MBA Pathway guides students to careers in this industry through programs that foster inspiration, build professional networks and deepen knowledge about impactful topics like regenerative agriculture.