Career Profiles

Startup 101: How Two Cofounders Created a Brand from Scratch


Meet Mia and Laura, the two wicked smart women behind Oars + Alps, a hydrating skincare line packed with potent yet natural ingredients created just for men. The pair met on a junk boat in Hong Kong and the rest is history. Their combined resumes and extensive experience working with numbers and big brands made for a business dream team; they each bring something different to the table and value each other immensely. Their work history and skillsets are just the tip of the iceberg, these women know to have fun and are always up for a new adventure.

Read on to see how their husbands inspired the idea, how they selected ingredients, and branded their own company.


Name: Mia Saini Duchnowski, Co-Founder & CEO, Oars + Alps
Age: 33
Location: Chicago, IL
Education: Two degrees from MIT; MBA from Harvard Business School

Name: Laura Lisowski Cox, Co-Founder & CMO, Oars + Alps
Age: 34
Location: Chicago, IL
Education: Master of Science in Finance from Brandeis University International Business School


What was your first job out of college, and how did you land that position?


Mia: I worked at Goldman Sachs on the trading floor as a hedge fund salesperson. It was an exhilarating environment where I was able to help some of the smartest money managers in the world.

Laura: I worked at Digitas on their strategy and analytics team advising Fortune 100 companies, such as American Express, on their online marketing. We helped these brands think about how to best reach, convert, and retain customers online.


Your career paths and backgrounds are so different. How did you two meet and how did Oars + Alps become a reality?


We met in the summer of 2011 on a junk boat in Hong Kong. A junk boat is a big party boat that expats rent out to cruise around the islands while partying away the day. We instantly hit it off over a mutual love for numbers. In fact, we both can’t recall our first conversation, but it had to be about how misleading statistics can be.

Mia moved to Hong Kong after Harvard Business School and became a newly based foreign correspondent with Bloomberg TV — in that capacity she traveled all over Asia to report on the biggest economic, social, and political stories impacting the Asia Pacific region.

Laura was working as the director of consulting at Ogilvy One, helping brands like Louis Vuitton expand their digital footprint in Asia. Her projects brought her to various countries and required her to understand the economics and social movements of each country and their impact on brand and self-identify, and thus sales.



What was the most unexpected challenge of founding your own business?


Forecasting demand. You can put all the numbers into the model and plan for the best and worst case scenarios, but when demand is through the roof and you sell out really quickly, it can be frustrating to consumers when you tell them you are sold out.


Your husbands’ need for grooming products and the lack of options led to the conception of Oars + Alps. How else did they influence the brand?


They are totally our muses. They are always game to test and try new products. And they are very involved in the business, too. Mia’s husband is a strategy consultant, so he’s helped shape the vision of the company’s long term goals. Laura’s husband is a finance guy and has been great with helping us during our fundraising.


Man or woman, we’re all for natural products. How did you decide which ingredients to incorporate and can you tell us about using Alpine Caribou Moss?


We worked with leading chemists to come up with the ingredients in our products. It was really important to us that our products are made with natural ingredients. We discovered Alpine Caribou Moss in our travels. We source Alpine Caribou Moss, a lichen native to the Arctic tundra, where it thrives amid nature’s harshest elements. Alpine Caribou Moss helps improve skin’s elasticity and contains powerful antioxidants that help fight UV radiation and guard against environmental pollution. You’ll find it in every one of our products.



There’s a lot that goes into product development (package design, ingredients, marketing), or at least we imagine it to be an overwhelming list! Can you clue us in on how your tackled process?


Oh my, there is so much to do. We do extensive focus groups to determine the products that guys want and to get a sense of how they use the products. We then start looking into the best ingredients to achieve the goal they want. From there, we work with our chemists to create the best formulations. We send those to thousands of guys to test, we iterate. The same goes for packaging — we want to make it super easy for guys to use. We are the first men’s grooming brand to have a solid face wash. That packaging design was based on extensive research and focus groups.


Laura, you’ve worked with other big brands like Apple and GoPro to hone their brand. How did the brand strategy process change when it was your own company?


Building a brand when it is your own company is so different. You truly think five years, even 10, out. When you work on brands that have years of history, the brand planning process is much more inward looking, thinking about the history of the brand and how that applies to the modern age and current audience.


You’ve launched the e-commerce site with a face wash, eye cream, and deodorant. Do you have plans for expanding the line?


Absolutely! Oars + Alps is heavily focused on creating ultra-hydrating products that protect the active guy. We’ve partnered with leading chemists to formulate highly effective skincare for your on-the-go life. We’re about to launch some cool skin products to hydrate your entire body, so stay tuned!


NASA, Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg TV. Mia, you’ve had a variety of impressive jobs. What’s your biggest piece of advice for someone navigating their own career and juggling multiple interests?


Don’t be too bogged down on how a certain job will translate into future skills down the road! Just focus on what you are passionate about and most interested in in the beginning.



Your backgrounds were a match made in heaven. How do you support each other as business partners?


We have very different personalities yet are really understanding and supportive of one another. We are constantly providing helpful feedback to each other. We also really respect one another because we bring such different skills and viewpoints to the table that we know we wouldn’t be able to succeed without one another.


What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?


Mia: Stop planning every single year of your life ‘til you are 30!

Laura: Stop working so hard, and go out more. Meet people. It’s the relationships that really teach you new life lessons and open doors.



Mia and Laura are The Everygirl…

Yoga or cycling?

Mia: Both!
Laura: Having been born in Holland, definitely cycling!


Favorite women’s skincare line?

Mia: I’m a huge fan of Aromatherapy Associates.
Laura: I like creating my own mix of moisturizers through various natural oils. For makeup, definitely Tarte.


Morning routine?

Mia: Wash face with Aromatherapy Associates Rose Cleanser. Tone with natural rose water because it’s so hydrating and not harsh. I massage on my Dior BB cream, then my Chanel bronzer, curl my lashes and swipe on some mascara and Bite’s Agave Lip Mask and go — all under five minutes. I used to be a TV anchor and had a way more complex beauty routine than that. These days, simplicity is my jam.
Laura: I also wash my face with Aromatherapy Associates Rose Cleanser (thanks, Mia), then apply sweet almond oil. I love applying makeup with brushes so I have a ton of brushes. I start with Tarte foundation, then Benefit blush, Benefit mascara and throw my hair in a ponytail. When I have a few extra minutes, I’ll apply some bronzer, highlighter, and actually wear my hair down (LOL).


Favorite way to decompress?

Mia: Baths with salts. I actually never shower. I prefer to always sit and bathe.
Laura: Yoga or organizing — ha!


If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?

Mia: My answer hasn’t changed since I was 14: Oprah!
Laura: Having worked at Facebook, most definitely Sheryl Sandberg. She is a rock to that organization and has really created an amazing culture.