When Dr. Michelle Welch and Wayne Downes talk about growing up on the island nation of Barbados, you can’t help but be carried away to its sandy beaches.
But sometimes our imagination needs a bit of help, and that’s where their soap brand, Omi & Cookie, comes in.
Omi & Cookie offers luxury soaps with a range of fragrances and rich sea minerals to create a Caribbean experience in the comfort of one’s own bathroom.
But these soaps are more than a fun experience: they are part of a conscious effort to create a “guilt-free luxury” brand that is waterless, toxin-free, and uses recyclable plastic-free packaging. The soaps also avoid the use of phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde precursors and petroleum, while offering an array of amazing scents.
“Our dream is that people can use luxurious body care items: soaps, lotions and beyond without feeling guilty that the products they are using are going to have some negative impact either on their health because of chemicals that are hidden in the label or on the environment,” said Welch, adjunct professor at Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.
Behind that vision is a very personal story.
A couple of years ago, Welch was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which led her to carefully consider everything she and her young family was consuming and using at home. They began “obsessively” reading labels, discovering the variety of scientific jargon being deployed to hide harmful chemicals masquerading as healthy ingredients.
While one might expect this with standard, mass-produced brands, luxury products were also guilty, and many of them demanded premium prices that were – supposedly – tied to the quality of their ingredients and their ethical sourcing.
And it’s not only the ingredients that are hard to pronounce.
Welch and Downes are also targeting substances like palm oil, which for all intents and purposes is a natural by-product but carries major environmental costs for wildlife and their natural habitats.
An experience packaged in a bar of soap
For many people locked indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was an opportunity to try new things. While many picked up bread making or indoor birdwatching, Welch turned her hand to making soap.
Less than two years into their venture, Welch and Downes still make their soap bars at home.
But their soaps weren’t simply a new hobby. For Welch, they became an opportunity to get away and have some personal time in the midst of working as a physician and caring for two young children.
“We couldn’t go anywhere and my only escape would be 10 minutes maybe in the shower. So I decided if all I have is that 10 minutes, I’m gonna make it count! I wanted to have an escape. I wanted that bath to feel like I was transported to the Caribbean,” she said.
Growing up in Barbados, many of the traditions around self-care and healing are centred around the sea; not merely as a leisure activity but as a form of natural remedy, said Welch.
“If you had a cold, a rash, minor wound or muscle strain, you would go and have a sea bath and you are able to clear your sinuses, soothe and heal your skin, and relax aching muscles,” said Downes.
Omi & Cookie’s sea soaps have been at the centre of the brand. They last longer than conventional soaps and produce a specific kind of lather, which Welch describes almost like seafoam.
“It’s really tight bubbles that feel foamy and kind of cushion your skin… between that and the scent, and the fact that they exfoliate without being abrasive, it just feels like a multi-sensory experience,” said Welch.
Currently, they carry five types of bars, ranging from their popular ‘After Dark’ detox and deep clean to the fragrant ‘Fete’ nourish and cleanse bar. They also have an unscented bar, ‘Limestone’.
“All of the ingredients used in our soap are edible, except for the lye because you would never eat that, but you can’t make soap without lye,” said Welch.
Brand as a mirror
In the fall of 2023, Welch and Downes were accepted into the Western Accelerator at Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship powered by Ivey, joining a community of like-minded entrepreneurs who are all rowing in the same direction.
“There is so much knowledge in that room,” said Welch.
One of the major learnings that has really impacted the way both of them look at their business is the connection between their brand and themselves; the brand is a reflection of who they are.
“Identifying as a brand helps, I think personally, in identifying who a person really is, and what they stand for. And if you understand that, it helps build the business,” said Downes.
“How can I put a product up there that’s supposed to be part of me and have people understand it if I don’t understand who I am? So there is a disconnect. So I think we need to know ourselves first,” he said.
Welch and Downes have already committed to supporting the local Alzheimer’s Society as well as mental health organizations in Barbados through Omi & Cookie. They’ve built specific goals but hope to exceed them.
Over the next year, they are looking to move production to a larger facility, which will allow them to get into more boutique stores, and improve brand awareness. There is also room to expand to lotions, deodorants, and other product lines.
With two kids under five, starting a company has been anything but easy, but the two have relied on each other’s unique strengths, and share the load inside the home and inside the business.
When facing challenges, Welch’s medical background allows her to go in-depth, while Downes draws on his more straightforward and analytical approach to plot their way to a solution.
Starting a luxury soap brand during a global pandemic wasn’t part of the plan, but through Omi & Cookie, they have discovered something that Welch notes has “really fed her spirit.”
“If you are going to do something meaningful, you want to have some deeper connection with it. Because there are going to be challenges. And when those challenges come, having that deeper connection will allow you to find the joy in the process,” she said.
To mark Global Entrepreneurship Week, the Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship powered by Ivey is hosting events across campus from Nov. 20 to 24. Learn more and register for events online.