DAYTON, Ohio — In her small office in her mother’s home, Keta Burke-Williams spends any free time she can find packing boxes, printing labels and conferencing in her business partner from New York.
That’s when Kaja Burke-Williams gives her the latest news from their manufacturer in the Bronx and their retail distributers.
As of this summer, Aspen Apothecary and its sister-founders have a year of business under their belts, building up a market for fragrances made of clean, natural ingredients that remind them of their family’s stories.
Like many families, the Burke-Williamses were at a crossroads in March 2020. Keta was in her final semester at business school when things suddenly shifted online. Kaja was working as a performer in New York when the curtains closed indefinitely.
Keta said that’s when they both felt a pull to come back to Dayton and be with their mother.
“I think just the opportunity to be all together,” she said. “We hadn’t had that opportunity except for holidays.”
When they arrive, mom Trish Burke-Williams greeted them with hugs and a familiar story. Only this time, it struck a new chord for the sisters.
“My mom was a backup singer in France and she was on tour in Tunisia,” Keta said, reciting the tale. “She decides to go for a walk alone one evening and she stumbles across this garden and she smells something incredible and she didn’t know what it was.”
Their mother told them that scent stuck with her for years, holding a special place in her memory.
“The feeling of other worldliness just stepping into something,” Trish said. “The whole idea that scent can put you somewhere else.”
The sisters said it was in the back of their minds too when they started another discussion about the beauty products they use.
“I’m someone who’s really tried to make the swap to clean beauty, I really care about what I put in my body,” Kaja said. “And it was kind of embarrassing. I’ve been wearing the same two perfumes for ages.”
That’s when she realized they were the only part of her beauty regimen that didn’t exclusively contain natural ingredients. Then Kaja started doing a little more research and learned there weren’t a lot of options for all-natural perfumes.
“And then the people who were making the perfumes weren’t people who looked like us,” she said.
Then the idea started to form.
“We saw that there should be something out there but we weren’t sure that we should be the people to do it,” Keta said.
As she finished her business classes though, Keta said the idea began to appeal more and more.
“What we learned is that entrepreneurs don’t only come in one shape or form,” she said. “You need to have grit, and you need to be scrappy, and you need to persevere, and we’re like, ‘oh, we have those things. Why shouldn’t we be entrepreneurs?'”
The pair started researching in earnest, looking for any scent sample they could find and a perfume lab that would bring their fragrance to life.
“We kind of had like good noses for what would really work together,” Keta said.
They launched Aspen Apothecary in June, featuring all-natural perfumes, incorporating CBD oil and writing a story for every scent, keeping family at the center of the business. Their launch date commemorated their father’s passing, ensuring their first fragrance paid homage to their mother’s story, incorporating her mystery scent: Jasmine.
“She inspired the whole thing,” Keta said.
Since the launch, Kaja moved back to New York to help oversee operations from their manufacturer and build their market in the city, while Keta handles online sales and business communications from Dayton.
“Although it did start in our bedroom, we were sharing for a while when we were home, it really has grown,” Kaja said.
Most of their orders come from online stores, but in the past few months, the sisters said the scent’s spread enough to attract a few wholesale partners.
“It’s just been people either hearing about us or reading an article or smelling it like on a friend and emailing us and being like, ‘Oh, I smelled this fragrance and I really want to carry you,” Keta said.
Over the next few months, the sisters plan to switch places. Keta will go to New York to take over the business full-time while Kaja will return to Ohio and head to graduate school at Ohio State, focusing on public health.
By the end of the year, the pair hope to have sellers in New York, Ohio and beyond, and are working to launch new fragrances.