From Finance To Founder and Embracing Failure
From Finance To Founder and Embracing Failure

"We're really science first. I do try to be thoughtful about - does this really work, and is this really clean? Those are the two core questions that we ask with everything we do." 

- Kori Estrada

Elizabeth is joined by Kori Estrada, Co-Founder of the natural oral care company RiseWell. In their conversation, Kori first talks about her background in finance, and how that influenced her mindset as a founder in RiseWell’s desire to maintain control of their own decisions and destiny. Kori needed to make sure that RiseWell’s products were safe, effective, and completely science-backed so that all dentists, including her brother, could feel confident recommending it to their patients. She explains what hydroxyapatite is and why it’s a safer alternative to fluoride, some of the less than ideal ingredients in current toothpastes on the market, and why it’s time to disrupt the $5 billion oral care industry with a new twist on oral health.

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    Elizabeth Stein 00:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder, and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. And this is Live Purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey.

    This week's guest is Kori Estrada, co-founder of RiseWell, an all-natural, sustainable brand that is disrupting the oral care industry with safe ingredients and transparency. Driven by personal experience with celiac disease and the IVF process, Kori’s dedication to overall health and wellness led her to create dentists-formulated products that are free from harmful chemicals like fluoride, sulfates, and synthetic additives. In this episode, we discuss the controversy surrounding fluoride and how Kori discovered the power of hydroxy apatite during research in Japan, which has become the star alternative ingredient for RiseWell products. We also discuss what ingredients to avoid in that only toothpaste but also floss. Kori shares how her experience in finance has helped to shape the business and her vision for transforming the oral care industry. Finally, we talked about her personal experiences as a mother, founder, and investor and her strategies for balancing all those roles. Keep listening to learn all about Kori and RiseWell. And if you want to try her products, you can use code LIVEPURELY10 at Enjoy.

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    Kori, welcome to the podcast. It's such a pleasure to have you on today and to hear your story.

    Kori Estrada 02:22
    Thank you so much for having me. And I'm excited for our conversation.

    Elizabeth Stein 02:25
    So we'd love to start with your journey. And certainly, you haven't always been doing RiseWell. So that's to go through what you were doing in your career before launching the brand.

    Kori Estrada 02:37
    I went to college in New York City, and my parents sent me to college with very little money. And it was about a $ 20-a-week allowance, which doesn't get you very far. So quickly started doing all sorts of different jobs. I was able to get an internship at an investment firm and realized there that I loved finance dissecting companies and understanding different sectors. That's why I did that internship. And I knew that that's the path that I wanted to go on. And they recommended doing investment banking before going back to a hedge fund. So, I did that after college for two years, right during the financial crisis. Perfect timing, but I kept my job. So that was a good thing. And it was extremely informative because I entered right as things were still really good. And then obviously, the world took a turn for the worse from a macro perspective. So I got to see both sides, which was helpful from a career perspective. Then two years later, went to work at a hedge fund, and left that one. I'm still at the second hedge fund that I worked at called Axon Capital. So most of my career has been as an investor and I invest across sectors and geographies and also all different asset classes. That's really where my experience lies. So starting a toothpaste company wasn't necessarily something I would have predicted back in college.

    Elizabeth Stein 04:08
    Yeah, absolutely. What has been one of your favorite things about the financial career that you've had before getting into RiseWell?

    Kori Estrada 04:17
    It's the people that you work with. I think for me, I love it's a very meritocratic environment. If you're smart and do well, you get rewarded, there's not a long corporate ladder to climb up. And that's not something that I was interested in. And also, honestly, from an intellectual perspective, it's really fun to have a scoreboard every single day, I know how I'm doing. There's no, you have to wait until your end. It's like there's Monday through Friday when the stock market is open. I can tell you if I'm in a good mood or a bad mood, depending on how my companies are doing. That actually can be mostly fun, but obviously can be challenging as well. But I've always been somebody that looks forward to challenges so I think it's a good thing. But there's never not a learning moment in finance. We're always being challenged in different ways and learning about new companies and sectors that are new. And we're just actually looking at a cement business recently. That wasn't something that I had looked at before. It's always learning, learning, learning, which I think is great. Part of what gave me the confidence back when we did start our company eventually, having looked at so many different management teams and different types of companies, when you have that broad perspective, it's beneficial.

    Elizabeth Stein 05:35
    Absolutely. So what was then the impetus? You're certainly looking at all sorts of brands and companies and sectors of the market. Where did the idea for RiseWell evolve?

    Kori Estrada 05:48
    It must have been 2017 or 18. My husband at the time, John, and I were going through IVF. And we were starting to think about everything a bit more holistically. We wanted to make it a success, as many people do. It's not something that's inexpensive to go through that process or it's certainly emotionally trying as well. And our doctor sat us down fairly early in the process. And this was a more progressive doctor because I don't think many doctors are giving this advice during the IVF process. But I said, “What can we do to make this a success?” And he said, “Obviously, following all the rules that I outlined, and the right medications.” And there were some supplements that I was taking, as well, and, and he had some recommendations on the food side, but also said, “Be careful with the products that you're using.” So we went home that night. And I think I turned the entire bathroom upside down. I found this great app where you could scan every product that you have, and it tells you if it's good or bad, meaning whether or not there are ingredients that one should be concerned with. And 90% of everything I had had some yellow or red flag. So, I tossed all of that. I was able to find replacements for most of the items that I threw out whether it be makeup shampoo or body wash, there were lots of great alternatives. But the one product we couldn't find a great replacement for was toothpaste, which seems like that's not possible, because you have lots of natural companies that have been around for a long time. But the added wrinkle is that my brother happens to be a dentist, he's an orthodontist in Florida. And I was looking for his advice. I said, “What's a good natural toothpaste brand that we should use?” And he said that we might as well just brush with water because there are no effective ingredients in natural toothpaste. because essentially, they take out the fluoride and they take out some of the more harmful other ingredients. In some cases, natural companies still leave them in. But that's another question, I'm sure. They don't replace the fluoride with anything that protects your enamel. So that was the lightbulb moment for us where we asked how we create something that my brother the dentist could get behind, but it's also safe enough to eat. Because the other realization we had in this process is that your gums are actually like sponges. And so most people think that, “Well, I'm not swallowing toothpaste, I'm spitting it out. So I don't need to be worried about what ingredients are in my toothpaste.” But the truth is that because your gums are sponges, even though you're spitting your toothpaste out, there's some percentage of your product two times a day that's getting into your body. For instance, sublingual medications are something that many people have to take. You put it under your tongue, it's one of the fastest ways into your bloodstream. So it does matter what's in your toothpaste. And we treat our products like food as one should, I believe. But that was also really important for us. So those are the two problems that we set out to solve, which was how can we create a product that's natural and works? And number two, treat our ingredients to be safe enough as food.

    Elizabeth Stein 09:02
    That's a great founder inspiration story, and seen that hole in the market. So curious about you with your background. Have you ever thought, hey, I want to start a brand or that was never in the back of your mind? And you were happy in the path that you're going?

    Kori Estrada 09:19
    Yeah, that's a great question. I think that when I went into finance after graduating from Columbia, my dad had been in the textile industry for a very long time. And he was really happy that I had this great job and I was going to be self-sufficient. So that was all good. But I remember him noting that there might be a lack of fulfillment at some point because I didn't have something tangible to hold in my hands. And I don't, even to this day, still 100% agree with that because I think there are other ways of finding satisfaction from one's career but I think that there is some truth to that that you didn't grow a company where we have products that I now use every single day and other people are using And there is an element to that, that I would never have received from my career in finance. I had that in the back of my mind. It was lurking, like, I wanted to start my own thing at some point. I think John, as well, he was the same thought processes, both of his parents were doctors, and I think he always had dreams of having a business of his own as well, he has a finance background as well. So I think both of us had that in the back of our minds, but we weren't sure what that thing would be.

    Elizabeth Stein 10:31
    So putting your investor hat on, which is certainly different than like a lot of founders starting up, what was the path from this idea in your bathroom to launching the brand? Did you have a business plan? Because you knew so much of here's how things should be where I think most entrepreneurs don't, which could be good or bad. So we'd love to hear the path that happened from there to launch.

    Kori Estrada 10:55
    So a lot of consumer companies and not all are marketing companies at their core. And that can be a great thing. There are many valuable companies from a market cap perspective. Estée Lauder is a great example. Do they have differentiated products, maybe you could argue some have a little bit different products. But at the end of the day, it's a red lipstick, or it's a lotion, and there's not big differences, that they're amazing marketers, and both John and I knew that that was not our expertise. We would have to hire obviously, other people. And we have a great marketing team now, and they're amazing. But the two of us knew that we weren't going to win just on being the prettiest toothpaste. So, we wanted to make sure that we could solve those two big problems that I noted before, which was finding an effective replacement for fluoride, again, something that was safe enough to eat, and clean ingredients, so that if we had a child that ate a whole tube of toothpaste, we didn't have to call poison control. So if we couldn't meet those two requirements, we weren't going to start a company. So that was the first mission. The second part of it was if we were able to solve those problems, then how do we go about designing this company? And I think that's where a lot of our experience in the finance side and looking at companies for many, many years came in handy. And frankly, even being able to take a step back. I've looked at the publicly traded companies that happened to also sell toothpaste, I don't need to mention any names. But there is publicly available information. So you can look at their financials and they have earnings calls. And you can go through all of that. And it was very interesting to us, as investors to see that this was a sector. So the toothpaste market, it's about $5 billion in the US. So it's a pretty big market. And it's essentially 90-something percent owned by two companies which is incredible. There are not many other examples in consumer where you have that consolidation. And that's not a new dynamic. These are companies that have had that market share for a very, very long time and market share like that outside of the US as well. So that to me, while can be intimidating to some was a really exciting opportunity, because it felt like when you have two players that own 90-something percent of the market, they have a lot to lose by changing or innovating. And we didn't. We're a small company where we can take more risks and do things differently. But effectively, the big companies that own the market haven't changed things since the 1950s. So it was really interesting for us to say like, well, now we can actually do something that the market hasn't seen before, and solving those two issues of effective, but also clean. So that was the first part of starting the business, is solving that. And the second piece was also finding people to fill in the holes where we didn't have experience. We weren't consumer people by background, I've invested in consumer companies for a long time. But that's very different than starting a brand. So hiring a great marketing team and also a great chemist to meet the requirements that we had in mind. And we frankly, outsourced a lot of that in the beginning. And we still have a very small lean team now. Another thing that was helpful with a finance background is that we started the company with the mindset of an investor, meaning that we didn't want to be dependent on outside capital. That was super important to us because we knew that would potentially lead to bad decisions in terms of what's right for the consumer and the best product. And we didn't want to have to be beholden to anybody. So we had to design the company with that in mind, knowing that we weren't going to have to do all of these capital raises and being flush with cash and thinking in an unprofitable way. We knew we needed to get profitable very quickly. So that's always been something that's in our DNA. So there's a lot of parts to it. But recognizing that we didn't know everything, and being able to find people that did was also an extremely important thing to do quickly.

    Elizabeth Stein 15:08
    I think that's important for people to hear, especially people who don't have any experience, feel that paralyzed, perhaps, and then even to hear someone like you who had experience in the investing world and seeing all these other CPG brands. And yet, you're still saying, hey, I know my faults, I don't know everything. And so I need help with this. The other key point, I think, for anyone who is listening and starting a brand is certainly in this day and age right now, where profitability is so important, starting a brand, and being able to be the master of your destiny as much as you can, as you're talking about not bringing outside capital. So anything further that you want to talk about, as it relates to where the world is today, and starting a brand in this economic place that we are?

    Kori Estrada 15:54
    Yeah, it's interesting, because I think this profitability question when we were first tinkering with the idea in 2017, it was not in fashion to even use the word profit, like that was not something that was discussed. And this was a few years after the big success stories of like, the ways and native and there was a few case studies that everybody was following. These companies that were first to market on the direct-to-consumer side figured out Instagram and how to monetize that and get consumers cheaply. It didn't peak until probably 2019. But still, at that point by 2017, everybody was using the same playbook. And it was raising as much money as possible, dumping as much money into the market to grow revenue as quickly as possible. And that's all frankly venture capital cared about, too, their discussions around profit didn't happen until much later on, maybe when IPOs were being considered. But I think we certainly were lucky in having some foresight there. But frankly, I don't think that what the market was doing would have changed the way that we thought about the importance of profitability, because we wanted to control our destiny, in terms of how we designed the products and how fast we wanted to grow the business as well. After all, that's something too that there are always trade-offs. A lot of fast revenue growth can be great. But if it comes at the expense of sloppiness, or working capital issues, or cash constraints, that can have negatives as well, or the ability to change products quickly, if you're left with a huge amount of inventory because you thought you're growing at a certain pace, there can be risks as well. So I think that's something that founders just need to be clear with themselves on what their goals are. And for us, the goal was to create a great product. It wasn't to sell the business in a certain number of years or to raise another round at a higher valuation. We didn't have to worry about that. And we didn't want to worry about that. We wanted to focus on executing the business. So I think it's a personal decision for us, focusing on profitability, I still think was the right decision. I think now, the market is probably on that side very strongly. But there are a lot of examples of consumer companies that are still primarily focused on top-line growth. And it's hard to find a lot of direct consumer businesses that are super profitable frankly. I think the market has changed too. And when native launched many years ago, they were acquiring customers for 50 cents. And today, most consumers, probably know the multiples better than I do. But I think that people are spending anywhere from $30 to $70 for customer acquisition costs, which means depending on your basket size, and for us, we're selling toothpaste. We can't spend $60 to acquire a customer that just wouldn't make sense. These are all new things that I think people are learning and recognizing and having to adapt to. And also think more omni channel as opposed to just purely direct to consumer as well.

    Elizabeth Stein 19:08
    Yeah, those are all such great tips. And overall to me, it's that ability to be able to control your destiny, I think, in whatever it is in life and have the maximum amount of flexibility and option nowadays that is so critical. That's happened to some of those key ingredients, and that path to finding what was an effective replacement for fluoride. Maybe just give us a quick background reminder of what is fluoride? Why are we looking for an alternative?

    Kori Estrada 19:40
    So the latter question is a controversial one. I try to be as objective about this as possible. Because I think another big part of our company that we knew was solidly in our DNA is following the science. And I think shockingly, that's very differentiated versus many natural come. They focused on what is perceived to be the most natural first as opposed to actually working and being effective. And we believe that you can do both. But sometimes they can be different skill sets. With fluoride, it does work. And how it works is it essentially hardens the enamel you have. So it can't add extra enamel if you're missing enamel, but it can pardon it. And that can help as it relates to cavity prevention. So that was the quick thinking on it. I should note though, that it's only effective when applied topically. So when it's in water, it doesn't affect your teeth. That's maybe known to some but not to others. The controversy with fluoride, it's essentially a fertilizer byproduct. In the fertilizing process, fluoride comes out in the process. And at one point in time, it used to leach into the ground and it was causing issues, was even going as far as killing animals nearby, in some of these factories. EPA got involved and said that they needed to properly dispose of the fluoride. It was a great idea in the 50s to put into place because they found, as I mentioned earlier, which it did, it was helpful when applied topically to cavity prevention. People also thought it might help with water supplies. But that's since been disproven. That was really how this all got started. The issue with it is that it is toxic at not even that high doses, the recommended levels, many of us are surpassing that, especially in your water supply. So if you're drinking lots of water, and also using fluoride in your toothpaste, you're likely consuming too much of it. Many people, if you've ever seen people with white spots on their teeth, that's fluorosis. So that's caused by too much fluoride consumption either in utero or when they were a child that causes that. If you get even higher fluoride exposure, it can lead to more lead to more serious issues like bone structural issues. Then obviously very high doses can be poisonous, which is why there's a poison control warning on the back of toothpaste. That's why there's controversy. There have also been some studies that have shown populations that have fluoride in their drinking water, have lower IQs. For a whole host of reasons, none of those that I mentioned sound very fun, if one can avoid it, my view is that I would like to avoid it. If you have serious dental issues, and it was your only option, then you might want to use it topically maybe not drinking in water. But the great news, leads to your first question, which is how did we find a natural alternative? John and I were traveling in Japan, we were over there for work. And everywhere we went at this moment in time, we were researching how other countries are doing oral care and how other companies are. We were perusing the aisles in a Japanese pharmacy, which is very difficult because it's all in Japanese. And I don't speak Japanese. But there's a translator app on your phone. So, we're doing that. We saw that there was this ingredient that kept popping up, which was hydroxyapatite, which doesn't sound all that natural, but it's 97% of what makes up your teeth enamel at 70% of your bones is made of Hydroxyapatite. We sometimes call it HA for short just to be easier. And the cool story about hydroxyapatite is that in the 70s, NASA realized that astronauts were coming back and their enamel was weakening from being in space. They asked a very logical question, which was, how do I manufacture more of this hydroxyapatite with what makes up your teeth enamel to help these astronauts who are coming back with weakening enamel? So in the 70s, NASA figured out how to chemically manufacture Hydroxyapatite. Very quickly after that point, the Japanese said we're putting this in our toothpaste and so they did. They've been using it since the 70s which is pretty neat. So we have data for over a 50-year point that shows it works just as well or better than fluoride with zero safety issues, which was the big important point. As I mentioned, hydroxyapatite is abundant in your body. So you could consume big piles of it and nothing would happen that's bad. There are no neurotoxin effects like there are with fluoride. And you might ask, well, why don't all the other companies use it, which is a very logical question. When you are a fertilizer byproduct, you would want to give it away practically for free because you have to find a way to dispose of it. So it's very, very inexpensive and probably why it's in our water too, but that's just speculation. And with hydroxyapatite, ours comes from mine in France. We also use the synthetic version as well in our pro line of toothpaste, which I can get into later. It's more expensive. So when you're manufacturing a very, very inexpensive tube of toothpaste, the price of every ingredient matters. For us, we were trying to solve the problem first, which is we need a natural alternative to fluoride, that and also super clean, and we're willing to pay more for that. And so, we do. So that's the reason it's not more widely used, but you can find it in Europe. They use hydroxyapatite instead of fluoride, obviously, in Japan, most of the market is there. And some many more countries and companies are picking up on it, which is great. So we hope that over the next 5 to 10 years, we're all using hydroxyapatite instead of fluoride.

    Elizabeth Stein 25:48
    Amazing. So in Europe, is that the majority of now of what they're using there?

    Kori Estrada 25:54
    It depends on the country. In Germany, it is. There's a company there that about 10 years ago brought it to the market. So it's slowly creeping its way in. And I think Europe tends to be ahead of the curve for these sorts of things versus the US. Interestingly, the one challenge that we and any other company have in the US with hydroxyapatite is we can't make FDA claims for anticavity. So far only fluoride can put that label on toothpaste. But in every country outside of the US, because we have so much data, there's been an immense amount of clinical studies done testing it head to head versus fluoride, and showing its efficacy, every other country allows you to make anticavity claims. So we can just look outside of the US to know that this is an anticavity ingredient.

    Elizabeth Stein 26:48
    So how do we get the FDA to be able to allow you to say that?

    Kori Estrada 26:51
    Great question. Unfortunately, it involves spending about $30 to $40 billion on clinical trials after which you'd have no proprietary ownership. I don't know who would step up to the plate to do that. Because it's not as if you'd be owning anything special at the end. For us, it's about pointing people to everywhere else in the world that supports all of the many hundreds and 1000s of studies that have been conducted on this.

    Elizabeth Stein 27:19
    Yeah. Maybe eventually one of those big toothpaste companies when eventually consumers stop buying their product, and they realize like they have no other choice, we'll have to do that work.

    Kori Estrada 27:32
    Yes, that would be the hope.

    Elizabeth Stein 27:34
    So in addition to fluoride, are there any other key ingredients that are in most toothpastes that consumers should look out for and that you guys are doing differently?

    Kori Estrada 27:42
    Yeah, if there's anything in toothpaste that isn't food or edible, I think that's the bar for us at least. I think some people are probably less intense than us. And that's fine. But some of the big culprits for anyone to avoid are foaming agents. Essentially, those are detergents. And I think a lot of people have heard of SLS, sodium lauryl sulfate. Unfortunately, a lot of the natural toothpaste brands are actually, they're not as strict with themselves just about how clean they want to be. And so they've come up with SLS alternatives, that funny enough have still SLS as the acronym, but they're not sodium lauryl sulfate, which is the main one. It's like sodium coco… it's essentially the same thing. If it foams, it's a detergent, which is too harsh for your gums, because your gums are very gentle. It can cause anything from dermatitis to sloughing in the mouth. It can create a host of issues that you would want to avoid if you can. And then there are really big culprits like triclosan, which is a less known one, but the crazy story about triclosan is that it's an antibacterial agent, so it helps to kill potential germs that might cause things like gingivitis. So it sounds like he has a great reason for being in toothpaste. The FDA, many years ago, probably seven or so, banned triclosan in hand soap. Because they found that it was causing cancer in lab rats. And it's still in toothpaste. So that's an interesting one. Your skin is a decent barrier. So the fact that it would be something in hand soap would be banned, but not in a sponge-like environment in your mouth. I still haven't been able to recognize that and then there are other less bad ones. But things like propylene glycol, it's

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