February 15, 2007
Mud’s a dirty business but entrepreneur digs it
Rafting down the Copper River in August 2001, Lauren Padawer and her group neared the mouth where glacial waters flow into the Gulf of Alaska. They stopped, and stepped out onto the muddy bear-tracked delta. High water some weeks before had produced small clear pools, which had been warmed by the sun, creating a perfect natural mud bath.
Surrounded by such beauty, Padawer dipped in the pool and covered herself in the mineral-rich soil, as many visitors had done before her. She felt this moment deeply.
"I just thought, you can't really pay money for this, at least this experience," Padawer said.
The notion that "someone should bottle this stuff" was one that others had floated for many years. But as an environmentalist who had made Cordova, Alaska, her home, Padawer couldn't shake the feeling that she ought to be the one to take on the project.
That the mud is a sustainable resource -- the river deposits millions of tons per year -- further compelled her.
In spring 2004, Padawer began dedicating time to research. By February 2006, she registered Alaska Glacial Mud Co. as a limited liability company located in Cordova. Her first product, the Glacial Facial Purifying Mineral Mud Masque, is set to hit local store shelves this month and will be available for purchase through the company's Web site. She also plans to develop a larger product line incorporating glacial mud, which will roll out over the next two years.
Born and raised in St. Louis, 28-year-old Padawer grew up in a middle-class Jewish family. She became increasingly active in environmental issues during her college years at Washington University, where she studied biology and art.
Rooted in her activism were the values of tikkun olam, or healing the world, which after college carried Padawer into work on a political campaign in Anchorage, Alaska, followed by a yearlong fellowship program with the Jewish Organizing Initiative in Boston, living and working together with other Jewish fellows on social justice issues of all kinds. Padawer also became involved in the Jewish environmental organization, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and a group called the Tikkun Gathering.
"I was really making an effort to be part of a Jewish community that was dedicated to activism," Padawer said.
But when the year was up, she followed a job opportunity back to Alaska, where she worked as a grant writer and program coordinator for a nonprofit dedicated to wilderness and native Eyak culture. It was around that time Padawer made the rafting trip down the Copper River. The sum of her experiences in Cordova and her passion for wilderness preservation inspired her to stay.
She immersed herself in the community "so that I could call it my experience," she said. When her work with the Eyak Preservation Council ended, Padawer worked as a salmon biologist and also took jobs fishing for salmon, as well as hanging and fixing fishing nets.
"I spent the last five years integrating myself and cultivating relationships and developing a relationship with the land and the place," she said. All the while, her business concept was steeping.
Padawer said that mud became a way to create a sustainable business and add to the local economy. "It was something that was in line with all the experiences that added up for me to that point," she said.
Early financing came directly from the businesswoman herself, as well as a family loan. But the real kick-start came from the community in which she had invested: Padawer won a competitive rural entrepreneurial grant from an organization called Alaska Marketplace.
Donations of time and resources also came from a variety of people. Major contributors include Padawer's two sisters -- one is a lawyer, the other works in public relations -- as well as her best friend, a graphic designer who worked in cosmetic packaging design for five years at Estée Lauder. There's also a friend who donates his truck, so the young entrepreneur can be more efficient in hauling the mud she harvests by hand from the Copper River.
Indeed, Padawer has been getting her hands dirty in all aspects of the business. As the company's sole paid employee, she is involved in everything from collecting the mud and processing it to cleaning the shop, answering the phone and e-mails, developing the markets, packaging the mud and working with the formulator.
The final product features more than 50 percent glacial mud, which naturally contains more than 60 major and trace elements associated with skin-cell regeneration. It is also enriched with organic botanical extracts from the Pacific Northwest, including elderflower, yarrow and anti-oxidant-rich ingredients like cranberry and Vitamin E.
While there are companies in Canada, New Zealand and Iceland marketing similar glacial mud products, Padawer noted that hers is the first Alaskan company "to source it, process it in any quantity and manufacture a product with it." That final product also claims to be the most mineral-rich and pure mud in the world.
And rather than being an afterthought, protecting the source of the mud -- the Copper River -- might better be described as the inspiration for Padawer's business. Her company will donate 10 percent of profits to land preservation, habitat restoration and environmental education for youth.
"My goal is to be able to support the community I live in and support the organizations that are working to protect the Copper River.... It supports wildlife and a human food resource, and it's something that I want to see preserved for generations into the future," Padawer said.
And while global climate change might seem to be a business concern for Padawer, it is not. Accumulating from the drainage of numerous glaciers and the Bagley Icefield, the source is so plentiful that "regardless of warming, the supply is abundant," Padawer said.
In various ways, Padawer recognizes she is bridging disparate worlds, namely "this remote wild place and this very urban cosmetic industry," she said. That means traveling to Los Angeles for certain business resources that can't be fulfilled in Alaska, like a cosmetic research lab, a packaging distributor and a contract manufacturer.
Likewise, the Jewish girl from St. Louis doesn't find much Jewish community in Cordova. She estimates there are seven Jews in the Alaskan city. But she holds true to her Jewish values and practices the rituals of Judaism she finds meaningful, such as fasting on Yom Kippur. She also travels to see family for some holidays.