Q+A: Sarah Ribner, PiperWai

Underarms. We shave them, wax them and sometimes we even pluck them. One thing most of us probably don’t do is look after them. Or at least we don’t think about the products we put in this delicate area and the damage they may cause. Ever had an armpit rash from using different deodorants? Yeah, not fun.

Fortunately, PiperWai is a brand that offers a natural deodorant made without any harmful ingredients. Perfect for sensitive skin, their charcoal-based deodorant helps keep the area dry, neutralizes odor naturally and is packed with skin conditioning ingredients. We sat down with Co-founder and CEO, Sarah Ribner to chat about how PiperWai started, being selected by Diane Von Furstenberg for Amazon's In Charge International Women's Day Feature, and what advice she would give to young girls and female entrepreneurs.

Sarah Ribner, Co-founder and CEO of PiperWai
Sarah Ribner, Co-founder and CEO of PiperWai

What is your founding story? How did PiperWai come about and what was the inspiration behind it?

I was similar to a lot of people in that I wanted something better for my body and the planet. I was going through this entire personal journey, overhauling all of my personal-care products and researching what options were out there. As I was doing research, I found out that one of the most controversial care products is deodorant because of the links between certain ingredients and long term illnesses, however, there was also a lot of conflicting studies. As I went through that journey and tried to find a good natural deodorant, I found that there was nothing on the market that worked or was also good for sensitive skin. While I would be at work, which at the time was in finance, halfway through the day I would start to smell which is a super personal and embarrassing experience to go through. So I kind of gave up trying to find a natural deodorant that worked until I started making my own formula with a childhood friend. We started making the deodorant formula in one of our kitchens and found it was working for both of us - originally it was slightly different from the formula we now have.

People don’t often pay attention to their armpits until something goes wrong

After using it for a few weeks and realizing how other people were also searching for something similar, it kind of clicked that this issue is really common and that a lot of people would purchase this product if it was available. So I said, I want to brand the deodorant and turn it into a real company and see if there was a product-market fit.

After deciding to pursue this business, we tweaked the formula and added in the activated charcoal to differentiate PiperWai from anything else on the market. The activated charcoal would help kick up the products' absorbent and odor neutralizing powers. We started the business with a $2000 loan and when we launched we handcrafted every order as it came in. From there, the business kept growing organically through word of mouth, subscription boxes and organic press. The response proved that we could grow our small business. We were also proving people wrong about natural deodorant and its effectiveness. After realizing that, I decided to apply for Shark Tank to help get the word out and turn PiperWai into a mainstream company.

The armpit is such an awkward area of the body. We don’t often look and pay attention to it or the products we are using there. It is great that PiperWai helps people focus on that area!

That is a great point! People don’t often pay attention to their armpits until something goes wrong. We had a customer who found a tumor under his armpit and when he was using our cream as he had never touched his armpit in that way. So by using PiperWai deodorant, you are giving more attention to this area that you would otherwise neglect. Through running this company we have realized that people experience all kinds of illnesses and issues from cysts to tumors and rashes under their armpit which ultimately all comes down to the products we are using.

In 2015 you pitched on Shark Tank! What was that experience like? 

I would say the lead up to it was much more intense than actually being in there with the Sharks. I had never gone on reality TV or dealt with media or press, but for me, I was thinking “I am building a business and I have a niche product, so I need to do, what I have to do, to get the word out” - plus the Shark Tank opportunity made a lot of sense. The months leading up to it were intense because even if you had completed the application and all the paperwork you are not even guaranteed to get in front of the Sharks. It was a huge relief to get in there! However, the whole process was super quick and we were only with the Sharks for around 45 minutes to an hour. 

PiperWai Deodarant
PiperWai Deodarant

For me, if you have a hunch about something you want to build and believe it is something that the world needs and would buy is to continue to follow that hunch instead of letting other people dictate what success looks like

What lessons did you learn from that experience? 

One really big lesson I learned earlier on is to listen to my intuition and gut. I have had all kinds of challenges running my business and it all came down to not listening or trusting my gut. The first early example was when we were preparing to go on Shark Tank. At the time we were still handcrafting each order. We had to get a manufacturer in place to help prepare with the influx of orders we were going to expect from being on Shark Tank. That manufacturer said to me "this is a niche product, are you even going to be running this company in a year?" I still clearly remember this conversation because the manufacturer was questioning us about our work ethic as founders and the product and whether or not the public would even want a product like ours. I knew I was committed and that there was a huge untapped demand for the product. Instead, I just let that feeling go and said to the manufacturer “prepare what you can, I’m not going to fight you on this". After airing on Shark Tank we ended up selling 10x the amount the manufacturer had prepared and had a months-long backorder. That was a very big early lesson in the importance of trusting my gut as a founder and also trusting our product. For me, if you have a hunch about something you want to build and believe it is something that the world needs and would buy, continue to follow that hunch instead of letting other people dictate what success looks like. 

What has been a highlight for you since launching PiperWai?

A really big one was about two weeks ago around the end of February. Diane Von Furstenburg selected PiperWai for the ‘In Charge’ feature for International Women’s Day in partnership with Amazon. We were featured on the Amazon landing page which was a huge moment for us because we have been partners with Amazon for years and since Shark Tank in 2016. To also be hand-selected for the feature by an incredibly powerful woman that has a huge empire and supports activists, politicians, and business owners was a big moment, especially, because of what the movement stands for as well.

As you mentioned, this month is Women’s History Month and Diane Von Furstenburg picked PiperWai for an International Women’s Day Feature! How did you hear about this news and how did this opportunity come about? 

If I see an opportunity I will randomly cold email someone and see what they say. That is how I source a lot of my opportunities. I remember Amazon had sent us an email about their Small Business Awards. I ended up digging around trying to find a contact for that opportunity but was told that were no openings at the time. However, I was forwarded to Amazon’s Press team and started building a relationship with them. Then out of the blue, the Press team came back to us and said: "We submitted your company and you got chosen for this incredible feature that is happening in a few weeks" - and that is how it happened!

Your team is made up of around 80% female! What is the importance of having a team of women working behind the brand? Do you feel that this has contributed to the success of PiperWai? 

Statistics show that diverse teams perform better. I come from a variety of backgrounds and grew up around different cultures. I am a mix of ethnicities and have experienced obstacles that are unique to a female founder. For me, it is important to hire people who are best for the role and I naturally surround myself with different types of people. Being in New York, it is so diverse and it is so easy to tap into a diverse labor pool. The formation of our team happened organically and after recruiting the team I took a step back and realized we are over 80% female and we represent multiple ethnicities and backgrounds which is something that we are very proud of. Likewise, the representation of the team also works well with what we are trying to advertise. That is, PiperWai is a brand with diverse products that are for everyone of all ages, genders, and ethnicities.

When you think of a challenge as a learning opportunity, it just makes it easier and puts you in a growth mindset when you reframe the situation and think ‘this is not a challenge, this is a growth opportunity’

As it is Women’s History Month and as a female entrepreneur, what advice would you give to any young girl who is dreaming of doing something big or any female entrepreneur out there? 

I would say to approach every obstacle as a learning opportunity. I often have a hard time answering the question ‘what are your biggest challenges?’. There are always new obstacles and sometimes they seem insurmountable. I have been in situations where I have thought to myself ‘how am I going to get out of this?’, so when you think of a challenge as a learning opportunity, it makes it easier and puts you in a growth mindset when you reframe the situation and think ‘this is not a challenge, this is a growth opportunity’. So to all the young girls dreaming of becoming an entrepreneur or any female entrepreneur just starting, approach all of these experiences as if you were a student constantly learning and think about what you can get out of any challenge and do better next time.

You recently moved to Dumbo in September 2019! What brought you to Dumbo? 

For years, I have been admiring Dumbo from afar. I used to live in Chelsea and would actively hang out in Dumbo almost every week. Foragers Market is one of my favorite places and when Dumbo House opened and all these new places started popping up, I started to spend a lot more time here.

Currently, we are part of We Work Labs, however, when I was deciding on where the team was going to be based, I was looking at a range of communities and overwhelmingly a lot of other lab spaces would refer to the Dumbo We Work as the community space. Being here at We Work there is a lot of collaboration and it feels like a community versus other co-working locations. Dumbo is also my favorite neighborhood so I ended up moving to Brooklyn Heights and eventually moved the team down to Dumbo in September 2019. After learning more about the Dumbo Bid and attending the annual meeting it dawned on me that Dumbo is a place where you can get the intensity of New York but also the ‘grassroots’ community feel which is rare.

Do you have any favorite spots in the neighborhood?

We have done lunch a few times at Superfine as they are women-owned and found out about them through a women’s group. We, of course, love going to Dumbo House - the views are incredible. I think though my favorite spot is outdoors towards the waterfront. The view is breathtaking and you can’t get the view anywhere else.