When Jasmina Aganovic was in college at MIT studying chemical and biological engineering, she never thought she’d go on to dedicate her career to the beauty industry — let alone help revolutionize it.
But that’s exactly what she’s doing as CEO of beauty biotech startup Arcaea, which develops novel ingredients to create more sustainable and effective products.
Aganovic’s foray into the beauty industry began in the summer of 2008 when she landed a college internship with a small venture company working with emerging technologies. She was assigned a project that required doing research on a beauty company. Initially, she was a bit annoyed. She wondered if she had been given the assignment because she was the only woman on the team. But nonetheless, it gave her a glimpse into untapped opportunity in the industry.
After graduating, she went on to help develop beauty products for several biotech companies. And in 2021, she started her own. Arcaea uses advance technologies like DNA sequencing, protein design, bioinformatics and computational biology, to better answer this question; how can you create technology based on biology rather than chemistry? For example, Arcaea is working on technology for deodorant brands to work with a person’s natural biology to shift scent naturally. Traditionally, the beauty industry has predominantly used petroleum-based compounds in cosmetics.
Over the last 10 years, Arcaea, has been behind some of the latest innovations in beauty and has received millions of dollars in investment from brands like Olaplex and Chanel. She’s even created a fragrance line using extinct flowers.
Know Your Value recently chatted with Aganovic about her career journey, her best advice for entrepreneurs, what new technologies we can expect from the world of biotech and more.
Below is the conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Daniela Pierre-Bravo: I imagine your field is still very male-dominated. Did you ever receive any pushback, and how did you respond to it?
Jasmina Aganovic: One very dominant theme that I think has always been very acute for me throughout my career is people’s perception of the beauty industry. That’s probably been the toughest. It’s like viewed as this like, often frivolous industry… It’s always been really unfortunate to me that that’s kind of the general perception of it. It has made in some cases fundraising really challenging or, you know, getting investors on board really challenging.
…The way that I’ve always viewed this industry is that it touches almost every single human being on this planet every single day. So, it plays like a really important role. So it is by proxy, a massive industry, but it also plays such an important emotional role in our day to day lives in terms of self-expression and self-care, the ability to escape when things are a little bit tough, those like little small indulgences …So that’s certainly been a place where challenges have come from, and I think that that translates over into kind of the ongoing experiences like trying to educate people on like the power of beauty
Daniela Pierre-Bravo: What has helped you find your voice and advocate effectively for yourself?
Jasmina Aganovic: I think one thing in particular that has worked out really well for me in terms of employees, advisors and investors is really placing a high value on relationship building, and just making sure that they understand the vision and what you’re trying to build. And sometimes, it can take more than one conversation just to suss that out. But once you have those partners around the table, you don’t have to constantly be justifying right like what you’re doing and why you’re doing they get it they’re behind you. They want to help you make that happen and can also call you out when maybe you have gaps in something and help you fill them.
Daniela Pierre-Bravo: What’s your best advice to new entrepreneurs who are just getting their feet wet, especially if they’re trying to build their community and want to make authentic connections?
Jasmina Aganovic: Life is long. Never expect something from just the first conversation or the second conversation. Remember relationship building, the building of reputation and track record is something that happens over time, and that you can’t find a substitute for. So, I think just being consistent and being yourself and continuing to learn and then continuing to stay in touch with people actually carries a lot of weight and you would be surprised at how few people actually do that. And once you get deep into your career, like 10 or 15 plus years, you start to realize how meaningful those things actually are over time. So don’t underestimate the value of time…
Daniela Pierre-Bravo: What was your early memories of loving beauty and wanting to get into that space?
Jasmina Aganovic: Mine had to do with a lot of struggles with my skin when I was a teenager, unfortunately. And the silver lining of all of that is it made me acutely aware of the products that I was using and what exactly they were doing and how they were formulated. I started to get very interested in that.
And it played a really critical role in my self-esteem, which was really fragile when I was a teenager, but there were these products that made me feel like I had control during an otherwise kind of crazy time. And so, I think perhaps that was sort of what got me interested in the chemistry element of things. And I was always an engineer by mindset.
Daniela Pierre-Bravo: Did you have a lightbulb moment when you realized you could combine beauty and biotech?
Jasmina Aganovic: It’s crazy to say but biotech wasn’t even on my radar. It was like research that had come out of a lab for like a major product category. And it was raw materials that had been assessed for their performance in a particular category. And so it was really just innovation for the beauty space. And I just thought it was like really interesting. I thought that the science was so much better than what I would have assumed was maybe happening in in beauty. And so that was kind of how the dots connected. For me of like, “Oh, I’m actually really interested in innovation.” I had never thought of applying that to beauty. [I thought] “What would my career look like if I did this for a living?”
I went into my senior year and I was like, “OK, I am going to work in the beauty and personal care industry.” The big multinationals didn’t recruit at MIT. So I needed to find a way to like network into those companies. God knows I applied to every relevant job posting they had on their website and never heard back.
…What I started doing actually was just going to the websites of the brands that I loved and scrolling to the bottom of the website and calling their customer service number and just saying, “Hey, this is my background. I’m really excited to get into the industry. Do you have any roles open?” And believe it or not, that actually ended up working for my first role, and so that was kind of how I got my foot in the door for the first role [at Fresh].
Daniela Pierre-Bravo: What are some of the exciting technologies or categories that are coming up through beauty Biotech?
Jasmina Aganovic: One we actually just launched really recently is in the fragrance space, so we were able to recreate the smell of extinct flowers and create them into fine fragrances, thanks to DNA sequencing. We launched that through a brand called Future Society …We’ve also been doing a lot of work in sun care. We view a lot of challenges in the sun care area as something that biology can really help resolve and we’ve also done work in skincare and haircare. That’s a little bit further out but we’re really excited about it.
Daniela Pierre-Bravo is a reporter for MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" and a Know Your Value contributor. She is the co-author of “Earn It” with Mika Brzezinski. Her solo book, “’The Other: How to Own Your Power at Work as a Woman of Color,” is out now.