The Interview Issue: Dawn Fitch’s health woes led to her own bath and body line

By Meg Fry
Kearny | Dec 17, 2018 at 6:00 am
From our print edition

It was not her plan to start a business, Dawn Fitch said. 

Still, she went from designing album covers to concocting blended fragrances and testing essential oils in her East Orange apartment after years of symptoms resulted in her being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“I had to know exactly what I was putting on my skin,” Fitch said. 

After learning 25 million to 50 million people currently suffer from autoimmune diseases — 80 percent of which are women — Fitch switched gears to become founder and president of Pooka Pure and Simple in 2001, creating all-natural bath, body and beauty products with easy-to-read and understand labels. 

Today, Pooka — a name derived from her mother’s term of endearment, “pookalitas” — sells items such as Guava Juice Body Mist ($11), Citrus Basil Body Butter ($16) and Island Mimosa Sugar Body Polish ($22) online and from its warehouse and showroom in Kearny, while also providing educational workshops in collaboration with fellow women entrepreneurs. 

On track to soon become a $1 million business, Fitch said she is happy to have discovered how to help others while also balancing her own life. 

“I work harder now than I worked in corporate America, but I enjoy it more,” she said. 

She recently sat down with ROI-NJ.

ROI-NJ: What was the catalyst behind creating Pooka? 

Dawn Fitch: I had a dream job working for nearly seven years in digital imaging and graphic design at Sony Music. So, when the trek to Manhattan started to make me feel run down, I thought, maybe I just needed a break. But the feeling did not go away until, one morning, I lost all feeling in my lower extremities on my way to work. The emergency room said it was probably just a pinched nerve, but that turned into years of doctors either sending me home telling me I was healthy or diagnosing me with everything from chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, to Epstein-Barr and hypoglycemia. Then I would research the different diagnoses, but none of them ever seemed to explain my symptoms, including temporary paralysis 10 to 15 times per day. Well, you can’t fight what you don’t know, but I at least started changing what I put on my body as well as in it. … When I realized I could not pronounce half of the ingredients on the labels of my current bath and beauty products, I started making my own using very simple and clear ingredients that already were beneficial to my health, such as avocado, coconut oil, blueberry fiber, raspberry seeds, various nuts, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, all with six ingredients or less that would provide essential vitamins and minerals without the parabens and phthalates. 

ROI-NJ: Then, of course, your family and friends started asking you to make products for them.

DF: Yes, until my entire apartment was filled with product. That’s when they said to me, ‘You have made too much — why don’t we go to an arts festival and see what we can sell?’ When we sold out, that’s when I knew I had started a business. My sister and two friends helped me bootstrap and build the business together, buying ingredients, creating product and then selling it at more festivals, house parties and churches, to buy more ingredients. I wasn’t exactly sure what this was going to be, so I dug into my own savings and 401(k) before applying for a line of credit. 

ROI-NJ: But, when you finally left your job to pursue this venture full-time, the woman who replaced you at Sony Music introduced you to someone at Whole Foods Market, right? 

DF: Yes, and, as a result, we are now in 65 Whole Foods Markets. We actually were in a lot more, selling more of our product line, but we realized that, while it is great for marketing, it actually was better to pare it down. With any retailer, you have to pay for shipping and returns, as well as run demos and, so, it really needs to fit your margins. We are very happy with 65 stores, and our line also is carried in other small boutiques, but we actually make most of our money online through our own e-commerce website. 

ROI-NJ: You also are very heavily active on social media. How does that assist in your marketing? 

DF: I am upfront and honest about why I started the business, so that when you pick up our product in the store, you might remember my story and be able to relate. With Pooka, we have a good following of people who are going through the same types of things, so we often let people see behind the brand with the hope that my story will help someone as many others’ stories have helped me. … I actually created a Facebook group called The Best Life Tribe about nine months ago, when I was experiencing a particularly tough flareup, hoping that if someone out there was going through the same thing, we might be able to support each other. It has now grown to more than 2,800 women talking about autoimmune disorders, food, diet, exercise, and, though I don’t talk about Pooka as much, they know I’m the CEO.

ROI-NJ: Collaboration is a key part of your business, too. How do you connect with businesses to provide education for others? 

DF: I work so much with other women because we can do more that way. For example, a friend with whom I share my space in Kearny, LaShonda Tyree, CEO of Nyah Beauty, partnered with me to start a program called Beauty That Cares to teach girls how to make their own products. We approached the Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey about creating a badge, as well as working with East Orange schools and booking private parties, to have hosted entrepreneurial workshops for nearly 800 young women now. They work as a team, start their own business and make their own products, many of which are donated to a local woman’s shelter. … We also are bringing a third partner, Kimberly Sumpter of Wax Kandy Candle Co., into the space, who, along with LaShonda, is a graduate of Rising Tide Capital in Jersey City. Together, we created a program called A Life at Ease to provide a day of creativity, relaxation and empowerment for women via holistic workshops, including creating their own body scrubs, candles and soaps, and learning how to meditate. … We want to expand our programming to become a fully-operative do-it-yourself center, where we can have lots of different classes and workshops going on at any given time. 

ROI-NJ: What advice do you give young entrepreneurs based on your own experiences?

DF: I start with persistence, perseverance and prayer. There were so many times when I thought I would give up, but then something would happen, and I’d give the business another two weeks, which would turn into two years. Social media may show everybody’s highlights, but there are lots of downtimes between those. … You have to be sure to stay in the game and keep knocking on doors. For example, when Pooka made the cover of Black Enterprise magazine, I did a speaking tour with them, but, then, I had to come back down and get back to my job. You’re never coasting along and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. … Lastly, I tell girls that if they want to be in a certain industry, there is a lot of work they can do now despite being young. A lot of people look for mentors, but mentorship is a busy two-way street. So, if there are women you aspire to be like, you can research the breadcrumbs your favorite people leave behind, like books they’ve written or speeches they’ve delivered. For example, even though I did meet Oprah, we’re not friends, but I consider her a mentor based on all that I have learned from her outside of that incredible moment.

ROI-NJ: What goals do you have for Pooka in the future? 

DF: I always am keeping my eye out for new and healthy ingredients, like Omega-3s and thyme, and thinking, ‘How can I create a new product or boost the products that we already have?’ Over the last year and a half, for example, we retooled some of our body oils and butters to add turmeric and ginger essential oils, because they have been amazing for my own health. … We also are looking to go into one or two more retailers or natural whole food stores and are looking to add to our current team of two part-time and four full-time all-female staff. In fact, when my mom, my aunts and their friends are looking for something to do, a lot of times I bring them here to help us all make boxes and whatnot. So, LaShonda and I have both decided to focus on hiring retired senior women, who often have so much knowledge, but are limited in where they can apply it. So, I’m glad my family has somewhere they can visit, work, and be proud of. 

Conversation starter

  • Name: Dawn Fitch
  • Position: Founder and president 
  • Organization: Pooka Pure and Simple 
  • Type of business: Natural bath, body and beauty products  
  • Location: Kearny 
  • Date founded: 2001
  • Financial goals: $1 million in 2019
  • Website: pookapureandsimple.com 
  • Phone number: 201-299-5410

The Interview Issue

Meg Fry | mfry@roi-nj.com | megfry3