There’s an ancient adage in business: “Find a niche and fill it.” Schar School of Policy and Government alumna Hiwot Yohannes has done just that. And her niche is global.
“It’s really an accepted norm in the [skincare] industry that products that are marketed to skin of color are inferior in quality,” said Yohannes, an Ethiopian-born pharmacist who moved to the United States seven years ago. “I have traveled around the world, and I have walked into many beauty stores, department stores, and pharmacies, but I could not for the life of me find products that I was comfortable and excited to use.”
She turned her dismay into an opportunity. After four years of research, she started the New York-based Askalite Formula skincare company, dedicated, she said, “to developing effective and clean skincare products specifically for skin of color.”
In order to take her company and concept global, she needed know-how. To achieve that, Yohannes enrolled in the Master's in International Commerce and Policy (ICP) program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, graduating in 2019. She also earned a certificate in Mason’s Global Health and Security program.
She credits Mason’s off-campus involvement with startup businesses with as the impetus to getting her company off the ground. In fact, “my first address was the Mason Community Business Partnership, which I wouldn't have known about if I wasn't a Mason student, or if I didn't have an extensive network of people,” she said. “As an immigrant, there's this information gap. So, the program just set me up to be up and running and begin pursuing my dream.”
While Askalite is based in New York, the products are manufactured in France where Yohannes found clinical testing for safety more rigorous than in the U.S.
“I have made sure that everything that goes into, literally, every piece of every ingredient that we use is clean—what we call squeaky clean. It's beyond the standard,” she said.
Yohannes credits her Schar School education for enabling her to manage such a process, including sourcing ingredients from around the world and ensuring stringent testing of products made on the other side of the Atlantic.
Coming to the Schar School from Ethiopia, where Yohannes says occupations are generally predetermined, she felt she could branch out from a traditional pharmacy career.
“When I came to the U.S., I had a clean slate. I could take my life wherever I wanted it,” she said. “And I didn't want that to be in retail pharmacy. So, I used the skillsets from the pharma space to solve the glaring problem I noticed. So that's why I felt that the Schar School’s International Commerce and Policy program was so unique and great for what I envisioned my future to be.”
She learned what she needed to know after all.
“It was life changing,” Yohannes said of the Mason experience. “The ICP was an eye-opener. The program has given me the tools that I need to navigate the country as well as the business platforms that are available.”
Now that Askalite has launched, Yohannes believes she’s well prepared for the next step in her success.
“I'm confident in being able to drive the business all the way [to the top], without a consultant or anybody because of the courses and the faculty,” Yohannes said. “The Schar School has empowered me on many levels that I'm just forever grateful for.”