The word “entrepreneur,” which derives from the French verb entreprendre, meaning simply to “undertake,” has grandiose synonyms in English, including “adventurer,” “heroine,” and “daredevil.” These words are highly appropriate to describe Ada Polla, whose career and background are deeply tied to the concept of entrepreneurship. In spite of her understated manner and quiet confidence, Ada is not only a young, successful businessperson in her own right; but also, she is a keen advocate and pioneer for other women in business.
Born in Switzerland, Ada came from a close-knit family with two business-minded parents who instilled in her the importance of working hard and pursuing what you love. Her father and mother, both doctors, are among Europe’s leading experts in dermatology and internal medicine, respectively. In 1997, Ada’s parents together formed the Forever Laser Institut, the first European medical spa to offer traditional [SPA] treatments as well as more specialized services performed under strict medical supervision.
Yet, the collaboration between Ada’s parents extended beyond their influential work in medicine into the art world. In 1991, they opened Analix Forever, a contemporary art gallery that focuses on the work of emerging young artists who work in the video and plastic arts. Ada cites the successful working relationship between her parents and their respective individualism as both highly formative and supportive to her own sense of self and her career. She also credits her parents for her keen love of art, aesthetics, and creativity.
Between her mother and three sisters, Ada grew up surrounded by strong female role models. This environment fed her understanding of and interest in the potential and value that women offer to the world of business. “It is awesome to work with women,” Ada commented during our interview, “There is less between the lines and no sexual innuendo as one can often find when working with men.” However, she continued, “Women have a long way to go in business. This is why the concepts of mentoring and being mentored are so important.”
Fostered by her parents’ passion for art, Ada received her BA in Art History and Political Science from Harvard, graduating magna cum laude. She initially had the intention of one day owning a contemporary art gallery. However, after doing a few internships, she quickly discovered that this wasn’t quite the right professional fit. “Artists are rather nuts,” Ada noted with a smile, “But really, I found out that art is a passion but not my professional calling.” Nevertheless, she admits a small “addiction” to collecting contemporary art, noting Matt Saunders and Mat Collishaw as her current favorites.
After graduating, Ada worked for several years as a Management Consultant for DiamondCluster International and then as a Product Manager for Candela Corporation. In 2002, with an eye towards the business market, she went back to school to pursue her MBA at Georgetown University, graduating in the top five percent of her class in 2004.
Ada’s decision to study for her MBA proved pivotal. This experience helped focus her on a new goal: to start her own company. Ada noted, “I wanted to be a part of my family’s business, but I wanted to stay in the U.S. My parents had developed a small line of products at the Forever Laser Institut in Geneva that were selling really well at our spa. So, it made sense to take these products and sell them to other spas and medical spas. I wanted to be in the U.S., so this was our first commercial market.” In 2003, the summer before the second year of her MBA, Ada and a few partners opened Alchimie Forever.
Although Ada began running the company out of her apartment for the first year or so, business expanded naturally—and rapidly—over the next few years. But, not without a lot of hard work. Ada’s business model initially involved selling and marketing Alchimie Forever products to medi-spas and dermatology offices. So, she began by cold-calling a lot of people by phone and email and by networking at conferences and beauty events. Three years ago, Alchimie Forever shifted into the consumer retail market, offering more products online as well as in select spas and boutiques throughout the country. Last year, Ada opened a new showroom in Georgetown, to exhibit and sell her products, hold trainings, and provide demonstrations.
Watching Ada at work in her minimalistic, yet engagingly orange Alchimie Forever showroom is an impressive sight. Our interview took place on Fashion’s Night Out in Georgetown, as she and her staff were preparing for an onslaught of fashion-lovers wanting to check out her company’s products, the jewelry on special display for the evening from Ann Hand, and also, of course, to help themselves to the free champagne. While members of her staff were finalizing the event setup, Ada frankly answered my questions, occasionally pausing to deliver a directed instruction or to answer a question or two, all with the calm air of one well-accustomed to the occasionally frantic pace of running a business.
When queried about the main challenges of working in the beauty industry today, Ada noted, “The economy, of course. People are not necessarily as willing to spend as much as they were before the downturn. Last year, we even delayed a product launch for a new gentle-cream cleanser because the market wasn’t right.” Since Alchimie Forever offers products for both women and men, it is critical that Ada not only listens to the market but also to her spa clients when making business development decisions. For instance, this October, the company will finally debut its gentle-cream cleanser largely in response to requests from spas and other clients for this type of product. It is a milk-based cleanser and makeup remover ideal for sensitive, sensitized, and dry skin types and its ingredients include rose, mallow, blueberry, and cucumber extracts.
Outside of her own business success, Ada is also passionate about helping women, particularly women in business, get ahead. In 2004, she founded the Network of Entrepreneurial Women (NEW), a dynamic group for female entrepreneurs and business owners in the Mid-Atlantic area. Ada commented that the organization “provides women with a sounding board and a place to talk about the challenges of being in business with women who are in the same position.” NEW started as an informal group (“a potluck of sorts,” Ada noted) with six initial members, but eventually expanded into a more formal organization with 30 to 35 members from across the Mid-Atlantic area who engage in quarterly breakfast brainstorm sessions and networking receptions.
Ada’s passion for helping women succeed in business led to larger speaking engagements and other events that take her all across the country. Yet, while she does not feel that gender necessarily plays a large role in the success or failure of entrepreneurial endeavors, she firmly believes that women in business perhaps require more encouragement. “Woman-owned businesses tend to be smaller,” Ada noted, “I think that this may be because women don’t set ambitious goals like men do. Women don’t think big enough. This is a problem because big thinking leads to better access to capital, so crucial to any new business.”
Finally, when discussing the main challenges of entrepreneurship and being a woman in business, Ada commented, “No matter what your business, it is important to step back away from the day to day. Stepping back allows you and your brain the time and space to strategize and then to move forward.”
In all, Ada’s work in establishing and nurturing her own business, as well as her work in facilitating female entrepreneurship, serves not only as an inspiration to women in business, but also to anyone who is considering taking the bold step of forming a new business or attacking any new challenge.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat in DC: Breakfast – Furin’s of Georgetown; Lunch – Peacock Café; Dinner – Neyla
Favorite Place to Shop in DC: Clothes – Betsy Fisher; Shoes – Simply Soles; and Bookstores, in general. Ada also noted that she never buys anything online because shopping is meant to be “experiential and sensual.”
Favorite DC Moment: Running the bridge loop (Key Bridge to Memorial Bridge and back) in the early morning
Favorite DC Sight: Corcoran Gallery
What You Love About DC: Seeing the sky. There are no skyscrapers due to the rule that nothing can be taller than the Capitol.
What You Hate About DC: The fact that parking meters now run until 10 p.m.