I admit to pausing a second when businesswoman Tammie Umbel pitched me on her Shea Terra Organics skin-care company a few months ago — and how she built it while raising and home-schooling 14 children.
Wow, I thought. How does one do that?
“The purpose of Shea Terra was never intended to be so that I could go out and work,” the 44-year-old mom and businesswoman said. “Whatever I could do while being in the kids’ presence and in their service when they need me emotionally and physically, then I would do it. But I never said I wasn’t going to make money.”
Umbel travels the world finding raw materials for her Dulles, Va.,-based business that primarily caters to women. Ten employees manufacture products with names like Argan Oil, Shea Butter and African Black Soap.
The two-decade-old company grossed $1.7 million in revenue last year, Umbel said. She turned a profit of about $350,000 in 2016 — and is rightly proud of it.
The company gets about $100,000 a month in revenue online and most of the rest from Vitamin Shoppe, the 700-store chain that carries her lotions and creams.
“I absolutely love what I do,” Umbel said. “I have done everything myself, from A to Z.”
The children — ages 4 to 26 — go everywhere with her. Not all of them at the same time, of course. Her oldest child graduated from the University of Virginia and is in her last year at Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Three others are in college studying engineering, cybersecurity and medicine.
Some might accompany her on sourcing “vacations” to Africa, something of a logistical nightmare. Sometimes they just pile into her recreational vehicle (sleeps 10), and off they go to an industry show in Florida.
“It’s not easy,” she said, with notable understatement. “We have to keep our passports up to date, which is a nightmare. Airports are tough. Lots of times, people in airports are jerks.”
Most of Umbel’s ingredients are things I have never heard of, like the argan oil from Morocco.
“In 2003, a Moroccan worker of mine brought a bottle of argan oil to me that his mother had made. I knew immediately I held the oil of the future, although I detested that it sounded like the name of a gas.”
She buys marula oil in Namibia, injecting some much-needed cash into a former mining community. And Egypt is her source of something called Black Seed Oil.
“I built Shea Terra the old-fashioned way,” said Umbel, who lives on a Loudoun County farm with her physician husband. “Hard work is how. Dedication. I took the money I made and reinvested in the business. No debt. No loans. No investors.”
As the company has grown, Umbel has trained her staff so she can run the company remotely from her Leesburg farm, a half-hour from the factory that she rents for $5,300 a month.
If she must go to the factory, sometimes the children come, too.
“I would line them up at tables in the shipping area and give them (school) lessons while running back and forth to orders,” she said. “I would teach them alongside me as I ran the company. Was it difficult? Very. But I was determined to succeed.”
The self-taught businesswoman has had to learn marketing on the fly. Most of it came from roaming the aisles at Vitamin Shoppe. She noticed that retail sales demanded symmetry and continuity. Same color. All in a line.
“Retailers want shelf presence,” Umbel said. “They want to see five products together, lined up. They want to be able to put a whole regimen on their shelves. They don’t want to see just one piece. If you took 10 different fragrances and 10 different products, you basically have chaos.”
Umbel grew up in Prince George’s County and spent much of her teen years living by her wits. She was born with a curiosity about foreign cultures, including Asian and Indian.
“I was fascinated by different cultures,” she said. “My best friend was from Korea, and I loved to go to their house and eat their food. I was a strange child.”
She would camp out in front of a black-and-white television and watch public-service ads about hungry children.
“I was fascinated by that, and I wanted one day to create jobs for these people,” she said. “I was very conscious of human suffering.”
Umbel, a practicing Muslim, met her husband, Syed Ishaq, at a mosque when she was 16. He was 12 years older and had just arrived from Pakistan, where he had attended medical school. Ishaq is now a kidney specialist — a nephrologist — with Inova Fairfax and Access Medicine.
“He was very handsome and well-mannered,” she said.
She married him when she was 16 and gave birth to their first child two years later.
While her husband studied for his medical exams, Umbel in 1990 created a clothing company that was modestly profitable and specialized in ethnic garb from South Asia and the Middle East. She closed it down after she became pregnant with their fourth child.
She smelled — literally — another opportunity in the various international people who frequented the Islamic Center near Washington’s Embassy Row.
“These women who hung around the mosque had natural beauty and skin they would take care of with these different natural ingredients,” she said. Some would cover their body with a blanket and “smoke” their skin with woods from Africa.
“I saw all these different natural regimens and said all these things could make a really good business if I introduced them to the American population,” Umbel said. “I could bring some very needed income into the [African] villages.”
She started Shea Terra in 2000 in the basement of her Arlington home. At first, she cooked up some shea butter. Then some cream. She taught herself how to make soap.
The big break came in late 2001, when she returned from a lengthy trip to find $1,000 in shea butter orders from online sales. Soon, she was selling $30,000 a month, reinvesting most of the income in the company.
Umbel eventually moved to her current facility near Dulles International Airport, where she makes and stores her products. Most of her raw materials are flown in through Dulles and trucked to her factory.
The biggest margins are in her facial-care line.
The nice thing about the beauty and skin-care business is that it tends to be less affected by recessions than others. “People are really vain and willing to pay a lot of money for their face,” she said.
Shea Terra got a boost when actress Sarah Jessica Parker posted on social media applauding its face wash. “She said that her face had not been that soft since she was a baby,” Umbel said. “She was thanking her celebrity aesthetician.”
It’s not all glamorous, though. Believe it or not, the beauty business has a dangerous side.
“The border control people are scary people,” Umbel said, referring to her travels abroad. “Overseas, they tend to give people in general a hard time. You don’t know if you are ever going to see daylight again.”
But on the other hand, her children go places that most others may never see.
“Not a lot of kids can say, ‘I was in Namibia and on a safari at Etosha Park,’ ” Umbel said.