For Mieka Polanco, soap making happened by chance. She was working on her master’s thesis in Anthropology at the University of Virginia and felt the need to work with her hands and stop working solely with her brain.
“It was abstract and I needed something else to do,” said the mother of 5-year-old twin boys. So, the trekked to the nearest craft store and bought a soap making kit. Directions led her to melt soap that was already made, add a few ingredients, wait and the so-called soap was ready to try. She felt somewhat cheated.
“That’s not what I had in mind when I bought the kit,” she said. “So, I started doing some research, asking people about oils and soap making.”
It took her two years before she was ready to be a vendor at the Charlottesville City Market. On a cold April morning 10 years ago, she remembers setting up her stand, reluctantly sorting the 14 bars she brought with her (which she thought she would never sell) and waiting for customers. “I sold out! I couldn’t believe it.”
Why olive oil, you ask? Mieka was born and raised in Israel, where “we use olive oil for everything,” she said. She began making soaps for friends with specific needs and realized her personalized and hand-made olive oil products could become a serious business venture. The bar that started it all, she said, was Oats & Lavender, which she created for the daughter of friend who had problem skin. She would mix the ingredients, give to her friend and receive feedback.
“We went back and forth for a year until I got it right,” she said.
Ten years later, her best selling bar is the Honey & Oats, for sensitive, extra dry skin closely followed by lavender for relaxation.
Mieka moved to the United States three different times: at 17 to finish high school, a few years later to attend NYU and once more to begin her graduate studies at UVA.
She chose UVA for a simple reason: the Anthopology department would not hire its graduate students upon graduation. “I thought, it’s in Virginia, I wouldn’t like it there,” she said. As for many UVA graduates, she received her Ph.D. and never left.
“I fell in love with the place, then I met my husband.”
Now a full-time professor at JMU, full-time soap maker and full-time mom doesn’t have much free time, but wouldn’t trade her fortune for anything.
“Hobbies are in my dreams,” she said. “But I am happy.”