SUPPLIER SPOTLIGHT: an Interview with Captain Blankenship
words by Jenny Wonderling, photos (unless otherwise noted), design and editing by Bea Rue
photo by Rachel Barrett
Jana Blankenship’s eyes become really focused and bright when she talks about subjects that inspire her, revealing complex flecks of darker patches suspended in a luminous amber sea. She loves her family most of all, nurturing her two young children and her relationship with her husband Levy, while weaving in her creativity and gratitude for the natural world throughout the matrix that is Captain Blankenship, a growing small business that is becoming, well, not so small. To create such a multifarious daily and hourly life is no inconsequential task, especially with young children under foot. Jana is the first to admit it’s not at all easy, and yet it’s palpable to anyone in her midst that her passion for every aspect of it keeps the ship sailing ever forward. Not only was her first pregnancy what fueled her choice to switch careers and focus on Captain Blankenship as a business in the first place, Jana has managed to integrate her family with her business in such a daily (and often hourly) way that nothing is compromised, as bumpy, noisy and messy as it may sometimes also be. Real is the goal though, and real it is. Jana's fashion designer mother once nourished her own thriving business as she grew her family, and Jana has carried a natural expectation that she would do the same. Jana Blankenship has co-created an inspiring and enviable world, full of sweet gurgly noise, color and beauty. Meanwhile she remains completely humble, accessible, unpretentious, and authentic, comfortably nursing her seven-month-old son Caspian as she spoke to Bea and I in her beautiful Vintage Modern inspired Gardiner home about the balancing act that is working motherhood, and the women who have inspired her along the way.
JENNY: You’re doing it from the ground up and with kids on your hip, really striving to find that balance between honoring your family and honoring your work. I’m sure it’s a challenge to find that balance.
JANA: It’s a sacrifice, and I’ve realized that if I didn’t love what I was doing, I wouldn’t be. It’s about finding ways to make it work. I know that now, especially with the company growing, I can’t wear every hat anymore. I’m trying to find ways to delegate and simplify while keeping the integrity of the products- I’m never going to cut corners there- and finding ways to make things more efficient. I’m going to discontinue some products for now, and really focus. It’s hard, and I feel like everyday I have to make so many decisions, whereas before I had the luxury of time. Now I have to trust my gut- there’s not a lot of time to deliberate. I think it’s the same with kids- you’re on your toes! You just have to trust your instincts and go.
JENNY: Oh yeah, there’s no guide or map, and what works with one child doesn’t work with another. So the same thing with business- as it grows you have to approach it from a totally different angle. And we’re seeing that with Nectar- there are things that were working before but no longer. We’re really trying to focus our roles more.
JANA: Exactly. I was wearing every hat before but there are some that I don’t want to wear and I don’t wear well. It’s a waste of energy when someone else who would love to do that could do it in half the time. I’m the creator, and the creating of new products is my joy, what I love to do, but there are so many other things that need to happen. So much of it now is managing people and little ones! It’s realizing that from person to person, from child to child, there are a different set of tools. There’s so much to learn, always.
JENNY: So you’re moving into a new warehouse space?
JANA: Yes- office, production, storage, fulfillment, all in one. It’s five minutes down the road, and next year my daughter, Mila, is going to school three minutes down the road. I feel like with my family and running a business as a mom, I’ve had to become so much more efficient and simplify. I realized I need to make it as easy as possible to take care of them while taking care of the business, and I didn’t want to have to commute, which I know you understand. It’s really hard when you have to be at so many places at once. I really am so glad it’s on one road.
JENNY: So you had everything under your home roof before?
JANA: Since 2009.
JENNY: And how was that- the good and the bad of it?
JANA: The convenience of being able to just pop downstairs and do something at any hour! In the beginning when I started the company I worked full-time as a curator; it was a hobby that turned into a business. I could fill orders at night, I could stay up till three in the morning doing things, and then once the kids came, that just wasn’t feasible anymore. Now it’s exciting to have the business separate because when I’m there I’m there, I’m focused, I’m doing work, and when I’m here at home I’m present for them. It was hard having both under one roof. I constantly felt pulled in different directions.
JENNY: But then there’s also the convenience of being able to nurse on demand and be there when you’re needed. It’s good to leave work, too, and then return home.
JANA: Home definitely feels different. There’s a calm here now. We were receiving boxes everyday!
JENNY: So how do you do it now with this little guy?
JANA: Amy and Shannon (who work with me) are a huge support, making and fulfilling orders and just making this ship sail. If he’s napping I’ll bring him in, plus two mornings a week I have help. But he's crawling so you just have to adapt. And fortunately now a lot of what I’m doing is computer work, which I can do with him crawling around and often from home.
JENNY: Being a working mom myself- that pull, that division, that stress- I understand it. But you’re really in the thick of it because you’re moving and you just got the biggest order of your life.
JANA: Yes, I feel like everything’s been heightened. But you know what’s really funny- when my daughter Mila was born in 2013, my biggest order came just two weeks after!
JENNY: What was that for?
JENNY: So much for languidly enjoying the days before and after your birth!
JANA: It was a Birchbox campaign. I agreed to do a campaign for 5,000 units, and in the moment thought I’d have some time before the deadline, but then Mila was born two weeks late! Every member of the family came. I had her nursing while I was filling bottles! This has happened with both the kids- Mila was born and then things jumped with Birchbox and Urban Outfitters, too. And then when Caspian was born it was like “BOOM!” I got this massive order.
JANA: No, no I had none of that! But, there’s something to it- you’re growing so many things at the same time and you do what you have to do. Now I have to be so efficient and productive with my time- it makes you really focus on what you’re doing.
JENNY: How many people are working with you now?
JANA: About six- designers, social media, fulfillment, customer service. My dear friend Sara who has been involved since the beginning is still on board helping with social media and art direction. Even my husband Levy is starting to come on board!
JENNY: Wow. That’s nice to work with your husband!
JANA: Yeah, that’s my dream. There’s no way he’s going to quit his full-time job, but at least he’s helping out with some of the decisions. He’s definitely more of the business brain, I’m more of the creative side. He loves the logistics! It makes me want to cry.
JENNY: So you have six people, and that’s not including packaging of the products at this point now because now you’re delegating that out..
JANA: Not all of it. I found an organic beauty manufacturer and I’m starting to outsource some of the products. It’s a great women-run company, they’re so lovely, they have every certification one could possibly want. I have the new packaging to show you- all the bottles are silkscreened and we’re introducing boxes. It was funny, when we were moving, it forced me to go through a ton of materials from when the company started, all the papers that piled up, and I found the original drawings for the logo and all the different iterations I made, even my first line sheet, which I typed on a typewriter and painted with homemade black walnut ink! It’s those things that make you realize- all the labels used to be handwritten- how things have grown. But what makes me feel good is that my hand was always a part of it. It was my hand scanned artwork and though I’m starting to collaborate with so many people, that spirit is still at the heart of it. So many of the formulas are original and even if I start outsourcing I’m not going to change the integrity of things. But it is a hard thing trying to figure out how to scale up with integrity.
JENNY: Well the cost of everything is extraordinary!
JANA: It is. That’s what’s been interesting the whole time. I want the beautiful silkscreened glass bottles, the handmade quality, the recyclable boxes without any plastic, and no altering of the ingredients, but it’s expensive.
BEA: Do you have any products inspired by the kids?
JANA: I feel like there’s a lot of products waiting in the wings. My good friend Tara has an amazing company called Meow Meow Tweet with an incredible kids' line. When I tried it I was like, “I don’t need to make my own, I like hers!" But the one product, which I developed before I had the kids, I tweaked a little after they were born so that it was safe for them- that’s the Sunshine Cream. All the products are gentle, but the Sunshine Cream is the only product I make that doesn’t have any essential oils. It smells like chocolate and coconut, which comes from the organic cocoa butter and coconut oil. Those ingredients are safe to use on babies, nipples, on bellies, anything! It’s all-purpose, all-family- I put it all over the place! But certainly there are so many things that I want to make. And Mila, who will be three in June, is obsessed with the Sea Salt Hairspray. I can’t wait to hear as they grow what they want too!
Jana Blankenship and her three-year-old daughter Mila. Photo by Maffy Malaver.
JENNY: So you had a working Mama, right?
JANA: Yes, my mom was a fashion designer when I was growing up and my whole inspiration came from her. I looked up to her and have so many memories of being in her work space, which was down the road from our house. She had these coloring guides where she would draw out sweater designs. She would give us blank ones that we could fill out and make our own little drawings on. But I was the kid outside mixing, infusing pine needles in water and adding dirt to it. I was the little chemist. I would go into her room and there was a beautiful mirrored vanity with all of these crazy looking bottles of perfume that she would pick up from couture shows, and she didn’t care about any of them. This was the 80’s, with all the toxic perfumes that still persist, and she would just let me mix them all together. So after every little ingredient I would put it up to my nose and smell. I ended up developing a sensitivity to synthetic fragrances and every time I smell one of those nasty things I get such a visceral reaction-- headaches and nauseous.
JENNY: Would you say that inspired or forged your path then?
JANA: It did, totally. That was probably when I was seven and while I always loved going outside to the fresh smells of rose or mint, I had no idea there was a natural side to perfumery. It wasn’t until I moved to Berkeley, California in 2005 that I made the discovery. I met this amazing perfumer named Mandy Aftel who lived down the road. She’s a rock star in that world! She’s written books, has her own amazing perfume line and makes exquisite custom blends. She’s been a real mentor to me. She makes everything out of her house with the utmost integrity, the very finest materials, and she’s a real authority. She’s amazing. So I started studying with her and it opened my eyes, really began unlocking this thing I’d always loved. The classes were held in her house, the most magical place in the world, with juts six to eight students. She even has a scent organ!
JENNY: What is a “scent organ?!”
Mandy Aftel's scent organ, photo by Aya Brackett from The New York Times article "The World's Most Dedicated All-Natural Perfumer"
JANA: Natural perfume is made up of base notes, middle notes and top notes like a chord- there’s a lot of similarity to music. A scent organ is basically a shelving unit that organizes essences according to their note. It’s wildly beautiful.
JENNY: And is she harvesting too?
JANA: People always ask, “Are you making these essential oils yourself?" and I say no, because I would need a field of lavender here! I think what’s beautiful about what we’re doing is supporting people all over the world- the best lavender comes from Bulgaria and France, roses from Turkey and Morocco. Those ingredients just can’t grow everywhere. And it would be naive of me to think I can grow my own jasmine or orange blossom here.
JENNY: So do you travel to source the different ingredients?
JANA: I don’t but over time I have figured out where I like to buy from, and those places spend their energy sourcing sustainably and working with farmers. They are all small companies, too. Mandy doesn’t travel much away from her home in Berkeley. She just loves what she does and spends her time constantly writing books, researching. I love how she says that making perfumes allows her to travel the world. I think there’s a chain- I’m not taking on the things that I couldn’t do well while supporting the farmers whose families have been doing this for centuries and who have the land to grow these beautiful plants.
JENNY: So Nectar has grown as the community has grown, as I’ve grown, as my relationship with Bea has grown, but it started in the middle of nowhere in the tiny little town of High Falls. My only reason for choosing that particular location was its proximity to my sons’ school. They came to the store after and did homework, so I could still have a strong relationship with them even as a working single mama. Then Liam, my youngest, was seeped in Nectar, passed around between all these women. I could also nurse on demand and be close to him. But a lot of women feel they have to choose between their children and their career, that it’s sort of one or the other. I feel it’s definitely about balance and I know that’s your orientation, too. Speak to the women who want to create a life for themselves and a work experience that is their own, but are afraid of the familial risk and financial uncertainty.
Scenes from Jana's home life: top left: view of the Shawangunk Ridge from her back deck, top tight: her blue-eyed husky Vuka lounging in her livingroom, bottom: Vuka in her children's playroom which used to be her home work studio. Photos by Bea Rue.
JANA: I started this company in 2009 before I had children. It was just a hobby alongside my full-time job as a curator in San Francisco at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art. I had gotten my Masters Degree in Curatorial Practice, studied Art History in college, did a lot of traveling, and before that was the Assistant Curator at the Istanbul Biennial. I was on that track. When we moved to the Hudson Valley I applied for a job at my favorite museum, The Dia Beacon, what I thought was my ultimate dream, and found out I was pregnant during my second round of interviews. I realized I couldn’t run a business, work full-time, and grow a family, so I decided to focus my energy on the business and kids. I think when you’re doing something you really love and you are your own boss, you can carve out time for those things. I can go to the May Day festival at school! I am doing something I love, so I’m present and I’m making it happen, but it was scary. This was a hobby that now, seven years later, I’m seeing grow. You plant the seeds, do all that you can, and you just don’t know what’s going to happen- things can change in a day!
JENNY: So let’s talk about the growth of Captain B and how you define success. You told us earlier you got the biggest order of your life coming up and of course as a small business that’s a double edged sword and a lot of pressure. Since those bigger corporate stores don’t pay for at least 30 days, you have to come up with all the money to front the product and the shelf talkers and all the stuff. How do you deal with all that?
JANA: One day at a time. If you realize the opportunity is worth it, you just find a way to make it work. You want to make sure you’re working with people who value what you’re doing. In the case of [the bigger retail company we are about to work with] everyone there has been so respectful and supportive. But I think in any situation there are growing pains and you have to reevaluate how to make it function. Growing a business is not linear in any way. I feel lucky that I really started to grow in the last two years by getting those bigger orders.
Captain Blankenship's Limited Edition Mama Love Body Oil for Mother's Day. Jana & Amy foraged these crystals from the Shawangunk Mountains themselves, airing them under a full moon. Each bottle contains its very own crystal and lots of Hudson Valley magic.
JENNY: So what do you think has accounted for that growth most of all? Is it PR?
JANA: I do have an amazing PR company that I’ve only been working with in the past year and I do feel they have really put the brand recognition out there, but I also think being in stores all over the country and social media accounts for a lot of it, too.
JENNY: How did Urban Outfitters find you back when your products were there?
JANA: I think the bigger companies are looking to the smaller stores for inspiration. It’s such a different world now. I did a trade show a few weeks ago and I think they’re kinda done. If someone wants to find you, they can find you.
JENNY: Instagram! I know so many stores who are finding new products there most of all.
JANA: Yes, I have so many stores finding me on Instagram, and now that most smaller stores have a web presence, the larger stores are looking there for ideas.
JENNY: And I think the consciousness has changed recently, too. You started Captain Blankenship seven years ago, I started Nectar 10 years ago. In the beginning it was so hard to find Fair Trade products that crossed over from the indigenous “crunchy granola” style to higher-end design tapered to Western aesthetics. But now the concepts of Fair Trade and organic are so important to a huge population of people.
JANA: Yes, completely! Every day there’s a new company that I haven’t heard of. And I think the pot is big enough for everyone. What’s interesting is that Target, for example, has an incredible green beauty selection. There is a sea change and a shift in consciousness, and the bigger companies have to take that on because there’s such a demand for it.
JENNY: There’s enough evidence out there that the opposite is just so unhealthy for us and we are being so bombarded with toxins from every direction that we need to try and make a difference where we can.
JANA: Yes, and I feel the organic beauty movement is where the organic food movement was 10 years ago.
JENNY: I wanted to ask you, how much are you selling internationally?
JANA: Most larger retailers in Europe require strict certification so you have to get your products tested by a responsible third party in the EU. I am in the process of doing that right now and I love that they require this testing. In the US there are no regulations and what’s really screwed up is when you see the word “fragrance” on a product, there could be a thousand chemicals in there that companies aren’t required to disclose. A lot of larger companies have their cheaper US formulas that they have to change for the EU. I don’t have USDA organic certification for my products yet since it is very costly, but the ingredients are certified organic.
BEA: There are so many companies like you said that use these umbrella terms to cover up thousands of unnatural ingredients with misleading words like “fragrance” or “natural.”
JANA: Yes “natural” has become the most misleading term.
JENNY: Oh yes, for example “natural vanilla” or “natural raspberry flavor” comes from beaver glands. Natural yes, but… eeew! And do they kill the beavers? Who figured that out, by the way? Who was like (motioning with pointer finger and laughing) “mmmm, yum, tastes like vanilla.” (Laughter all around.) And sometimes like raspberry!
JANA: Oh there’s so many crazy things they can put in products! Vanilla extract is so expensive that they are synthesizing it in a laboratory and yet they can still call it organic! It’s really horrifying.
BEA: That’s why we need independent third party rating companies like How Good that are actually doing the research themselves. There’s no special interest, they’re not getting paid by corporations, they’re completely independent. And they’re sharing their findings for free!
JANA: In the beauty world there is the Environmental Working Group that has a database called Skin Deep but there’s not enough funding. With Skin Deep, ideally you could take any product with a barcode, scan it, and then see what the ingredients are, and how they’re rated, but the problem is that often when you look something up it will be rated a “1” because there’s not enough information in their system, not enough data, not enough testing done. But I think we are moving towards that.
JENNY: People’s bodies are having breakdowns. Someone called one of our shops the other day looking for Liv Purely, a company we carry made of 100% pure coconut oil and beeswax. They are discontinuing some of their products, so this client called in and asked frantically, “Do you have their original bar of soap, unscented? It’s the only thing that makes my skin not freak out!” Our bodies are freaking out in so many ways. When you hear about all these people with gluten intolerance it’s mostly a reaction to the Round Up that’s being doused all over our wheat crops or the GMOs. Our bodies are finally responding. So people are revolting and saying, “no more!”
JANA: Yes, that’s why there weren’t so many allergies when we were growing up, and it’s the same with Crohn’s Disease.
BEA: I have some friends with Celiacs who can’t eat wheat, but can eat my wild fermented organic sourdough bread. They’re totally fine, and they have A LOT of it!
JENNY: Live food with a capital “L”- what a concept, right!? So out of necessity and pressure comes change. And of course, it’s terrible the things that are happening to and on the planet, but it’s causing this dialogue to happen in a really explosive way, and for people to form businesses in reaction. People want to promote things that are in alignment with the way they live and what their bodies need.
JANA: Of course all good inventions come out of necessity. My consumers are educated, they’re reading their labels, but how do we reach people who can’t really afford it and don’t normally have access to it in terms of the awareness?
JENNY: It’s so true. That’s the beauty of bringing it to everyone, and not just have it be this elitist thing. I’m also speaking to Nectar with what we’re doing. I love that any walk of life can come in and spend $3.50 on some local organic tea or a little soap and feel inspired. I would never want to be the kind of store that only serves a certain clientele. At the same time it costs so much to pay rent, run a business, in your case pay for organic ingredients because you won’t compromise your integrity. So is there a business model or mentor that’s really inspired you?
Mandy Aftel, photo by Aya Brackett from The New York Times article "The World's Most Dedicated All-Natural Perfumer"
JANA: Yes, I would have to say that it’s Mandy Aftel. I feel very lucky to know her. Seeing her passion and her model- she had written a book about Brian Jones, was a therapist, made soap, then took natural perfumery, and just made that leap! So I think after I spent all this time and money studying to be a curator and forging that path I just decided to have the courage to listen to myself and know what I wanted to do. She’s been doing this for so long, so to see how she’s managed it with integrity and how her business has grown in inspirational. When Mila was eight-months-old, I was lucky enough to curate a small exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum with her about the history of natural perfume. So I find ways to marry those two worlds. I wasn’t jumping off a cliff and abandoning my world, but finding ways to integrate it. It's all a continuum. I was a painter, too, but nothing is lost. It’s all just translated in a different way. And she’s always been someone who is there to support me any time I need to make a big decision. To see that in the world of beauty there isn’t competition, that there’s support in it, and that my teacher is proud of me for where I’ve come! She’s my mentor. To see how my friends’ businesses have grown and supported each other- there are many models in business to look at. We’re all proud of each other. Now there are small businesses reaching out to me to mentor, and it means so much because I was there just a few years ago, taking those steps, and waiting to leap.
JENNY: Well we are in an amazing country to be able to be women and forge a path however we want. To reinvent ourselves so many times and live with passion! Do what you love and then, well, OK now I’m going to do this other thing! We are multi-faceted.
JANA: Yeah, I think that’s necessary. Being a mother, having a business, there are so many different hats we need to wear all the time, and there are so many different facets of ourselves that we bring to it. It's not just black and white. Everything is relevant.
JENNY: And how do I make sure I’m eating regularly! (Laughter) Because YOU are breastfeeding and you need to make sure you are eating enough to feed both of you!
JANA: (Laughter) I know, I know!
JENNY: Well you are doing an amazing job; I have a lot of respect for you.
JANA: Thank you! I feel like there was this leap recently in the past few months; it’s just been so crazy. And getting onboard with a large retailer, I’ve just re-done all the packaging, moved to a new space… Any one of these things would have been enough to deal with but it was everything at once. We’re redoing the website, too, and a new baby! (laughter) But then I got the box of beautiful new packaging, the silk screened bottles and it was like, “I feel proud!” It was that moment where I could appreciate that I worked hard to create this.
Jana Blankenship's seven-month-old son Caspian and her dog Vuka in her Vintage Modern Hudson Valley home with the Shawangunk Cliffs in the backdrop. Photo by Bea Rue.
JENNY: Look at all the babies I made at the same time! (laughter)
JANA: Yes! And you get those little rewards every day and you just have to feel proud of yourself and acknowledge them.
JENNY: Acknowledge all these inspirations that keep us going so we can find sources of energy we didn’t even know we had! There are those moments when I think, “I don’t know where I’m getting this energy, except that I really do believe in what I’m doing!” Otherwise I would be completely depleted.
JANA: Yes, totally, and I think at the end of each day when you manage to get a lot done, you think, “How did that happen?!” But you find a way. Like every morning when you wake up with the kids! I am not a morning person, but somehow you find this superhuman ability. You just have to be your best person.
JENNY: They teach us a lot. The more you do, the more you do. When I wasn’t doing so much I remember thinking “it all feels so overwhelming!” I was a master procrastinator and now I just have to keep the momentum moving forward. It’s not until I stop that I think, “Aah I’m so tired!”
JANA: Yes, but then you just have to keep tackling, and being present. It keeps your mind and every part of you active!
Captain Blankenship's Mermaid Sea Salt Hair Spray, Mermaid Dry Shampoo, and new Golden Waves Sea Salt Shimmer Spray. All three can give you the beach hair of your dreams.
BEA: And where do you see things headed in five years?
JANA: It’s funny, so much is going on now that I think “where am I going to be in a month!?” When I was moving I found this piece of paper from back when I was studying dance with this amazing woman named Anna Halprin in California- she is an inspiration in every way. She’s 95 and still dances every day, and teaches! She’s been a real pioneer in Modern Dance, she’s unbelievable. And she’s been doing that for the past 50 years. Part of her process is that you journal or draw, and I found this thing, a kind of vision of where I had wanted to be in five years, which I probably made in 2010. It was running the business, having children, a whole lot of things. But it actually happened! And now I’m at one of those moments when I’m trying to envision what it’s going to be again. This little seven-month-old is going to be five-years-old! You have to take it as it comes, but I would like to see this business grow, and grow with integrity. We’re making this big leap to accommodate where the business is now, and I have to keep going with that. My two main mamas who help me with everything both have children themselves. It’s been amazing and challenging for all of us.
JENNY: Is working with moms different than working with someone who is not a mom?
JANA: I remember when I was a curator, I worked with a mom who had just given birth, and whenever we’d have to install an exhibition I would often be there all night supervising by myself. She was really protective of her time. I didn’t really understand it then, but now when we’re at work, we’re working, and when we’re not, we’re not. We’re a real support to each other. We’re there to really comfort each other if we’re having a rough day, and because we’re moms, we understand that life can be chaotic. So like for Amy, who you introduced me to, her time at work is her time to be really focused and productive. It’s really beautiful to see that she’s so passionate about what she’s doing, she’s such a big advocate for the company, and has such amazing ideas. She’s really in it, dedicated. I’m very lucky to have them as sounding boards. “What do you think of this?!” Then just trusting and going forward. I’m very grateful. I just really hope I can keep building with integrity and finding people who like to be on this ship…
JENNY: On the Blankenship…
This interview is our way of paying homage to all you wonderful giving mamas out there nurturing your world while trying to stay inspired, healthy, and present for all you must carry, give and do!! Whether you are a stay-at-home mom, working mom, a grandma, or a woman who nurtures others with a mother’s heart, BRAVA for staying soft and strong, loving and courageous… Happy Mother’s Day!
Jenny, Jana, Bea and the Nectarettes