Ross builds a new mission from the science of soap |  One on one

Ross builds a new mission from the science of soap | One on one

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Jennifer Ross

Rocky Mountain Soap Market started 12 years ago as an experiment in the kitchen of Jennifer Ross.

Ross was a math teacher at Falcon High School at the time. She became interested in soap after seeing a story online about how much math and science is involved in the soap making process. At 48, she had experience as a musician and teacher, but soap was a whole new world.

“My first batch of soap didn’t turn out at all, it was a total disaster,” recalls Ross, “but I was hooked. So I started making soap while I was teaching and doing farmers markets in the summer — because I was a teacher, so it’s affordable — and then craft fairs during the holiday season.”

Since then, Ross says she’s had exceptional luck with leases, wholesalers and employees. In 2014, when Ross got serious about a physical location for her business, she was still a teacher and her husband was a firefighter—and they didn’t have the money to get it off the ground. But her retirement advisor helped Ross find the exact amount — $20,000 — she needed to open her first storefront. Another remarkable stroke of luck: In 2017, a representative of a major wholesaler approached Ross’ daughter at Rocky Mountain Soap Market’s Lakewood store, looking for local bath and body products to carry in Colorado’s Safeway supermarkets. The representative’s daughter attended a beauty school across the street and had recommended the store. The representative offered Ross a contract, and Rocky Mountain Soap Market products are now in 42 Safeway locations.

Ross, now CEO of a business she founded, says her faith has given her a sense of direction through the uncertain times of starting and growing her brand. “This is a God-inspired business without a doubt,” she said. “I’m not afraid at all because I feel like they’ll take care of me if I only know where I have to go.” It erases fear.”

In addition to Safeway, Rocky Mountain Soap Market products can be found at The Broadmoor, The Ritz-Carlton in Denver, Vail and Bachelor’s Gulch, and even at the Summit Visitor Center on Pikes Peak. The company closed its Lakewood location, but the spacious Tejon Street storefront offers 62 products, ranging from bath bombs and face serums to goat milk scrubs and lotions.

Tell us about your transition from math teacher to soap making.

I taught middle school and high school math for almost 20 years. And in 2010, I wanted to ease myself out of the classroom and do something else. It was about time. I’m artistic and musical, so I’ve been looking at doing a few other things, from sewing to art. And then I read an article online about soap making and how much science and math is involved in the process. All the formulas for oils and whatnot do not require [math and science] so i tried. And I was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing. This is really a great thing. … So I started making soap while I was teaching. … My life just balanced out by leaving teaching entirely and then really getting into soap making and bath and body products. In 2014, my husband and I were walking downtown and saw [what would become] my first store — really small. The woman was moving out that day and had a For Rent sign. The Downtown Partnership had a pop up deal where they would help you with the rent, then the guy who owned the building said he would help with the rent. So it was a no-brainer to say “Let me see if this actually works.” I opened on November 1, 2014 and the rest is history.

What was your first batch of soap?

This was the most difficult soap you can make. I tried to make a soap that had milk in it, which is really hard to make, and it had fresh berries in it—strawberry milk soap—and it was just a disaster. So I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got to back off and just go. Just figure out how to make simple soap. So it was a lot of work and trial and error, but it was fun and I was really excited to do something completely different. So I stuck with it.

Have you really never made soap before, never in your childhood?

Never. So you can do anything – anything is possible. We’ve been open for eight years, it’ll be eight years this November and I just turned 60. I was 52 when I started this business, which I hope will encourage people who are in that season of their lives to go, Yes , I could start something completely different. I would be a big advocate of that. It’s never too late.

What is your business philosophy?

I don’t care about selling a product, I really don’t. But my philosophy from Day 1 has been that our staff loves the people who come in here and loves talking to you. I just want customers when they leave to say, “This was a really great experience. I really enjoyed being there. The customer service is just rare. I think that is the key to success. It’s kind of gone down, I think maybe because of the stress due to COVID and people in general feeling a little more stressed than ever, so it’s hard to find really good customer service. But that’s the secret sauce.

Was it difficult to expand your business?

In 2016, we opened a second store in Lakewood. My daughter went there and handled it and she was making the product. We had racks that cut off half the store and she made the product and bottled the lotions there. All of a sudden you start growing, you’re bursting at the seams and you can’t do things fast enough, well enough, to meet the demand. Then you sit back and think about it and say, “Okay, that’s not going to work.” We needed a little factory reset. So you go out and look for it, you find it, you make adjustments, you hire staff — because it’s just that we used to do everything, so now we need a team. So you get to a point where you know you’re bursting at the seams and then you step back and rethink, “How can I do this to accommodate for growth?” I truly believe that most people who would be entrepreneurs and business owners, fear that this ultimately makes them decide not to. Or not to expand, or maybe not to go to the next level – because the unknown is very scary.

Did you rely on your faith to start your business?

Yes, you just need to know that God is watching over you. And it may be something he has a task for you in your life that you haven’t even considered yet. For me, at age 52, to go, “Yeah, soap is your ride.” I mean — really? Soap is my journey? I was a professional musician. I’ve been this, I’ve been that—but never soap. You have to be open to it. Honestly, it’s huge. Being ready for it and just listening to God and hearing what he has to do. I mean, money to even start this – we didn’t have it. … It was like, “Where are we going to get this 20 grand?” Someone at church had said, “God just told me he’s going to give you 20 grand,” and days later we talked to my retirement advisor and he said, “Oh, no, you couldn’t see it from your side, but we’ will throw $20,000 into that account.’ This money [from cashing in a retirement account] was the money we used out of thin air to start the business. It’s a small iceberg why I don’t feel any fear. That’s just what I’m counting on. If I make a wrong move, God will correct my move and all will be well—turn bad decisions into good ones in the long run. I mean there are still struggles and there are still things to overcome and we have bad days. We wonder why things happen, just like anyone else. But all in all it was a great trip.

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