Arlington’s Cristina Bagozzi, 40, came to the United States from Romania as a teenager to escape communism. She went on to work in brand management for science-based beauty company Living Proof and as a vice president for clean-beauty brand Follain. In November, the mom of two elementary schoolers launched Emmotiv, a line of mood-based perfumes.
“The fragrances are clean, vegan, cruelty-free, and offer full ingredient transparency, which was super important to me in creating something that’s supposed to be holistically good for you. This is super unique in the industry. Most fragrance brands do not disclose their fragrance ingredients. Emmotiv does,” she says.
While most fragrances are designed for special occasions, hers are designed to enhance our mundane lives: Cozy Reverie for a night on the couch, Calm Soul while idling on the T. And, at $28, they’re less than many high-quality perfumes.
Why did your family come to the United States?
I was born and raised in Romania. I spent my childhood there before the fall of communism. It was a very difficult time, and the situation got worse — to the point where the Eastern Bloc started to crumble. Once the regime fell, there was communication with the Western world, but the economic situation was actually quite dire, because there was no system to help prop up all the people who had been living under the old system. We had friends who lived in the United States who were willing to sponsor us to visit. This was pre-9/11, so it was a very different situation with getting visas. We ended up coming to the Detroit area, because that’s where they lived.
Basically, we came to visit, just partly out of: What if? What if there’s an opportunity here? But we also left our family home. When we got here, my parents made the decision, because they were able to find jobs, to actually stay. Our lives completely changed forever. I didn’t speak any English. It was right at the beginning of my teenage years, which just didn’t help the situation.
Did your childhood inspire you to start this brand?
I’ve encountered a lot of challenges in my life, but I didn’t let them define who I was or limit my willingness to explore new opportunities.
One of the things that really inspired me to even create the brand — aside from my love of fragrance, which I can definitely talk about — is my personal relationship with acknowledging and embracing my emotions.
As a teenager in a new country, in a new culture, I ended up suppressing my emotions a lot, which was obviously not necessarily healthy. As I progressed through life, and even my career, I started to realize how important it really is to allow myself the permission to feel my feelings, embrace my emotions, and celebrate them.
As I got older, I felt so strongly that I wanted to create a brand that empowers and encourages people to embrace the beauty of our emotions. At the end of the day, it helps us experience life in a much more profound way — and I feel like, in today’s world, we’re often encouraged to suppress how we feel.
In the media, it’s often presented as quite superficial and something you wear to go out. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s actually this beautiful, and I would say profound, aspect of fragrance that we often don’t talk about. It’s the connection between scent and emotion. Our sense of smell is the only one that has this direct link to the area of the brain that controls emotion, a primordial area of the brain. Our other senses get processed through the thinking brain. There’s this very interesting, and honestly not very well understood, scientific connection between scent and emotion. I chose scent as the medium because of this beautiful link.
[I use] ingredients that have been shown to help evoke specific emotions. A lot of this knowledge comes from aromatherapy. Some of it comes from aromachology, which is the study of emotion and scent. These notes are wrapped in the artistry of perfume. How it works in the brain? Nobody fully understands. We have the data to show the link between the notes and the emotion, but how it works is still probably one of the least researched parts of the brain. It’s fascinating, and something that’s a bit of an enigma, still.
You had a great job at Follain. How did you decide to take this leap? Sounds scary.
I’m very risk-averse. … But I was at a point in my career where I felt like: It’s now or never. I’m using my own hard-earned savings. I don’t have a fund for this or anything like that. I had to be extremely disciplined about where I invested and how I went to market so that I could minimize the upfront cost, because it’s just so expensive to launch a new brand. I’m 40 years old. If I didn’t do it now, it was never going to happen.
During COVID, people rethought what their careers meant and took stock of their lives in many ways. What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you did?
Let me put it this way: If I hadn’t been working for 15 years and had savings, I probably wouldn’t have done this, because I would’ve ended up having to raise money or taking out a loan very early in the process, which I didn’t feel comfortable with. I didn’t want to do that, because I’m aware that many new businesses don’t make it. I wanted to minimize the financial risk to myself and my family.
I came up with how much I felt comfortable putting into the business to test the concept in market before going to the next level. I’m comfortable sharing how much I spent: I spent $25,000 of my savings to get the brand to market, and then on top of that, the cost of inventory. So it’s not cheap — but, compared with how much most brands spend to get to market, it’s usually in the half-a-million to million-dollar range.
The reason I was able to do it so scrappily is because I’m basically doing everything myself. I literally learned product photography from scratch so that I don’t have to hire a creative agency.
What does that look like in terms of balancing a family?
One of the benefits of being a solo founder is that I can make decisions very quickly. I don’t have to spend time creating decks and having meetings to get other people on board with decisions.
I really embrace the fact that I’m a solo founder and just force myself to be decisive at every step of the process. It’s very easy to waste a lot of time. The work-life balance is actually comparable to, or even a little bit better than, what I was experiencing when I was running a business with a team and a lot of stakeholders involved. … A lot of times, it’s easy to over-complicate the process. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that complicated.
My advice for somebody who’s trying to start out is: Be very clear and know how much money you feel comfortable putting in, if you’re not doing external fundraising. Stick with that, and figure out how to work around that limitation.
Also: Don’t feel that you have to have it all figured out. If I thought I needed to have every little piece completely identified before I hit go, I would’ve never gotten to where I am. You have to allow yourself to be comfortable with ambiguity, working it out as you go. If you have the passion and the baseline degree of understanding of the process, you’ll get there, as long as you don’t feel that you have to be perfect the whole time.
Level with me: What will these scents do for my mood?
I chose to focus on four emotional spaces to start, because I think that they’re very universal. It’s really about wearing fragrance for yourself, rather than for someone else. I created fragrance concepts that pair well with specific intentions and routines.
Calm Soul is maybe while you’re commuting to work and looking to achieve an instant sense of calm. It’s a blend of grounding woods, including palo santo, cedarwood, and juniper. Cozy Reverie has a blend of creamy, sensual florals that have a mildly sedative quality. Joy Rush is about celebrating the emotion of joy, with bergamot, which helps promote feelings of bliss. It’s like bottling up sunshine. Love Euphoric focuses on this idea of euphoric, blissful, optimistic love that comes with a first crush, built around a bouquet of aphrodisiac florals: ylang-ylang, jasmine, and rose absolute. It’s meant to help you feel adored, empowered, and loved.
Interview has been edited and condensed.