Mother Dirt | Bringing Back the Microbiome
At the age of 28, Jasmina Aganovic, a first-generation Bosnian-American, became the founding president of Mother Dirt. The company she helped build was founded in 2015 as the consumer side to AOBiome, a pharmaceutical research company that is investigating the skin’s microbiome – basically, the bacterial ecosystem that lives on everyone’s skin, or is supposed to. Because of the popularity of antibacterial products and lifestyles that keep us indoors, a lot of people are missing some of the essential “good bacteria,” found in dirt, on their skin. Much like the probiotic pills we take for gut health, Mother Dirt offers the AO+ Mist, which contains that missing bacteria in a liquid form and, when sprayed twice a day, promises to restore the balance of the skin’s microbiome.
I first encountered Jasmina through my mother, who had read a short profile about her on the 2016 “50 list” of “innovators, organizers, and visionaries who will lead us toward a more sustainable future” by Grist, an environmentally-oriented outlet my mom reads religiously. It was my mom who told me about Mother Dirt, that Jasmina had gone to MIT and lived in Boston, and that she was naša – ours.
Boston isn’t quite where Jasmina expected to end up - she originally planned to move to NYC - but the city has been good to her. She was running her second company before the age of thirty. Previously, she was the CEO of a skin care company called Bona Clara. “I’ve always been what I call an entrepreneur with training wheels,” she says. But the trajectory of her career doesn’t suggest any training wheels at all.
At MIT, she studied chemical & biological engineering and saw herself most likely going into the pharmaceutical field, which was common for her major. But after interning at a large pharma company the summer of her sophomore year, she realized it might not be the best fit for her. “I didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing,” says Jasmina. “It felt very disconnected from the bigger goal of what was happening at [the company].”
In addition to the impersonal feel of a large corporation, she didn’t think the industry would be a good match for her impatience. That summer, a drug that her team had spent years working on failed in its clinical trials. “I just remember thinking I would never be able to work on something for nine years and then have it just go “poof.” Gone.”
The next summer, she found her way to personal care and cosmetics through another internship, at a local Boston startup that assigned her the responsibility of parsing through the research and results from a lab that was closing down, to report on whether the technology they’d developed was viable. That lab had been working on skincare. “That was the first moment where I realized, ‘Oh. This is chemistry, this is engineering, this is very similar to the work that I was doing in the lab,’” says Jasmina. “But I’m able to connect to it. It’s not something that’s completely intangible. Like, I get it. This is my world, but it’s being applied to an industry that I never would have thought of.”
Since the world of skincare moves at a much quicker pace than medicine, it seemed like a perfect fit. And as someone who had struggled with acne all through high school and into college, Jasmina had always had an interest in skincare. Her mom had always advised her just to rinse her face with water, the same advice my own mom has always given me, but when her peers started using anti-acne cleansers, she did too. That’s when she started breaking out. It was the inception of both her skin problems and, in a roundabout way, her career in personal care and cosmetics. “I was put on antibiotics, both internally and topically, used benzoyl peroxide and stained all my pillowcases and clothes and stuff. But as terrible of an experience as that was, I became really interested in what I was using,” says Jasmina. She fell in love with the world of skincare.
Unlike many of her MIT peers, Jasmina skipped grad school and jumped right into her chosen career path. While she’d loved the education she got, she always knew she was ready to move on to the next stage in life. It’s the way she’s always been. In middle school, she was excited for high school; in high school, she looked forward to college; in college, she couldn’t wait to get her career off the ground. “I think everyone, my family especially, would not comment on my patience,” she says. “They know that I’m a pretty impatient person.”
Jasmina’s impatience is inherited from her father, Zijad, a serial entrepreneur who was also always ready for the next step. She considers herself a serial brand-builder. After working at smaller companies and being exposed to all the inner workings, “I became interested in other aspects of those businesses,” she says. “Over the years, what I ended up learning I really enjoyed doing was figuring out how to put the puzzle together – that is, taking science, and turning it into a story that is more universal for all of us to understand and interact with.”
But while she shines at brand-building for a company, personal brand-building is something Jasmina has always shied away from. She’s uncomfortable, she says, with personal branding, and nervous about the risk of being interpreted as a braggart – something that we agree is frowned upon in our culture. “I always had the sense that bragging was a really bad thing. You needed to be humble,” says Jasmina. “It’s really interesting to think about what you get from your upbringing, because humility was not something that my parents sat down with me [about].”
Jasmina was first employed by AOBiome, a small team of researchers who were working on technology around the skin’s microbiome. They planned to branch into the cosmetic market and needed someone with a background in science to develop the consumer side of the company. Jasmina was a perfect fit, and she worked with a team of two others – Mark Drury, who handled design, and Jim Hoffman, who worked on marketing – to create and launch the Mother Dirt brand.
Mark, who had previously worked with Jasmina at Bona Clara, was at first skeptical – how on earth were they going to sell live bacteria to people in the midst of Ebola panic? But if he didn’t have faith in the product’s ability to sell, he did have faith in Jasmina. “She had two agencies working on the development of the brand, but they don’t understand Jasmina,” says Mark. “They would come up with one idea and say, “Ok, here it is, this is it. It’s done.” And I know that that would never work for Jasmina. So I came in and started working with her.”
As Mark well knows, Jasmina prefers an iterative development process – that is, she’s a bit of a perfectionist. The best concepts come from formulation, reformulation, and re-reformulation. Still, as a boss she is open and understanding. “She trusts the people on the team. She passionately defends them and passionately challenges them,” says Mark. “She treats people like adults. We don’t punch a clock, we don’t have to be in by a certain time, we don’t have to spend a certain number of hours in the office. We come together as a team because we genuinely like to work with one another, and we get really good results that way.”
In the cozy Cambridge office, shelves are lined with Mother Dirt products and scattered with knick-knacks. There’s a cocktail station by the door, and there are plants by the window. Employees are able to work around their own schedules, which means Mark can head out for a run at 11, or Christina, who recently had a baby, can leave early to embrace the joys of motherhood. Everyone in the room seems to have a passion for the work. “This has been the best experience of my entire career,” says Mark. “I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, and this has been the single greatest challenge – building this brand, Mother Dirt, and working with Jasmina so closely to give her vision a brand, an identity, a face, a voice.”
The brand is carving out a new space in the personal care market – the idea of bacteria being beneficial goes against everything everyone has been saying since the existence of bacteria was discovered. But consumers are excited, because Mother Dirt works. After using all four products for about three weeks, my skin has never looked better, and I regularly find myself forgetting to put on deodorant because I don’t actually need it as much as I used to.
The world is already taking notice; Mother Dirt has been included in a new exhibit by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The exhibit, entitled “The Future Starts Here: 100 projects shaping the world of tomorrow,” runs from May 12 to November 4 and highlights innovations that will play a major role in the near future. Considering the company just celebrated its third birthday on July 7, the future looks bright.
For now, Jasmina is not entirely sure what’s next. She’s happy with her relationship and her job, and she’s taking life as it comes to her. “For the first time, I’m not running to go to the next phase. There’s something sad about that, because you realize that for a certain period of your life, especially when you’re young – and I realize that I’m still young – but for a certain period of your life, it’s all excitement,” she says. Her life so far has been about going through the big milestones: college, her first job, her first few relationships, engagement, marriage. “When those things are sort of checked and done, you realize that that phase of your life has passed."
The last year or so has been challenging for her. Jasmina, above all, values hard work and kindness. That shows in the way she’s lived her life and built her career. But some unpleasant experiences and observations within her industry, as well as the political fallout of the 2018 election, have made her realize that the world doesn’t work exactly the way she thought it did. “It’s like you’re playing this video game, and then you get to a certain level of the game, and all of a sudden you realize that there was this whole other video game that you could have been playing, and that what you saw was just one small subset,” she says. “I’m trying to figure out how to separate my own value set from how my environment reacts. I keep telling myself I just have to stay true to myself and what I feel comfortable with, and to feel like I am not going to have regrets in how I treated people, talked to people, the decisions that I made, even the really tough decisions, and that needs to be my value stick.”
The world is often not kind or fair. But Jasmina is trying to be. And like the bacteria in Mother Dirt’s AO+ mist, she’s balancing the bad with as much good as she can muster.