After being diagnosed in college with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a prominent women’s health issue that causes symptoms spanning from chronic fatigue to anxiety, digestive, and fertility issues, Ashley Harmon spent years visiting specialists and trying prescription medicines that were unable to provide her with a consistent solution. Then one day she found a doctor who helped identify her vitamin deficiencies and once resolved, began to feel better. However, the supplements cost hundreds monthly, which Harmon found unsustainable as a college student, so she learned how to make them.
Since then, Harmon has been ordering raw ingredients, developing formulas, and testing them for the last decade. She didn’t imagine that she’d create a business around it, but when the pandemic hit Harmon shares: “I experienced firsthand how communities of color were disproportionately impacted. That same year, leading health organizations released studies linking Vitamin D deficiency to the increased risk of severe COVID-19, breast cancer, dementia, and more.” In addition, reports shared that an estimated 76-90% of melanated people are Vitamin D deficient due to several factors, one, in particular, being that melanin impacts the body’s ability to absorb Vitamin D from the sun.
After learning this news, Harmon began looking for a multivitamin that was high-quality and affordable to recommend to friends and family. And despite the size of the $35 billion dollar supplement industry, she could not find one that fully met the nutritional needs of melanated people. This inspired Harmon to create Mela Vitamins, “the first and only wellness company forming supplements to meet the unique nutritional needs of melanated people.”
Harmon shares more on the science behind the supplement, how she and team aim to scale, her experience navigating the supplement industry, and words of wisdom for others interested in entering the industry.
The Science Behind the Supplement
Through science-based research, consultations with healthcare providers, and consumer focus groups to understand their community’s desires and nutrient needs, the Mela Vitamins team created the Daily Essentials multivitamin that precisely includes the vitamins, probiotics, and adaptogens needed by melanated women. And given the recent research detailing how melanin impacts the body’s ability to absorb nutrients including Vitamin D from the sun, Harmon and team found it important to include high-quality, high-dose Vitamin D in its Daily Essentials. As Harmon shares she has found that: “other multivitamins on the market often do not contain adequate levels to address or prevent deficiency.”
In addition to addressing Vitamin D needs, the Mela Vitamins team has found it important to integrate other ingredients to support members of its community’s most pressing needs. “For years, melanated people have had different health risks for a variety of reasons, with our Daily Essentials we too aim to include other ingredients that help melanated people address their specific health concerns,” shares Harmon. With studies showing that melanated people in the US are twice as likely to develop diabetes and heart disease in their lifetimes, the Mela Vitamins team has included Ceylon Cinnamon and five strains of probiotics to support blood sugar management and promote heart health. With also learning that there are higher occurrences of dementia and Alzheimer’s in melanated people, they’ve also included Lion’s Mane, Vitamin B12, and Vitamin E to support cognitive health and mental focus.
Scaling Mela Vitamins
“It took us over a year to manufacture during the pandemic – ingredients were out of stock, shipments were delayed and the FDA-registered manufacturing facilities were backlogged for months,” Harmon shares. Following these delays, Mela Vitamins launched its Daily Essentials in July of 2022. Since the launch, the team has witnessed an incredible response from consumers and healthcare providers. “People are excited to find a product that is not just inclusive but actually made for their unique nutritional needs and wellness goals. We are grateful to have been able to create a clean, effective, and affordable multivitamin for a community that has been largely overlooked by the wellness industry,” Harmon expands.
With the Daily Essentials multivitamin launching on Mela Vitamins’ website, the product has since expanded to retailers in Los Angeles and online marketplaces across the US. The supplement company also offers a subscription service to make it easier for customers to maintain a healthy wellness routine. In addition, as the company has continued to scale, the Mela Vitamins team has been committed to empowering melanated communities to prioritize wellness through educational campaigns, in-person events, and live discussions with healthcare leaders.
“The health and wellness industry has had a complicated and often harmful history with melanated people who continue to experience inequalities. This has created distrust among those communities of not only the healthcare system but also of preventative wellness products like supplements. But we at Mela are working to change this,” says Harmon. As a result, Mela Vitamins has continued to invest resources into research to understand other nutrient needs of melanated people and develop products that address the health goals and concerns of its community.
Navigating the Supplement Industry & Hopes for the Future
Harmon has found it challenging to create a new path and niche in a billion-dollar industry that she has found has overlooked a major segment of the population: “I do not look like most supplement company founders and did not start with multi-million dollar backing from a large corporation. It was challenging to find business and manufacturing partners, as many did not understand the need for Mela Vitamins, but I would like to think we have proven them wrong,” the founder expresses. Mela Vitamins Daily Essentials has successfully launched through a self-funded company that is changing the narrative for wellness products and supplements made for and by melanated people.
Throughout this process, Harmon has learned that making supplements is relatively easy, but custom formulating clean and effective supplements is more complicated and can be an expensive and slow process. “There are always shortcuts, ways to reduce costs, and opportunities to white-label supplements–and this is what many other companies do. But we have taken the time to really learn the science behind the formula, to source the highest quality products, and to intentionally avoid using harmful fillers,” Harmon expresses. This has included testing products through a third party for quality and safety, which has enabled Mela Vitamins to offer supplements that are certified vegan, non-GMO, and gluten-free. “In an industry that is not as regulated as it probably should be, Mela is providing accessible, transparent, and high-quality products for melanated people,” says Mela Vitamins’ founder.
Harmon’s long-term hope is that the supplement industry continues to research and invest in new, custom-formulated products that address the unmet needs of various communities. She too hopes the industry will infuse greater accountability and transparency into considering the types of ingredients used in formulas. “Many companies include a significant amount of fillers in their products to reduce costs, which lower effectiveness and are often harmful to our bodies and the environment, such as magnesium stearate and titanium dioxide,” Harmon expresses. As consumers become more conscious of their consumption and how the products they create impact the environment, she looks forward to a landscape where the industry better prioritizes this.
Harmon’s Wisdom For Scaling A Supplement Company
For Harmon, even with the knowledge gained from creating her own supplements, overcoming the fear of manufacturing her vitamins for other people was a huge hurdle. “It can be intimidating navigating an industry dominated by large corporations and more recently organizations backed by celebrities, and none of them look like you,” shares the Mela Vitamins founder. “And except for my self-appointed WebMD degree, I am not a healthcare professional. I also decided to self-fund the launch of Mela Vitamins, so I could maintain the freedom to create a company and product that I truly believe in. I am not sure that I picked the easiest way, but I created my own path.”
Given her experience, she shares the following tips for launching a successful supplement company:
- Solve a problem & create value: “There are countless multivitamins, sleep aids, and energy supplements on the market. You have to find a problem you want to solve and create a product that has a unique value proposition that stands out in a busy market. Consumer focus groups are a great, low-cost way to understand consumer needs and test your pricing and branding.”
- Build a foundation in science: “I am proof that you do not have to be a doctor to launch a supplement company, but you do have to build a foundation in science. Work with healthcare professionals and scientists to conduct research and develop a formula that is safe and effective. If you have the resources, it is helpful to facilitate a user group or trial to receive feedback and make adjustments prior to a full launch.”
- Do it the right way, not the easy way: “There are ways to cut corners, but it won’t pay off in the long run. Take the time to source high-quality ingredients, partner with FDA-registered manufacturers, and invest in testing and certifications. I also recommend starting with one product that establishes the brand, instead of multiple products that may not be the best quality.”
While these pieces of wisdom have inspired a great deal of opportunity for Mela Vitamins, Harmon’s long-term vision is to grow the company to a go-to supplement brand for melanated people: “We have created a new niche within the wellness and beauty supplement industry that has been largely underserved, and we want to continue to be leaders driving research and innovation in this area.” Therefore, in the future, Mela Vitamins aims to expand its product offerings to support men and children, and address other health priorities in the melanated community like prenatal health, heart health, and stress management.
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