How slow life fast-tracked me into the beauty busi­ness

Ni­cola Con­nolly spent years liv­ing in the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands, re­mote rain­forests and The An­des. Now she’s com­bin­ing the prin­ci­ples of slow liv­ing and sus­tain­abil­ity she learned there to cre­ate her new skin­care line, writes Li­adan Hynes

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - People -

NI­COLA Con­nolly was just 22 when she landed a huge job with Ryanair, look­ing af­ter, at the time, its new Span­ish op­er­a­tions.

Hav­ing stud­ied French and Span­ish in Trin­ity, Ni­cola, who turns 40 this year, and grew up in Boot­er­stown, the sec­ond el­dest of five chil­dren, went straight into a job with Ryanair’s mar­ket­ing depart­ment. At the time, she was based in Lon­don, but fly­ing up to six times a week. The com­pany’s launch in Spain co­in­cided with her com­ing to work for them. “I started my ca­reer there, so a bap­tism of fire,” she laughs now. She was there for al­most two years, re­flect­ing now; “I was ex­hausted by the end of it. It was very in­tense. An amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence; they gave me so much re­spon­si­bil­ity. But I knew fairly fast that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was look­ing for some­thing with more mean­ing, more in line with my own val­ues.”

She handed in her no­tice, set­ting off alone to travel around the world, with an itin­er­ary based on a list of is­lands she had loved since child­hood.

The plan was to re­turn home to a mas­ters in in­ter­na­tional busi­ness af­ter six months. “When you travel on your own, I think you chal­lenge yourself a bit more,” Ni­cola re­flects. She had al­ready trav­elled to Aus­tralia on her own aged 17, af­ter her Leav­ing Cert. Is she nat­u­rally very in­de­pen­dent, I ask, and she bursts out laugh­ing, nod­ding her head.

Her last stop was the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands. Of the 19 is­lands, four of them are in­hab­ited, with a pop­u­la­tion of ap­prox­i­mately 20,000 at the time Ni­cola ar­rived. “I ar­rived for four days, I was due home the fol­low­ing week to start my mas­ters. The boat pulled into this amaz­ing cove with all these lava rocks, turquoise sea, pen­guins playing. I hadn’t even set foot on the is­land, and I knew I had to stay.”

And stay she did; get­ting a meet­ing with the mayor, pitch­ing a project to de­velop an eco-tourism strat­egy for the is­land, whose in­hab­i­tants were not, at the time, ben­e­fit­ing fi­nan­cially from tourists who would visit, but stay on boats. The mayor said yes on the spot to her pro­posal, with Ni­cola be­com­ing direc­tor of tourism for the is­land, even­tu­ally liv­ing there for four and a half years.

Be­fore be­gin­ning her new job, she worked for six months in the Ama­zon. Trav­el­ling back to the Ama­zon from a week’s hol­i­day to Peru, she took the night bus, and was in­volved in a ter­ri­fy­ing hi­jack­ing. Driv­ing through des­o­late, un­in­hab­ited ba­nana plan­ta­tions, the man be­hind Ni­cola sud­denly stood up and shot in the roof. “I was the only for­eigner and only fe­male on the bus,” she re­calls now. “They started shout­ing ‘this is a rob­bery, no­body move or we’ll kill you’.” The two men ri­fled through every­one’s be­long­ings, tak­ing all valu­ables, shoot­ing through the door of the cabin where the sec­ond driver was thought to be asleep. “To try and kill him.” He had, in fact, al­ready bro­ken the win­dow and es­caped, which pan­icked their as­sailants, who then forced the driver to take the bus off the road and down a dirt track.

Ni­cola was forced off the bus at gun point. “I knew to stay calm, and not give them the power. I thought ‘be as calm as you can, and they’re not go­ing to get ag­i­tated by you’. In any sit­u­a­tion in life, you have a choice how you re­act.” They threw her on the ground, where she landed face down on a nest of painful fire ants. “I just started pray­ing. I don’t think I’d prayed in years. That part was the most ter­ri­fy­ing.” Some­thing spooked the at­tack­ers, and they ran, driv­ing away in their van. Even­tu­ally, the po­lice ar­rived. Ni­cola’s mother is an ex­pert in post-trau­matic emer­gen­cies, work­ing at coun­selling staff in the af­ter­math of bank raids. “So I have a bit of a back­ground in how to han­dle these things,” she smiles.

In Gala­pa­gos, she lived in a lit­tle house on the edge of the beach. “It was very laid back. At the time there were no paved streets, it was all sand. It was a re­ally slow pace of life. I made amaz­ing friends, learned to surf, to salsa dance.” At the same time, she set up her own busi­ness as the first eco tour op­er­a­tor on the is­land.

Af­ter Gala­pa­gos, she moved to the coast of Ecuador, liv­ing in a fish­ing vil­lage, work­ing as a sus­tain­abil­ity con­sul­tant in the in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment field, as­sist­ing lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties in de­vel­op­ing their re­sources to­wards mak­ing a bet­ter liv­ing; dur­ing her time liv­ing on the is­land in the Gala­pa­gos she had done an on­line course in strate­gic sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment.

“In the ru­ral ar­eas, they are sus­tain­abil­ity lead­ers. Be­cause that’s how they’ve al­ways been. They live very sim­ple lives. Their im­pact is very low; They’re not out shop­ping every day, they don’t have very many ma­te­rial pos­ses­sions. Deep in the Ama­zon, they see the en­vi­ron­men­tal changes caused by big­ger in­dus­try, and they’re fight­ing to pre­serve what they have.”

Her work took her to the un­touched rain­for­est ar­eas. To get to these places, she would take a bus for maybe eight or more hours to a city, an­other four-hour bus jour­ney to a lo­cal vil­lage, from where she would travel on a dug out, typ­i­cally pole-driven, ca­noe. “There’s ob­vi­ously no roads; it’s all by river. The dug out would literally pull in at the edge of the bank; there’s no jetty. You jump out into the mud.”

The vil­lages tended to be set around a foot­ball pitch, with houses built on stilts to pro­tect against floods. “One of the main things that struck me in these ru­ral ar­eas was

‘When you travel on your own, I think you chal­lenge yourself a bit more’

‘I’m al­ways look­ing for a full life, that’s full of mean­ing’

how con­tent, and ful­filled, peo­ple were,” she says now. “The pace of life is slower. They re­ally live with na­ture.” While each vil­lage would have a medicine man or woman, Ni­cola de­scribes how every fam­ily would have a ba­sic level of knowl­edge about how to heal phys­i­cal ail­ments us­ing plants and the nat­u­ral world.

Work­ing on a project with women mak­ing soap, she was shown the main in­gre­di­ent; “She cut the bark with a ma­chete and this red liq­uid flowed out. It healed wounds, cuts or in­flam­ma­tions. I was blown away, that they could just walk out­side, take a lit­tle cup, the tree’s still there, it’s still pro­duc­ing, and they could make these prod­ucts.

“That was the first seed in my mind,” she says, re­fer­ring to the en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, sus­tain­able skin­care line she launched last year, Nunaia. “Their con­nec­tion is with cy­cles in na­ture, and how im­por­tant that is to stay healthy and well.”

Af­ter seven years in Ecuador, Ni­cola moved to Peru with her part­ner, a French­man whose line of work was in well­ness, to live in a small vil­lage in The An­des.

The An­des was a to­tally dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment; high al­ti­tude, very dry air. “Be­cause you’re so close to the sun, your skin be­comes a bit like a prune,” she smiles. She de­scribes the con­cept of the ayni, by which the Quechua com­mu­nity live. “It ba­si­cally means rec­i­proc­ity. It’s that idea of ‘to­day I’ll help you, and to­mor­row you’ll help me. And if to­day I help and look af­ter the earth, then to­mor­row she’ll look af­ter me’. It’s not re­ally a con­cept, it’s more just the way they live. It’s very spe­cific to the Quechua peo­ple, the in­dige­nous group that live in the An­des.” It ex­tends to help­ing your neigh­bours, your com­mu­nity, with ev­ery­thing from the tend­ing of crops, to house build­ing.

Once there she set up a travel web­site, be­stof­, and ap­pren­ticed with a lo­cal medicine woman. It brought her into con­tact with the rit­u­als the lo­cals used around their well-be­ing prac­tises. “They have all these rit­u­als that they do either daily, or at dif­fer­ent times of the year, and that’s what they’re do­ing to stay bal­anced and healthy. I was fas­ci­nated by that.”

Work­ing with the medicine woman meant div­ing into knowl­edge of lo­cal plants, and their sci­en­tific prop­er­ties. A way of com­bin­ing her in­ter­ests in well­ness, and sus­tain­abil­ity was mak­ing it­self clear; Ni­cola be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with lo­cal plants on her own skin, which had be­come dry in the ag­gres­sive con­di­tions she had been liv­ing in.

She started work­ing with a bi­ol­o­gist and a cos­me­tol­o­gist, mak­ing creams, study­ing skin­care. Ini­tially, she sold creams at the lo­cal mar­ket. On vis­its home to Ire­land, she would give them as presents. Word started to spread, and she be­gan shop­ping world­wide.

“I’m al­ways look­ing for a full life, that’s full of mean­ing. I had found that through the rit­u­als and the well­ness tech­niques that I had started to use. I felt such a sense of hap­pi­ness, and bal­ance, which I hadn’t had be­fore. And I can only at­tribute it to this new life, this slow liv­ing. Eat­ing re­ally well. Nur­tur­ing my­self.”

Six years into liv­ing in Peru, she was ready to do some­thing dif­fer­ent. Cre­at­ing a nat­u­ral, but high-per­form­ing prod­uct be­came the goal. She man­aged to get fund­ing from En­ter­prise Ire­land, and she and her part­ner moved to Ire­land in 2016. They found a house in Tip­per­ary; keen to repli­cate their liv­ing sit­u­a­tion, their home is sit­u­ated in a na­ture re­sort.

Ni­cola’s skin­care line, Nunaia, launched in Septem­ber of 2018, with their nour­ish­ing ra­di­ance serum whose ac­tives are sourced from Peru. The pack­ag­ing is fully re­cy­clable. They are al­ready be­ing stocked in Arnotts, amongst other re­tail­ers.

Ni­cola speaks about one’s skin­care rit­u­als as a form of self-care, but hers is a def­i­ni­tion of self-care founded on the idea of look­ing af­ter one­self and the earth, not just a picture and a hash­tag on In­sta­gram. “I be­lieve that our planet needs more con­nec­tion. This is my way of do­ing that.”

Nu­naïa Founder Ni­cola Con­nolly in the An­deS. Photo: Diego Gav­i­lan Cabr­era

Ni­cola Con­nolly in a for­est in Peru, where she worked with a lo­cal medicine woman. Photo: Diego Gav­i­lan Cabr­era

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