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
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, bestofperu.com, 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