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While enduring Coronavirus-related shutdowns, many of us have turned to enjoying our natural surroundings more often. For Jeff Alfaro-Johnston, founder and perfumer of JSQUARED, the importance of integrating natural elements into daily life has become a science -- one that he has mastered through formal study and a unique passion for natural materials and their ability to enrich our lives.
Inspired by the robust process of producing essential oils and purely natural scented products, in 2016 Jeff and his husband, also named Jeff, opened JSQUARED, an essential oil and naturally scented products company. Jeff and Jeff are dedicated to creating high-quality products, and taking an active role in improving their Washington, D.C. community by supporting initiatives for Whitman Walker, a community health organization specializing in LGBTQ+ care in D.C., and Black Lives Matter.
In celebration of Pride Month, we asked Jeff a few questions about his business and being an LGBTQ+ small business owner in a year of unprecedented challenges and uncertainty.
The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Question: What inspired you to get into this business and how do you convey that inspiration through your products?
Answer: It all started about 17 years ago. I grew up in the Philippines, and one summer my sister and I started a candle business in my mom's kitchen before going to college. It was just all for fun and back then I didn't know better. I just used the materials everybody else was using. I was not knowledgeable about the types of materials available, or what I was using. At the time, it was just anything from synthetic fragrance to petroleum-based candles. And that's basically how it started. I've always been a nature person – like when I see mountains in front of me, or water going into the river, or when I’m at the beach. That's how I relate it to myself, through the energy nature brings. It's completely different when you have a natural plant in front of you versus the plastic version of it. So, in 2016 I decided I wanted to create something unique and very different, something that captures and honors this sense of nature.
Q: Can you talk about some of the essential oils that JSQUARED uses and how they are unique to your business?
A: I wanted to use and highlight the natural essences of plants and the benefits they offer us. For example, when you touch a peppermint plant, right away you can smell the essence on your hands. And that's exactly what I wanted to work with. I work with essential oils from many different sources: oils that come from the peel of citrus fruit, oils that come from the bark of trees, roots of plants, flowers, herbs, etc. So far, I have a perfume organ with about 200 different types of essential oils and natural isolates I use to create my formulations.
Q: What is the value of using natural products and fragrances?
A: First of all, when I say “natural,” it's anything that can be extracted from nature –nothing adulterated, nothing that is synthesized in a laboratory, or any man-made fragrance. Unfortunately, we don't have good regulations here in United States to define what “natural” means, which allows candle makers who use essential oils to claim “natural fragrance,” even though they mix it with synthetic fragrance. That doesn't grab me because it's adulterated, artificial fragrance.
The beauty of nature is the nuances, like when you pick something up from the ground – the purity of the elements, from where and how the plant grows is in there – adding to the complexity of the natural fragrance. This is part of my craft: to really push myself to use all of these raw materials and ingredients, capturing their full complexity, without mixing any synthetic forms, phthalates, or artificial preservatives. I want it to be true and real to anyone who is using our creations.
I've always burned candles in my home, but it was hard for me to find 100% natural candles. So, that is part of why I started the therapeutic candles, to reconnect with the natural world. I wanted to promote the health benefits of the oils I use and what they are known for. I researched different types of essential oils, how they were used historically and the benefits people associated with them. Then, I let the raw materials speak to me as I develop my formulations. In 2018 I went to France to study natural perfumery and learn the story behind my craft. These scents hold a lot of history, and that's something that really captivates me.
Q: In the spirit of pride month, we are highlighting the wonderful LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs in Washington D.C.'s local business community. What are the unique opportunities and challenges that have been presented to you in the LGBTQ+ business community?
A: When I started the company, I didn't really highlight that we are an LGBTQ+ company. I was more focused on making high quality natural fragrance. But, as the years went by in this business, I felt it was necessary to be heard and to be a part of the community. As a small business owner, it's challenging and there were times that we faced difficulties because we were afraid people might turn us down or wouldn't want to do business with us because we are a gay-owned business. But things changed over time as people started to value diversity more, and as our local government expanded support to the community. We believe in continuing what we do and to really represent who we are, not just as a gay-owned business, but as artisan perfumers.
Q: What is JSQUARED doing to celebrate Pride this year? Do you incorporate any special initiatives into your daily operations during pride month?
A: It's been a very difficult year, I believe, for everybody, and especially for small businesses. But, as we head into this year’s Pride, I am very aware of inequality in general and invested in the Black Lives Matter movement. From the beginning, I was pushed to do something, so we’re currently donating a portion of our profits to Black Lives Matter here in the area. We are a very small business, but when I created this business, my goal was to always make sure that I'm able to reach out, help others, and be part of the community. For Pride Month in June, we created another promotion: I have been part of Whitman Walker here in Washington, D.C., so we are partnering with them to share a portion of profits with them and help the local LGBTQ+ community.
Q: It's been a tough year for small businesses. What is your vision is of the future of American business and entrepreneurship?
A: You know, I've never experienced anything like it before. For a small business owner like me, it's extremely hard to do face-to-face business with customers and other stores. Some of the stores I'm supplying are closed, and everything has stopped.
As small business owners, we needed to think quick. So, we've shifted focus to grow online. People came together to help each other out and our small business community has grown closer.
It is still my goal to grow our presence with different retailers – not because I think a lot of people will be going to stores anytime soon, but because I know retailers will find a way to sell their products through e-commerce. I don't want to limit myself and our business to selling only on our own platform. I want to share what we are doing, what we have, what we are curating, and what we are creating. I want to continue the engagement with people, but connecting with them in new ways, sharing the art of natural perfumery and the scents we create.
Q: Can you explain how JSQUARED has adapted to going fully digital during COVID-19?
A: It's sort of a bittersweet situation we are in, especially for small businesses. As a business owner myself, I am very limited by the things that I don't know. How am I now going to connect and tell my story to all of the people I used to meet face-to-face? How do I share my presence and authenticity, especially through social media?
Technology has taught me so much about how to talk and how to reach out and speak to consumers in different ways. I've really pushed my boundaries to engage and use social media to tell our story and share what we are doing. That's what I've been doing every day. I'm still not very good at it, but it’s something that really helped me to evolve as a business owner. I’m learning how to get in touch with a lot of people, despite not being able to see them face-to-face.