Ashley Prange was relieved.
Taking a visitor on a tour through the lab at Au Naturale Cosmetics in the Main Street Commons building in Green Bay, the founder and CEO of the company had just found a place where she could source palm oil, one of a few organic oils that fit her standards. It’s from Ecuador.
“I am concerned about deforestation,” she says. “This is finally a palm oil I feel good about, and we are one of the first ones to carry it. I hope to go there next month.”
Prange certainly knows her niche, says friend and business advisor Ted Neitzke.
“There aren’t many people who can tell you about asparagus oil and how it is so healthy for your eyelashes,” he says.
Prange was working at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission when she decided to launch Au Naturale Cosmetics. Today, she employs 22 people who formulate, manufacture, package, promote and ship a full line of 100 percent natural, vegan, cruelty-free cosmetics. The lipstick, eye shadow, foundation and everything else in her product line is available in more than 100 retail locations in North America and online through Amazon and several niche cosmetics companies.
Sports Illustrated model Julie Henderson, a big believer in the brand, is featured in Au Naturale’s promotional materials, having posed with its products in Cape Town, South Africa as well as Door County and Green Bay.
Prange has a bold vision for the company she founded in 2011.
“We want to be regarded as the cleanest makeup company, with the highest performance, in the world,” she says.
How a 2005 graduate of St. Norbert College — who majored in international studies and political science — made her way to Washington, D.C., landed a job at the NRC and then picked Green Bay as the perfect place to build a glamorous beauty business may seem an incongruous story.
Spend a little time with Prange, however, and you come to realize her passion and her actions have always been quite connected. You could say, almost as well connected as she is, both personally and professionally, from the luminaries who have influenced her to the mentors who have helped guide her way.
“If you break down her journey to how she got to where she is, she’s got the energy of youth but the wisdom of life,” says Neitzke, CEO of CESA 6 in Oshkosh, who came to know Prange through their TEC group (now called Vistage) and has joined the Au Naturale advisory board. “They say the more experiences you give your children the more likely they are to take positive risks in life. Somebody allowed her to go out there and have almost falcon-like wings.”
It’s taken a lot of grit, creativity and connections to build a successful small company with the potential for a big, bright future. Prange established the company in her Washington apartment, then relocated to Green Bay in 2013. Au Naturale became profitable last year, earning more than $1 million in sales, double its 2015 revenue. This year, the company is on track to double sales again — though Prange has even loftier goals.
“My personal goal is $4 million this year, which is really ambitious,” Prange says.
That’s certainly possible, says Neitzke, who has experience helping manufacturers execute lean, Six Sigma and strategic planning.
“She really does have the ability to quadruple sales. With Ashley, they are real-time inventing and they are disrupting a really established market. You have a whole generation of millennials who are conscious of what goes in and on their bodies.”
Driven to make a difference
Her sophomore year at St. Norbert, Prange was encouraged by her political science professor to attend an event hosted by the Oneida Nation Indians, where then Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island was to speak. She was eager to land an internship on Capitol Hill, working on causes she believes in.
“It was one of those pivotal moments in my life,” Prange recalls. “I’m sure he was approached all the time by people who wanted to work for him, but I wanted an opportunity to work full time in an office that was actually doing something. I ran up to Patrick and I just told him, ‘I want to work full time!”
In August of her junior year, she indeed landed what she wanted: an unpaid job communicating with constituents for Kennedy (son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy) while taking classes toward her major at nearby American University.
There, she had the chance to meet and speak with celebrities, politicians and activists from George Clooney and the Dalai Lama to Elizabeth Dole and Jane Goodall. Meeting Goodall, especially, left a mark on her.
“After she spoke, I went up to her to ask a question,” Prange recalls. “She’s like this angel — there’s something amazing about Jane. When I asked her a question, I did this (she puts her hands together) and she took her hands over mine and said, ‘Whatever you want to do, you can do it. You’re going to do cool things.’ She was just so calm and serene. I thought, ‘Whatever you say!’”
She spent a semester studying in South Africa, then immediately after graduating in 2005, took a job she had learned about through a great-uncle who was a judge at the NRC.
At the NRC, Prange scheduled meetings and hearings for issues she cared deeply about, such as storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in New Mexico, and traveling to Western states to arrange meetings with Indian tribes and citizen groups near uranium mines. But the work eventually slowed and she grew tired of the pace of government.
Personal quest for pure cosmetics
Prange had made friends at the nearby Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health advocacy organization. She shared her personal challenge finding products that would not make her sensitive skin break out.
When they showed her EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetics database on ingredients for skin care products, she was astonished to see the toxic ingredients in so many of them. Among them were endocrine disrupters, chemicals that may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune defects in humans and wildlife, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
“Endocrine disrupters can affect your reproductive organs, and no one talks about them,” Prange says. “If it can affect your reproductive organs, maybe it’s also giving you zits!”
Unable to find products free of synthetic ingredients, she started making her own makeup.
She ordered base ingredients on the website Etsy, including raw mica, a mineral which lends a shimmer to cosmetics. She made her own blush with a coffee grinder, graduating to her kitchen Vitamix when she began making it in larger volumes. Next, eye shadow.
Prange connected with suppliers of natural raw ingredients for cosmetics online and sourced a few key people who helped her formulate products that meet her high standards, including Gay Timmons, who runs Oh, Oh, Organic Inc. in San Francisco and chairs the California Organic Products Advisory Committee.
She began selling her cosmetics online. Soon, she felt overwhelmed by all the things she didn’t know.
“I have never gone into this pretending I’m an expert in anything, I’m just trying to find a healthy cosmetic that works for me,” Prange says. “And then, if we can make it green and if we can make it even safer and if we can do things I’ve always been passionate about — like the environment and empowering small farmers who are making organic ingredients, doing it in the U.S. and creating more jobs —all of these things matter to me, intrinsically.”
Getting ahead with grit, connections
One evening, a bad date ended on a positive note. The date introduced her to a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist who become a close friend and, eventually, business mentor. Prange credits Rick Rickertsen for helping her develop a business plan for Au Naturale.
“She’s super charming. When Ashley Prange says jump, I say ‘How high?’” says Rickertsen, managing partner of Pine Creek Partners, a private equity firm in Washington that specializes in partnering with management teams to acquire small companies.
“She’s a very smart lady and a real force of nature,” he adds. “When she told me what she was trying to accomplish with Au Naturale, it was obviously a fantastic idea, and very timely. She was mixing the ingredients herself, she was packing the shipments, she was the CEO, bottle washer, the assembly person — she was everything, and she has willed this company into existence by incredible discipline and hard work. It’s an amazing entrepreneurial story. I’m hoping it will be a massive success for her.”
A friend who now works at National Geographic took photos of the products. Working almost nonstop through one long weekend, Prange created the company’s website using the platform Shopify. “I just figured it out,” she says. “They said there was a help line, so I called every five minutes.”
Through friends in Washington, she met a kindred spirit with sound financial experience and a desire to start her own apothecary company. Alexandra Sawyer put in sweat equity as a partner and helped launch Au Naturale (she has since left but serves on the company’s advisory board). Today, Prange owns about 53 percent of the company, former employee Zach Wilcock owns a 21 percent share and Tim Macht (who runs Macht Village Programs in De Pere for children with severe emotional disorders) owns the balance, aside from a small share owned by Sawyer.
Not long after leaving the NRC, Prange decided to return to Green Bay, in part to tap the Wisconsin work ethic in employees but also to save money by temporarily living with her parents (she ran the company out of their basement for a few months).
After a short stint working with the owner of a boutique in Door County, she set up shop in the back of the former Mariner Motel on Riverside Drive in Green Bay. She began working with local companies whenever possible, buying labels from Orion Labels of Seymour and package printing from Van Lanen Inc. in Green Bay.
Appealing to the millennial mindset
Since moving to the Main Street Commons in 2015, business has taken off. From January through April 2016, she took on a big order from an online, monthly cosmetics subscription company in New York City called Birchbox, and temporarily hired about 70 people to fulfill an order for 150,000 boxes.
She hired recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate Morgan Krause as communications director and St. Norbert College graduate Paige Peerenboom as creative director. The company bubbles over with the enthusiasm of mostly women, many in their 20s.
“It’s really cool, a lot of fun” working at Au Naturale, says Krause. “Everybody is really excited about having a product that is so niche, that poses a unique challenge every day.”
Au Naturale has a special appeal to their demographic but to others, as well, Peerenboom says.
“Millennials are very brand loyal, if they find something they like, they want to stick with it. They love brands with a cause that have a really good story to tell. The older age group has circled back to the niche brands because they want to be healthier.”
Prange believes in appealing to the interests of millennials, offering flexible work hours and workplaces and focusing on the jobs that need to be done, rather than face time. If members of the team put in long hours out of town — such as the Indie Beauty Expos in New York City, Los Angeles or Dallas — she has no problem with them taking extra time off when they return.
Recently, she hired a new bookkeeper and accountant and identified someone she hopes to hire mid-year as chief operating officer. In mid-February, her brother, Max Prange — who currently works as a construction manager for luxury homes in San Francisco — will join Au Naturale as a project manager.
In March, Au Naturale will launch a new branding campaign, with a fresh logo, aluminum packaging, new displays, catalogs and internet appearance.
As for where she got those “falcon-like wings,” Prange credits her parents, Michael Prange, a paper broker at Belson Co., and Leslie Prange, a retired Green Bay public school teacher (no relation to the H.C. Prange department store family). She is also grateful for the many people who have helped her build her business.
“There are a lot of people who helped me,” Prange says. “I’m not a chemist, I’m not an engineer, and I’m never going to pretend I know everything, even with running the business. I didn’t even work in the private sector in my life; I’ve always worked for the government. What’s a CEO? I have no freaking idea, that’s why I joined TEC. I lean on people so I can learn — and I learn every day.”
Prange says she wouldn’t be where she is today if not for Nicolet National Bank. Nicolet Chairman and CEO Bob Atwell begs to differ.
“I disagree with that, I think she has what it takes to succeed,” says Atwell, whose oldest daughter attended school with Prange, and who was reintroduced to her by his son, Tom, when he was working with Nicolet. “She’s got great energy, tremendous vision — all the makings of a first-class entrepreneur.”
Atwell says Prange is an example of the talented young business leaders making a difference in Northeast Wisconsin. U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, representing the state’s 8th Congressional District, agrees.
“What most impresses me about Ashley is she has a unique gift for bringing diverse groups of people together,” says Gallagher, who has become a friend of Prange since they met five years ago at a Packers party in Washington. “Her desire to give back to Wisconsin is incredibly impressive.
“She has a global mission that is also local. We need more young people like her to start successful companies here, and stay here.”