To unearth the inspiration behind a business that nurtures the health of our skin, mind, body and planet, I look back at the humble beginnings of Tropic Founder and CEO, Susie Ma, in conversation with (and about) the remarkable women who helped her sow the Tropic seed.
As I set up my recording equipment, close all my ‘how to make pizza dough from scratch’ tabs and ready myself for our Zoom interview (not to be confused with its tedious relative, the Zoom quiz), Susie and her mum are already chatting away. I discern some complimenting of clothes (waist up, of course) and a few giggles about just-got-out-of-bed hair, there’s a current of joy, comfort and ease that even the stilted nature of the video format can’t cut through.
The first thing I notice (again, try as it might, my pixelated screen can’t mask it) is their enviably luminous skin. Although evidently some good genetics are at play here, I want to delve deeper into some family secrets – how do Susie and her mum, Shu Mei, keep the complexions with which they were blessed, consistently looking their best?
“Thank you!” Shu Mei replies as I tell her how well she looks. “That’s one thing Susie’s grandma has always taught us both. Our skin is our first impression and our best protection, so we have to look after it in the same way that we look after what’s inside, too.”
Born in Shanghai, Susie grew up around her grandmother, who talked of how toxic chemicals – absorbed by the body through environment, diet, medication and personal care products – affect our health and wellbeing.
“Grandma really is where it all began, isn’t she?” Susie affirms with her mum. “She was a medicinal chemist and toxicologist, after originally training to be a surgeon. She’s always been a big advocate of only using natural products on our faces and bodies – this usually involves a lot of olive oil and water – and I actually never saw her buy any cosmetics when we lived in China.”
“That’s right,” Shu Mei interjects. “She swears by a few drops of plant oils and glycerin massaged into the face regularly for maintaining supple, radiant skin. But the massaging itself is an important part for her. I remember when I was a little girl she would bend and fold and press her skin with oils. It’s a kind of ritual for her, you can tell it makes her feel as good as it makes her look, and it’s the same with me.
“She always taught me the importance of lymphatic drainage and actually taking the time to work your blood flow in your face and body. If it means that I’ll look as great as her when I’m her age, then I’m not stopping any time soon!”
“It’s exactly that,” Susie explains. “Really taking time and prioritising skin health is so important. Anything that you and Grandma do, whether it be cleansing the skin or moisturising or rubbing in oils, it’s done with such purpose. Watching you both is like watching a master chef chopping vegetables for the first time after years of observing my own rudimentary techniques. It’s like watching an artist at work, but the results are that yours and Grandma’s skin still looks like a masterpiece to this day! You’re very skilled craftswomen.”
Shu Mei is looking warmly at her daughter, giggling with discomfort at the compliment and revealing her endearing (if strikingly faint) laughter lines. It’s evident that these two have been through a lot together – although Susie has steered herself independently towards success, those formative years of navigating adversity with her mum have given her her bearings in life.
Although much of what she learnt about skin health came from her mum and her grandma, I can see the pride in Shu Mei’s eyes as Susie talks of her business and where it all started.
At thirteen, Susie and Shu Mei moved to London after several years in Cairns, Australia. To pay off household bills, aged fifteen, Susie borrowed £200 from her mum for ingredients to whip up a batch of body scrubs using a family recipe, which she then sold at Greenwich Market.
“I was actually really nervous about going,” Susie recalls. “I put it off for weeks after I’d made all the products, but what really drove me was watching the letters pile up – final notice letters for bills, rent, and money that we’d taken out on credit. I just came to the realisation that there was very little left to lose – we were in so much debt anyway, and I believed in the product. I was nervous but the worst that could happen was selling nothing and coming home, I guess I’d have had to remedy the rejection by using those 50 body scrubs on myself!”
On the first day, Susie raised enough money to pay the bills for a whole month. Motivated by success, she continued to spend weekends at London’s markets selling what’s now Tropic’s best-selling Body Smooth. By the time she was 21, Susie had funded her studies at university and bought her mum a house.
“I still can’t believe it,” She Mei admits. “I used to make products with Susie in our home, screwing on the lids of the individual jars and packing her off to Greenwich Market. Now I walk around Tropic HQ and see so many employees, and the scale of the vessels that products are made in is overwhelming! In the absolute wildest of my dreams, I never imagined that those formative formulations would now be nourishing the skin of hundreds of thousands of customers. I think Skin Feast even contains my essential oil blend recipe from all those years ago.”
“It does! And honestly, I don’t think Tropic would exist as it is today without the influence of you and Grandma,” Susie confesses. “The reason I was able to sell Tropic in the first place was because I knew I had a great product. I believed in the integrity of what I was selling and when customers heard me speaking about those body scrubs and moisturisers, my genuine adoration for what the women in my life had taught me about looking after my skin health really shone through. Without you both I could still be working in banking or – more likely – we might be back in Australia having not made it work in the UK.”
As they reminisce about the stress and uncertainty native to having no money, I wonder about all that they’ve experienced together. It seems to me that in some ways they’re so different – Susie so chatty and candid, her mother sunny and warm but more shy – but they slot together like pieces of a puzzle. I ask what they think, would they say they approach life in a similar way?
“Oh, she is far more brave than me,” She Mei explains. “She’s always been bursting with ambition and just a healthy zeal for life.”
She tells me she would always opt for a languid beach holiday, perched perfectly between the pool and the snack bar. She relishes the opportunity to fall asleep in the sun and wake up disoriented and warm, dizzied by the delicious taste of freedom from the obligations of daily life. I think a lot of us can relate, especially right now.
“But Susie’s always off doing something active,” her mum tells me. “She likes extreme sports – climbing mountains, jumping out of planes and surfing sand dunes in scorching deserts – but I’d much prefer the sand between my toes while I stroll along a beach somewhere. I think that says a lot about how we approach life, and I guess it’s how she’s got so far. There’s definitely something admirable about just going out and taking what you want from every day that comes.”
But despite their differences, there’s one thing they both clearly have in common – their generosity of spirit. Both Susie and her mum are warm, kind and caring – like a lifting mist on a cold morning, or a plane passing gently through a cloud, their togetherness brings me clarity, helps me to understand how Tropic has grown so strong, done so much good. I can see clearly now, even through the limited language that our laptops afford, that the love, faith and wisdom imparted by the women in her life gave Susie the tools to try out Tropic, but she fortified herself with the strength to continue.
“Mum, you’re forgetting something obvious that you’re much better than me at!” Susie exclaims. “I’ll never, ever be able to make dumplings like you. I’m always dazzled by the attention you devote to making each one and they’re so reliably tasty – although you’ve helped me formulate product after product, I have a feeling your mushroom and veggie dumpling sauce is a secret recipe you wouldn’t be willing to share!”
She Mei agrees with a faux firmness in her tone, explaining that our diet is another consideration, other than our skincare, that requires meticulous care and attention. “Whatever you put inside your body likes to let itself be known on the surface of your skin. Massage, oils, and toxin avoidance are all crucial when protecting your skin health, but you’ll never glow on the outside if you don’t nourish yourself on the inside first.”
It’s evident that this is a family that’s always seen the value of prioritising health, and that shows on the outside too. The message that’s been passed down through generations of women – from the bustling streets of Shanghai to the coastal reaches of tropical Australia, from a small Greenwich Market stall to Tropic HQ’s impressive Innovation Lab – has always been loud and clear – your health starts with yourself. Now that’s a wise lesson I think we’d all like our children to learn.
Susie has kindly translated her mother’s words from Chinese for us, in order to enrich this piece with the full range of her language.