When Helen Marks was 11, her mother, Cara, died two weeks before Mother’s Day after a two-year battle with a rare degenerative muscular disease.
Eighteen years later, as Mother’s Day rolls around again, Marks is on the verge of graduating from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and at the helm of a new business she founded in her mother’s honor. Called Cara’s Market, the startup is an online hub for shoppers interested in healthier, more sustainable products free of many of the chemicals found in mass-market products. They are all products she believes her mother – a molecular biologist committed to identifying and fighting the causes of infectious disease – would thoroughly approve of.
“I remember my mom always talking about data as the building blocks of what we know,” said Marks, who is from Berkeley, California. “A lot of talk around health and sustainability is very trendy, but not necessarily based in data and scientific research. We delve into the science behind the products and publish a lot of information about the research, so that our customers know we are not just spouting the latest and greatest trend.”
Marks got the idea for the company when she first moved to Charlottesville and went shopping for a new couch. A family friend who does research on the environment and children’s health warned her that flame retardant chemicals used on most couches could be harmful.
“I did more research and found that these chemicals could be tied to risks like infertility and cancer, and I probably did about 40 hours of research looking for a couch that did not have those chemicals,” she said. “I found a couch, but I came out of that experience thinking that it should not be that hard for people to make a healthy home for themselves.”
With that couch, her business idea was born.
Marks worked on the concept during her two years at Darden and, in February, officially launched the Cara’s Market website. It is regularly updated with products that meet the company’s standards for health, sustainability and social impact, along with detailed blog posts explaining relevant research.
The company earns a slice of the profits from each product sold and generates its own revenue through partnerships with other suppliers and the sale of its own products, such as the Mother’s Day baskets Marks created this year.
“This can be a hard time of year and I wanted to do something special around Mother’s Day to honor my mom,” she said.
She came up with a range of Mother’s Day spa baskets using products that are free of harmful chemicals and sustainably and ethically made. There is a beeswax candle that avoids chemicals found in commercial candles, and bath salts and soaps that received high marks from GoodGuide – a website ranking products based on safety, health and environmental factors.
The baskets themselves even have a social benefit. Marks purchased them from The Blessing Basket Project, which helps artisans in Indonesia and Uganda earn a living wage and grow their own small businesses.
So far, she said, the baskets have been a hit. She has sold about 50 and is hoping to sell even more before Mother’s Day arrives. Her Darden classmates – including her fiancé Gabe Legendy, a fellow second-year student – have helped her pack the baskets. They, along with faculty members like entrepreneurship lecturer Damon DeVito, played a critical role in providing feedback and getting her business off the ground.
“I had a ton of conversations with my classmates as I was trying to figure out what moms would most want in their baskets, working on the name of the business, the tagline and so much more,” she said. “The level of community and support has just been incredible and, I think, is really unique to Darden.”
Her experience at UVA, she said, helped her turn a long-term interest in social impact into a sustainable business.
“Growing up, my parents were very focused on work with a social benefit. My dad works in a hospital, and my mom was focused on curing diseases,” Marks said.
Her mother’s passing, she said, heightened her interest in work that could make the world around her a better place.
“I realized life was so short, that you have to seize the time you have here to make an impact,” she said.
Marks believes that Cara’s Market will allow her to do that. After graduation, she and Legendy will move to San Francisco, where she hopes she can continue to grow her business and build a community of like-minded people who can make an even larger impact.
“To me, a lot of my business is about building community. If you want to live healthily, you need a lot of community support,” she said, comparing it to going on a diet, when support from family and friends can help you stick to your goals.
“That’s another aspect of the business that reminds me of my mom. She was very community-oriented and so generous, and she really believed in strong female leaders,” she said. “I think she would be very excited to see this.”