Twenty-two-year-old Ciera Smith is the founder of ItsNaturallyUs. ItsNaturallyUs is all about women and vaginal health, and its products include body and vaginal scrubs, heating pouches, and bath salts. Smith started her entrepreneurship at the age of 18 with the help of The Y.E.S. program. The Y.E.S. Program is a fully financed student exchange program introduced to Smith by her mom.
During that time, she was paid for the program through YouthWorks, a summer jobs initiative for Baltimore City youth ages 14 to 21. The session lasted for five weeks, and each week, participants discussed a new topic such as marketing or the basics of business. Through the program, Smith also interacted with several African American entrepreneurs, who ultimately served as her mentors.
Since completing the program, Smith said she’s stayed in touch with its leader, Johnny Graham. Graham often checks in with her and has asked her to speak with new students in The Y.E.S. Program. She also said that whenever she emails him, he’s always there to help.
Smith chatted with us about her journey as a youth entrepreneur in Baltimore. This interview was originally a video call and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What was your motivation for starting your business?
When I think about my motivation, I think it goes back to when I was a little girl. I would embarrass my mother a lot because I would ask about very intimate things in spaces where conversations were not supposed to be held. One time, I was at a park, and I was swinging on the swing the wrong way. My mother told me to stop, and I said “why? I’m gonna hurt my vagina?” She was really upset.
But the problem was, I didn’t know any better because we didn’t have those conversations about my private areas. So I was always just curious as a child. I asked my mom a lot of questions, and she was just not open to sharing. Even those conversations weren’t had in the doctor’s office. They definitely weren’t at school. So my motivation was to spread the word about vaginal health and sexual positivity.
What do you think society can do to make vaginal health a more comfortable topic?
I think we have to break down the stigmas and taboos. A lot of the information that we’re given is not accurate. I think it starts with children because everyone goes through puberty. Everyone is confused, and it’s not just women. I think we need to bring awareness to men as well to break down that stigma that women do go through things, and it’s not nasty. It’s not disgusting. It’s natural.
What does vaginal health mean to you?
It’s a part of me. I think it’s a part of who I am. Being able to understand my body. Being able to understand the things that I like, and the things that I will accept. My boundaries. And then, being able to bring awareness to other women, so that they can go on their own journey.
Why do you think young girls learn about their bodies so late?
I think it goes back to the stigmas and the taboos. I think everything is sexualized, but learning about [yourself] should not be sexualized. It’s a normal part of us just like eczema on my arm. It’s just as normal as having asthma. I should know about every part of my body.
Even in school, you don’t learn about puberty until eighth grade or ninth grade in sex ed, and that is not detailed. And typically, boys and girls are split, so then you have boys who are unaware of what happens to women. We have girls who are unaware of what happens to men. But in reality, at some point in life, those situations will merge. So it’s helpful to know about other people’s bodies as well. And I think that when we learn so late, we have these insecurities about our own bodies because of this idea of what it should look like. We all have these ideas, but actually, there are no set rules. If we start having those conversations and normalizing that our bodies are right the way that they’re made, then maybe we can help other girls or boys.
What was it like to start and maintain a business at 18 while balancing school and other parts of life?
It was hectic. As an 18-year-old, there were a lot of other things that I wanted to do as well, so I had to make a lot of sacrifices. I lost a lot of friends. School was hard. A lot of times I questioned if I was doing the right thing. Throughout my college career, I tried to have my courses relate to my business. A lot of times I went to my professors to ask if I could write about something that related to things like menstruation or women’s health. A lot of times they looked at me like I was crazy, and we’re not open to that decision. But as I advocated for the importance of women’s health, I was able to do that, and sometimes it worked in my favor. Sometimes it didn’t. So it just took a lot of sacrifice.
Do you think there’s anything unique about starting a business in Baltimore?
There are so many resources for youth entrepreneurs that we really don’t talk about, or I think a lot of people don’t have access to. But there really are resources out there. When I started my business I started it through The Y.E.S. Program, and we had a pitch competition. I was able to pitch in front of the mayor’s office and earn $5,000. So really, the city is what made me start my business.
What was the biggest obstacle you faced when setting up or running your business?
Consistency and balance. I’ve never been able to only focus on my business. I’ve always had other competing demands like being a full-time student and also working. I didn’t have a choice, and working helped me provide for my business as well. When you’re starting a new business, sometimes that revenue doesn’t come in instantly. I was able to use my other income to help that, and then find the time for myself as well in my social life, which I really struggled with. I don’t think I ever found balance. So I don’t know if I have a suggestion for that. Just being mindful of what you’re doing.
Sacrifice is important in creating the schedule. Then consistency, like posting every day, is something I still struggle with because it’s a one woman show.
Did the pandemic affect your business at all, if so how?
In a way, yes. I’ve always had an online platform, so you can purchase through our website. But I think the most important part of my business is the interactions with others. When we host events, I think that is what brings more awareness to my business, and that kind of stopped throughout Covid.
Do you have any advice for people who want to start a business related to women’s health or health in general?
Do you like to research? Things change every day. Women’s health is underfunded. There’s a lot of information out there, but you have to weave out the good and the bad. I say do it because it’s so important. And it’s not talked about, but [women’s health] includes things that we deal with on a daily basis.
Editorial Disclaimer: Reporting for this story was provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and we thank them for their support. However, the findings and conclusions presented in this article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.