Small business spotlight: Dinobi Detergent’s plant-based laundry soap is a true labor of love

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Sylvia and Augie Emuwa founded Dinobi Detergent as a premium brand of plant-based laundry soap safe for sensitive skin. (All photos courtesy of Sylvia and Augie Emuwa)

The story of Dinobi detergent is as much a love story as it is a story of entrepreneurship and laundry soap.

Founded by Augie and Sylvia Emuwa, a Bronzeville couple married for 11 years and raising four children, Dinobi thrives on the strength of a partnership that runs as seamlessly in business as it does at home.

“Dinobi’s success is a product of our success in marriage,” Ogi Emuwa said.

Dinobi, an alum of the Polsky Center’s Small Business Growth Program, launched in 2019 with a premium plant-based laundry detergent designed for sensitive skin. That same year, the fledgling company won the South Side Pitch, a competition for local entrepreneurs organized by the Polsky Center and the Entrepreneurship Clinic at the Institute for Justice.

Today, Dinobi’s expanding product line is sold by a dozen online and retail stores, many with an environmental focus, and the Emuwas partner with several schools on the South Side to promote health, hygiene and entrepreneurship lessons.

It took them a decade to get to this point, traversing territory far outside their comfort zones. And it all started with a dirty diaper.

Sylvia Emuwa, changing her newborn 10 years ago, noticed that the baby’s legs were darkening and wrinkling in an apparent reaction to the plastic nappy.

She started using cloth diapers instead, but couldn’t find a detergent that was both gentle on baby’s skin and effective at cleaning and deodorizing the mess.

So Silvia, an accountant, started digging through Pinterest to find different home solutions. Her husband, a school principal who has severe eczema, serves as a human guinea pig to test her concoctions.

Through a friend in the skin care business, Sylvia connects with an organic chemist who works with her to develop a safe, all-natural formula that can thoroughly clean even the dirtiest laundry. It took years of trial and error.

“Once we got the fear out of my compression pants, we knew we were done,” Augie said.

Made with a highly concentrated sugar-based formula, scented with essential oils and free of artificial colors and fragrances, Dinobi Detergent debuts for friends and family with a soothing lavender scent. Dinobi, which means “precious” in Igbo, a language spoken in Nigeria, has as its motto: “Precious ingredients for precious skin.”

The product was a hit. But the business model needed an overhaul.

Working out of a 250-square-foot warehouse unit, Emuwa made small batches of 20 bottles by hand. The production and ingredients cost more than they feel comfortable charging customers.

“We really didn’t feel completely confident that we could stand with our chests out and say, ‘This is the price,'” Augie said. “You feel scared because you see the Tides of the World saying you can wash all these clothes for three dollars.”

Winning the South Side Pitch was a game changer. With the $5,000 prize pool, Dinoby placed his first bulk order, partnered with a co-packer to make a larger print run, and launched a website.

Polsky Center resources were also critical. Through its mentoring program, Emu consults with industry professionals on marketing, scaling, production costs and how best to finance the business.

Auggie with his son Benjamin.

Dinobi’s first major order came from Grove Collaborative, an online retailer of natural, sustainable, ethically produced household and personal care products. The Emuwas, crammed into their warehouses, pumped the soap from the barrels themselves.

“It helped me cement in my head that this was going to work,” Sylvia said.

There were other, more subtle stages as the accountant and school principal entered uncharted entrepreneurial waters.

Silvia, who “hates sales,” says of the first time she pitched the business to an audience, “I was nervous as everyone walked out. But it was a confidence builder. Every person they meet who believes in the brand gives them the courage to continue.

Dinobi has since moved to a 1,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in the South, where two employees assist Emuwas with production. In addition to Amazon and numerous online specialty retailers, Dinobi products are sold at the Silver Room in Hyde Park, Mighty Nest in Evanston, and Eco and the Flamingo in Lincoln Square, among other local stores. Dinobi has had particular success in zero-waste stores, where it sells its products in glass bottles.

In August, Dinobi will introduce a new product – a moisturizing plant-based dish soap – and reintroduce some of its most popular scents – bergamot and lime, citrus clove – that have been out of stock due to supply chain problems caused by the pandemic. It also plans to launch a fragrance-free laundry detergent.

At $18.99 for a 32-ounce bottle, Dinobi laundry detergent is still priced higher than what many people are used to paying for laundry soap. Emuwa say it’s a priority to educate people about the value of the concentrated formula – each bottle can handle 32 loads – and the multi-purpose nature of the product, which works on both carpet pet stains and soiled cloth diapers.

For Augie, it’s especially important to spread the message in Chicago communities where it’s not common to shop at zero-waste stores. Growing up in the city as an “under-resourced youth”, often in temporary living situations, Augie remembers washing his clothes alone in a laundromat as a nine-year-old, swinging his legs while sitting on an orange chair, and was immediately struck by the scale of everything, yet proud of the independence to take care of himself.

With these kids in mind, Emuwa launched a program at Dulles School of Excellence and Joplin Elementary, two elementary schools on the South Side of Chicago, to talk about entrepreneurship and help students think more carefully about health, hygiene and the environment. They also provided laundry detergent to schools at a greatly reduced price for students who do not have easy access to personal care products.

“We want to be a positive shock in the market and make people think more critically about the products they use,” said Augie, who is in talks to bring the program to more schools.

Through the ups and downs of building the business, Ogi and Silvia Emuwa have relied on each other. They say being business partners has strengthened their marriage, highlighting how well they communicate and focusing them on a common goal that allows petty grievances to fall by the wayside.

The couple, who met in college at Jackson State University in Mississippi, didn’t begin a romance until eight years later when they reconnected on Facebook. Auggie has always had a crush on Sylvia. Hearing Auggie’s voice for the first time in all these years, Sylvia knew immediately that she would marry him.

No one imagined that they would leave their professions to run a laundry detergent business together. It took a leap of faith and unwavering trust in each other.

“I’m in it for the love of it,” Auggie said.

Article from Alexia Ellehalde-Ruiz, associate director of media relations and external communications at the Polsky Center. A longtime journalist, Alexia was most recently a business reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Contact Alexia via Email or on Twitter @alexiaer.

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