New Orleanians, Small Business

How a New Orleans cosmetic chemist got her line of travel-inspired nail polishes into Walmart

From hand grenade green to Gene’s po-boys pink, Passport Polish’s vibrant hues celebrate divine destinations.

Cover photo courtesy Passport Polish/ Photo credit: Laiken Joy Photography

Morocco, The Netherlands, Bali — with the COVID-19 pandemic, these destinations seem farther away than ever before.

But a New Orleans entrepreneur is taking you on a trip with her globally-inspired cosmetic line, born out of her love for travel and nail polish.

‘That was really ambitious at 3 a.m.’

Mari Alejos-Puente wasn’t always a certified cosmetic chemist. Two years ago, she worked in the healthcare field, doing psych evaluations.

“It’s a fulfilling job, it’s what I went to college for,” said Alejos-Puente. “But I went to go see one of my friends at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, Iam Tucker, and she is the owner of a local engineering firm. She was in there talking about how if you’re comfortable, you’re not where you need to be. You need to keep moving and do other things. So I sat there and thought to myself, ‘I’m really comfortable at this job, I can’t grow anywhere in this position that I’m in. What else can I do?’”

The thought continued to run through her mind until one night, like many of us, she was sleeplessly scrolling through social media.

“I saw before all these trips I always take a picture with my passport,” she said. “I’ve always loved doing my nails, its something I do every Sunday with my mom and everything so it just all kind of came together. What can I do with nail polish and travel?”

Then, it hit her.

 

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“I can figure out how to make nail polish and do it based on the countries I’ve been to!” she said. “So I had this great idea and I went to sleep and when I woke up, I was like, ‘Girl, you don’t know anything about making nail polish.’ That was really ambitious at 3 a.m.”

Alejos-Puente went into research mode.

“I don’t want to put just anything on people’s hands,” she said. “So I started this program for cosmetic chemistry, and then from there learned how to mix things and not blow my house up.”

Self-care during a pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Alejos-Puente wasn’t sure what the future of her business would hold.

“I started to panic because I’m like, ‘My business is not essential, who wants to buy nail polish right now?’” she said. “But then the salons started closing down and I had just started selling press-on nails. I had maybe sold ten maybe in the whole year up to March. I was like ok, I’m going to take all my nail art skills and we are about to make people at-home kits. So I put together the press-on nail kits and I sold them at a cheaper rate because people aren’t working now, and it doesn’t cost me much to do it. Those things started flying off the shelves.”

 

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A month later, she got a call from one of the nation’s largest retailers.

“With Walmart, you have to apply,” she said. “It’s just like applying for any job and you have to prove you have the sales to be able to sell with them. I had applied with them sometime in 2019 and never heard anything back. Then in April, I got the go-ahead that we were going to be able to sell with Walmart.”

Once the pandemic is over, she said you’ll be able to find Passport Polish on the shelves of Walmart stores, and it’s available on their site now.

‘Afro-Latinos are a real thing’

Not only is Alejos-Puente a female business owner, but is also a part of the local Hispanic community.

“My family is Nicaraguan and Cuban,” she said. “Viva Nola is one of my absolute favorites to work with. She puts out a lot of the news on new and upcoming businesses. She did a feature with me and that lead me to being on the local Telemundo station. She does a lot of work with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as well.

When asked what she wanted to highlight in her interview, Alejos-Puente made a point to say she wanted to include that Black lives matter.

“I feel like people don’t expect that our of Hispanic businesses and that’s kind of upsetting,” she said. “When I first posted something about Black lives matter, I received a message from some random follower of mine, and they’re like, ‘But why should we care, why do you care?’ I had to take a deep breath and I put out a statement.”

 

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“I have Afro-indigenous roots, I grew up in a predominantly Black city, I am a graduate of an HBCU, most of my friends are Black, a lot of my family is Black,” she said. “So for you to tell me, ‘Why am I commenting on this,’ it’s crazy. I shouldn’t even have to justify why I’m posting about this. This is a people matter, you should care too. Everybody should care.”

Alejos-Puente said she’s been using her platform to educate others.

“I really want other Hispanic businesses to step up, especially because we have so many Black people in our community,” she said. “Afro-Latinos are a real thing and its frustrating to see them not featured in Hispanic businesses or on TV. This is a big subset of people that exist and they’re constantly erased.”

From hand grenade green to Gene’s po-boys pink

Passport Polishes features 46 internationally-inspired shades, like Baecation (a hot pink) and Morocco (a vibrant yellow inspired by Moroccan spices), but for the New Orleans native, including colors inspired by home was a must.

“I have a Gene’s po-boys pink, hand grenade green, bronze that looks like the Sewerage and Water Board manhole covers,” she said. “They have the bigger companies, like OPI, that are like, ‘Oh this is our Mexico City collection’ and then you look at the colors and you’re like, ‘That doesn’t really look like anything I would see out there.’ I get colors that people are going to recognize.”

 

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She has a black and gold Who Dat polish set, perfect for game days, and MSY airport stud earrings, because “everyone’s travels begin somewhere, mine always start at MSY,” she explained.

In a year, Alejos-Puente said she hopes to be fulfilling orders from a warehouse with a space in front featuring her polishes.

“I want us to have a front space with all our nail products to get you ready to go on your vacations,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to travel in a year. “

Her site features other travel-inspired items, like passport stamp tote bags and mugs, but she also offers services like business consultations and created a grant to help business owners.

“I don’t mind setting aside time to help them,” she said. “I really enjoy helping small businesses. “In April, I made a small business grant for $500 just to help people get supplies. It is such a struggle some days to even get the tiniest of materials.”

Her advice to up and coming entrepreneurs?

“Get ready to make a lot of mistakes and fall on your face,” she said. “You have to make a thousand and one mistakes before you can even be sure of yourself. Once you’ve made all the mistakes, your confidence grows so much, you learn so much about yourself. You really have to learn to step out of your comfort zone. I’m an introvert so having to do interviews like this and even posting every day on social media has pushed me out of my comfort zone. Two years ago, I was even shier. It’s helped me get a lot more confidence in selling my products. Being a small business, you kind of have to sell yourself too. You are your product. Get ready to make mistakes and learn to love yourself.” 

Click here to visit Passport Polish’s website, or here to follow Alejos-Puente on Facebook and Instagram.