WHM: A Conversation with Paola LaMorticella, Owner + Founder, Olio e Osso

With over 25 years of experience with makeup and styling, Paola LaMorticella had the tools to invent a unique product of her own. Now, she’s the owner and founder of Olio e Osso, an all-natural balm and skincare brand launched in 2014 and based here in Portland. In recent years, the business has blossomed, expanding its reach to customers worldwide. Their growth is a result of the work of Olio’s small, but mighty team, of which LaMorticella leads. Here’s what she had to say:

Are you originally from Portland?
I grew up right outside of Portland in the Northwest Hills with artist parents, 29 acres of land, a one-room cabin with no running water, a very supportive family and as many art supplies as you could possibly imagine … I went to MLC (Metropolitan Learning Center), one of the first alternative schools in Portland, and I graduated in 1987.

What sort of experience did you have before starting Olio?
Right after I graduated from high school, I started working with Ric Young, who was a part of Storefront Theatre, but he was also Betsey Johnson’s third partner years and years ago. My parents are the founders of a theater company in San Francisco; he knew of them and took me on as his assistant at a really young age. What I didn’t realize is that he had AIDS and hadn’t told anybody. So he put his trust in me, and he gave me all this knowledge and support; I worked with him for a long time until he passed away.

I did my first commercial when I was 20, styling and costuming, and I then started going to LA on jobs. Pretty quickly, I realized that I also had a big interest in makeup because I liked the idea that everything is connected. [No matter] how big the jobs were, I always loved the conversations that would need to happen between the different departments. So I went back and got a license to do hair and makeup — I think I was 22 or 23 at that point.

Why are you passionate about makeup, styling, etc.?
People often put themselves in boxes, but really, all of it’s so related. What makes me tick is that all of it, everything, is figuring out what makes people feel good. You can see [a person’s] physicality change. They’re hunched over and — change a few things — suddenly, they’re standing taller and feeling so much better about themselves. They are wearing the makeup and not having the makeup wear them. If you can communicate with people verbally, you can communicate with them in other ways. You just have to think about how you can tweak things and how you can expand your possibilities.

What makes me tick is that all of it, everything, is figuring out what makes people feel good.”

How did you come up with the balms?
When I had my son, [he] developed these really bad dry skin patches. I couldn’t figure out what could heal them or help him be more comfortable. They kept on giving me these things that had steroids or would heal the spot, but then he would get a slight rash around it that would also be itchy. It was like a dog chasing its tail.

Since I’ve always made things, and loved making things, I decided I was going to make something portable that would help soothe him. I came up with the balms, and I started using the extra ones on my clients. I was working a lot at that time with the U.S. womens soccer team, and those guys did not love makeup. The new ones are all about it. The old ones, not so much. But they really liked the balms. I started adding color to [the balms] so I could get a little more color on them without it feeling like too much makeup, and it became really handy to have something to use on their lips and cheeks.

What’s your day-to-day like?
My schedule is insane. First of all, I have this amazing, beautiful business, and I also have two amazing, beautiful kids, and they are just incredibly busy all the time. My daughter, Cecilia, is on the All-Star travel team of the Rose City Rollers Junior Derby. Romeo’s got a rock band that practices one day a week, and then he’s on a basketball team as well.

This is going to sound crazy, but I try to host at least two big dinners a week with friends and family at our house. That’s like my meditation: cooking for people, having people hang out, having a good time together and sharing our weeks.

We have ‘formulation’ going on at Olio at all times, and we’re doing focus groups. I’m still styling probably once a month; I’m still working with a lot of NBA players on the road. It’s a little busy, but it’s all I know.

Why is having a team of mostly women an important part of Olio’s story?
Olio has a lot of working mothers and a lot of younger women. We strive to have flexible workspaces so people can come in and leave … A lot of people are taking care of kids, so we try to accommodate everybody. One of the best aspects of Olio, to be honest with you, is our community. It’s really important to us that we support this community that we’re developing. It’s pretty amazing and we’re proud of it.

One of the best aspects of Olio, to be honest with you, is our community.”

What’s some advice for young women looking to go into business?
To be a female business owner is a struggle sometimes; it’s a struggle to be taken seriously. You will be told ‘no,’ and you will be told a billion reasons why your idea is not solid. I cannot tell you how many times we’ve been ‘mansplained’ to. May [Albano] and I have walked out of meetings, gotten 20 feet from the building and started laughing — it’s so ridiculous.

A lot of it is people not even realizing what they’re doing. When you open the door [at the office], my lab space is right there. We have two men that work with us. There are 10 women around, and I’m the owner! I cannot tell you how many people, especially men, will walk in, and they’re like, “Hey, hello!” and they’ll walk past me and see Collin (who’s fantastic — we love Collin!) and immediately assume that he’s the authority.

That’s just something that we deal with all the time. But don’t let it get you down. Change it. Do your homework, understand that you’re going to face more ‘nos’ than ‘yeses,’ and trust your gut. The more strong, female business owners there are, and the more supportive we are of each other, the better it’s going to be for everyone.

Follow Olio e Osso on IG: @olioeosso
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