Kaela Malaki is a force to be reckoned with in Denver’s local business community. The 25-year-old entrepreneur is not only a small business owner dealing with normal pandemic restrictions but a woman of color with big dreams and unrelenting ambition. Her Denver shop, Lola Severina, is a nod to her Filipino heritage with a commitment to sustainability.
“People still refer to those of color as ‘minorities’ but that’s not really true anymore; we aren’t the minority,” Malaki said when I sat down to coffee with her early last week. “I think it’s more accurate to refer to us as ‘purposefully excluded’ groups of people instead.”
Lola Severina is a local and sustainable business with its roots embedded in Malaki’s background from the Philippines. Her products include body oils, lips balms, soaps, incense cones and more. Each product is thoughtfully handcrafted with sustainable ingredients, and most are created right in her private workshop in the Wash Park neighborhood. What began as a hobby to reduce the amount of waste she produced on a daily basis soon became a heartfelt business project with deep ties to her beloved lola, or “grandmother” in Tagalog, Severina.
“My grandfather said that my lola wasn’t allowed to become a chemical engineer because it was a profession just for men,” Malaki said quietly. “So she became a chemistry teacher, eventually creating her own products like soaps and conditioners to begin her own cosmetic chemistry business.”
Malaki admitted that she felt an extremely strong connection to her grandmother and her mindset. Severina raised Malaki after moving to the United States in the early ‘90s from the Philippines, just a few years before Malaki was born. This connection fostered Malaki’s interest in making her own products and pursuing a career in engineering.
Having finished school at the University of Vermont and starting her career, she found she wanted to take her passion for sustainability a step further and create her small business. As COVID-19 ran rampant around the globe and the United States went into lockdown, Malaki found she finally had more time to devote to Lola Severina, which would become a part of the 29% of women-owned businesses in Denver, and the 11% of these owned by women of color.
As she assimilated to the post-college adult world and dove deeper into entrepreneurship, she felt a shift within.
“I started to question everything about myself,” she said. “I always thought of myself as primarily American because I was born here, but that’s not exactly who I am. I realized there’s another part of myself that I’d ignored for a big part of my life — the Filipina part. I wanted to start paying more attention to my true roots. I started asking myself questions about my identity.”
Thus came the three pillars of Lola Severina: a passion for sustainability, an inextinguishable love for a truly incredible woman and deep Filipino roots. Between the transparency of her statements and the quiet calm of the coffee shop, I found myself moving to the edge of my seat. I wondered how she was able to turn not just a hobby, but a journey of the self, into such a successful business, and how she overcame the obstacles that seemed to continuously emerge along the way.
“My parents came from constantly trying to reach a state of stability in life because they had limited opportunity. They were always trying to reach ‘survival’ – I want to break past the point of just survival,” she said seriously. “I wasn’t encouraged to pursue my dreams or to take risks, but when I moved to Denver I joined a group of Filipina women for support and we often question why we were always told this; because sometimes the risks are where the best things in life happen.”
Malaki wasn’t alone in her pursuit of belonging. The Denver-based Filipina Soul Sisterhood Circle of 20 to 30 women offers the support they all need. She attends the group weekly, where the women have conversations about various topics and spend time journaling, meditating and talking.
She believes there is a strong sense of intergenerational trauma that frequently stems from growing up in an immigrant family, and that the children of these families feel as though they have limited opportunities in life due to pressure from their parents. Luckily for Malaki, the Filipina Soul Sisterhood Circle has provided a safe space where women of her background can face these painful realities together.
“Why do we believe we have to be nurses, engineers or medical workers?” she pondered aloud. “We talk about this in the group; why we’ve had such a limited belief in ourselves. But being together in solidarity allows us to have the audacity to chase our dreams.”
And that’s exactly what Malaki did. After pursuing familial roots, delving more deeply into who she really is and what she wants out of life, she quit her engineering career to focus wholeheartedly on her dreams and aspirations. She’s been focusing on her business here in Denver since December 23, after a move from Oxnard, California.
“I have a lot of plans for the future,” she said. She then dove into detail about the night market she created on December 17 while still living in California. She said she would love the chance to attend more events like that or to have the opportunity to start her own market. “Being so new here I still don’t really know a lot about markets like that,” she said.
As for long-term goals, she would love to bring her business back to her hometown in the Philippines. Bringing her business there would enable her to create jobs and contribute to economic growth. She would also like to eventually open a hostel in Hinunangan to not only feature Lola Severina products but to create a market for eco-tourism so others can visit and learn about the area in a sustainable way.
The first Lola Severina products to drop were body oils, leading later to soap, lip balm and, most recently, incense cones. I asked what made it all sustainable, other than the fact that she makes it herself. She assured me that she gets all her ingredients from small farms (like her 100% biodegradable loofahs) or in bulk from local apothecaries. Each of her soaps are sold in compostable packaging, and her oils are presented in reusable glass dropper bottles.
Malaki continues to work to build community, educate about sustainability and chase her true roots.
Lola Severina is a 100% online business based in Denver. You can reach Malaki on Instagram at @lol.severina or on her website lolaseverina.com.
All photos courtesy of Kaela Malaki.