The M Dash

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So, What Do You Do? Part 2

February 21, 2019

 “So, What Do You Do?” is a new MM series featuring extraordinary women in the kinds of jobs that make you sit up and say, “What’s that like?” Every week, another original entrepreneur, executive, artist, or scientist will own the answer by sharing what she does, how she does it, and why she does what she does. Up this week, perfumer—and novelist—Tanwi Nandini Islam, on jasmine, rose, sandalwood…and the scent of a dirty river.

After an unconventional career trajectory including stints reading tarot cards, modeling for Al Jazeera, community organizing, and working at arts nonprofits, Tanwi Nandini Islam thought she’d found her dream job when she was hired as brand manager of a “trendy startup.” She was laid off after six months.

“Failure is not permanent,” says Islam, a Bangladeshi-American who lives in Brooklyn. “It’s a moment.” She took her newly acquired marketing skills and an aesthetic vision inspired by a perfume workshop she’d recently attended and went to regroup in Hawaii, where, she says, “All of these experiences solidified into sketches of a brand idea.” Not long after, she launched her small-batch botanical perfume and skincare brand, Hi Wildflower Botanica.

Created especially for women of color, Hi Wildflower’s fragrances are made with sustainable botanicals like Somalian myrrh and Egyptian rose and sold in biodegradable packaging, which has given the indie beauty brand major cool-girl cred. Hi Wildflower also offers richly pigmented lipsticks, eyeshadow palettes, and other beauty items.

Along the way, Islam also wrote a novel, BRIGHT LINES, which was published in 2015 and nominated as a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel prize. Today, despite the demands of running her own fragrance company, Islam has made sure to bake several hours of writing into her daily schedule. What she’s learned: “Each time I failed in my life, it sharpened my resolve to be better. Stay true to your vision but be open to change. My vision evolves as I evolve.”

Here’s just some of what she does in a day:

Integrates the cerebral, the emotional, and the sensual.

“I write fiction and own a beauty and fragrance company so that I can explore what stirs me about the world—color, sensuality, entrepreneurship, feminism, storytelling. I am a person who loves to imagine ideas and bring them to life. I want to create a place for self-care, ritual, and love through my work.”

Devotes her mornings to writing.

“When I wake up, I handwrite in a journal to get my mind going, and then try to write on the computer for three hours. Coffee is a must, of course, but I fast until about 1 p.m. to keep my mind sharp. The experience of not doing anything related to Hi Wildflower until after lunch is wild to me, but I’m working on a new novel and enforcing these boundaries has allowed me to get so much good work done.”

Devotes her afternoons to fragrance (and business).  

“From 2 to 5 p.m., I design, work on social media, operations, and sales, and answer email. I’m very lucky to have a studio manager and small team to keep things flowing, but everything starts and stops with me.”

Chooses her favorite ingredients to use again and again.

“Jasmine and rose for their floral heart notes and sandalwood, cedar, and Tonka beans — woodsy, vanilla-like base notes — for depth and balance. These are core ingredients for many a memorable fragrance.”

Gets funky with stuff.

“I’ve been thinking about creating a perfume based on the legendarily dirty East River [in New York City], with marine and wildflower notes, seaweed, and the scent emanating from an ice cream shop nearby. I hope to figure out how to capture that riverine dank city scent in a sexy way.”

Experiments on everyone to arrive at the perfect scent.

“I’ll try out a fragrance 20 times on my friends and partner to make sure it works on different people.”

Looks to far-flung places for inspiration.

“I get my best ideas that way. All of my fragrances are inspired by my travels to South Asia, Hawaii, and elsewhere—these scents are odes to the narcotic, green, woodsy, and floral notes in nature.”

Strives to create joy with her work.

“Every human interaction or ritual can be experienced through fiction or perfume. A lipstick can bring momentary joy in this harsh world. I want my work to bring these moments of joy, and of clarity, [and] emotional connection. Both of my jobs allow me to do that.”

Surrounds herself with people who love and champion her whether she is at the top of her game or feeling low.

“That is my definition of success. Also, success is when you can be independent and create something of beauty that brings good to people’s lives. Money is great, too, but that is not my end game.”

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Ashlea Halpern is the co-founder of Cartogramme and editor-at-large for AFAR Media. She edits New York Magazine's pop-up travel blog, The Urbanist, and writes regularly for Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Airbnbmag, and Wired. After spending 3.5 years traveling Asia, Australia, the Arctic, and North America, she has settled in Minneapolis, MN—the most underrated city in the lower 48, bar none. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern and @cartogramme. Read more of Ashlea's posts.

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