Ceremonia’s Babba Rivera Keeps Proving People Wrong

FOUNDER STORIESBy 2023-11-29T14:37:38-05:00November 27th, 2023|
  • Babba C. Rivera photographed by Rebecca Alaniz.

When Babba Rivera hops on our Zoom call toward the end of October, the Ceremonia founder is wrapped up in blankets and looking cozy. She’s in her house in upstate New York, a place she retreats to on the weekends, and where she and her family carve out time and space for self-care and beauty rituals. As an entrepreneur and mother of two, she has found that the best way to create these moments is to involve the whole family.

“My husband and I treat our bathroom like a second living room,” she begins, adding that they even have an armchair in the space to make it homier. “I put a tiny bit of water in the bathtub and put the babies in so they can play. I can do my Aceite de Moska treatment, give myself a scalp massage, and do a face mask while my husband uses the steam shower.”

The fact that she owns a house upstate with a steam shower, has an extensive designer wardrobe she shares with her 177k Instagram followers, and raised $10 million in Ceremonia’s Series A investment round to support its expansion to over 500 Sephora stores, may lead some to assume that her success was handed to her. Rivera is no stranger to assumptions, she has navigated them throughout her career — instead, she attributes her work ethic to her humble upbringing.

Rivera as a child.

Her parents immigrated from Chile to Sweden during the Pinochet dictatorship. They lived in a small apartment in the projects, where Rivera grew up, getting her hair done by her hairstylist father and watching her mother practice self-care rituals in their tiny bathroom. She began working at 14 years-old at a tea shop and then added babysitting, working at restaurants, and several other jobs into her routine. “When you come from a humble beginning, it’s not like you have a schedule filled with [after-school] activities,” she explains.

Very quickly, she realized that work translated into money which gave her the opportunity to buy and do the things she wanted to do. This hustle mentality has stayed with her since. At the age of twenty-two, she was offered a job at Uber, which at the time was just a small startup that had recently launched in Europe. There, she launched the brand’s rideshare branch in Sweden, and eventually, Uber sent her to New York City. Next, she jumped to the travel accessory brand Away, and it was there that she recognized that she wanted to own her own business. So, in 2017, she launched her own brand marketing agency, ByBabba.

It was in this first solo business venture that her success catapulted, in part thanks to a Forbes 30 Under 30 mention, and she began to think about developing a haircare brand. At the time, she was taking clients in the U.S. and Europe and began to see that the beauty industry was changing. Rivera mentions her work on Glossier’s European launch as an example of the many disruptors and female-founded companies who were entering the space. And with that, the idea of Ceremonia was born.

Rivera began her research in 2019. It became clear to her that the customer’s expectations were disconnected from what the industry was offering — customers wanted clean and natural ingredients that didn’t sacrifice efficacy, they wanted the brands they use to align with their values, and they wanted representation. “We were starting to see how customers demanded diversity, and I realized how most brands were trying to add this after the fact. [I thought that] if I were to start a beauty brand, I would do everything differently,” she tells LATINA.

Ceremonia describes itself as a hair wellness brand rooted in Latin culture. Its foundational idea stemmed from two things: Rivera’s hair was in the worst condition it had ever been, and she felt a deep desire to reconnect with her Chilean heritage.

Latinos account for 20% of the U.S. population, and she recognized how neglected the community was. Even crazier to her was realizing that Latin culture wasn’t being represented more in the beauty industry considering how “obsessed we are with beauty.” In her research, she worked with a consumer insights agency that found Latin consumers spend 46% more on haircare than any other demographic, yet had little to no representation. “That discrepancy really fueled the desire to create something new for the beauty industry,” she says.

So, while still running her agency ByBabba, Rivera started to work on developing her brand. She was able to initially have her agency fund the first stages while she developed the prototype of Ceremonia’s first product, Aceite de Moska. She gathered a community of product testers — initially made up of friends and family from Latin American backgrounds, and then through her Instagram following where people signed up to be part of her insider community — who gave her feedback and testimony, and with that, Rivera began to fundraise.

“One of the most challenging fundraising journeys I’ve had was this pre-seed funding because what you’re really pitching is an idea,” Rivera recalls. It was even more challenging because she was doing this in the midst of COVID-19, so all the pitching happened over Zoom and Google Meet. “A lot of people had never seen a pitch deck talking about Latin culture, so I was met with a lot of skepticism — people thought [Ceremonia] was going to be too niche. It’s almost like it was giving charity vibes, which goes to show how much unconscious bias there is.”

She estimates she pitched to about 150 venture capitalists, each one teaching her something new. She realized she had to start her pitches with metrics, and speak to all the research she had done and the opportunity in the market. The success of Ceremonia speaks for itself, but Venture Capitalists kept doubting Rivera as a founder. “It was heartbreaking because I would be questioned as a founder because of my big Instagram account — I was immediately labeled as just a face,” she recalls with frustration. “Yes, I happen to have a lot of followers, but look at my resumé, I am a business woman.”

Other triggers included being told Latin brands only sell to Latinos and that that was considered niche. The other was the misconception that this demographic is only willing to shop inexpensive products. “It would drive me nuts because we are such a diverse community and have a lot of spending power,” she says.

However, one of the biggest blows came during a meeting with a VC who asked her if she had children. At the time, Rivera was a few months pregnant with her first child but hadn’t made that news public yet. She said she didn’t, and because the meeting was over Zoom the VC couldn’t see her baby bump. He immediately went on to tell her not to have children for at least five years if she was serious about Ceremonia’s success. “It felt so incredibly unfair. No one ever considered my husband’s path to fatherhood being a disadvantage in his career. He was so proud to tell everyone and everyone [would celebrate] him,” she says. “Meanwhile, I sat there feeling ashamed for being pregnant, and didn’t want to tell anyone because it [would be] a disadvantage.”

In 2020, Ceremonia launched exclusively direct-to-consumer with its inaugural product: Aceite de Moska. It wasn’t until about a year later that they expanded the line to a shampoo, conditioner, curl activator, and scalp massager, all sold at Credo. As of September 2022, they started to sell at Sephora, and now they’re sold at over 500 locations.

Anybody who ever questioned Rivera or her Latin-focused business has been proved wrong.

Rivera photographed by Rebecca Alaniz.

She attributes a big part of Ceremonia’s success to her customers. It was them who initially gave her feedback on Aceite de Moska, they’re the ones who asked her for a fragrance — Perfume de La Tierra — which is a newly launched product that was never previously on her roadmap, and they’re the ones who are asking her for the still-under-wraps product she’s launching at the end of the year. She’s tight-lipped about the launch, sharing only that it’s an extension of one of her best-selling collections, but she does shed light onto what she thinks is in the future for Ceremonia. “We’re really creating a world, so I think the future is a beauty brand versus just a hair[care] brand,” she shares.

Furthermore, she talks about her network as a solid group to lean on for support. Deepica Mutyala, founder of Live Tinted, is a great example of someone Rivera admires and looks to for advice. “We give it to each other real, whether we’re speaking about investors or exchanging notes on budgets,” she shares. “The reality is that the most valuable network for me has always been my peers, so I think really investing in your network and growing together is so powerful.”

This community she’s created is part of what keeps her in a healthy mindset. Despite all her success, from her 30 Under 30 shout-out and the $10 million investment, Rivera still experiences imposter syndrome. When asked when was the moment she realized she had made it, her response was a humble one. “There’ve been so many milestones, but none of them alone means that we have made it. We’re still a baby brand,” she begins. “We’re only going to be here if we have customers, and we’re only going to be here if our community supports us.”

It’s why she always puts her community first, listening to what they want, creating products that authentically tie into the brand, and spotlighting the Latin community. For example, for Hispanic Heritage Month she commissioned Latin photographers to capture images in their respective communities across the U.S. Then, she did an open-day casting call in Puerto Rico for people who wanted to participate in their campaign.

Tying it back into community and the tight-knit connection we share with our families, Rivera recalls what it was like for her parents to see Ceremonia for the first time. “It was so heartfelt, because for the longest time they never understood what I did. But when I founded Ceremonia it made sense. The packaging was in Spanish, they could use the products. My dad was a hairdresser in Chile, so he felt an even deeper sense of pride because [Ceremonia] was inspired by the rituals he taught me. And my mom is the self-care queen, she did all these rituals at home, which gave me an incredible front-row seat, whereas if she would’ve gone to the salon I probably wouldn’t have known about them.”

Not only does she get to replicate those rituals with her family in their upstate New York bathroom, but now Rivera gets to share them with hundreds of thousands of Ceremonia customers every day.

Pia Velasco is a bilingual Spanish and English journalist and consultant with editorial experience at outlets including Vogue, People en Espanol, and InStyle. Velasco has written for LATINA, Allure, Byrdie, ELLE, and more.