YARMOUTH — Gabrielle Melchionda’s business started with a failing math grade.

About 27 years later, her Mad Gab’s natural and organic body-care products are sold throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Now, Melchionda said she’d like to focus on the “pillar” of her business by formalizing Gab Girls, which is a mixture of mentoring, internship and apprenticeship opportunities for girls ages 13-18.

This year, Mad Gab’s was also officially certified as a Women-Owned Business by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, which connects female entrepreneurs with training and funding opportunities.

“I want these girls to know that they have a place,” Melchionda said. “You have just as much of a right to be in the business community as anyone else. Don’t apologize, speak your mind, make sure that your voice is heard.”

Leah Tenney worked for Melchionda for about a year and this summer she helped lead two free workshops at the Mad Gab’s office at 25 Yarmouth Crossing. Attendees learned the story of Mad Gab’s and discussed how to market and brand their own business ideas.

“It’s really awesome that (Melchionda) is willing to bring people in the community,” Tenney said. “We all come together as a team here and we get it done. It’s been awesome for me to learn how a business runs at 18 and take these skills out into the rest of my life and hopefully into my own business one day.”

This fall, Tenney is starting at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts, to study business. Eventually, she said, she’d like to run her own business, possibly event and party planning.

“I have so many ideas; they’re always changing,” Tenney said. “When I got to know (Melchionda), I really got to know her story and it was really inspiring … She’s shown me that it’s possible to make this happen from scratch.”

Melchionda was 19 years old and studying anthropology at the University of Massachusetts when she had to retake a freshman math class during a January term – and ended up receiving an A. To spruce up the three-week term, she decided to also take a basic massage workshop, where she learned about natural cosmetics.

With that, she began making lip balm with beeswax, and giving it to friends and classmates. At first, when people suggested Melchionda sell her product, she rejected the idea.

“I was so anti-capitalism,” she said in an Aug. 31 interview. “I just thought it’d be a fun project.”

But finally, she gave in and began selling the product at health food stores. She packaged it in small plastic boxes and them mounted in display cases made from spare wood she’d pick up for free at a nearby coffin factory. 

By the time she graduated in 1992, Melchionda said she was selling Mad Gab’s lip balm out of about 50 stores.

“I obviously had no business degree and was just winging it,” she said. “My career goals were no panty hose, no cube, no boss.”

After living on the road for a year, going from business to business asking if they’d like to carry her lip balm, Melchionda met Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farm. Years before, Melchionda’s father, who died when she was young, saved Hirshberg’s life by rushing him to the hospital after his appendix burst.

“After something like that, you’re kind of bound for life. … He became a mentor,” Melchionda said. Hirshberg helped her get a job at the nonprofit Social Venture Network in San Francisco, California.

“It was all about how to run cool businesses with great initiatives and learn from each other,” Melchionda said. She did that for about a year and then moved back to Maine in 1996.

“When I first moved here I had $14 in the bank and was gearing up for my first trade show,” Melchionda said.

For the first seven years of business or so, Mad Gab’s was sold solely at health food stores. In 1997, the television network and shopping channel QVC selected her and 19 other small business owners out of 300 to sell their products on their channel.

Soon, Mad Gab’s – whose selection has expanded to include products like body balms and its signature Elephant Lube – was being featured in magazines such as Vogue, Beauty and Seventeen.

“That’s when things really started to take off,” Melchionda said. “… Being featured in those magazines sort of pulled us out of natural into other industries.”

For a while, Melchionda said she focused on selling Mad Gab’s products in the gift industry, customizing packaging for sale at gift shops on cruise lines and national parks and museums across the country, including Yellowstone National Park and the Smithsonian Institution.

After a rebranding and relaunch in 2015, Mad Gab’s started to focus on the conventional market.

“Ninety-three percent of lip balms are bought (in places like) Target, Walgreens, Hannaford,” Melchionda said. “It’s grocery … The last year now, we’ve been focusing on that more conventional market.”

Now, their “mg” line is sold in Hannaford, Wegmans, Stop & Shop and elsewhere throughout the “mass market.”

“The reception’s been crazy and amazing,” Melchionda said. “It’s taking off in the market we wanted it to … When you’re dealing with something that’s such a low price point (ranging from $3-$10) you need the volume to grow.”

With that growth, Melchionda said it’s important to grow her network of employees and partners and expand their online presence to reach the masses. Her team in Yarmouth consists of four full-time employees, a few part-time and remote partners and sales representatives.

“There’s a lot of authenticity in the roots of how I started the company and also in the product itself … The goal has always been to keep the business healthy and growing (but) I still like to keep it close and personal,” Melchionda said. “Now, we have this family of girls and women … Women are such a power force.”

Mad Gab owner Gabrielle Melchionda, right, stands with Leah Tenney in Yarmouth. Tenney worked for Melchionda for the past year and became inspired to start her own business. (Jocelyn Van Saun/The Forecaster)

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