Emma Wiklund felt as though her career was ending while everyone else’s had just begun. She had built her own personal brand and travelled extensively, but was ready to take a step back, and to make time for friends, family, and a social life.

A rockstar speaker at Startup Grind Stockholm, Emma Wiklund is now CEO of her company — Emma S. Skincare.

Perhaps better known as Mjölk Emma, she fell into modelling after winning a Hawaiian-themed beauty contest that she attended after taking a day off from her work as a cashier at the Swedish supermarket chain ICA. Her first modelling job was to promote pink Cresent bicycles with curved handlebars.

“I never thought I was going to be a model. I had a gap, and I was too tall. My mum always said my mouth was the same size when I was born and I just sort of grew into it.”

What started off as an old-fashioned coincidence turned into a career spanning over a decade in the fashion industry on runways in Stockholm, New York, Milan, and Paris. “When I got my first payment, I was like ‘this is so much better than ICA’ and it was so much fun actually.”

She attributes her grace in front of the camera to training in dance. “Even if you’re a beautiful person, it doesn’t mean you’re comfortable with the camera this close to your face.” But despite the glamour associated with modelling, she says it can be quite tough. A lot of girls came from poor backgrounds and would send all of their money home to support their families. “When you’re a model, you’re just a better version of a clothes hanger, as someone once told me.”

Returning to Sweden at age 29, Emma made the decision to start down a very different path. She went to Stockholm University and took literature studies to broaden her mind. It turned out that it wasn’t really her thing.

Luckily, Lindex was looking for a model and spokesperson for their brand. 1991 saw her in a campaign for milk in Sweden, followed by an ad for cigarettes. “I became ‘mjölk Emma’ and suddenly realised I had the big responsibility of being a role model. Sweden went crazy. The milk Emma is doing advertising for cigarettes! It was kind of shocking. I decided I didn’t want to do advertising selling fur, and I didn’t want to be the person promoting it. No cigarettes, no fur, but lots of milk.”

Most people have considered stepping into a different role in a completely different industry at some point. Entrepreneurs, too, spend countless hours trying to pinpoint a niche market that isn’t being filled. Past experiences and a little nudging were all the motivation that Emma needed to start her own business.

“In the 80s and 90s, there were no digital cameras so there was no retouching. If you had bad skin, you couldn’t get any jobs. I had help from a dermatologist to help me with my skin problems.” Although she didn’t have any education in chemistry, she was well-versed in beauty creams from a user perspective and she felt that Sweden really lacked a personal skincare brand.

“You have to be believable with a very confident story and I felt that I could do that because I really knew what I wanted to do. Everyone I spoke to said ‘Are you crazy?’ This is a tough and very competitive business. I really missed a skincare brand with safe and secure ingredients that was not too expensive. There are serums costing 4,000kr and you sort of wonder ‘Do I get a television with this?’ I wanted to have a product that a dermatologist could recommend.”

It took a year and a half for Emma to find a producer. Today, there are 5 people working with the company. “CEO sounds great. In a small company though, you have to do everything,” she laughs after being spotted cleaning shelves at a department store.

The hardest part? “Taking my savings and throwing it into a black hole. I didn’t know what would happen to it…. I’ve never worked so hard and made so little money in my whole life. Anyone who has a startup knows that you never go home and stop thinking about work. The first time I saw the products in the Åhlens shop, I’ll never forget that moment. We were on the top floor because it was exclusive. I felt really proud.”

Not being able to afford traditional marketing hasn’t been a deterrent. “We did a lot of PR. I think you have to be very honest. If you don’t believe in your product or your brand 110%, no one else is going to believe you.”

“We developed every formula to be unique to Emma S. I’m really proud that we own our unique formulas and make them ourselves. It takes about 18 months to develop each product. I think it’s a personality thing. Whatever I do, I want to do it really, really well. I had no idea about packaging and regulations. The first time is always putting the process in place.”

Thinking back to her early days when the first batch of products was leaving the shelves, she knows “we took a risk….We took a huge risk. For the first six months, we were so nervous.”

Although she considers herself to be a creature of routine, competition doesn’t seem to phase her. “Having competition makes you sharp,” she waves, referring to the constant flow of innovation that companies need to engage in to keep their products at the forefront of the public eye. “If you don’t have competition, you don’t have anything to aim for.”

Cathy Xiao Chen

Cathy Xiao Chen

Community Manager

Cathy Xiao Chen is the Space & Community Manager at Impact Hub Stockholm. She co-organises #SthlmFoodMovement and consults on Food Sustainability.