by Devra Wathen
Founder, and CEO of ETSIS
I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri and have such fond memories of those times. Between the ages of 5-14, I spent my summers at Barney Goodman Camp, at the Jewish Community Center. Oh, we lathered up with sunscreen and even wore long sleeve white T-shirts, but we still got sunburns occasionally. Back then we didn’t know that the white T-shirt only provided 5% UPF and sunscreens didn’t provide UVA protection. As long as we didn’t get a painful burn, sporting a tan was the thing to do and we thought nothing of it. I was one of those kids that really liked all the outdoor activities when growing up and continued through out my life. Looking back, those magical days of my youth were the basis of where I am today, helping spread the message about sun protection.
In my 20s, I found myself moving to beautiful Colorado. I had just scored my first real job at this amazing new restaurant, and my life was getting exciting! Everyone was into the outdoor lifestyle—hiking, biking, skiing, tennis, volleyball, and yes, we even had a major windsurfing regatta every summer. The average 255 days of sun a year was amazing! We girls really competed with one another with who was going to have the best tan skin before the summer season started. No one wanted to look winter pale. It was there I met my first husband, had my wonderful son and started my first business, catering—I loved cooking in those days.
As it often does, life took a few twists and turns, and in my 40s I turned in my apron for a career in real estate, specifically multi-family projects. I saw a niche in the industry and started my own outsource leasing company called LeaseUp. We specialized in new and renovated investment properties for REITS. They hired our leasing agents to help their investment properties reach the highest occupancy possible. I met my current husband Chuck during this time. He was well known in the industry and truly mentored me as I grew my start-up. Working together closely, we eventually fell in love. During one of our talks he told me that a couple new projects were up for sale in Hawaii and would I be interested in taking a look at them? You know I jumped on this, who wouldn’t! My son’s father had moved to Hawaii several years earlier, and our son and I were used to going back and forth. Chuck and I took a trip, bought some properties, sold our home in Colorado and moved to Honolulu and, as the saying goes, the rest is history...sort of.
This was better then I could imagine: the perfect place to work, play and live. With the gorgeous weather and sun, I’d never have to worry about my tan. You see, a few short years ago, I was still so naïve about how damaging the UV rays are. All I cared about was that I had moved to paradise where I could spend all the time I wanted being outdoors year round.
My generation craved that Bain de Soleil deep-bronze tan. I always used sunscreen faithfully to avoid getting burned, but back then we had no idea how dangerous UVA rays are, we were only concerned with the UVB (burning) rays. Today, we know that both are extremely dangerous and that if you have a tan, you have sun damage. A tan is your body’s way of protecting your skin from UV rays. As with most people who spent most of their lives outdoors, I started noticing damage on my body—spots on the left side of face, my arms and hands. I had no idea where these spots were coming from! Off to the Dermatologist I went.
Basel cell carcinoma is the earliest of stage of skin cancer, and that’s what my spots were. If removed immediately and a serious regimen of sun protection were embraced I would be fine. My Dermatologist Dr. Kevin Mott, M.D., told me I was very lucky to have come to him when I did. He also said if I didn’t want to look like a dark-spotted prune, or end up with Melanoma, I was going to have use more than just sunscreen to protect myself. I would have to start covering up with quality clothing and a good sun hat, especially in my car, at the beach or even just walking the dog. Dr. Mott said my naturally pale skin was becoming hypersensitive to the sun, and all these years of tanning were catching up with me. I thought I was pretty diligent enough with my Helioplex 75+ SPF sunscreen to protect my skin since moving to Hawaii—I guess not!
On the way home from the doctor’s, I realized just how much sun was coming through my car windows, especially hitting my face and arms where I just had spots removed! Not cool. I went online to see what kind of protection clothing was out there and discovered Coolibar. It was perfect, everything I needed: any activity, land or water, they had me covered. The real challenge was trying to find a hat that would protect my face and neck, that didn’t look like a WW-II bomber hat with earflaps, and would work for both land and water activities.
I found plenty of hats to protect the back of my neck and ears but nothing for my face that looked remotely fashionable. I certainly couldn’t wear a 7” or 8” brim sun hat when driving; I’d have to hold the sides down when necessary to block the sun. And when I tried to wear a larger brim hat to the beach, the wind would just blow it right off. I tried carrying an umbrella to walk the dog—not practical, but manageable, yet this still left me without a good sun hat. There were plenty of beautiful hats, but none were functional AND stylish for what I needed and wanted.
In Hawaii, we have a diversity of Asian culture. If there is one thing Asian women do, it’s protecting their skin from the sun. Now I understood why I saw so many women wearing arm sleeves, layered clothing and hats with towels attached to protect their faces. I couldn’t just stay indoors and only come out at night like a vampire, I had to do something!
So I improvised. I took a basic Scala hat I already had, 2 dishtowels and safety pinned them into the crown of my hat, then tied it under my chin. It was effective but not very attractive. After about two weeks of this, my husband, shaking his head, said (very gently) that I looked like some bag lady cruising the neighborhood. “With all your fashion savvy, is this is the best you could do?” he asked. Oh, that did not sit well with me! So I wondered if I could design something that would look a little more tailored, non-bag-lady-ish, and offer better coverage for my face and neck area.
I pulled my old sewing machine out of storage, went to the fabric store and started messing around with different designs and fabric types. I had no idea what I was doing. The initial design was far from perfect but at least looked better than my two dishtowels and worked well. And I had discovered this wonderful bamboo fabric that felt wonderful next to my skin to make scarf-like panels to protect my face and neck. I needed to figure out something other than safety pins to attach the panels to the inside of my hat. Knowing Velcro wouldn’t work, snaps seemed like a good alternative. Voila! It worked really well!
Eureka! I was finally able to protect my face from the sun without the bag lady look! All of a sudden, my girlfriends were asking me about my hat. They wanted to do the same with some of their hats. They were shocked when I said it was homemade. One of them suggested that I should think about doing this on a larger scale. My pal Mandy knew someone, who knew someone else in the hat business locally, and she could make the introduction. One thing led to the next, and 3 years later ETSIS Hats was born. We found a great manufacturer to help us with production and finally, we had nine amazing hats, including a great hat for water sports. Best of all, we received endorsements from organizations such as the Melanoma International Foundation and SunAware.Who would have thought that, 30-40 years later, all this accumulative sun damage and tanning from my younger days would have taken me from semi-retirement into a new start up venture? Moreover, this life-changing journey would teach me some of the most important lessons of my life! What I learned about the sun’s UV rays that one visit 3-½ years ago to my dermatologist started a domino effect that began my new mission.
As I moved through the processes of getting a new hat to market, I discovered that many individuals suffered from sun sensitivities apart from those with skin cancer. Did you know that over 2 million women a year suffer from a condition called Melasma? Or for those afflicted with autoimmune diseases such as lupus, exposure to sunlight can be painful? People with Rosacea and Vitiligo…the sun even affects people on prescription medications. With what I knew and had experienced myself, I could help spread the message about sun protection and awareness. I found something new to be passionate about—Sun Protection and healthy, beautiful skin.
I educated myself on the facts about skin cancer, about sun exposure, how UVA ages the skin, causing brown spots, wrinkles and worst of all, sagging skin. I learned why sunscreens should not be your only line of defense when it comes to protecting yourself from both UVA & UVB rays, but that you need other methods. Protective clothing, sunglasses and a hat like the one I designed are a must if you want beautiful, healthy skin at every age.
All of this information really motivated me that much more to really pursue not just growing my brand but to get the message out there that sun protection is important. 1 out of 5 Americans will be diagnosed with one form or another of skin cancer this year alone. I want to tell young people that no tan is worth dying for. Even tanning beds are not safe. There is no such thing as a “safe” tan, period. A + B = C: when you mix UVA (Aging) and UVB (Burning), you get C, Cancer. If not cancer, you end up unattractive spotted, wrinkled, old-looking skin. Even if you are in your 20s, 30s, or 40s, you could end up looking much older.
I am most proud of all the individuals who have come and gone over the last 3 ½ years who have not only helped to create a game-changing sun hat, but to spread the message about sun protection. Just being a part of this mission is one of the most important ventures of my life. And now, with the help of our friends at Village Hat Shop, our ETSIS Hats are available worldwide, and another way we are promoting the social message: Be SunAware and sun savvy by “Escaping The Sun In Style™”.