Success often comes when we’re least expecting it. So many of us work tirelessly to achieve something — to make it. We go to school, we get a degree, and then maybe another degree, then we work full-time, and we keep going and we keep pushing, and then maybe, we find a side hustle, not ever pausing to figure out what it is we’re really meant for. For some of us though, that passion and energy and drive, will manifest into something truly special. Melissa Gallardo is one of those people. She launched her company, Bonita Fierce Candles, as a side hustle back in 2020, and hasn’t looked back since.
“Between coming into my Latinidad, and supporting other small businesses, I found this hole in the market,” Gallardo tells HipLatina. “I set out to create Bonita Fierce, a collection of candles dedicated to celebrating and elevating Latin heritage.”
She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications and Broadcasting and a Master’s in Media Management and Impact Entrepreneurship but this experience has been an education on its own. Up until this past summer, the business was completely self-funded, with Gallardo using all of the income she earned from her office job to finance Bonita Fierce. In less than a year, she was able to leave her full-time job in corporate media to focus on growing her company. She’s a solo entrepreneur, but from its inception, Gallardo has had to rely heavily on her family to help make her business a success. “My entire immediate family has rallied to help me pour, pack, and ship candles throughout all stages. I truly couldn’t have done it without their support,” she tells us.
Born and raised in Long Island, New York, where she still lives in the home she grew up in, the 25-year-old Salvadoreña, was inspired by what she describes as the “cultural crossroads of being Latina and American.” What set her apart then, is the very same thing that now sets Bonita Fierce apart.
“Navigating language, culture, and heritage has always been a challenge – the feeling of what home meant. I always felt insecure in my identity as a Latina and had to deeply assimilate in my community to be accepted as an American,” Gallardo says. That feeling of never quite belonging though, is exactly what drove her to create something that represented her experience, one that she shares with so many other Latinx people in America, myself included.
Personally, I’ve been swooning over Bonita Fierce Candles since I came across the line on Instagram a couple of years ago. Everything about it speaks to me: the colors, the scents, the branding, the aesthetic. After a recent chat with Gallardo, I know exactly why. She set out to represent people like me. Bonita Fierce Candles was created with Latinos who grew up in the states in mind; Latinos who don’t speak Spanish, but know their culture, are passionate about it and love it fiercely, regardless of how far removed from it they may seem to outsiders.
“‘No soy ni de aquí, ni de allá’ or ‘I’m not from here nor there,’ is the simplest way to describe it.,” Gallardo explains. “I never felt accepted in the Latinx community, and was never American enough,” she says, noting that her parents chose not to teach her Spanish, because back in the ’90s, they thought it would make it harder for her growing up in the U.S.
“This feeling isn’t just for the ‘No Sabo’ kids, this feeling can be described for many children of immigrants who are living in what feels like two worlds,” Gallardo says. “I want to elevate and celebrate cultural preservation with American values while still being deeply connected to heritage.”
That’s her mission, and with candle scents like “Abuela’s Bakery,” “Coquito,” “Cafecito Con Leche” and “Lavender Fabulosa,” there’s no mistake who her target customer is. But thanks to her social media presence, Gallardo caught the attention of a very big name retailer, very early on, and now Bonita Fierce has reached the masses.
Just before she left her corporate job in April 2021, a rep from Nordstrom found Bonita Fierce on Instagram and reached out. Within 4-5 months, Gallardo’s candles were on the department store’s shelves, and now, the retail giant is her biggest wholesale client. Despite this level of growth, she’s staying true to the roots of her business (for now) and while she’s started actively looking for a warehouse to work out of, Gallardo is still running the business entirely out of her home. She hopes she’ll be able to move the operation by the end of 2023, but for the time being, she is continuing to do big things right where she is.
“I truly thought this would remain a side hustle for 2+ years. If you asked me 3 years ago, a fresh college graduate, that I would have a 6-figure home fragrance business, I would have laughed,” she tells us. “I was determined to have a career in media and climb the corporate ladder, instead, I did a complete 180.”
Gallardo willingly admits that growing her business so quickly isn’t easy despite her sucess. She struggles to keep up just like the rest of us. “I’ve hit burnout more times than I can count. Right now, it’s Latinx Heritage Month and it’s every Latinx-owned business’ equivalent to the Super Bowl all month long. It’s really difficult to separate work and spend time with your loved ones,” she explains.
But she’s a Latina on a mission, so she’s using every tool she has to keep the ball rolling and continue to grow personally and professionally. One of the biggest things she’s learned about success is that the people you surround yourself with can make a massive difference.
“Thankfully, I have a support system in place to pry me away from the candle studio and my laptop,” she says. “I don’t know what I would do without them. As I’m rapidly growing, I’m learning to become a manager for the first time, delegate work, and understand my own capabilities and capacity so that I can enjoy life even more.”
Beyond her close family and friends, Gallardo says one of the first things she did when she was starting Bonita Fierce was to connect with other Latinx entrepreneurs. She believes that not only helped educate her, but also helped her become more confident in both her mission and her abilities. Now, she knows she has the influence to completely upend the home fragrance industry.
With her goal in mind, Gallardo plans to continue to expand Bonita Fierce over the next couple of years, so her candles will be available in more stores throughout the country. She’s also partnered with beauty retailer, Ulta, to help other BIPOC beauty brands get their feet in the door. Bonita Fierce Candles is one of eight brands participating in the first cohort of Ulta Beauty MUSE Accelerator program, which intends to offer up-and-coming beauty brands the chance to learn from industry experts as well as $50,000 in financial support.
Talk about poderosa! Gallardo is proof positive that with passion, vision, hard work, a solid support system, and a good heart, anything is possible.
“We’re tired of seeing the Merry Merlot, Ocean Breeze, and Lavender Lemonades of the world. There are 62+ million Latinos living in the U.S. but how many Latin-inspired candle brands can you name?” she questions. “We are evoking the ephemeral feeling of home and childhood memories through fragrance.”