Keta Burke-Williams always wanted to escape. Not to far-flung locales (well, maybe those, too). From situations where she felt other.
“I was born to a Jamaican mother and a dad who was Black and came from the south. I grew up in a very white suburb,” explains the beauty entrepreneur. “I never felt like I fit in. So I looked for escapes.”
As a kid, she found respite in figure skating, which she started at age 3 and competed in competitively until she was a teen. “I still remember how the rink smells,” she says, “like a combination of Zamboni and the cold air.”
She later disappeared into that magical world so many of us found solace in growing up: the aromatic wonderland of Bath & Body Works. (Burke-Williams was a cucumber melon devotée—don’t come for her, Warm Vanilla Sugar peeps!) “Scent has always been this thing. I’d breathe deep and be transported somewhere else,” she explains.
Burke-Williams may not have known it then, but science had the explanation for why: Of the five senses, scent is the one most directly connected to our feelings. It’s like an emotional IV that routes straight to the brain.
In fact, a recent study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience confirmed that, even when you aren’t consciously aware of it, scent can literally “modulate” emotion and mood. When you inhale a pleasant smell, it can calm you when jittery, energize you when sluggish, and—as it did for a younger Burke-Williams—make you feel seen, even understood, when you feel alone.
Burke-Williams originally studied Portuguese and religion in college, then got an MBA from Harvard, but the self-scent link eventually led her to launch her own fragrance company, Ourside. (Below, at the Credo store in Larchmont.)
Scent, for her, isn’t something to please “the gaze of someone else.” It’s a way to “amplify you,” she explains. “We’re not making a product to make you better or different. You are enough as you are.”
A New Focus
That “enough” messaging she wants other woman to feel? Burke-Williams still grapples with it herself. She has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder—a diagnosis that, like many women, she got as an adult, “so that’s been interesting,” she says. (Historically, doctors have underdiganosed ADHD in girls because it often presents as the “inattentive” type, not the “hyperactive” focus typically seen in boys.)
“It came to a point in one job where I felt like stuff wasn’t going so well,” she continues. “It was really hard to get started, because all of a sudden I was given a job where I didn’t need to multitask and I had to focus on one thing.”
Without knowing what was happening in her brain, Burke-Williams blamed herself. “I was afraid to get help because I’m ‘high-functioning’ and went to an Ivy league school, and even telling my family was scary,” she says. “But they were receptive. There’s a stigma [I have toward] myself. I’m still learning how to cope with it well.”
Beyond the typical stuff—therapy, meds (when there’s not a shortage!)—Burke-Williams has created a toolbox of lifestyle products that help her manage her ADHD on the daily. (Yes, she’s our kinda gal.) What’s in it?
A single bag. “I have one bag that I always take around with me. I try not to switch purses. I simplified my wardrobe because I like having less choice and fewer decisions—things that slow me down.” Right now her bag of choice is a Valentino VLTN Belt Bag.
Spearmint gum. “I love chewing gum because it helps to distract me when I’m working on something else. It’s the equivalent to somebody else having a fidget spinner. I buy Extra Spearmint Gum in 8-packs from Amazon. I don’t even chew it a ton. It’s having something to play with, and the spearmint lasts longer in my opinion, which allows me to get the distraction, what would normally be like foot-tapping.”
Headphones. “If I really need to zone out on my computer, I have over-the-ear headphones, and I put on certain music mixes that don’t have a ton of words.” Her ‘phones: Bose Quiet Comfort Noise Cancelling Headphones.
White Vans. “I love having high-top white Vans sneakers. I hate decisions and choices, and the Vans can adapt to situations. I can dress them up or down and they go with so much. Plus they’re comfortable for walking around the city, which is a must. Plus, you see all kinds of people wearing Vans. It’s a connecting thread.”
Inclusivity in Life—And Perfume
This brings us full-circle, back to that other thing with a connecting thread: fragrance. “I’m a type A person, so it’s all or nothing when it comes to the gym or skincare, but I love that with scent there’s no right or wrong. It’s not like it has to come in a specific order or a specific look,” she says. “To me, scent is a form of self-care. If I’m having a bad day, I can light a candle or spritz on a fragrance and immediately it can stop what’s happening and take me somewhere else.”
She recently tapped one of Ourside’s three scents, Nostalgia, to do just that. “I wore it yesterday because it was raining. It’s this warm blanket. This dewy jasmine brightened by grapefruit peel,” Burke-Williams says. “It’s inspired by a story my mom told me about night-blooming jasmine. She was in Tunisia and goes through this garden and this gate with the water and the air, that kind of peace. Scent can tie us to these memories—it stays with us.”
It’s the reason why Ourside’s blends, which launched earlier this year, are inspired by daydreams. “We all know what it means to daydream, but where our mind takes us is different,” Burke-Williams says. “We could all smell rose and have three unique reactions to it. We experience scent in community but also individually. Obviously, it’s not curing cancer, but it can make an impact in our everyday lives.”
The other two scents have their own personalities:
- Moon Dust: “Our scent for the cozy kind of person who isn’t a big perfume-wearer and who wants crisp and fresh.” During the pandemic, one customer had a reminder on her Apple watch to get up and moving, “and the thing that excited her about that was she would roll on a bit of Moondust.”
- Dusk: “Very juicy and sultry. It opens with berries and fig and then dries down to amber. I would wear it for a date night. It’s an attention grabber.”
Ourside aims to thwart that othering Burke-Williams has felt and to create an inclusive space for BIPOC people. “[The name is] focused on this idea that it’s time for our voices and stories, and creating a space for all of us,” she says.
“I’m intersectional. I identify as a woman, but as a woman of color with Caribbean heritage. And I think in terms of feeling seen, that was one reason I wanted to create a luxury brand within fragrance. We don’t see a lot of [Black] voices in fragrance, especially within luxury fragrance,” she explains. “I wanted to show that Black girls can create something of luxury for all humans. I also wanted to show that something beautiful could be created in the Bronx. It bucks this notion that all the fancy fragrance needs to come from Grasse.”
It’s true: Most of the perfumers that get any public acclaim are white men with serious French accents. But Ourside’s cruelty-free fragrances are made in small batches in New York, with sustainably sourced ingredients. Because Burke-Williams and her sister (with whom she originally launched the brand) both have allergies and asthma, they avoided ingredients that could cause irritation, such as phthalates and endocrine disruptors.
Speaking of disruption… What’s Burke-Williams do when she feels disrupted? Here are three of her tips for feeling better when she feels meh.
- Jump rope. “I like jump-roping because it’s a form of cardio that gets my blood pumping, but also makes me feel like a kid again.”
- Music. She’s got her calm-down playlists at the ready, filled with quite the range, from house music, “which I picked up in Miami,” to her all-time favorite, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (the Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye version, to be clear). How exactly does that one help her chill? “I get distracted because I start singing it and know all the harmonies. I get lost in the song. It stops everything.”
- Getting outside. “My fiancé is really good at suggesting we go outside. [He’ll say], ‘We can get a walk and go to the coffee shop.’ And although the coffee is good, it’s the fresh air that can change my day. No matter how I’m feeling, it always helps.”
Much like a spritz of the right fragrance.
For now, Burke-Williams isn’t planning on launching new scents, but is working on other applications. “I want to see how fragrance can play a bigger role in everyday life. It could be something entirely different.”
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