How Donna Vekic turned her passion for candles into a successful business

In her global travels as a professional tennis player, Donna Vekic has always found comfort in candles.

“I love good scents, good smells,” the 25-year-old from Croatia recently said from Zagreb. “That’s why candles are a big passion of mine. I’ll travel with one or buy one during the tournament.

“Always at the end of the day, at the hotel, I will light one.”

It’s Vekic’s way of making those sometimes homogenous, impersonal rooms all her own. Whether it’s Melbourne or Montreal, Paris or Palermo, San Jose or St. Petersburg, a comforting, familiar smell in the air makes it feel like something closer to home.

Toward the end of last year, Vekic was joking around with her fitness coach, Zlatko Novkovic. He’s spent a lot of time traveling with Vekic and knew her propensity for fragrances.

“You should start your own brand of candles,” Novkovic told Vekic.

Her response?

“Ooooh, yeah,” she said, struck by the idea. “Why not?”

She talked it over with her parents – Brankica (a track hurdler) and Igor (soccer goalie) were both professional athletes – and today, less than a year later, she’s in business. Vekic isn’t just a tennis player any more. She’s an entrepreneur, the chief of DNNA, which offers a line of luxury interior fragrances.

“People who know me well, know that I am a huge, huge fan of candles,” Vekic said. “So when I told my friends, they were not so surprised. With friends, it is always on the table. Or when I come home, always a candle is on in my apartment.”

And that candle was burning late-night hours as Vekic, her parents and business team put it all together. Working with an agency in Croatia, they navigated a long series of Zoom calls to put the foundation in place. After undergoing knee surgery following the Australian Open, Vekic used her three months out of competition wisely. She was insistent that the products, which include room sticks and diffusers, be of the highest quality – and that narrowed the focus.

The candles come in glass, handmade in Venice by the famous century-old Murano factory. The fragrance formulas were designed by renowned perfumer Arnaud Fourre in Grasse, France. Vekic spent three days in Croatia sampling many different combinations before settling on five: mango & vanilla, amber & CBD, wild mint & mimosa, bergamot & patchouli, as well as champagne &strawberry – the last a tribute to Wimbledon.

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All five of the senses connect to memory in the brain, but smell – because of where those centers are situated – evokes particularly emotional memories. So, we can connect the smell of apple pie with a visit to grandmother’s house. Or the whiff of fresh-mown lawn with a weekend growing up at home.

The candles are 100 percent beeswax, procured from the Kopacki Rit Nature Park in eastern Croatia, not far from Vekic’s home town of Osijek. They emit negative ions and create a non-toxic burn.

“I wanted my brand to be healthy,” Vekic said. “To be good for you, good for nature. Most other brands of candles use soy or paraffin, which is much unhealthier.

“Clean the air, clean the room.”

On the company’s Instagram account –  @my_dnna – you’ll find some startling photos of Vekic posing in a beekeeper’s outfit handling the actual bees.

“That was quite an experience,” she said. “I was really calm in the pictures but the second before and the second after, well … Bees are pretty amazing, but they can be scary at the same time when you see so many at once. They can be very intimidating.”

Vekic is featured in a number of shots – she laughed when it was noted that she doesn’t have to pay models to present her product – but plans to step aside from the marketing side when the company establishes itself.

“I wanted to create a brand that people would buy not because of me,” she said. “I am hoping they will buy it because they love the brand and they love the product. I think I the future the whole marketing won’t be all about me.

“Because I want to separate it completely from my tennis career. I don’t know if that makes sense.”

Make no mistake, Vekic is a formidable athlete. She’s 279-215 for her career in WTA matches, and closing in her 500th match. She’s won more than $5 million in prize money and owns two titles, 2014 Kuala Lumpur and 2017 Nottingham.

Her career-high ranking is No.19, after reaching the quarterfinals of the 2019 US Open. She reached the fourth round of the 2021 Australian Open, defeating No.45 Nadia Podoroska, No.65 Kaia Kanepi before losing to eventual finalist Jennifer Brady. More recently, she pushed Garbiñe Muguruza in a first-round loss at this year’s US Open, falling 6-7 (4), 6-7 (5).

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Vekic unveiled the company on June 28, the first day of Wimbledon, which also happened to be her 25th birthday.

“Highs and lows, kicks and blows, falling down and getting up – that is what I’m made of,” she was quoted in promotional literature. “Overcoming it all and ending up stronger? That’s just me. These candles are just my way to deal with these aspects off the court.

“My moment of relaxation and simulation for what is about to come. Because tomorrow is a new day where there will be sweat and tears all over again. My name is Donna, but I’m definitely not a primadonna.”

DNNA has six employees – not including Vekic – and has aspirations to eventually expand beyond Croatia into the European and U.S. markets.

“We plan to have a few more other products,” Vekic said. “They’ll be based around scents and perfume, and let’s see where this is going to go.”

As she has grown in the game, Vekic has watched as some players carve out a successful career beyond tennis. Maria Sharapova and Venus and Serena Williams are among the best examples.

“I always admired their ability to have a tennis career, but to have life outside tennis as well,” Vekic said. “Tennis is just a small, small part of life. And life goes on after our careers. I think a lot of players, they don’t have anything other than tennis, and that’s why many of them struggle, post-career.”

As long as she’s playing, however, tennis will remain the first priority.

“I set up a great team of people working on the candles, taking care of the business end of things,” Vekic said. “I think when we retire, we retire young and there’s still a whole life ahead of us. I have a lot of different passions, and whole lot of things I want to do.”

For now, it’s rehabbing that knee and planning to play in Chicago, Indian Wells and finish up 2021 with a few tournaments in Europe. Her goal is to return to pre-surgery form.

“It’s going to be a long way back,” Vekic said, “but I believe I still have the level if I’m healthy. I think that I can do it.”

And, whether it’s Chicago or Indian Wells or Moscow, you can be sure there will be a candle burning in her room back at the hotel.

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