There’s never been a better time to be a woman in the beauty startup world. While some look to beauty to launch a second or even third career, there are many who propelled the commercial and aspirational modern beauty business in the late 20th century.
We are talking of game-changers, risk-takers, trend-starters and trailblazers who have changed the industry as we know it, and made this world a little more beautiful for all of us. These women are revolutionising India’s beauty space through sheer guts. The guts to launch companies, execute big ideas and set the trends that appeal to millions of women in the country’s metros and small towns. This is the story of how their ambitions have shaped our relationship with beauty.
These women are all different, yet they share similar stories of triumph in the face of hardship. Meet six of the most daring and dynamic women entrepreneurs who are smashing the glass ceiling, superwoman style.
Vinita Jain, Chairperson and Managing Director of Biotique
Advice to future entrepreneurs: Follow your passion. When you do that, there will be a way to achieve it
It may seem borderline dramatic to describe a person as iconic, but it’s a more than fitting word when applied to Vinita Jain who realised the remarkable efficacy of Ayurveda early in her childhood when her parents who owned tea estates in Assam and Darjeeling would use the ancient wisdom to treat the workers on the estate. But it was a course in Biochemistry from Switzerland, and then a management programme at the Stanford Graduate Business School that actually helped Jain turn her passion into a fledging business. Biotique was launched in 1992 after Jain formed a team of six Ayurveda doctors and Biotechnologists to do R&D on the products. “We got instant appreciation as Biotique products were highly efficacious and result driven. The combination of the 5,000-year-old science of ayurveda and 21st century biotechnology was a win-win and it didn’t take long for the brand to scale up the popularity charts,” says the reticent founder.
Biotique products are available in 60 countries and continues to be a privately held company. “Biotique is internally funded, and a zero-debt cash-rich company. We have been approached by private equity players and investors but we are not looking for external investors.”
Steve Jobs’ innovative streak continues to inspire Jain who has made yoga and meditation an integral part of her life. Apart from playing squash and travelling Jain is also a voracious reader. “I read and write Sanskrit and love reading ancient Vedic textbooks.”
Mira Kulkarni, MD Forest Essentials
Advice to future entrepreneurs: It is important to be clear that you are doing something you love doing. Then look at every setback with the thought “this too shall pass” and don’t stop. Remember, there is no top of the mountain, there will always be another challenge
Earlier, Ayurveda meant funny-smelling powders and potions in plastic bottles with home-made labels. Not something that took pride of place on your dressing table. But Mira Kulkarni changed all that with her home-grown brand Forest Essentials. She worked for many years with vaids and biochemists to make products using long-forgotten recipes which kept the inherent properties of Ayurveda intact, and yet, were scented and pleasurable to use. The concept of light, pleasurable and luxurious Ayurveda products clicked with the buyers.
One of Forest Essentials’ first products was a batch of honey soap made with honeycomb, fresh honey and essential oils. Kulkarni personally cut it up, packaged each bar in brown tissue paper with a fancy ribbon around it and sold them to her friends. The overwhelming response prompted Kulkarni to set up a small factory in Rishikesh. The first commercial contract came from Hyatt Regency (Delhi) in 2001. Three years later, she launched her flagship store in Khan Market and gradually increased the company’s presence.
Forest Essentials products are manufactured in the Himalayas, using local spring water, ingredients and labour. In 2008, global cosmetics giant Estee Lauder bought a minority stake in Forest Essentials, an investment that has helped the brand scale even further. Today, Forest Essentials is sold in 60 company-owned stores in 15 cities across the country. It is also the only Indian brand present in Sephora India.
When not spearheading a global brand and working on newer formulations Kulkarni loves to tend to her garden and plant the seeds she brings from all my travels. The 59-year-old also finds cooking therapeutic and often experiments with exotic dishes from Spanish, Italian, Mediterranean and Hyderabadi cuisines.
Nidhima Kohli, Founder Mybeautymatch.com
Advice to future entrepreneurs: Work on your resilience and pick up the right team to work with. And don’t just work hard… work smart
What do you do when work-related stress and pressures play havoc on your skin? Pile up on the beauty products or at best visit a dermat? Not if you are Nidhima Kohli. Frustrated with biased recommendations from beauticians and beauty counters working with brands, the London-based investment banker ditched her six-figure salary to build the world’s first Intelligent Beauty Matching Engine. The site is built with artificial intelligence and proprietary technology, which is able to match the algorithm of an individual’s skin concerns with an impartial beauty product. All the individual has to do is take an online quiz and answer a few questions about their skin type; hair type etc and then they instantly see beauty products matched to them personally in a price comparison format. “I worked with cosmetic scientists and data scientists to build a super-crazy algorithm that matched individual needs to beauty product.” Currently My Beauty Matches is UK’s largest online marketplace for buying beauty products with personal recommendations.
Fame and adulation were quick to follow. Kohli was named a Top women Business Leader by the Guardian, Vogue mentioned her in its top 10 beauty entrepreneurs in the world and she also won The Guardian Startup of the Year award.
The site works with 180 retailers within the UK and America and had even their first TV commercial aired in May this year on E! And E!+ channels. “I remember watching it in between the break of Keeping Up With The Kardashians and it was the best feeling ever to finally see your business up on live television.”
If you are in the beauty business, be ready to be judged as an ‘airhead’, warns the 34-year-old. “You are not taken very seriously by certain people and some even make rude comments. But you learn to avoid those people after a few years in the industry,” says Kohli who idolises her businessman dad Sudhir Kohli and Jeff Bezos, the Chief Executive Officer of Amazon. Daily meditation sessions help her stay grounded while sailing and occasionally taking off to Barretoned in Notting Hill recharge her energies.
Vandana Luthra, Founder & Vice Chairperson, VLCC Health Care Limited
Advice to future entrepreneurs: When you envision your future, don’t get bogged down by hurdles. Stick with the plan and give it all you can. That’s what separates the achievers from the dreamers
Back in the late ’80s when Vandana Luthra launched VLCC, the biggest challenge was one of perception. People were familiar with beauty parlours, but the idea of a Transformation Centre was perceived as futuristic. Funding was definitely hard to come by, especially for first-gen entrepreneurs. But nothing could deter Luthra who got a small loan and started with one centre in Delhi. “At that time there were hardly any women entrepreneurs. It was a male-dominated environment. I had to face a lot of criticism, a lot of people tried to ensure that I did not succeed and grow. The only thing I believed in was that my concept was unique, unusual and it was being introduced in India for the first time,” she says. From the very beginning Luthra took a scientific approach and started working with doctors. The other thing that Vandana feels worked in her favour was the branding of VLCC as a clinic as opposed to a glamorous transformation centre. Things improved over the years and the brand was able to build consumer trust and stickiness. Today VLCC is spread across 330 locations in 150 cities and 14 countries. Besides wellness centers, VLCC also manufactures a wide range of skin care, body care and hair care products and runs one of Asia’s largest network of skill development institutes in beauty and nutrition.
A grandmother to three children, Luthra believes it’s possible to create a perfect balance between home and career. “There are tremendous learnings from running a home which can be substituted in a successful enterprise with its various stake holders.”
Falguni Nayar, Founder and CEO Nykaa
Advice to future entrepreneurs: Always analyse the failures, seek advice from the people whose views you trust and move forward
Falguni Nayar always wanted to be an entrepreneur. But it was only after putting in over 18 years at Kotak Mahindra Capital Co., as managing director and head of its institutional equities business that Nayar finally took the plunge. Nykaa was founded in April 2012 much against prevailing wisdom that both ecommerce and beauty were not a great business. “During the time I spent living in the US, I observed that there was a lot of brand proliferation in beauty and hence multi-brand beauty retail was the way to go for beauty. Since beauty needs are all encompassing, to matter in the industry one needed to be able to do it at scale. I was aware of the nature of the demand, longtail inventory SKUs and hence I was convinced it was better handled online for a market like India that was still in the nascent stages.”
Apart from being India’s largest beauty retailer with 700 brands and 80,000 products, what worked in favour of Nykaa was unbiased beauty advice, keeping customer needs in mind, rather than the brand push that was prevalent at the time. The site was also the first to introduce luxury beauty to Indian ecommerce when it launched M.A.C, Estée Lauder, Clinique and Bobbi Brown last year. Two years ago, Nayar introduced its own brand which has gone on to become a best-seller. The 214 crore cosmetics and wellness retailer has now extended its presence through a mobile app and seven stores across the country.
For any entrepreneur to be successful, Nayar believes it’s important to have as a goal a cost structure and financial metrics that make sense. “Don’t be impatient to reach here, because it won’t allow you to reach scale, but this will help you build a sustainable business model. At Nykaa the first step was being operating profit positive, then to cover direct marketing cost, growing to be EBITDA positive and finally net profit positive.”
Shahnaz Husain, Founder and CEO of Shahnaz Herbals Inc
Advice to future entrepreneurs: Acquire professional training in your field and keep learning. Never give up. If you never give up, you cannot fail. There is no such thing as destiny. You can be what you want yourself to be
A success story is always fascinating, more so when it is about a lone woman in a fiercely competitive arena. A wife at 15 and a mother at 16, Shahnaz Husain braved all odds and stuck to her guns. While training in London, when she came across damage caused by chemical treatments, it changed the course of her career. “I wanted to find a safe alternative and knew that I must have my own enterprise in order to translate my ideas into reality. So, I opened my first herbal salon in the verandah of my own home after borrowing `35,000 from my father. I started making my own formulations, using plant products and natural ingredients. I made the products at night, filled them in jars, wrote labels by hand and stuck them on the jars,” recollects Husain who became a case study at Harvard Business School for Brand Creation.
Over the next four decades, Husain marketed India’s 5,000 year old civilisation in a jar and created an international market for Ayurvedic beauty care. Having adopted a totally new concept of herbal care and cures, Husain had to increase awareness of the healing powers of herbs and dangers of chemical and synthetic ingredients. The stalwart did this by contributing articles in leading newspapers and magazines. She also made it a point to personally respond to letters seeking solutions for skin and hair problems. Four decades later, she still maintains this personal touch. “Entering the international market was the biggest challenge. India was not even represented at that time, but I attended International Beauty Congresses on my own steam, speaking on Ayurveda and trying to popularise Ayurvedic beauty care.”
Shahnaz Husain was the first Indian beauty brand to snag a permanent counter at the Selfridges store in London. From there, the brand moved on to Harrods in London, Galeries Lafayette in Paris, the Seibu chain in Japan, Bloomindales in New York, La Rinascente in Milan and El Corte Inglis in Spain. The Shahnaz Husain franchise is at the core of the success of the Shahnaz Husain brand. The company has over 1,000 shop-in shops, as well as 15,000 salon outlets, and about 35,000 other points of purchase....