[Co-founders Justin Silver and Rooshy Roy (on right, piggybacking) with their team members at Aavrani. Nina Davuluri, the third co-founder, is not in the photo.]
What do a first generation Indian-American woman, a male Caucasian private equity investor, and a Miss America share in common? An excited lunch line conversation on the second day of business school for Wharton’s MBA Class of 2019.
Over the course of a quintessential preterm networking conversation, two fiercely entrepreneurial spirits, Rooshy Roy and Justin Silver, discovered a shared passion for value-added socially responsible consumer products. Both of them had developed a strong technical foundation while working in investment banking and private equity.
Silver spoke about helping build and scale a b-school incubated skincare business using ancient Japanese ingredients such as green tea, rice and algae. Roy shared her nostalgia for the all-natural tried and tested Indian beauty rituals that she had grown up with and her own pain-point of not having access to them in a ready-to-use format.
They decided to build a high-end Indian beauty brand from scratch that does just that. And over the next few months they dived into perfecting the texture and smell of their products, market research, and planning out their business. Along the way, they were joined by Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014—the first and only Indian-American to win the contest.
That is how their beauty brand Aavrani, which celebrates women’s inner rani (Hindi for queen), was born. They seem to have hit on a winning formula. Aavrani, the first US-based luxury skincare line that draws inspiration from ancient Indian beauty rituals, launched in June 2018, recorded $1 million+ in revenue in 2019, and anticipates grossing $6 million in sales this year.
Roy was coming from the same place as other young career women like me. My mom, like most Indian moms, has an unshakeable belief that the cure to all skincare ills lies in the all-natural beauty secrets that she learned from her mom—secrets passed down through the generations. But these naani ke nuskhe (grandma’s cures) are hard to concoct and use, and the frantic pace of my constantly on lifestyle often leaves little time for such elaborate self-care. If only we could capture the magic in a bottle to perpetuate our grandmothers’ wrinkle-free skin and forever-black hair.
Aavrani tries to capture the best of both worlds by packaging age-old remedies in its new electric blue bottles.
Both Davuluri and Roy could sense that their brand would appeal to women like them—Indians in America who are still connected to their cultural roots and ancient beauty rituals.
Davuluri reminisces about how she learnt that kitchen staples like coconut oil, neem and turmeric could also be used for beauty and skincare. “I grew up with my grandmother putting coconut oil in my hair and my mom making DIY turmeric masks for myself and my sister,” she says. These sorts of ingredients are known as adaptogens (non-toxic herbs used for healing and stress relief) in Western culture, but for Davuluri, “these are just ingredients I grew up with, and they happen to also help with anxiety and stress.”
Roy too recalls a similar childhood growing up as a first generation Indian-American immigrant in Bloomfield Hill, Michigan, where her parents emigrated to from Kolkata in the eighties. Some of her fondest memories growing up involved the celebratory gatherings of women within their immigrant community—grandmothers, mothers, aunts, daughters—recreating the traditional skincare solutions that worked best for their skin. “As I got older,” she says, “I realized how effective and powerful the treatments were, and how rare it was to find products like that in the store. I would have to make them myself, but, as I pursued undergrad and went to work in finance in New York, I didn’t have the time or the energy to create them for myself. When I came home, I would tell my mom how much I missed and appreciated them,” she says. Even the now-signature packaging of Aavrani’s products is swathed in the nostalgia of the bright golden yellow of the mangoes her grandmother would cut for her, and fuchsia that calls to mind the colours of an Indian wedding.
A clear white space in the US prestige skincare market
But as they worked to build up their brand, they discovered there is demand beyond the Indian diaspora. Skincare was becoming a tiny part of a larger conversation around living clean and green. Products rooted in the belief that everything one needs for healthy skin can come from nature, and should be safe for nature, were becoming part of a lifestyle choice.
The natural skincare category is growing 30% year-over-year (faster than any category in the beauty space) and is becoming a larger part of the $18 billion US skincare market. More women (and men) are searching for the ultimate in skincare cosmetics where quality is paramount and cost is not a barrier. Large cosmetics companies have shifted their focus from expensive R&D which has uncertain payoffs to acquisitions of prestige skincare companies with authentic, innovative, strong brands. Collaborations such as Unilever’s acquisition of Japanese-American Tatcha (the brand Silver helped scale in his past life as an investor/operator), L’Oréal’s acquisition of US-based Thayers Natural Remedies, or the partnership between global beauty behemoth Beiersdorf and Hamburg-based STOP THE WATER WHILE USING ME!, are creating a win-win scenario for the Goliaths and Davids in the premium natural skincare segment as the world bids adieu to virtual Zoom sessions in our pajamas. Davids such as Aavrani, with on-trend ingredients which set them apart from mainstream American beauty products, are poised to capitalise on this wave in the next five to seven years.
A commercialization of homespun Indian beauty rituals isn’t new though. As early as the 1970s, the fiery Shahnaz Husain pioneered her line of cure-and-care beauty products rooted in ancient Indian ayurvedic tradition. As a huge personal fan of her products, I can vouch for their efficacy. But her somewhat old-school voice seemed to lose its authority as more and more new-age brands went the same way. In the nineties, botanicals-focused Biotique and Lotus followed this path, but the brands were more local than international. The industry evolved to become more international in its branding approach with the rise of brands like Kama Ayurveda and Forest Essentials. But revenues still remained primarily domestic, largely constrained by the brands’ brick-and-mortar sales model.
Glow and Conquer
Fast forward to today, and there are several new ingredients in the mix that are propelling brands like Aavrani to take the West by storm.
Aavrani’s single biggest competitive advantage perhaps is the manner in which an unapologetically Indian concept is marketed in a quintessentially American manner—truly symbolic of the way its female co-founders navigate their own lives. The Glow Activating Exfoliator, for example, is a standout performer in Aavrani’s lineup. While turmeric is clearly promoted as the hero ingredient in this traditional ubtan (face mask), their marketing is quick to calm non-Indian users that it does not stain the skin and point to data on clinical efficacy.
However, at the same time, they are laser focused on receiving the all-important stamp of approval from Aavrani’s relatives back in India. “One of the best pieces of feedback I’ve gotten from them is that, when they open the mask and moisturizer, the smell brings them back to when they’ve created products. That is exactly what we are trying to give people,” says Roy. “We’re trying to celebrate their heritage without having to go through the whole hoopla of making these things.”
That ease of use and easy-to-follow regimen is becoming a fundamental element of making beauty products “stick” in the US.
As a recovering overworked Wall Street banker in New York, Roy understands this only too well. Items such as the Glow Activating Exfoliator are included in a four-step system (of purify, restore, hydrate and revitalize) to give them a broader appeal. “We were thinking about the best way for women who are not Indian to adopt and understand the products,” Roy says, adding, “Indian culture has penetrated American culture in great ways with yoga, meditation and food. We see our end consumer as the woman who values those things and wants to adopt natural skincare. The early adopter could be an Indian-American woman like myself who was brought up in the US, but who’s close to her Indian heritage.”
The co-founders are also mindful of the need of their Western users to feel beautiful inside and out. Aside from packaging Indian cultural customs to resonate with millennial beauty shoppers, they donate 2% of their annual revenues to the Shanti Bhavan School that educates young girls and boys from impoverished communities in India.
Distributing as a digitally native brand (with 100% of current sales coming from its own website) has also sharpened their differentiation against their not-so-successful predecessors. The rapid proliferation of social media has turned the personal skincare journeys of fashion forward celebrities into compelling content. The denizens of the information age investigate products online before they shop. They are more open to niche and foreign brands because reviews and tutorials are their metrics to gauge product efficacy. As a result, new brands no longer need to rely on hierarchies of traditional beauty retail and can draw consumers directly by launching a great product and creating content and community around it.
When Aavrani started out, they executed an entirely unpaid micro-influencer program through which they had over 100 women posting about the products on their personal social media platforms. Those user-generated reviews from early adopters proved to be a cost-effective and more authentic way to spread the word on their clean, all-natural premium products. That strategy resulted in a standout 84% gross margins on sales. The repeat purchase rate is 30%—2x the industry standard.
The folks at Aavrani, however, are not the only ones cashing in on this newfound cult-like status of “I-Beauty''. Brands like Kulfi, Ranavat, Fable & Mane, Yellow Beauty, Blume, Live Tinted, and Billi Beauty have swooped in to capitalize on an opportunity that most mainstream Western beauty brands have missed out on. They are reclaiming clean natural ingredients and ancient rituals from the Indian subcontinent, and redefining the conversation in the West about an au-naturel lifestyle to be about more than chai teas and turmeric lattes.
The growing number of well-known Indian and Indian-American women in the US like Priyanka Chopra and Mindy Kaling advocating for these traditions in their own way is also most certainly building momentum towards this inflection point. “Especially in the West, where a lot of medicine and skincare products can feel like Band-Aids, it is clear that more and more people are craving holistic, natural healing and solutions rooted in ancient systems,” says Jaz Fenton, Toronto-based co-founder of turmeric root-based skincare line, Yellow Beauty (born of Fenton’s struggles with redness and breakouts).
Whether I-Beauty ascends and maintains its cult-like status, though, remains to be seen. Americans are known to be fickle consumerists. Back in 2015, the equivalent of the current obsession with daadi’s regime was K-Beauty when South Korea’s beauty exports to the US grew 59% to reach $207 million.
Besotted by hydration, Western consumers looked to incorporate snail slime, bee venom, pig collagen and starfish extract from a ten-step South Korean skincare regimen to make their pores look non-existent and their skin glass-like. But as night follows day, those same consumers that supported these products up their dizzying ascent are now looking to swap out this time-consuming regime (with questionable animal cruelty-free credentials) with the new and easier four-step Indian skincare regime (completely free of any animal products/ingredients) propagated by the likes of Aavrani.
In 2021 India though, we still seem to be getting on to the K-Beauty bandwagon that America was on in 2015. Sheet masks have replaced social media filters as Indian women make a beeline for them on The Face Shop on Nykaa. At Rs 100 a pop, these single-use facemasks promise users the miracles of a salon-facial at home in the pandemic by slathering on the gooey goodness of ingredients such as red ginseng, white tea, mung beans and potatoes. The addition of The Face Shop to Nykaa’s beauty portfolio has not just been significant for the Korean brand but also for the Indian beauty giant. “The launch of these brands (The Face Shop and Innisfree, another well-known Korean skincare and makeup company) has resulted in a 15% increase in skincare sales on Nykaa,” says Nihir Parikh, chief business officer at Nykaa.
I fervently hope that India’s single-minded obsession with K-Beauty does not assume the ugly avatar it has in the land of its birth. Not only is the Holy Grail of this system—the no-makeup look—ironically quite cumbersome to achieve, it can get incredibly expensive. Even more disquieting, this obsession with skin-deep beauty has driven South Korea to become the plastic surgery capital of the world, with no means deemed too drastic to achieve stereotypical, punishing and inaccessible beauty standards. I was stunned when a South Korean friend in the US told me how back home a coming of age gift of some form of cosmetic surgery is almost de rigueur.
Ironically, perhaps a mainstream large-scale adoption of Indian beauty in the West is what will ultimately drive us back to the good old basics of beauty and self care in India as well. As Davuluri of Aavrani says, she recalls a headline the morning after she won Miss America which read, “Is Miss America too Dark to be Miss India?” On the other hand, her friends and peers in the West envied her darker skin and looked up to it as being beautiful and desirable. Unfortunately, beauty standards in India have always been about wanting what we don’t have and setting unrealistic standards. But the rise of I-beauty in the West will hopefully prove that’s just not how it works anymore. Beauty is and should be about embracing our natural selves, and being comfortable in one’s skin (regardless of what colour it is).
Building a company or a meaningful career is brutal. Especially for women—but not just for women. It demands ‘hustle fuel’—which is precisely the attitude any entrepreneurial leader needs to survive. Whether a man, woman, or from an ethnic minority community.
This series looks at the world of work and entrepreneurship from a women's lens. It will include
- A column that takes a wide-angle view of the changes at the intersection of technology, entrepreneurship, strategy, innovation—and what they mean for women leaders.
- And candid conversations with a new generation of women who have ‘made it happen’ in business and industry.
The columns and conversations will be archived here as they get published.