Shahnaz Husain is the Chairperson and Managing Director (CMD) of Shahnaz Husain Group of Companies and is a prominent Indian female entrepreneur, who is best known for her herbal cosmetics, particularly skin care products. In 2006 she was awarded the Padma Shri, a civilian award by the Government of India and in 1996 Success Magazine’s “World’s Greatest Woman Entrepreneur” award.
Welcome Shahnaz Husain – the pioneer and leader of herbal care, not only in India, but around the globe. Tell us more about yourself. What does brand Shahnaz Husain signify and what was your career dream when you started out as a teenager? Have you achieved it?
I was married at the age of 15 and became a mother by the time I was 16. Life seemed perfect, but I was bored with the drudgery of endless routine. I wanted to achieve something. I wanted to make a difference. I liked beauty and making other women beautiful. I thought if I was highly qualified in my field, I would have the world at my feet. I decided to work my way to the prized institutions of the West to learn cosmetic chemistry and cosmetology. I was not a graduate, having got married straight after school. But, I loved to write, so I started writing articles for the Iran Tribune on various subjects. I was asked to contribute 1000 words per week, but the response was so good, that they asked me to handle all the features in English and soon I was running the entire English magazine – cover to cover. There were only manual typewriters those days and I would be typing furiously to meet the deadlines. I remember that my fingers became sore and started bleeding. I would tie bandages and continue typing, oblivious to the pain. Finally, I had to seek medical treatment and the Russian doctor told me “If you don’t stop typing, I will have to chop off your fingers.” I will never forget the emotional upheaval. I knew I could not stop writing. I needed the money for my education. I looked at my fingers and quietly murmured, “Doctor, how much?” – I thought even if he cut off the minced part – I would still have enough left. I was that desperate to continue, so that I could pay the fees for my studies. I needed to earn the money to pay for my education. He was amazed that my first thought or anguish was not about the fingers I would lose!
This incident made me believe that in life it is not what you want that is important, but how badly you want it. It made me believe in myself and my own abilities. It was fascinating that despite lacking high educational qualifications – I earned to educate myself.
But, while training in London, I came across instances of damage caused by chemical treatments. That changed the course of my life and career. I was determined to find treatments that were safe and without risk. I had inherited faith in herbal therapy from my family. We used to always follow natural beauty care at home. My study of Ayurveda convinced me that it could offer the answers to modern beauty care. The brand name Shahnaz Husain signifies excellence in beauty care. It has become synonymous with the finest “natural beauty care and cures.” It has become known, not only for general care, but the treatment of specific skin and hair problems, with natural beauty remedies, based on Ayurveda. It has also become known for innovations. The Shahnaz Husain brand has established brand loyalty and brand identity. With a track record of over four decades, it has gone from strength to strength. It has stood the most exacting test of all……the Test of Time. Much more than I every dreamed has come true!
Why choose Ayurvedic beauty care or the ancient Indian system of herbal healing over modern cosmetology? What are some of the challenges you faced in your long and successful career and how did you overcome them?
As already mentioned, I wanted to find a system that was safe and without risks. The Ayurvedic system is a holistic system, which uses plant products and natural substances to restore health. It is the oldest and most organized herbal healing system in the world. Ayurvedic texts contain the details of thousands of plant products, minerals, gems and other natural substances, along with their medicinal properties, their methods of collection and extraction, as well as specific combinations and prescriptions. The safety factor is most important. Ayurveda has a long history of safe human usage. The human body responds extremely well to natural substances, while it has an in-built resistance to synthetic and chemical ones. Ayurveda as system of healing is still thriving in India.
The Shahnaz Husain brand has been built up in a very personal way, right from its inception. Having adopted a totally new concept of herbal care and cures, I had to increase awareness of the healing powers of herbs and the dangers of chemical and synthetic ingredients. I did this by contributing articles in leading newspapers and magazines. Very early in my career, I also made it a point to reply personally to letters seeking solutions for skin and hair problems. Four decades later, I still maintain this practice, this personal touch. In my regular columns, I provide home remedies as solutions for beauty problems. In the minds of the readers, this reinforces my philosophy that “nature is the best cosmetologist.” My philosophy and faith in nature have not only influenced markets and minds, but have become an integral part of the brand image. I had to overcome social and economic hurdles. It was a time when women were just stepping out of their homes into the career world. It was my family’s support and understanding that helped me to overcome barriers and realize my dreams.
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 popularize Ayurvedic beauty care. I participated in the Festival of India in London in 1980 and was given a counter in the Perfumery Section at Selfridges (http://www.selfridges.com/). In the face of fierce competition, to stand up alone and sell India’s ancient civilization in a jar was not easy. To everyone’s surprise, the entire consignment sold out in 3 days, breaking the store’s existing cosmetic sales records. It resulted in a permanent counter at the London store. From there, we moved on to Harrods in London, Galeries Lafayette in Paris, the Seibu chain in Japan, La Rinascente in Milan and El Corte Ingles in Spain. The Shahnaz Husain Group has experienced the increasing demand for Indian Ayurvedic products across the globe.
Obstacles and hurdles come up in life, but I have tried to meet them as challenges, with my desire to excel, my relentless determination to succeed, an iron will and sheer hard work. I believe that one should never stop trying. If you never stop trying, you cannot fail. I believe that nothing is impossible. You can be what you will yourself to be. You can make your own destiny.
From Selfridges in London to Galeries Lafayette in Paris, the Seibu chain in Japan, La Rinascente in Milan, El Corte Ingles in Spain and now a Shahnaz Husain Signature Salon in Dubai, how did you approach the international market? Where do you believe the market is headed and what does your brand do well? What should it be doing better?
When I started my herbal salons, I brought personal customized beauty care to the level of diagnosis and prescriptives, based on the fact that the human body is natural and is best treated by nature itself. I worked in coordination with physicians. I propagated a diet and lifestyle based on the Ayurvedic principles of holistic health, with yoga and meditation as an integral part of the individual cure and care programme. This concept of holistic beauty care was unique and caught on worldwide. It was also in keeping with the “back to nature” and “total well being” trends sweeping the world. I marketed a civilization in a jar. I always believed that India has a great deal to offer the rest of the world, in terms of her herbal heritage and her tradition of herbal healing. I also extended my herbal salons through a unique franchise system. Armed with my faith in Ayurveda, I have promoted it across the globe with relentless determination and a crusader’s zeal. I believe that our ancient holistic system of Ayurveda is actually much more relevant to the modern world.
I also spoke about Brand India and Ayurveda at leading Universities, like MIT and Harvard Business School, as well as Oxford University and The London School of Economics. I was also invited to speak on Ayurvedic innovations at the House of Lords and House of Commons at the prestigious British Parliament.
Today, the world is looking at Ayurveda with enlightened eyes. We have seen naturalism and the “total wellness” concept come into the lifestyle, with greater emphasis on mental and physical well being. The world has been looking at the Indian disciplines of Yoga, Meditation and Ayurveda. Indeed, there is great interest in Ayurveda in many countries, prompting study and scientific research, to assess it in scientific terms.
On a personal level, how do you define ‘beauty’? Who is your biggest champion? Tell us an anecdote where you felt humbled.
To me, beauty is a total impact. It is the blending together of physical, emotional, mental and even spiritual qualities into one integrated whole. It is physical beauty power, brain power and spiritual power!
Once I received a note from the late Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who was Prime Minister of India, which said, “Can I have that pink cream that I used. I have either misplaced it, or you forgot to give it to me. I am leaving for electioneering in South India” I promptly sent her our sandalwood protective cream Shabase. It became a favourite with her. She said she liked the French Frescabel by Lancome. I decided to create a natural moisturiser for her. I created Shamoist, which became one of our top sellers. She loved it and used it constantly. When I told her what I had created for her had become an international hot-seller, she laughed and said, “Then, you owe me royalty”! Her humility made it a humbling experience for me…….no matter how high one soars, it is essential to remain grounded, in order to be in touch with others.
How do you balance? On one hand brand Shahnaz is all about nature and natural ingredients and on the other side your brand also sells fairness cream. What are your thoughts on the same?
In India, the desire for a fair complexion existed much before fairness creams. I have written time and again that the beauty of the skin lies in its good health and not its colour. Yet, the demand for a fair complexion continues to exist. After pioneering the herbal beauty movement, I felt it was my duty to make safe and quality products available to the customer. So, we concentrated our research on natural ingredients that help to lighten skin colour. The focus of our research was also on safety and protection, as well as enhancing the beauty and health of the skin. During our research, we came across evidence of many natural plant ingredients that help to lighten skin colour and remove tan, making the skin bright and radiant. We introduced our fairness cream after nearly four decades in the beauty business. We formulated a natural fairness cream. We have used ingredients like powder of pearls, aloe vera juice, cucumber, grape, lemon,Vitamin E, saffron, arbutin (which is extracted from the bearberry plant), wheatgerm oil, chamomile, liquorice, etc. in our fairness creams. This unique blend of plant ingredients makes the skin colour lighter and more radiant. It also has protective, healing and beauty enhancing properties.
Describe a typical day in the life of of Shahnaz Husain. Do you find time to write poetry and paint, which you so immensely enjoy? What cosmetic products do you personally use and which are some of your favorites?
I always wish there were more than 24 hours to a day! As I am involved in each and every aspect of my enterprise, I have an extremely busy schedule everyday. In fact, while I am getting ready, I start jotting down the things which occur to me. Fortunately, I have the ability to deal with several different matters simultaneously, giving different instructions to different people. I am very particular about personal obligations, sending gifts, flowers or cards to various people. My day includes discussions with different departments, from production, international expansion, public relations, to packaging and promotions. There are often foreign buyers to meet, or media interviews. I also keep some time aside for answering mail and important letters. Very often I have to attend various functions, like felicitations, award ceremonies or some important occasion. A thousand ideas and thoughts still crowd my mind when my day ends.
After a hard day’s work, I love going to Barista or Starbucks . Sipping coffee in the Barista or Starbucks ambience is fine for me. Listening to music, the soft melodies of ghazals, in subdued lighting, is also something I love doing. Whenever I get a moment of leisure, I love to paint, expressing my thoughts and feelings with a riot of colours. Painting and poetry are ways by which I can translate my emotions and creativity. For others, a good life may be living for a hundred years, but I live a lifetime between the rising and setting of the Sun.
What is your idea of an empowered woman?
To me, women’s empowerment means self-reliance. For this, financial independence is most important, because it gives confidence and strength. In India, women’s empowerment also means gender equality, so that the woman has equal decision making powers in the family. In order to equip the woman to be financially independent, a professional, vocational qualification is imperative. Of course, times have changed and women have made a mark in every field. But we still have a long way to go. Mindsets have to change too. A woman is empowered when she herself realizes her own strength as an equal member of the society. Father and mother must value the girl child and give her equal opportunities. Today, I feel sure that in the coming years, we will see the unleashing of woman power.
Is there anything else you wish we should have asked you?
I would like to include our CSR activities. I wanted to make a positive contribution towards empowering the less privileged by supporting vocational beauty training for the physically challenged, so that they have the opportunity to be financially independent and self-reliant. I started Shamute , my free beauty training course for the speech and hearing impaired in 1984. It was inaugurated by the then President of India, late Dr.Giani Zail Singh. Later, in 2008, I started Shasight for the visually impaired. Today, Shamute and Shasight are offering free vocational training in beauty and also career opportunities. Help is provided in finding suitable jobs. We have tied up with Dr. B.R. Shetty, CEO & MD of New Medical Centre (http://nmc.ae/), Abu Dhabi, UAE, to offer employment opportunities to the students, both in India and abroad.
I have also written a book on beauty, which has been put into Braille. It serves as an excellent reference book for the visually impaired. Recently, I took our Shasight students to the Rashtrapati Bhavan to receive blessings from the President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee , after they had successfully completed their Professional Diploma Course. The President shook hands with each student individually, blessed them and gave them chocolates. They were overwhelmed with his love, warmth and compassion.
I have also put forward the idea of forming an NGO called “Ek Nari” to make women self-reliant. The idea is that whatever money one woman saves, the organization will contribute an equal amount, till there is enough for the woman to start her own business, or send her daughter to school. Ek Nari is a movement to empower women to be self reliant, with self respect and dignity.
My philanthropic work has remained the nerve centre of my entrepreneurial success. Above all, it gives me a wonderful feeling of having achieved something truly worthwhile. It cannot be measured in material terms.
Sayfty’s mission is to Educate, Equip and Empower women so that they can protect themselves against violence. What is your message for our readers related to women’s personal safety and the issue of violence against women
There is no doubt of the need for stringent laws and security of women. At the same time, I feel that the problem is a social one and the roots go much deeper. We talk of women empowerment and yet, the status of women in our country leaves a lot to be desired. The biggest challenge is for the woman to have an equal standing with men within the family. It is at home that the boy learns to respect and honour women. Children learn respectful behaviour by observing their parents and family members. If the women in the family are treated with respect, the male children will do the same.
So, the changes have to come about at home, where husband and wife respect each other; where son and daughter are both treated equally and given equal opportunities. In India, the male child is led to believe that he is superior to his sisters. The daughter is taught how to conduct herself, in readiness for marriage. But, the son is not educated about how he should behave towards his wife and other female members of the family. The son should also be taught to value the women in the family and also to respect women in general.
Shahnaz Husain, pioneer and leader of the Ayurvedic beauty care movement, has marketed India’s 5000 year old civilization in a jar worldwide. One of India’s leading woman entrepreneurs, she has taken the Indian herbal heritage to every corner of the globe with a crusader’s zeal. With a successful track record of more than 4 decades, she heads the largest organization of its kind in the world, with a global network of franchise salons, spa, retail outlets, beauty training academies, as well as 375 Ayurvedic formulations for beauty and health care.
Shahnaz Husain has received several prestigious international awards, including the “Outstanding Ayurvedic Innovation Award” in the British Parliament, the World’s Greatest Woman Entrepreneur Award from Success, the U.S. based Business Magazine and the Padma Shri Award for exceptional service towards the country and distinguished achievement in her chosen field. Recently, she received the Golden Peacock Entrepreneurial Leadership Award in London, for Ayurvedic Innovations.
One of her greatest achievements is representing India at U.S. President Barack Obama’s World Summit of Entrepreneurs in Washington DC. Shahnaz has lectured at MIT, and Harvard Business School in the USA, as well as Oxford University and the London School of Economics. She has also achieved the dual honour of speaking at both the House of Lords and the House of Commons in the prestigious British Parliament in London. Recently, she lectured at IIM, Ahmedabad, during Vibrant Gujarat Summit.
Shahnaz Husain’s contribution to women’s empowerment and vocational beauty training is remarkable. She pioneered the concept of residence cum salons through a unique franchise system and started professional beauty training academies nearly four decades ago. She is also committed to social causes through her free beauty training courses for the speech & hearing impaired and the visually challenged. She has written a beauty book which has been put into Braille.
Indeed, after four decades of a phenomenal career, Shahnaz Husain is a legend in her own lifetime.