An Inspiration to Women
Shahnaz Husain - HOUSEWIFE TO BILLIONAIRE
How did a housewife called Shahnaz Husain go on to set up her globally renowned beauty care business empire which is known as the Shahnaz Husain Group today? shares the story
As Beatlemania raged across the United Kingdom, an Indian woman called Shahnaz Husain who used to be a student at the Helena Rubinstein Beauty School on Grafton Street in London noticed her classmate leaving her very beautiful mother outside its premises.
So one day, Shahnaz asked her classmate, “Mary, why don’t you bring your mummy inside? She is so beautiful,” while her classmate’s mother sat outside, waiting for her daughter. Mary looked at her and replied sadly, “Shahnaz, my mother is blind...” That only prompted Shahnaz to ask Mary, “Why? What happened?” Mary said, “My mother was a very famous model for an eye make-up company. She used eyeliner and kohl made of harmful chemicals. And she got blurring of vision. After my mom complained, they said—this is temporary and will pass off. But she lost her sight…”
That was the moment when Shahnaz Husain felt that if a woman could go blind after using makeup, there is something very wrong with the beauty business. She set out to fix it for which she decided to create Ayurvedic herbal beauty care products and cosmetics which would be alternatives to those made from harmful chemicals.
Her insight and efforts created the institution known globally today as Shahnaz Herbals Inc or The Shahnaz Husain Group, a powerhouse in the Ayurvedic herbal beauty products industry.
As things stand, Shahnaz Husain is the founder, chairperson, managing director and brand ambassador of The Shahnaz Husain Group. She has received international acclaim for pioneering the herbal beauty care movement and taking the Indian herbal heritage of Ayurveda worldwide.
Yet, her journey began in the most humble way in the early 1970s, when India had practically no modern communications technology or internet, when trunk call bookings for long distance phone calls were the norm, when fax machines were considered futuristic and when MTNL’s informal full form stood for ‘Mera Telephone Nahi Lagta’ (My telephone line isn’t working).
So how did a housewife called Shahnaz Husain not only manage to set up a national brand despite working in dystopian Third World conditions and also go on to take her brand of beauty products and cosmetics global?
As the story goes, it all began as a voyage of self discovery for a woman who was married off at 15 and reached pre-Islamic Revolution Iran in the 1960s, when her husband Syed Nasir Husain was posted in Tehran, as head of the Indian trade mission.
Shahnaz in Iran
Every major international beauty school was represented in Tehran and Shahnaz Husain enrolled herself in the best courses that were offered during her four year stay there. She spent long hours expanding her knowledge base, learning the latest techniques in the beauty business and striving to be the best at whatever she did.
Her husband, being paid a government salary, could ill afford the astronomical fees and it was clear that Shahnaz needed to find a source of income to finance her courses. Her inability to find a job that would support her education frustrated her. She tossed and turned every night, trying to search for a solution.
Then one evening, she found her answer at a party where she was conversing with a gentleman who had just launched the Tehran Tribune, the city’s first English magazine. He was an enterprising American who wanted to fill the gap for an English news journal in Tehran but was faced with the daunting dilemma of finding good English writers. Shahnaz smelt an opportunity and for the next three years, she kept the Tehran Tribune afloat almost singlehandedly, writing under different names like Shahnaz, Nelofar and Khurshed.
She had set her sights on Helena Rubinstein’s institute in London. She had been inspired by the legendary cosmetician and industrialist, since Rubinstein’s centre in London had become an aspirational landmark for her.
After she returned from the Rubenstein institute, Shahnaz had the confidence she needed to set up her first small salon at home in Tehran. The salon was very successful and over time, she built an exclusive list of clientele who came to her regularly by appointment.
Though her time in Tehran had been a wonderful experience, it was after moving back home to Hyderabad in India, that Shahnaz finally found the key to her success—a discovery that translated into a business idea which caught the imagination of generations of Indian women.
She had spent four long years working hard to learn the latest techniques from the best beauty schools in the world. Yet there was something missing. She needed something exceptional that would set her new business apart from the rest. She was sure that she would only stay with natural products but she needed to give her nebulous thoughts concrete shape.
Looking at her mother’s skin through the newly trained eyes of a skin specialist, Shahnaz could not help but compare the luminous lustre of her porcelain complexion with the sunburnt, tired complexions of Westerners. She realised that it was not merely their demanding lifestyles but also the “chemical fatigue” their skins suffered due to the toxic chemicals in the lotions and creams they applied.
“Just a few things that your grandmother taught me—the Rahat Manzil beauty routine,” her mother Sayeeda Begum replied.
Shahnaz was surprised. “I have been travelling all over the world, spending so much time and money studying beauty, when the secret lies with you, right in the family,” she told herself.
She had finally found the missing link—ancient, homegrown beauty cures that had been sifted through time and perfected through the ages were going to be her consuming passion.
The next morning she woke up, ready to take lessons from her mother. She made a list of all the ingredients her mother used, assembled them around her and then listened attentively as her mother Sayeeda explained the intricate treatments and the reasons behind using certain herbs instead of others.
Rahat Manzil and Ayurveda
Shahnaz was fascinated, making notes, observing, asking occasional questions. There were remedies for hair growth, dry lips, prickly heat, and even a hair fragrance for added allure. One recipe required soaking rice and four other ingredients in water for forty days with rose petals. The water had to be drained and fresh, fragrant rose petals added every day.
The goodness and medicinal value of forty rounds of fresh petals made the mixture a potent beauty aid. Today the well-packaged product with a few modifications is an all-time company hot seller.
Shahnaz had discovered a new dimension to her career plans—one that made her feel good about its purity.
She extended her stay in Hyderabad because she wanted to spend some time researching India’s rich medicinal history. She read up books on Ayurveda and visited Vedic specialists to assimilate and imbibe their knowledge. She found herself profoundly engrossed in the study of this timeless science, learning ancient methods and formulations that focused on skin and hair problems, so that she could offer her clientele natural substitutes to counter every beauty problem.
She found the Indian science compelling and recognised its untapped potential. However, she was surprised to find that Ayurveda had been completely ignored in India. The immense accumulation of centuries of knowledge had remained neglected, waiting to be rediscovered in the very country of its origin.
Even more surprising were the responses she received after she questioned women about their beauty routine. Most of them relied on uninspiring local brands. There was not a single product at the time in the Indian market that was geared towards serious skincare. Some lucky ones waited for family members to visit from other parts of the world bringing back imported creams and lotions with them. As for having a weekly facial, very few women knew such a thing even existed.
She could have taken a franchise from anyone of the foreign establishments where she had studied and cashed in on a ready clientele that was all too eager to lap up anything Western. Instead, Shahnaz decided to swim against the tide. It was a decision fraught with risk but then in Robert Frost’s immortal words, she took the one “less travelled”. And yet, that is precisely what made all the difference.
It was in the summer of 1970 when Shahnaz Husain’s dream began to become a reality—her professional journey had begun in New Delhi.
The launch of Shahnaz Husain Herbals in New Delhi was as low key as the frosted glass signage. The only advertisement was in the form of white cards with the words Helena Rubinstein—“A facial is to the face what watering is to flowers. Without it, the face can never blossom and will prematurely die”—embossed in fine gold lettering along with Shahnaz’s name and qualifications as well as a list of treatments available at the salon. The logo on the card read ‘Woman’s World’, the name which was first used for the business. It was etched on a globe.
Shahnaz’s husband came up with a novel way of distributing the cards by driving through the neighbourhood with his daughter by his side, supervising their delivery personally. Shahnaz’s daughter Nelofar was her father’s assistant, keeping track of the houses that had been done. They made a good launch team and a highly effective one as it turned out.
The next morning, Shahnaz waited near her phone, anxious for it to ring. When it finally did she lifted the receiver instantly, her face tense with anticipation. It was a lady making enquiries.
“How much do you charge for a facial?”
“Thirty rupees,” Shahnaz said.
There was a moment’s hesitation. Shahnaz waited anxiously. “What time can I come in?” asked the voice on the other side of the receiver. Shahnaz wrote down the first appointment of her career with a flourish and then waited by the phone again.
Salon in New Delhi
Every time it rang she answered it instantly. Her smile grew with every ring and by the end of the day her appointment diary was filled with names and contact numbers. The buzz had started and after that day there was never a dull moment.
The only other publicity at that point was an interview by Amita Malik in Junior Statesman—an extremely popular journal that catered to young readers, brought out by Kolkata’s The Statesman newspaper.
Shahnaz’s daughter Nelofar came home from school one day to find a camera team moving around the living room with her mother posing on the long settee and giving the first shots of her career, moving, smiling, tilting her head like a pro while the photographer clicked away, surprised at this confident young woman who responded instinctively to the lens.
“Have you modelled before, Shahnaz?” he asked Shahnaz, impressed by her elan.
“No, never. But I am enjoying myself immensely,” she replied.
This was her first press coverage and it sparked off a wave of interviews, articles and TV appearances that continue to this day. She had a magnetic persona and spoke with the energy of a crusader—no wonder public interest in her was immense.
Her story made copies of magazines fly off the racks and it was not long before innumerable journalists appeared at her door, eager to cover the new entrant on India’s beauty scene.
When Shahnaz started her salon, she did not think of hiring any staff to assist her. She considered her clients sacred and attended to each appointment personally. She referred every client for a medical and pathology test and relied on it frequently to make her diagnoses.
She advised her clients on their diet and lifestyle and told them of the benefits of exercise and adequate sleep. It was a holistic approach, one that accepted the different needs of the body and embraced all aspects of life and wellness.
Some of her initial products were classics like Shalife; Shacleanse—the cactus-and-aloe cleanser; Shafair—a remedy for pigmentation; Shagain—a labouriously made product; and the eternal Shatone—for hair fall. Though the company has a repertoire of 250 products today, these initial products have remained at the top of the bestseller list. Every evening she delighted in finding the shelves emptied out.
She was moving towards the next phase of growth, the first signs of which came when she received an unexpected business proposal.
In 1972, a lady dressed in an elegant chiffon sari walked in and introduced herself as Mrs Irani, wife of the editor of The Statesman, Kolkata. “Shahnaz, I have heard so much about you. Why don’t you give me your franchise for Kolkata? I promise you we will do wonders in the city,” Mrs Irani said.
Shahnaz was a little confused. She was so focused on building her immediate clientele and running the salon that she had not realised what a viable business commodity she had created.
‘I will have to think about it,’ she said a little possessively.
Yet, Mrs Irani became the first ever franchisee of Woman’s World, which would be renamed Shahnaz Herbals later.
A water-tight agreement, meant to protect the franchise and Shahnaz’s reputation in every possible way, was drafted in consultation with experts.
She flew down to Kolkata for the opening of the franchise salon at Shakespeare Sarani and a full schedule of talks with various women’s groups and parties in honour of the young Shahnaz Husain. She was now a recognised figure and her reputation was growing steadily.
Within an year of the opening of her first franchise salon in Kolkata, it became clear that the name ‘Woman’s World’ was completely eclipsed by its creator, Shahnaz Husain. Clients referred to it as ‘Shahnaz’s salon’ and the products were known as ‘Shahnaz Husain’s products’. It was obvious that the name needed to be changed officially and so ‘Woman’s World’ was renamed as ‘Shahnaz Herbals’, a company completely and unquestionably associated with its creator.
Very soon, Shahnaz Herbals Beauty Academy also became an integral part of the franchise system and a vital part of the company’s growth. Besides regular students, every franchisee was also trained thoroughly at the centre.
Over the years, every student who left the school proved to be an ambassador of the Shahnaz Herbals brand. The expansion process came as links of a chain; often these links were students who would go on to take a franchise. The school was also rapidly franchised along with the salons, creating a web of concentric circles of dedicated business partners.
The year was 1978. Shahnaz Herbals was forging ahead. The rising demand for the product range and Shahnaz’s drive to take Ayurveda to the next level necessitated having a professional facility.
Factory at Okhla
On a hot summer day, Shahnaz acquired her first factory and production centre at the then upcoming Okhla Industrial Area where small sheds were being auctioned off to entrepreneurs. The inception of the unit meant that the profile of activities would change. It was no longer about handling an exclusive salon.
The setting up of the factory involved government procedures, identifying talented Ayurvedic chemists and engaging workers.
Shahnaz’s husband Syed Nasir Husain stepped in at this point and was active in establishing every aspect of the first production unit. Though a small unit it marked the point where a level of professionalism came into the manufacturing of the products. It was the beginning of the product becoming a serious commercial proposition.
Shahnaz had a host of celebrity clients and admirers but none as special as then Indian Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi.
One day, she received a phone call from the Prime Minister’s secretary.
“Madam would like you to come over to see her at the house,” said the voice.
On the appointed day Shahnaz took a select range of her products to Mrs Gandhi. Soon she became a regular at the Prime Minister’s home.
On one of these visits, Mrs Gandhi pulled out a bottle of a French moisturiser and showed it to Shahnaz. “A friend of mine brought me this and I find it really good but I am sure you can make a better Ayurvedic version of it,” the Prime Minister said.
Shahnaz brought back the bottle to analyse its ingredients. After extensive research and experimentation, she put together her own formulation of herbs and oils, which resulted in the creation of what is sold today as ‘Shamoist’. When Shahnaz gave a bottle of the freshly made product to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, she said that she would try it out and give her some feedback.
On Shahnaz’s next visit to the Prime Minister’s house, a beaming Mrs Gandhi said, “Shahnaz, I don’t have to get a moisturiser from abroad it seems”.
Years later, Shamoist retains its position as one of the bestselling products in the Shahnaz Herbals’ range.
Having made an indelible mark in the Indian cosmetics industry, she was now keenly eyeing her next conquest. The West had yet to be won and it was not going to be an easy task.
Festival Of India
Finally, the opportunity finally came in 1980 when the Government of India organised a cultural extravaganza called ‘Festival of India’ in London. Selfridges of London was the Indian government’s chosen retail partner, which offered a platform to promote Indian products, and Shahnaz Herbals was selected to be featured in the display of Indian products. Shahnaz knew that this was the best opening she could ever get.
Although it was only for two weeks, Shahnaz was determined that the presence of her product in the store would not go unnoticed. She was extremely confident of her product line but the simplicity of the packaging worried her. The commercial appeal of the Shahnaz Herbals range was going to be tested in what was the toughest market in the world for skin-and haircare and Shahnaz was concerned that the jars did not look sleek enough.
Shahnaz met several designers to create a container that looked chic yet ethnic; something that would truly represent the timeless appeal of Ayurveda. There was very little time and nothing seemed good enough to stand up to the best in the world.
After a lot of experimentation, it was Shahnaz’s husband Nasir who zeroed in on a small Khurja clay pot with hand-painted rowers and leaves. The process of sealing the jar took all the ingenuity in the world but finally it became an exquisite container that looked good sitting on a dressing table.
On the opening day and for the next two weeks, Shahnaz stood in front of the Shahnaz Herbals store looking stunning in ethnic clothes, as the announcements in the store introduced her. She educated customers about the benefits of Ayurveda.
One day, a lady with striking turquoise eyes walked up to Shahnaz, extended her hand and said, “Ms Husain, I am Mary Brogan. I manage the cosmetics department at Selfridges. I have been hearing reports about your phenomenal sales and I must say the response has been very encouraging”.
“Thank you, Mary,” Shahnaz replied, clearly pleased. “What I am selling here is unlike any other cosmetic range in the market. I am selling a 5000-year-old civilisation in a jar.”
A few days later, Shahnaz pushed open the doors of Selfridges and headed straight for the newly set up Shahnaz Herbals counter at Selfridges. She stood below a large blow-up of her picture and smiled. She was in the arena and the game was on and there was no looking back.
Six months after it was placed at Selfridges, a nine feet long show window at Galeries Lafayette announced the arrival of Shahnaz Herbals in Paris. Sebu in Japan, La Rinascente in Milan were next. Finally, the company earned a space on the shelves of Harrods, the undisputed Mecca of international stores. Its presence in leading international chains became a catalyst to growth and the exports of the company began to increase exponentially.
In the years to come Shahnaz Herbals started making inroads into unexpected markets. The sales from erstwhile Yugoslavia grew to unparalleled levels and finally a production unit in the town of Tuzla was started. Japan was another surprise. Being a market with perhaps the most stringent standards, it gradually became the biggest importer of the product range.
The interaction with international buyers, their exacting demands and standards, were the refining ground for Shahnaz Herbals and often led to the creation of complete product ranges for particular markets.
Shahnaz Herbals’ emergence in the world market required extensive travel to trade fairs, promotion trips and business meetings. Shahnaz was personally present at every launch to promote her products. She gave innumerable media interviews wherever she went and put the strength of her persona behind every venture.
The year was 1985. On the professional front, the Shahnaz Husain flagship salon in New Delhi became a destination point for everyone, from Bollywood stars to politicians and businessmen, to the women seeking to buy a jar of a Shahnaz Herbals product.
With Shahnaz’s philosophy of encouraging and empowering women entrepreneurs, the Shahnaz Herbals franchise of salons and the product range made its presence felt in the lives of women all over the country. Its dedicated clientele was growing steadily and so was the personal popularity of its creator—Shahnaz Husain, whose name had become a brand.
Industry watchers now sat up and started taking note of the company as a potential goldmine, speculating what direction it would take after its initial flush of success. Business consultants and experts labelled it “the most promising possibility in a long time, on the Indian business radar”. They saw in Shahnaz Herbals, the potential of a multi-crore company but for that it needed to make certain vital moves and changes in its business philosophy.
The company stood centre stage on the business map of the country creating a clamour amongst consultants, who made a beeline to meet Shahnaz with the hope of persuading her to open the doors of her company to waiting opportunities.
“Madam, we think your company is ready to go public and that you should not miss out on this opportunity to take it to the next level. Our studies have shown that Shahnaz Herbals has the potential of becoming the largest player in the field and the timing is perfect to go public,” consultants told her.
However, Shahnaz resisted the idea of allowing anyone access to her crown jewels.
“What would be the minimum percentage of shares I would have to put out in the market? Does that mean that I would have to have shareholders on the board? Would I be answerable to them? If one person were to manipulate more than a certain percentage of shares, would that give him veto powers?” These were the questions which played in her mind.
Shahnaz never liked being answerable to anyone and had always enjoyed the freedom to take her company in any direction she wanted.
She went through the exercise of meeting a battery of consultants, but it was more to experience and assess her growing success and the position of Shahnaz Herbals in the market, than to consider the idea of going public.
The newspapers speculated for a long time whether Shahnaz Herbals would indeed go public and the buzz continued for a while until an Indian Express headline dated August 17, 2000 said, “Shahnaz Husain applies vanishing cream on initial public offer plans”.
Commendably, Shahnaz Herbals is a zero-debt company. It has never borrowed from any bank and its investments in its growth or expansion have always been completely self-generated.
Shahnaz’s vision for her company had always been to expand her chain of franchise salons and dispense her line of products through these centres, maintaining their exclusivity. She believed it was essential for a client to be seen by a trained specialist, her internal health issues handled by referring her to a general practitioner and then prescribing her a treatment programme designed in conjunction with a range of home use products that my mother fondly called “homework”.
It was time to change the company policy and appoint official distributors. The first distribution channel was established in 1989 in Mumbai, the biggest market for all retail products. The response was overwhelming and instant. Gradually, the network began to grow as distributors across the country sensed an opportunity and sent in applications to represent the company.
As the network expanded, Shahnaz Herbals broke through the confines of exclusivity and appeared on shelves all across the country. In a couple of months, sales gained unprecedented momentum. Shahnaz Herbals was an interesting example of a company that first created a market quite incidentally by remaining exclusive and then supplied an already existing demand.
The Okhla factory was equipped to handle the existing franchisee chain but meeting the cascading demands of a national network was something it was not equipped for. The emergence of Noida as an industrial zone where large tracts of land were available became the next milestone in the growth story of Shahnaz Herbals.
In 1992, the company acquired a plot to build a second production facility that could meet the rapidly rising demand for Shahnaz Herbals products. The inauguration of the Noida factory was a landmark, the point when Shahnaz Herbals made a switch from being a service-based enterprise to a retail-and-production-based company.
New York City wore a haunting glow as the leaves turned to riveting shades of flame in early fall. Shahnaz drove down to the ritzy address of Success magazine on Fifth Avenue where she was to receive the World’s Greatest Woman Entrepreneur Award. With a group of directors and select invitees from the world of business looking on, the chairman of the 107-year-old iconic magazine called Success, took the mike.
“In our research to choose the World’s Greatest Entrepreneur, we called upon business leaders, journalists, entrepreneurial organisations and trade offices. We looked at hundreds of candidates. We wanted entrepreneurs who not only had strong businesses but had also set an example by defying fate and taking the future into their own hands. In India, we kept hearing one name over and over again: Shahnaz Husain. She is indeed a remarkable, dynamic and brilliant individual. At Success, we are experts in entrepreneurship and I can tell you that Shahnaz Husain is the quintessential entrepreneur,” he said.
It was amazing for the young girl from Allahabad to be sitting in New York, the city of dream merchants, among the likes of present US President Donald Trump. Quite incredibly, in the USA, the land of emancipation, Shahnaz Husain was the first woman to receive the award in the magazine’s 107-year-old history.
The list of awards and recognitions she has received is endless. It can in fact go into pages. Throughout her career Shahnaz has been sought out by international organisations wishing to honour her. Spain felicitated her with the Arch of Europe. This was a landmark award for the quality of the product and meant a lot in business terms. The American Biographical Institute honoured her with The Millennium Medal of Honour. This was followed by the Leonardo da Vinci Award at Oxford and the World Medal of Freedom in the US. In recognition of her international standing she was invited to the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Sydney in 2005. She was featured in the United Nations sponsored film called ‘Women of the Decade’.
In 1997, Shahnaz appointed her daughter Nelofar Currimbhoy as the President of the company.
The Shahnaz Husain Group has also undertaken corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects.
For instance, products of Shahnaz Husain’s Chemoline Range, which were formulated to alleviate the effects of chemotherapy and radiation on skin and hair have been given free of cost to cancer hospitals, like Sloan Kettering in the USA and the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre, Dharamshila Cancer Hospital, MNJ Cancer Hospital as well as Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai.
Despite her phenomenal achievements, Shahnaz has never rested on her laurels and is always thinking of the next galaxy to discover. As a matter of fact, she has already found something to keep herself engaged and excited for the next five to ten years.
After a television programme on moon landings she watched made a reference to a chemical after shave lotion, she formulated and launched a herbal product called ‘Shaspace’ in Houston, USA.
She told the local US media recently, “You have already messed up this world with chemicals. Why you are destroying the other planet? At least leave them alone.. And why don’t you use Ayurveda in space?”
The result was a huge article in US newspapers with headlines like “Ayurveda Airborne”and her company launched a whole ‘Shaspace’ range of products.
Her dream is to take ‘Shaspace’ to outer space literally since she can’t see any reason why Ayurveda cannot be used in space.
She has literally set her eyes on the moon, mars and the stars. In fact, her company has already formulated an Ayurvedic cream called ‘Shaspace’ for space travel and given it to NASA for trials!
That’s not all. Her dream is to set up a ‘Shahnaz Spa’ in outer space. She feels that chemicals must not be allowed to spoil outer space and other planets, like the earth is polluted with chemicals.
Clearly, the sky is not the limit for Shahnaz Husain.