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Beauty and the best

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A pioneer of the herbal cosmetic care movement, Shahnaz Husain singlehandedly established a market for ancient Indian wisdom on beauty and wellness. And she remains as prolific as ever, discovers Rachna Virdi

Opulent and larger than life, her home mirrors her persona. Nestled in a by-lane in New Delhi’s tony Greater Kailash neighbourhood, the imposing iron gates of the kothi open into a patio where a statue of her favourite Lord Ganesha welcomes you. The interiors are equally spectacular; the living room pristine and white, dotted with fur sofas and delicate porcelain, the perfect foil for Shahnaz Husain as she walks in with her retinue, flamboyant in her animal print kurta teamed with a Louis Vuitton scarf, gold leggings and a black overcoat, and her trademark hennaed mane. You may be gobsmacked to know that her 60-odd, in-house staff includes a beauty professional, tailor, interior decorator, camerapersons and a PR team! But make no mistake; the founder, CEO and chairperson of her eponymous group of companies is a one-woman show. A self-made entrepreneur and pioneer of the herbal beauty market worldwide, she didn’t just establish a brand—she became one. Little wonder then, that Harvard Business School chose her in 2016 as a case study for its ‘Creating Emerging Markets’ project, part of the curriculum for management students.

It’s been quite a journey. Born in an aristocratic family to Nasirullah Beg and Sayeeda Begum in Hyderabad, Shahnaz Husain studied at La Martiniere in Lucknow and Queen Mary’s, an Irish convent, in Allahabad and grew up reciting Keats and Byron to her Oxford-educated father. Following an early marriage to foreign trade officer Nasir Husain, she found her calling in the world of beauty. In her case, however, her global education in the field taught her some home truths: the need to go back to one’s roots, literally, and use the precepts of Ayurveda and the bounty of nature to ‘care’ and ‘cure’. At a time when the Indian beauty industry was fragmented, she launched her first Shahnaz Herbal salon from the veranda of her New Delhi home in 1971. Today, the Shahnaz Husain Group has 600 franchise ventures in over 100 countries and 400-plus organic formulations. In the past 46 years, in addition to a host of prestigious awards including the Padma Shri, she has lectured at renowned institutes worldwide, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard Business School, Oxford University and the London School of Economics on Brand India and Ayurveda; addressed the House of Lords and House of Commons at the British Parliament on Ayurveda and women’s empowerment; and walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival twice, to promote India as a destination for film shooting as well as to celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema, respectively.

Over a sumptuous lunch including mango ice-cream, her “favourite dessert”, she shares the story of an extraordinary life, the lessons learnt, and how she came to be known as ‘The Princess’ in the realm of beauty: “My mother belonged to the Hyderabad royal family that originally came from Samarkhand. To that extent, the word ‘Princess’ started being used by a paper in the UK.” But there’s no royal hauteur about her as she gets you to cut a cake—a gesture every guest is privileged to receive—signs her books as a keepsake and, at the end of a memorable afternoon, sees you off personally at the gate with palpable warmth.


Congratulations on becoming a case study at the Harvard Business School curriculum! Tell us more.

Dr L R Hayes from Harvard University wanted to highlight my entrepreneurial role in creating a market for natural beauty care and Indian Ayurvedic products. My interview, which was videographed, will be widely used by educators and researchers. Earlier, in 2010, I had lectured at Harvard University on how I established a brand identity without publicity—I have always believed that a satisfied client is the best advertisement! I did wonder why they wished to feature someone who’s only studied till Class 7! Nonetheless, Professor Geoffrey Jones from Harvard told me, “It’s not about education; you’re a pioneer, role model and an intelligent speaker.”

You had quite an adventure when you went to MIT way back in 2013….

The authorities at MIT had been calling me since 2010 to speak about India and Ayurveda but I was unable to make it. When they invited me for a lecture on women’s empowerment and the positive impact of innovative entrepreneurship in April 2013, I decided to go. Then, the Boston marathon bombing happened on 15 April and there was a manhunt for two suspects. Both the suspects died in a shootout some days later, but normal life was highly disturbed. The Indian External Affairs Ministry considered it unsafe for me to travel but I had already committed and decided to take the chance. I left on 22 April, reached New York on 23 April and hired a taxi to Massachusetts and back for $ 5,000. MIT called to say there’s heavy patrolling and policing on the general route. The other route was closed owing to security so we ended up taking the earlier routewhere the bombings had happened.

But then, you’ve always taken risks and the road less travelled! You began your professional journey at a very young age. Please share it.

I got engaged at 14, married at 15 and had my baby at 16. And all I was doing was sitting and eating. I realised it couldn’t go on like that and decided to pursue beauty as a career. My husband Nasir Husain’s posting as the director of foreign trade with the State Trading Corporation, however, took us to Tehran. I started writing articles for the Iran Tribune on beauty. I would type almost 10,000 to 20,000 words a week with one finger on a manual typewriter. As a result, my finger bled, my nail broke and the flesh was left hanging out. The doctor told me, “Either you should change your job or your finger will have to be cut.” But I was unrelenting. I feel some things are important in life. The money earned from my writing helped me support my education. I worked my way up to premier beauty institutes by studying cosmetology and cosmetic therapy from Helena Rubinstein and Arnould Taylor (London), Lancôme (Paris), Christine Valmy (New York), Schwarzkopf (Germany) and Lean of Copenhagen (Denmark). I started at the age of 17 and went to five countries in eight years.

You are a pioneer in ‘bottling’ ancient Indian wisdom on beauty and wellness. What was the genesis for this?

During my training in London, I came across several instances of damage caused by chemical treatments. So, I began searching for an alternative that was safe and without risk. I had inherited my faith in herbal healing from my family. My subsequent study of Ayurveda convinced me that it could answer the demands of modern cosmetic care. I returned to India with the idea of providing beauty on the principle of ‘herbal care and cure’. To translate my ideas into reality, I launched my first herbal salon in the balcony of my house in New Delhi. Back then, women would go to salons for superficial beauty treatments. I began formulating my own products based on Ayurveda. Later, I introduced a unique franchise system based on the concept that anyone could open a salon with my backing and zero investment. My first franchise salon started in Kolkata in 1979. Today, we operate in more than 100 countries with 600 franchises, 70 beauty training academies, stores and direct product distributors.

What sets you apart as a brand?

I established customised beauty care based on individual needs and an integrated system of salon treatments and product ranges that rely on each other. To that extent, we are different. My vision and philosophy have become a part of the brand image. It is also true that ‘Shahnaz Husain’ is an image-based enterprise; the person behind it is herself trained in cosmetology and herbal cosmetic therapy. Everyone knows that there is a real person behind the brand name. I remember, some years ago, my car got stuck in a puddle on the road. My driver was trying to fix it. While seated behind, I saw two thelawallas some metres away. One of them recognised me and told the other, “See that’s Shahnaz Husain.” This has set us apart.

What is the USP of your products that enables you to hold your own against the competition? How do you manage to stay ahead of the curve?

Till 1990, Shahnaz Herbal did not enter the retail business. Our products were only available at our herbal salons, based on massive client feedback. Apart from innovative formulations in general beauty care, we became known for therapeutic products and clinical treatments. Besides our basic services, we introduced signature salons and a repertoire of spa treatments through our unique franchise system using traditional and exotic ingredients. We also launched some revolutionary products such as the Chemoline range, comprising a hair tonic and skin cream, to alleviate the side-effects of chemotherapy and radiation on the skin for cancer patients. Without conventional advertising, we established tremendous goodwill and built a network of salons and ventures. Very early in my career, I made it a point to reply to letters seeking solutions for beauty problems. Four decades later, I maintain this practice, this personal touch.

To be a woman entrepreneur in what was essentially a man’s world must have been tough. How did you overcome the hurdles?

I had to overcome social and economic hurdles. It was my family’s support and understanding that helped me to overcome barriers and realise my dreams. To educate people about the concept of herbal care and cure, I started contributing articles to leading newspapers and magazines. Entering the international market was the biggest challenge. I participated in the Festival of India in London in 1980 and was given a counter at the perfumery section at [department store] Selfridges. In the face of fierce competition, to stand up alone and sell India’s ancient civilisation in a jar was not easy. To everyone’s surprise, the entire consignment sold out in three days, breaking the store’s cosmetic sales records. 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. We’ve experienced an increasing demand for Ayurvedic products across the globe.

What advice would you give to women entrepreneurs who wish to make their mark?

My biggest advice to women is to be capable and independent and never get cowed down by your man. I feel there should be a law that enables a woman to refuse to get married unless she is technically qualified. It’s your life journey and you have the right to choose what you want to do. Also, if you’re doing your duties as a wife and being fair to your man, there is no reason for him to stop you.

You’ve said your father recognised the fire in you. How did he inspire you?

My late father Nasirullah Beg was the former chief justice of Allahabad High Court. He inspired me to emerge from a sheltered life and venture into the world of entrepreneurship. When I opened my first herbal clinic, it was from him that I borrowed ₹ 35,000. He was very happy for my success but it disappointed him that I couldn’t study further. When I was doing well, I went up to him and asked him if he was happy for me. He replied, “You’ve done so much for this world which is temporary. To build your spiritual goodwill, you should do something for the next world which is permanent and you need to start now.” Being young, I didn’t take it seriously. Later on, I started working for the deaf and blind.

Through Shamute and Shasight, you offer free beauty training courses to the speech and hearing impaired. Please shed some light on this.

It’s wonderful to have achieved something worthwhile by training the underprivileged sections of society. It cannot be measured in material terms. In 1984, when I launched Shamute, the school for deaf and dumb people, my dad’s friend Giani Zail Singhji [then President of India] inaugurated the school. In 2008, we launched Shasight for the blind. To date, thousands of students have been trained under the Shamute and Shasight courses available at the Shahnaz Husain International Beauty Academy at Kohinoor Mall and Nehru Place in New Delhi. We even help them find employment.

You also started a skill development initiative under which more than 100,000 underprivileged women were trained and certified in beauty and wellness. Tell us more.

In 2016, the Shahnaz Husain International Beauty Academy joined hands with the Indus Group of West Bengal to implement skill development projects in 141 centres of all the 20 districts of the state. This was to make them self-sufficient to work as beauty therapists or start a home-based business. Professional training is the order of the day and such training can empower rural women.

It is said that your moisturiser, Shamoist, was created for Indira Gandhi, with whom you had such a special relationship. Who are the other clients who have sparked your creativity?

I formulated my Barbara Cartland Honey Rose Mint Moisture Plus Cream to celebrate my friendship with Dame Barbara Cartland, the famous author. She was also a great believer in the healing power of nature and natural vitamin therapy. Her interest in herbal healing brought her in close contact with me and we became great friends. She was by my side when I showcased my products at Harrods. When I launched my Flower Power Range at Galeries Lafayette, she flew down to Paris for the launch.

Tell us about your own beauty regimen.

I am a staunch believer in the adage ‘internal health for external beauty’. My diet, yoga and daily walk are as important as a regular beauty regimen. I apply a special mask daily consisting of a herbal powder mixed with seaweed lotion, yoghurt, honey and egg white and kept in the refrigerator. The night-care routine consists of cleansing and nourishing my skin with a cream containing wheat germ and carrot seed called Shalife. For hair, I use a lotion containing a combination of oils and herbal extracts, and an amla-based shampoo. I am very particular about henna treatments at least once a week. The henna paste is specially mixed for me, with yoghurt and about 12 eggs without water.

What is your style mantra?

I have a distinctive style that is not consciously cultivated. I never buy clothes off the fashion shelves. I have an in-house tailor for years now and design my own clothes as I find that most comfortable. I love dramatic styles in solid colours and wear what suits my personality. During the day, I like to wear white and set it off with gold or a special trimming. For the night, black is my favourite. Accessories are absolutely essential for me.

You’ve said that if ever a biopic were to be made on your life, you would want Priyanka Chopra to play you!

Priyanka Chopra impresses me not only by her good looks but her personality too. I think the persona or image people have of you is important. Besides the products, my persona has become part of the brand image. I feel Priyanka would be ideal for portraying this aspect.

How can one celebrate the silver years with beauty, style and grace?

There are qualities that come only with maturity, like elegance, grace and charm. In fact, an older woman who is poised and self-confident can be far more attractive. One should come to terms with ageing in a positive way. Discover yourself again, find new hobbies and interests. If there is weight gain, adopt a weight loss programme, or learn yoga to feel younger and attractive. Have a daily skincare routine. Be subtle with makeup and accessories. Do not follow fashion fads. They may not be for you. Learn something new. It will make you feel active and youthful. Also, your idea of how you look depends on how you feel. I believe good health and fitness have a lot to do with how you view yourself. If you feel young, you look young and other people also view you as being younger. Following a healthy lifestyle, with exercise and a nutritious diet, reduces stress and makes you feel more energetic and, therefore, younger.

Your own routine doesn’t seem to have slowed down over time! Tell us about a typical day in your life.

I always wish there were more than 24 hours in a day! I have an extremely busy schedule as I am involved in every aspect of my enterprise. In fact, while I am getting ready, I start jotting down the things that occur to me. My day includes discussions with different departments from production, international expansion and public relations to packaging, promotions, meeting foreign buyers and doing media interviews. I keep some time aside for answering mail and important letters. I am very particular about personal obligations, sending gifts, flowers or cards to various people. Very often I have to attend felicitations, award ceremonies or other important functions. When I see the worldwide recognition of Ayurveda, it makes my efforts worthwhile.

On a more personal note, you have overcome bereavement and come out stronger. What is the secret of your resilience?

When my grandmother passed away, I remember my father saying, “Who am I to challenge the will of God?” This left a very powerful impression on me. Realising this truth gives you great inner strength. I have faced grief and loss before by way of my first husband’s death in 1997, but the depth of the loss of my only son was impossible to fathom. It is never easy to talk about grief or to convey exactly what is going through the mind and the heart. One is left to deal with it in one’s own way. But I surrendered totally to God’s will and that gave me inner strength. This also helps me to stay grounded. Spirituality has nothing to do with success, name or fame. It goes far beyond that. It is an inner consciousness, an inner strength.

Your daughter Nelofar plays a significant role in your business and has even written a book on you, Flame: The Story of my Mother. Tell us about her.

I was only 16 when my daughter Nelofar was born. We grew up together, like two sisters. I remember our trips to London, where we would have the most wonderful time shopping and giggling like two schoolgirls. Nelofar has also schooled in the best cosmetic institutes in the world. I taught her to value time and to live each day as if it is a separate, complete life. Today, she is at the frontline of our business. She keeps in touch with the developments in the international cosmetic industry.

You remarried some years ago. Apart from your husband Raj Kumar Puri being a source of strength to you, what do you bring to each other’s lives?

We bring respect and companionship to our marriage. In a marriage, the husband and wife should be on an equal footing. Over the years, our friendship and respect endure. These are what I value. The support and understanding I have received from him are indeed a great source of strength. We share opinions and ideas and ask for suggestions and advice.

What are your other passions?

I love writing poetry. I have written three books on beauty: The Shahnaz Husain Beauty Book, Forever Beautiful and The Book of Absolute Beauty. I also indulge in painting and love to translate my ideas, emotions and feelings through colours. I love coffee and have an obsession for coffee at Starbucks. If I was not into beauty, I would have opened a coffee chain! I also have a passion for ghazals and Louis Vuitton products.

Looking back, what are your greatest learnings? And looking ahead, what’s next for you and the company?

My greatest learning is that one should aim for the sky! No mountain is too high to climb and no frontier is too distant to cross. You can be what you will yourself to be. I have always had a positive attitude towards life, welcoming challenges and turning them into opportunities. I believe you should never stop trying till you achieve perfection. You may say ‘perfection’ does not exist because it is a relative term. However, I believe you should leave no stone unturned to accomplish a task. As for the company, future plans include concentrated international branding, strengthening and widening our global chain of franchise ventures and appointing distributors in unrepresented new markets. Product innovation has helped our organisation to remain a dynamic one. We will continue to launch advanced products in Ayurvedic beauty care in the international markets.


1986: Outstanding Woman Entrepreneur from FICCI
1988: President’s Gold Medal for Export Excellence
1989: Indira Priyadarshini Award from Government of India
1995: Quality Excellence Award from Government of Japan
1996: World’s Greatest Entrepreneur Award from New York-based Success magazine—the first woman to receive it in 107 years
1997: Leading Woman Entrepreneur award from National Foundation of Woman Business Owners, USA
1999: Selected as Woman of the Year by the American Biographical Institute
2000: Received the Millennium Medal of Honour from the American Biographical Institute
2006: Padma Shri
2008: Leonardo da Vinci Diamond Award by International Biographical Centre, Cambridge, UK
2011: Indian Achievers Award for Quality Excellence
2011: Asia’s Leading Woman in Business Award from WIL Forum Asia, Malaysia
2012: Outstanding Ayurvedic Innovation Award in London from the Indo-British Business Forum
2014: Golden Peacock Entrepreneurial Leadership Award for Ayurvedic Innovation, London
2015: Entrepreneur India Award for Outstanding Ayurvedic Innovations from Entrepreneur Media India, FICCI, NEN and NASSCOM


1971: Set up the first Shahnaz Herbal salon in Delhi
1979: Opened first Shahnaz Herbal franchise salon in Kolkata
1980: Entered the international market and broke a 40-year cosmetic sales record at Selfridges
2000 to 2006: Launched products and opened franchises in the UK, Middle East, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia
2005: Only Indian woman business leader to participate in the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Sydney, Australia
2010: Represented India at US President Barack Obama’s World Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington DC
2012: Received three prestigious awards in London for ‘Outstanding Ayurvedic Innovation’, the most prestigious received at the British Parliament, in the House of Commons
2013: Walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival and introduced the Starlight range
2014: Started the Just Shahnaz franchise retail outlets in several cities and towns in India
2016: Launched the Chemoline collection in London
2017: Became a case study for brand creation at Harvard Business School and a subject in the curriculum for management students

Photos courtesy: Shahnaz Husain
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
July 2017