Texas-based entrepreneurs Shaz and Kiku are the founders of Shaz & Kiks, a beauty startup with natural hair nourishing products. Urban Asian spoke to them about their inspiration behind starting the brand, how their South Asian background drove their products, and beauty rituals to practice on a daily basis. Here’s what they had to say about their passion, identities, and vision as entrepreneurs of this beauty wellness company. (Their responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
What is your educational background? What career(s) did you have over the years?
Kiku: I got my BA at The University of Texas, Austin in Political Science and Asian Studies, focusing on international relations with South Asia and women’s studies. I entered the workforce with a non-profit organization within their marketing department. During that time, I helped set up their digital and social marketing (which was all very new at that time). I really loved that space so decided to pursue that. I got my MSc in Marketing at Northwestern University, with a focus on digital and marketing statistics. After that, worked at various prominent NYC digital agencies, working in analytics and strategy for tech and CPG clients. And then came to Conde Nast, to help set up their digital business and led strategy for Vogue, GQ, and then became the Director of Digital Growth across their entire portfolio at that time. I moved over to a fin-tech company as Head of Content, while we were starting to created SHAZ & KIKS. I’m now full-time working on our business.
Shaz: My undergrad degree is in chemical engineering and I worked for an engineering firm for about 5 years before going back and getting my MBA at the University of Texas in Austin with a focus on marketing and entrepreneurship. I took a role at 3M post MBA as a strategy and marketing analyst in their internal consulting arm. Given 3M incredible breadth of industries and products, this was one of my favorite roles that I’ve had in my career in terms of developing the skills to understand a market and situation quickly and be able to hone in on the key issues to be addressed. I am now currently working full time at a large medical device company having recently launched a new-to- the-world, disruptive technology which has been incredibly exciting. Of course, this has been at the same time as the launch of SHAZ & KIKS, both as a company and first product launch! As Kiku is full-time with our company, she’s running the day to day operation and I give as much time as possible outside of my full time job.
Did you always see yourself becoming entrepreneurs?
We had always dreamed of starting and building something together from scratch. We’re really close and love our Indian culture, so those 2 components were always part of the entrepreneur dream. But we both have many years of work experience, in various industries and disciplines, and only after we really felt like we were ‘matured’ professionals did we feel comfortable starting our own business. It seems counterintuitive in this day and age when you see 16-year-old entrepreneurs, but I guess we’re old school!
What sparked the transition into entrepreneurship?
K: I’ve been working in the corporate world for almost 15 years now. My background is in digital strategy and marketing and I love working in that field. I give myself a lot to my work, but as the years went by and working at a corporation, I started asking myself ‘who is it really for?’ I wanted to have more meaning for myself and for my career. A little over 2 years ago, I hit a wall and became obsessed with wanting to do something that I could create and grow with my own two hands. As we started conceptualizing and talking about working with Indian farmers, suppliers, artisans and giving back — the joy in our parents’ eyes was reason enough to bring our idea to life.
S: Similar to Kiku, I have been in the corporate world for more than 20 years, but have always had dreams of starting something of my own since my entrepreneurship focus in business school. It just took all these years to really take the leap – mainly because of the opportunity to create something with my sister as well as really really believing and feeling passionate about our concept. In a way, though, I almost like that we waited to start this journey as we’ve gained a lot of experience in the real business world, whether that’s building a business plan, negotiating with suppliers, pitching an idea to executives, financial acumen or overall problem solving that I personally believe to be very valuable.
What inspired the start of your company?
The root of our company and what we’ve created all go back to our Indian heritage and how we grew up with the wonderful women in our families taking care of each other through nourishing beauty rituals. We spent our childhood summers in India where we would experience our grandmother creating beautiful, handcrafted beauty products using the herbs from her garden and oils from her kitchen. We would then all sit around (grandmas, aunties, cousins) and massage these products into our hair, face, and body — these shared rituals were both nourishing to our outer bodies and our inner selves. It was all fresh and natural and inspired by Ayurvedic practices — these formulas have been passed down by generations of Indian women. So these Ayurvedic ingredients and formulas are at the core of our products. When it came to packaging, we really wanted to use that to create visual stories. We work with a wonderful Mumbai-based designer and illustrator who’s used our outer packaging as a canvas to share our story and to bring our products alive.
When did the product idea of this scalp hair prewash arrive? What was the inspiration behind it?
K: In South Asian culture, hair care is an integral part of taking care of yourself. Hair is as important, if not more, than skin and body care. During our childhood summers in India, we would always massage an oil mix into our hair and put on a besan & haldi face mask at the same time. In Indian culture, you take care of the whole body. But in the US, haircare lags so far behind skincare which has seen a lot of advancements, especially within the natural space. It’s been the same old: shampoo, condition, maybe a mask and then a bunch of styling products. Our grandma would create these beautiful oil and herb mixes that had so much nutrition in them and would be massaged into our scalp and hair regularly when we would visit her. As we got older, our mom would re-create these oil mixes as much as she could and whenever we went home to visit our parents we would get a head oil massage from her. Our hair is the healthiest when we put these ingredients in them.
S: While I have always loved the results of the oil mixtures created by our grandma and then later by our mother, I’ve never been a fan of the ‘delivery’ and the feeling of putting oil in my hair. So it was important to me that we not only create products that deliver those same benefits but that the way to put it in and the texture of the products create a better experience for the western consumer. My personal journey in believing in these mixtures and rituals came after I had my two children back to back and went through major hair loss after that. Nothing that was commercially available helped at all so I went back to the tried and true Indian ways that we had been taught. I saw such a difference over time in my hair health, regrowth and volume – that was a huge inspiration in starting with the pre-wash!
How did your South Asian background inspire the product?
K: We’re originally from West Bengal, India. Our dad is from Kolkata and our mom is from a town in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Darjeeling. It was our maternal grandparents’ home where we learned Ayurvedic practices and the power of plants to take care of our bodies. As we’ve mentioned, our maternal grandmother has been a big inspiration for SHAZ & KIKS. That part of India has a tropical-like climate and rich in vegetation and all sorts of plant life. Unlike our dad’s city upbringing in Kolkata, our mother and her family grew up close to nature. Our grandparents’ home was surrounded by forests and they had a vast garden. That’s where our grandma would pick her herbs and flowers and handmade all sorts of beauty products.
S: There’s a lot of indigenous plants to that region that she used to create these beauty concoctions with. They’re specific to that region and really aren’t grown for mass production, so we couldn’t use them in our products. For instance, keshuth leaves were one of her key ingredients that she would steep in coconut oil for hours and then use that oil to massage into our scalp and hair. It did wonders! There were a lot of females in the household (it was a joint family) and every single one of them had beautiful, healthy, knee-length hair. It was something that the family was known for, so my grandma would always be very particular about these natural hair oils and all of us using them to regularly nourish our scalp and strands. She attributed her oils and fish (Bengalis’ staple food) for healthy hair!
What is the importance of having beauty rituals rooted in your routine? What is your personal favorite ritual?
K: Beauty rituals take care of your inside and outside. When you look healthy, you feel healthy and good inside. Creating rituals that are repeated on a regular basis is the foundation of preventative care, something that’s core to Ayurveda. It’s a reminder to all of us that taking care of yourself doesn’t happen with a magical pill or product, but is something you build and work towards overtime. My favorite ritual is combing my hair every morning with our handmade neem wood comb. I love the feeling of the neem wood and it helping my blood flow increase in my scalp. My hair also looks great afterward!
S: My favorite ritual is my Sunday self care routine. I’ll usually put the pre-wash in my hair in the morning and go about my day. Then right before bed, I’ll shampoo and shower, and then end my day with a relaxing face mask for 20-30 mins in bed while I read a few chapters on an inspirational biography that i keep on my night table just for this purpose on Sunday nights. I find a great way to feel invigorated before the Monday grind starts again!
Where do you see Shaz & Kiks in 10 years from now?
As the best haircare company in the world! In all seriousness, we want to continue to push ourselves and create new types of products that nourish the body using natural ingredients. We want to have a global footprint. We want to be the leader in natural haircare. We also would love to set up our own farm in India, where we can grow our own raw ingredients and help provide jobs for farmers and producers. A big part of our mission is giving back to our culture.
What is the most important thing you have learned thus far from establishing Shaz & Kiks?
K: When you have meaning behind something, there is no length that you won’t go to fulfill that mission.
S: Working through things methodically in the beginning pays for itself at the end – whether that’s your innovation process, pricing strategy, or marketing tactics- even if it takes a little more time versus a shotgun approach. But you have to be comfortable with adjusting and pivoting as you learn and adapt.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs interested in building a startup?
K: You gotta really want it.
S: Always budget more time than you think you need.