Shahnaz Husain: Ahead Of Her Times
Padma Shri recipient SHAHNAZ HUSAIN needs no introduction. The woman who broke the glass ceiling is one of the most recognised entrepreneurs who revolutionised the cosmetic industry by advocating the use of natural, herbal Ayurvedic products in India and abroad. The founder, chairperson and managing director of the Shahnaz Husain Group of Companies forayed into this field four decades ago, long before ‘organic’ and ‘herbal’ became household words. Recently, Harvard University added her business model as a case study to its curriculum.
A style icon, Shahnaz belongs to a family of eminent legal luminaries. Her Oxfordeducated father, former chief justice N.U. Beg, instilled in her a love of poetry and English literature, and forced her to think beyond just business. Thus, Shahnaz pioneered vocational training in beauty in India in keeping with international standards.
Women’s empowerment and humanitarian activities have always been close to her heart.
In an email interview, Shahnaz speaks about her distinctive style, her love for jewellery and watches, her quest to promote Ayurveda beauty care and her future plans.
You re-introduced Ayurveda in India and popularised the ‘back to nature’ concept. What was it that drove you towards this subject?
The ancient Indian system of Ayurveda is the oldest and most organised system of herbal healing in the world. I embraced this science because I was convinced that it could offer ideal answers to modern cosmetic care. I combined the ancient system of Ayurveda with modern techniques to pioneer herbal beauty care, to answer the demands of modern skin and hair care. My concept of holistic beauty care was unique and caught on worldwide.
You are one of the first successful women entrepreneurs of the country. Was your journey easy?
I never planned it this way. My life was on a very different course. I was married at the age of 15 and by 16, I had become a mother. Life seemed perfect, but I was bored with the drudgery of endless routine.
I was always interested in beauty, so I was determined to get the best training possible and decided to work my way to the prized institutions of the West, to learn cosmetology and cosmetic therapy.
My husband was posted in Tehran at the time, as head of foreign trade with the State Trading Corporation of India. I schooled in La Martiniere in Lucknow and Queen Mary’s in Allahabad, but was not a graduate. However, my love for writing pushed me to work for the Iran Tribune. I would contribute 1,000 words per week. The response was so good, that 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 deadlines. My fingers would become sore and would bleed, but I was 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 studying cosmetology. I looked at my fingers and quietly murmured, ‘Doctor, how much?’ He was amazed that my first thought was not about the fingers I may lose!
This incident made me believe that in life it is not what you want that is important, but how badly you want it. I was convinced that if I was highly qualified in my field, I could have the world at my feet. So gradually, I worked my way to leading institutions like Helena Rubinstein, Christine Valmy, Swarzkopf, Lancome and Lean of Copenhagen.
How helpful was the training in these institutes?
While training in London, I came across instances of damage caused by chemical treatments. This changed the course of my life and career. I wanted to find a natural alternative that was safe and without risks. I was convinced that the ancient Indian system of Ayurveda could offer the ideal answers to modern cosmetic care.
When did you start your own outfit?
I came back to India and started my first herbal salon in the verandah of my home in New Delhi, in 1971. I established customised beauty care, with a personalised style, based on individual needs and problems. I adopted the concept of “herbal care and cure”. It was a path-breaking concept.
I also began to formulate my own products using plant ingredients and natural substances, based on the Ayurvedic system. Today, we are known for our treatments for general beauty care, and for our therapeutic products and salon treatments for problems like acne, hyper-pigmentation, scars, premature ageing, dandruff, hair damage, hair loss, etc.
Shahnaz receiving the Padma Shri Award from President Abdul Kalam Azad.