Saturday, October 31, 2009

Princess Diaries

Shahnaz Husain converted her teenage passion into a thriving beauty business. Now she must let it move on beyond her
by Elizabeth Flock | Sep 29, 2009

Read it at Forbes

Shahnaz Husain is larger than life. And that has been the beauty secret of her brand of Ayurvedic products that promises to not only care but also cure. It’s not just the imposing figure she cuts, with her sweeping Louis Vuitton robes, lion mane of hennaed hair and the massive diamond studding her nose. It’s not just the bowing servants calling her Princess, the house decorations fit for royalty and the photographer and videographer trailing her at all times. It’s the fact that at 65, Husain is still spending 20 hours a day rushing from press conference to factory to office to press conference again (often in other countries) with the same gusto and conviction, despite the younger generation clawing to take over.

“If it bears my name, it catches on,” says Husain, the lady who turned her teenage passion into a Rs. 250 crore a year company, Shahnaz Husain Herbals (SHH). Today, branded Ayurvedic products are dime a dozen, but in 1970, Husain was the first to take age-old beauty treatments largely practiced at home, and sell them across the counter. Over the past four decades, she has franchised out 400 beauty parlours where well-heeled women gather for beauty treatments made from extracts of diamond, gold and rose petals.

“If it bears my name, it catches on,” says Husain, the lady who turned her teenage passion into a Rs. 250 crore a year company

She never advertised but made sure no product went without her face. SHH expanded to more than 100 countries as a result of Husain’s constant wooing of the media around the world.
But today, after being synonymous with beauty care for four decades, Husain’s business is showing signs of greying. The things that made SHH work — niche, expensive, unadvertised brand — might now be the chinks in its armour.

On the one hand, international brands such as Clarins, The Body Shop and L’Oreal are taking away the attention of the younger generation. On the other, beauty treatment has spread beyond the elite and embraced the mass market. But SHH has stuck to the formula it developed in the 1970s and 1980s. Its old world charm is not able to attract new-age customers. Ask Husain about it and she brushes off her competitors: “We don’t have any competitors. Dabur is into health. Clarins doesn’t do cures. No one does cures but us.”

But her salons in Delhi are populated by ageing women who are ever in need of her anti-wrinkle cream, and are noticeably absent of teens who might use her kajal. “The company is losing its sheen, whether Shahnaz is around or not. There are now so many mass market products and so many options. It needs a more focussed way of getting to the consumer,” says Sonam Udasi, vice president, research and group head - consumers at Brics Securities.

The Right Mix
In 1958, when Husain got engaged, she was all of 14. By 16, she had her daughter. The young mother was quite bored and wanted to do something new. “Mr. Husain was posted far away. So I started mixing in my house…” For about 10 years, she ran the business informally from home. But when she saw the success of a friend’s parlour, which she had help set up, she wondered why she couldn’t do the same.

In 1970, she opened a small salon in Delhi. Funding was not a problem as she came from an illustrious family. “My father and grandfather were chief justices. On my mother’s side they were commander-in-chiefs,” says Husain. But it was not the money that made it work; it was the idea of branding Ayurveda. The potions she had concocted at home established her as one of the most well-known brands in India. That was the situation until now.

But Husain is ageing and may not have all the answers to the company’s problems in the future. She must find a successor to carry on after her. Unfortunately, her son Sameer who could have inherited the business, died last year. Husain isn’t willing to discuss her alternatives. “I’ve had no thought of teaching or planning a takeover,” says Husain.

What she does not say is that the company is already able to operate without her. Ever so slowly, Husain has — unwittingly or not — primed more than a few people to be able to take over and they are bucking at the reins to do so. They are already changing the face of SHH, perhaps for the better.
At first glance, the likely heiress is her daughter Nelofar Currimbhoy, president of SHH, who sports a similar lioness head of hair, husky voice, and glamourous animal print clothing. Currimbhoy, who handles local distribution, business expansion and research and development, grew up knowing just her mother’s business.

“I can’t think of a point when I joined the business. I was born and will melt away into Shahnaz Husain Herbals,” she says. Currimbhoy has made significant contributions to the company, such as conceptualising three of Shahnaz’s most popular lines — gold, pearl, and flower power. But she admits she doesn’t have the same fervour as her mother. Nor does Currimbhoy have the star power her mother has.

While Shahnaz Hussain does not declare her grandson as heir Sharik Currimbhoy says,
Image: Amit Verma
While Shahnaz Hussain does not declare her grandson as heir Sharik Currimbhoy says, "Well, I am the inheritor."
Chips off the Old Block
But there was someone else who would have been the successor to SHH and was in many ways Husain’s own facsimile. Sameer, Husain’s son, was a relatively well-known rapper and loved the limelight as much as his mother. Though Sameer Dada was “very much into becoming the next Michael Jackson,” according to Husain, that was just a hobby in comparison to his dedication as president of the company. But in January 2008, Sameer died after falling from the third floor of his in-laws’ flat in Patna.

A law suit was never settled over whether Sameer had jumped to his death or was pushed.
There is one more member of the Husain family who can hold the limelight. “My mother works only by instinct. Some people just have the business instinct. I don’t,” says Currimbhoy. “My son does.”
When asked about her succession plan, Husain does not mention her grandson. But it is clear the 28-year-old is already very much in charge. One of the first sentences out of Sharik Currimbhoy’s mouth is, “Well, I am the inheritor.” The mix of pride and fearlessness is the same as his grandmother’s. It’s also clear he is the only one who can turn around the company.

After studying at Columbia University in New York, Sharik started an infotech company. After selling the company in 2003, Sharik came back to India in search of something else. “One day I was sitting with my grandmother and she said ‘why don’t you take over the franchisees?’ I thought, why not? I’ll do that to keep myself busy and decide what I want to do next. But then I found out I was really good at what I was doing like selling things to people.”

Sharik didn’t just take over the franchisees. He also took over the entire export business, hiring, marketing and pricing. Husain does concede this much: “He has new ideas all the time, and the ideas are visionary. He is a tomorrow child.”

For one, Sharik overhauled pricing internationally. When he started, SHH was pricing products the same in every country and a shop would mark it up however it liked. Now, Sharik looks at the end price and works backwards, so that a product is not sold for the same price in the Middle East as it is in the UK.

Sharik has other ideas that go directly against the SHH modus operandi. One such idea is to take the niche brand mass-market. But, Husain insists this was her idea. Two years ago, she claims, a girl chased her down in Delhi, nearly killing herself running across traffic. “She wanted my autograph and I said do you use Shahnaz? She said no, it’s too expensive. And from that moment on, I decided to do mass marketed products, to make products for her.”

Old ways of mixing by hand will give way to automated processes at SSH
Image: Amit Verma
Old ways of mixing by hand will give way to automated processes at SSH
But over the last two years that product line hasn’t come out. “We’ve been hearing rumours about Shahnaz Husain Herbals going mass market for years,” says Vikas Mittal, vice president of marketing, at Dabur India.

Sharik seems to have finally pushed that line into completion and is expected to release by the end of this year under the name Shahnaz Forever. (The international version has already launched).
Consumer product analysts think the mass market is just what SHH needs. “The only way for them to grow, whether Shahnaz is the anchor or not, is to tie up with a partner, or go mass market,” says Udasi of Brics Securities.

Udasi also thinks SHH should tie up with a mid-tier FMCG company in India, so it can utilise the partners’ distribution line up and get much better margins. SHH has no plans for such a large-scale partnership domestically, although it has 400 distribution partners, through which 90 percent of its products are sold. Sharik has also pushed through key partnerships internationally, such as renewing a partnership with the New Medical Center, one of the biggest FMCGs in the Middle East.

Changes in the DNA
SHH became a talking point at Harvard Business School many years ago when professors were wowed by the fact that it did not advertise. “I was invited to speak at Harvard. They say you violate every norm we teach. They say you need a certain amount of money to launch. We have made a huge brand [which is] internationally recognised without any advertising at all. I just call the press,” laughs Husain.
But both Sharik and his mother have decided it’s time to make a change in Husain’s no-advertising mantra. The new Shahnaz Forever line will be fully advertised. “I don’t think in a business there should be a rule forever,” says Currimbhoy.

Sharik also has long-term plans for diversification. He gives the example of Dabur, which started out in healthcare but later expanded into other businesses. “Twenty years down, we might even own a power plant,” he says, laughing — that is, if his grandmom lets him have his say.

Things are changing at SHH’s factories too. The 150-employee Noida factory is semi-automatic, because Husain insists that she’s “selling civilisation in a jar” and because she wants more employment, says the factor’s manager, Javed Iqbal. One employee even manually adds rose petals slowly to a mix. Iqbal says, “If I had a chance, I would remove half the guys working here for the last 15-20 years. They aren’t needed.” At the manual machines, 3,000 products are made in eight hours. Iqbal points to the fully automatic machine line, and grins, “Twelve thousand products are finished on this line in eight hours.” The new SHH factory in Roorkey will have just 100 employees but three-four times the production level of the Noida plant because it will be fully automatic.

Husain isn’t unhappy about the changes. “He [Sharik] hasn’t changed things. He has just combined my vision with his vision. I’ve never said no to him for anything he wants to do. I pay the price, the next generation bears the fruit.”

After Shahnaz
SHH is sure to change after the enigma of Shahnaz Husain is gone. But Currimbhoy is confident the company won’t miss a step, as it is no longer as much about the magnetism of her mother as it is the strength of their products.

Others disagree. “It’s been difficult for any new entrant to the mass market in recent years. Distribution channels are a problem, getting to the younger generation is a problem. I have doubts that they can be successful,” says Udasi. Sanjeev Malhotra, managing director, Alia Group, which represents SHH, agrees that distribution will be a challenge, especially in rural areas. But he thinks the company is in a sweet spot because of the loyal customer base and addition of new distribution partners.

When you ask Shahnaz if the company will go on after she is gone, she sighs. “Well, nothing lasts forever. But a company goes on. If the roots are strong, it might stagger, but it will go on.”

Being Vegan in India

Veganism as a concept is practically unknown in India, as this starry-eyed idealist learned when she attempted to keep the faith
by Elizabeth Flock | Sep 26, 2009

Read it at Forbes

When I moved to India, I thought it would be a vegan’s Mecca, a place where, at last, I could mingle with others who practiced a lifestyle just as fervently as I did.

I had chosen veganism a few years before because the whole animal slaughter thing became too difficult to ignore. I knew that most often the motivation for vegetarianism in India was more religious than animal-inspired, but the idea that an entire country could strive for ahimsa towards animals seemed both astonishing and perfect.

That first day in India, taking in the barrage of things foreign and unknown on Mumbai’s streets, one thing stood out: Nearly every restaurant had a sign that marked itself as “Veg” or “Non-Veg.” Entire restaurants devoted to vegetarianism? I had died and gone to heaven!

Later that day, traipsing through the supermarket with naïve glee, I revelled in the system of labelling in which vegetarian products bore a green dot in a green square and animal-based products bore the label in brown. Very few vegetarian labels existed in the US.

The Jain family with whom I was staying told me how pleased they were that I had chosen vegetarianism even though I was American. (Translation: They were glad that even though I was from a heathen country where a typical dinner was a hunk of meat, I had chosen to forego that.)

The notion of the sacred cow, which I loved ingenuously as a kid, I saw in practice: Buses and cars bunched up in traffic to let them pass. It all seemed too good to be true. And it was.

You see, while India can lay claim to the earliest records of vegetarianism, adopted for similar reasons to mine — “Thou shalt not kill to eat” — the more than 30 percent of the population who are vegetarians in India are lacto-vegetarian. Vegetarianism comes in different categories, and it is these crucial distinctions that make my trusting vegan assumption so wrong.

Lacto-vegetarians consume dairy products, and this country consumes a lot of them. India is the number one milk-producing country in the world, and dairy products are a vital part of the diet, in both rural and urban areas. I soon realised Amul’s milk, butter, and cheese were as ubiquitous as their ads.

Veganism runs against all of this. As a diet and as a lifestyle, it excludes the use of any animal products to produce food, clothing, or anything else you might use in daily life. So, not just no milk, curd or ice cream; it also means no silk sarees, leather shoes, and making the sometimes Herculean effort to use alternate toothpaste, shaving cream, and other basic products. Even sugar, which can be refined using charred animal bones, is taboo. (The first time I was told this by a zealous vegan cash register girl, I sheepishly removed the sugar from my shopping cart, and wondered if I would ever enjoy dessert again.)

Going to a restaurant was the first test of my veganism in India. My ignorance of Indian dishes at that time aside, there were few items on the menu which excluded dairy products.

Actually, that first time, there were none. Undeterred, I asked the waiter to please leave out the following: sugar, butter, milk, and any other dairy products. He looked at me without expression, though in my self-consciousness, I sensed derision. “Par wahi to khana hai,” he said, take all that away and what’s left? When the food came, I realised the dal had the glorious-yet-prohibited taste of ghee, which I had forgotten to mention.

After lunch, we went to get roadside tea. The vendor happily agreed to leave out the milk. Later, I found out the flavouring agent in the tea came from animals.

Just like in the US, animal products were intrinsically woven into the daily fabric of life.

As for vegan non-food products in India, forget it. Toothpaste? Bone powder. The beautifully-patterned shirts and sarees I had always longed for? Silk. Most cosmetics have wax. And alas for my premature excitement over supermarket labels: The same manufacturers who are so stringent about green dots and squares often do not list milk in their ingredients. That is, when they bother to list ingredients at all.

In a country that loves dairy products, and uses so many other animal-produced luxuries, I wondered dejectedly — but with a lingering sense of American superiority — was veganism even possible here?
Manish Jain is a vegan, and the creator of, a portal which promotes veganism in India by stressing ethical reasons, debunking myths and employing health experts for back-up.

Jain lives in Indore, and he says he can easily find all the necessary plant-based products needed to replace animal ones.

“Maybe it would be a problem in a small town. But in any city, you can replace dairy products with soya products, which are cheaply available. Instead of ice cream, you can eat gelato. We even order vegan cakes home.”

I was confused. Mumbai obviously had a wider selection of foods and products than Indore, yet I hadn’t found vegan products to be cheap, or easily available. Soya tofu that had any sane level of fat cost Rs 150 for a small pack, when a satisfying vegetarian meal in a restaurant cost just Rs 40. Seitan or tempeh, two Asian substitutes for meat, which are readily available in the US, were nowhere to be found.

Image: Abhijeet Kini
Jain tries another tactic. Many Indian foods, he says, are naturally vegan, such as dals, pulses, and legumes. He names bhindi masala and khachu as two delicious and purely vegan dishes. He was right. And after time, I found out how to specify exactly what not to include, instead of telling waiters, “Muje sirf ek bottle paani chaiye.” I soon found pure vegan restaurants in Mumbai, and even vegan groups in various cities around India.

While I had felt sheepishly jejune after realising I had confused vegetarians with the likelihood of a vegan lifestyle among them, I wasn’t completely off the herbivorous mark. The term ‘vegan’ was first used in the UK in 1944; a proper vegan community had already been in place in India for 20 years. Goodbye, lingering sense of Western superiority!

And yet, nearly 100 years later, that movement is still in its infancy in India. There have been some baby steps, and even large leaps, lately. McDonald’s, best known for its carnivorous menu of burgers and shakes, began to offer vegan meals in India in 2006.

The Indian Vegan Society, a branch of the Vegan Society in the UK, is bringing veganism more mainstream through concerts, book events, and excursions. Even Café Coffee Day now has a vegan shake.

But while restaurant menus can be modified, and most dals don’t have ghee, staying vegan sometimes isn’t possible. On domestic flights, for example, vegan food isn’t an option. Most Indian airlines, so careful to offer one or more vegetarian options, have nothing to offer to vegans.

I know what you are all thinking. Is this vegan thing even healthy? Forget India for a minute. Can a person subsist without dairy products, or any animal products, anywhere? I assure you they can.
To be balanced, I must say that the vegan lifestyle has long been criticised. In June last year, the debate came to a head when a 12-year-old girl in Scotland, whose parents kept her on a vegan diet, was rushed to the hospital with a degenerative bone condition. Back in 2001, a 10-month-old baby died from that diet. But while the parents were taken to task for their grave mistake, most health experts eventually decided the problem was the age of the children in combination with the diet, not veganism alone.

A few doctors in the US, India, and elsewhere, have told me that veganism isn’t healthy. Having someone tell you the way you are living is misguided is not easy to swallow. But its true that many vegans miss out on protein, calcium, iodine, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, and omega 3 fatty acids, they say. I thought it sounded like a lot of mumbo-jumbo until I found out about the problems deficiencies of these vital elements can cause. For instance, children who are fed an unbalanced vegan diet can get anaemia, rickets, or cretinism. (Read: Extreme fatigue, soft bones, and stunted growth.) Adults may be diagnosed with osteomalacia, softening of the bones, or hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid gland, which can cause a host of other problems.

Most doctors agree, however, that the vegan diet is not the problem. The culprit is the poor dietary planning that often results from that diet. Many vegans substitute dairy products or meat with unhealthy processed foods. Mea culpa: I often submit to the allure of deep-fried banana chips instead of a real banana.

Dr. Deepika Malik, CEO of and Dr. Deepika’s Wellness, two widely-consulted health portals, stresses that vegans must make an extra effort to include certain elements in their diet.
“A person needs one gramme of protein per kilo that they weigh, daily. So a 60 kg person needs 60 grams of protein, which vegetarians can get through soya. Vegans must especially focus on calcium, which lacto-vegetarians get from dairy products. They can eat sesame seeds, almonds, green leafy vegetables, or take calcium supplements to satisfy this need.”

Image: Abhijeet Kini
The parents of the little girl in Scotland weren’t giving her enough calcium, which is why she ended up with a bone disease. The balance just wasn’t there.

Even more likely than calcium deficiency is deficiency of Vitamin B12. Jain concedes that vegans can never naturally include B12 in their diet — it is a bacteria not found in plant foods. He suggests vegans take a B12 supplement, soya milk fortified with the vitamin, or get the B12 shot, which is increasing in popularity. Before I added a B12 supplement to my own diet, my skin started to turn more sickly pale than usual — I had a mild case of anaemia.

Yet for all its detractors, veganism has its share of health experts on its side. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says that if properly planned, a plant-based diet is healthier than many others because it includes much more fruit and veggies. The group created a new food pyramid to replace the pervasive older one, this time with four food groups: Vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and legumes.

The American Dietetic Association and Dieticians of Canada join the cluster of advocates by insisting that vegans often have lower cholesterol levels, lower saturated fat levels, and a lower body mass index. After I became vegan, all three lowered for me. I also felt more awake (I stopped needing coffee), more satiated after eating, and didn’t get sick nearly as often as I used to. Vegans, the two dietary associations point out, also generally have a lower risk of colon cancer and heart attack, the two biggest killers in India.

Whether veganism is healthful, detrimental, or, well, weird, it cannot be completely ignored. Manish Jain estimates there are 500 or so declared vegans, and a whole lot more who don’t use the word but aren’t consuming dairy products; for example, many Jains.

Regrettably, I’m not among them. The attempts to read labels that weren’t always there, to ask a family hosting me to make pao bhajji with a different bread that contained no butter, and to brush my teeth with baking powder or toothpaste shipped from the US — it became too much. I couldn’t maintain a healthful, balanced diet in the face of all these road bumps. I felt a fraud, and still do, for losing faith just because I didn’t reach the Promised Land. I came with an ideal, and I will leave with a stomach full of sugared, milky sweets.

But there are some who remain, and their numbers in India are growing.

Someday, ahimsa might means vegans rule the planet. If so, India would be leading the charge.

Do Happiness and Billions Go Together?

Should we include happiness in how we measure the economy?
by Elizabeth Flock | Oct 15, 2009

Read it at Forbes

Counting Error
Let’s face it. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the most accepted measure of national economies, but hardly an accurate one. It leaves out so many variables that it shows many countries to be richer or poorer than they really are. GDP ignores the depreciation of capital, be it disappearing forests or ageing labourers, says Romina Boarini, an economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And GDP nonsensically goes up after a natural catastrophe. When an epidemic spreads and people spend on medicine, it goes up again.

Bhutan shows the way
At least one country has known the value of happiness all along. Bhutan has been measuring its Gross Happiness Product as its standard of living since 1972. It seems to have worked somewhat. Bhutan was ranked the happiest country in Asia and the eighth-happiest in the world by a University of Leicester survey in 2006. Bhutan has a Gross National Happiness Commission and in 2008, the government found that 68 percent of Bhutanese classed themselves as being happy. Its first democratic elections were held last year. Yet the Bhutanese economy remains one of the least developed. You decide.

Bhutan has been measuring its Gross Happiness Product as its standard of living since 1972. It seems to have worked somewhat
Image: Hemal Seth
Bhutan has been measuring its Gross Happiness Product as its standard of living since 1972. It seems to have worked somewhat
Measuring Smiles
Will happiness work as an indicator of economies larger than Bhutan’s? French President Nicholas Sarkozy thinks so. He even set up the International Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress and asked economist Joseph Stiglitz to chair it. A report by the commission, authored by Stiglitz and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, says the inclusion of happiness and other factors of well-being would cut the per capita GDP gap between the US and France by
at least half. Currently, US’ per capita GDP is 14 percent higher than France’s, according to Financial Times.

Subjective Indicators
The problem with GDP is its objectivity, says Ed Diener, professor at University of Illinois. He says subjective indicators tell the story much better. For example, people who are happy with their jobs are likely to stay in these jobs, boosting the economy. Sarkozy’s commission found that GDP may be a good indicator of the level of the financial economy, but could hardly fathom the depths of the social economy. Stiglitz says, “The loss of a job has a greater impact than can be accounted for just by the loss of income.”

The value of money
More money doesn’t always bring happiness. A study cited by the Sustainable Scale Project in the US during 1957-2002 showed that as incomes kept rising, happiness levels increased up to a certain level and reached a plateau at some point. David Myers, professor of psychology at Hope College, Michigan, says, “Once people have enough money to feel secure, more money appears to yield diminishing returns.” This is seen in our daily lives too. “If I’m three times richer than my grandfather, and my car goes 65 mph faster, am I happier? It’s not a sensible measure,” Andrew Oswald, a member of Sarkozy’s commission, says.

Happiness is imperfect too
The problem with happiness is it is not easily quantifiable. Diener insists measures of happiness can be incomplete because it has both both broad and narrow connotations. It cannot accurately convey what should be assessed when guiding policy decisions. For countries like India, the need for measuring financial success will not go away for a long time. Oswald explains, “For developed nations, we need to move toward a focus on mental health. [But] countries where there is not enough to eat have different problems. For now, they still do need to measure the growth of their economy [through GDP].”