Growing up in the city of New Delhi, Priyanka Ganjoo never felt pretty. It is a common feeling amongst girls in India, where domestic magazines use European models and billboards advertise skin-bleaching products endorsed by Bollywood stars. Makeup and standards of beauty are eurocentric (“fair and lovely”) and emphasize slim figures while women like Ganjoo have darker skin tones and undertones.
In her first job in Singapore, co-workers regularly told Ganjoo, then 22-years old, that she looked tired because of pronounced dark circles – a common trait amongst South Asians. She had never applied makeup before but now sought it out. But upon approaching a beauty counter at a shopping outlet, she was referred to an entire cornucopia of other products to conceal many of her distinctly South Asian features.
Ganjoo was also caught in a larger social dilemma: “In South Asian culture if you wear red lipstick or very dramatic or bold looks, people think you are trying to attract male attention and it’s generally looked down upon.”
Eventually, she decided to create it herself. She quit her job in April 2019 and founded Kulfi Beauty. Ganjoo spent six months doing market research, sending out surveys, and conducting focus groups in person and via Facebook when the pandemic hit. She flew back to India to better understand its ecosystem of beauty products. She published on LinkedIn, reviewed responses, and scheduled follow-up phone calls to discuss. She would directly message new followers on Instagram, trying to solicit their experiences.
By September of 2019, she had created a brand personality and visual identity. Kulfi Beauty was to be a brand designed by South Asians for South Asians – its name is taken from a beloved, centuries-old dessert native to the subcontinent.
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Kulfi Beauty’s products would complement tan and deep skin tones and shades, creamy pigment and malleable formulation. Ganjoo and Badal Patel, the creative director, believed that makeup should be used as a tool of self-expression. They wanted their products to feel fun, playful, and celebratory.
Perhaps inevitably, their work is also rebellious. In accentuating rather than concealing South Asian-ness, they were colliding head-on with colorism, patriarchal standards of female “modesty”, and accusations that makeup was solely to attract men and conceal imperfections.
“What was unlocked for me was realizing that there’s this emotional gap that exists where so many of us are growing up not thinking that we deserve to feel beautiful. So celebration and validation was a central pillar to the brand identity.”
The brand’s first products are Kajal (kohl) eyeliners, an integral part of traditional South Asian culture. Mothers apply the black powder to their newborns to deflect nazar, or the evil eye. It is also widely used by adults as a beauty product. “We wanted to communicate that we want to use beauty and makeup as a medium of self expression. With the ‘nazar no more’ tagline we’re going to be unapologetically ourselves, define beauty through our gaze, and reject the male gaze that has defined beauty for us for so long.”
Warding off the evil eye is a custom in many cultures, but Ganjoo has reinvented and tailored Kajal to the needs and wants of the South Asian consumer: a high pigment and creamy glide without the usual raccoon eyes. With the right mix of waxes and emollients, she then replicated the formula across shades. Ganjoo’s Kajal is unique in that it can be applied and smudged within fifteen seconds of application. It is also vegan and cruelty-free, with packaging that is biodegradable and recyclable.
The pandemic has disrupted Ganjoo’s plans. She had planned to fundraise in March and then launch in November of 2020. “Everything shut down, no one was taking calls, definitely no one wanted to invest in a beauty brand,”said Ganjoo.
Even the product development timeline slowed down; labs were not functioning, samples came very late from the lab, and mail would take weeks to send out. The responses, too, were difficult to analyze. “Feedback was hard to truncate because beauty is so visual. It’s easy for me to see how it looks on you versus you telling me how it looks on you,” said Ganjoo.
The impaired fundraising has required resourcefulness but has also unexpectedly allowed Ganjoo to build a community. She launched Kulfi bites — an authentic storytelling space for underrepresented voices that addresses all sorts of societal taboos: colorism, imposter syndrome, and fatphobia . The goal is genuine and heartfelt content, not clickbait and Ganjoo has since expanded the conversation to Clubhouse, the invite-only chat room app.
“Bites is a place to feel seen and feel heard. And just as much about the visitors, as it is about the people reading. I wrote a few entries and I found that process to be so cathartic, to be able to express yourself and I think that’s my hope: that we continue to build it as a space for dialogue.”
Kulfi Beauty is part of Sephora’s brand incubation program to increase BIPOC-created brands, Supermaker’s Entrepreneurial Dream Project, as well as Gold House’s Spring 2021 Accelerator.
Investors are quick to flock to brands endorsed by celebrities and machine learning, or AI driven solutions, and not looking for sustainable, long-term partnerships, she claims. The beauty industry is limited in serving women of color. “It was a very discouraging experience honestly because most investors didn’t understand the opportunity, and had lots of different reasons to say no,” stated Ganjoo. “They didn’t think I was the right person to do it. I heard very often there’s already a women of color brand or South Asian brands and we didn’t need another one. I always thought, if I was white, would I be asked that same question?”
In response to questions about why the brand does not cater to all races, Ganjoo responded: “All are welcome to try the product but we are unapologetically South Asian and our aim is to center the South Asian consumer.” And she’s insistent on wanting that reflected in every aspect of her business.
Although she was unable to connect with an institutional investor, Ganjoo was encouraged by the experience and realized there are smaller angel investors who believe in her and her mission. Later this year, Ganjoo hopes to pursue a seed round but in the interim is focusing on operations and making sure she and her team are connecting to and understanding the early customers.
For now, Ganjoo is embracing something that is discouraged in the guarded corporate world she left behind and the subcontinent she grew up in: vulnerability.
“I think one of the biggest things that I’ve learned is that vulnerability is a superpower. With starting a company at a difficult time, I’ve been really open with everyone in my life with the way we work; now I’m not afraid to say ‘I don’t know’.”