Kulkarni’s Forest Essentials was the first homegrown beauty brand to receive investment from a global giant with the pedigree of Estée Lauder. Now, Kulkarni is set to take India’s magic to international markets
By Pankti Mehta Kadakia
As most successful ventures go, Mira Kulkarni founded Forest Essentials quite by accident. She was visiting her son (Samrath Bedi, now the firm’s Chief Operating Officer) at university in the US, where she attended a soap-making class. Kulkarni, now the company’s Managing Director, had a family home in Uttarakhand’s Tehri Garhwal region and realised that the methods taught were similar to the way that Ayurvedic soap is made. “And that got me thinking—why are our products substandard?” she says. And sub-standard they were, for the most part, at the time—about 17 years ago. “While they had the solid ancient recipes to rely on, they weren’t using quality ingredients,” Kulkarni says. “Back then, most people wanted to buy imported soap; Ayurvedic soap was considered cheap. To target a certain price bracket, the soap-makers were using sub-par, adulterated ingredients.”
Kulkarni set out on a series of experiments—not with the idea to build a business back then, but to make a quality product for her own personal use. She became involved with a co-operative movement for handmade products in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, to learn about Ayurvedic soapmaking. She made a batch of honey soap to start with, which used parts of honeycomb, fresh honey and cold-pressed essential oils. Kulkarni sold a small batch to her friends as a test run, and was overwhelmed with the response. While Uttarakhand locals insisted that not many people would be willing to pay more for a technique that is traditionally used for low-cost soap, she was willing to take the chance.
“I thought about it and realised that I would buy such a product at a higher cost if I’m assured of a certain standard of quality—and I’m a fairly rational consumer,” she says. “There must be many like me.” And so it began. Kulkarni set up her first workshop in Lodsi, Uttarakhand in 2004, to cold-press mustard, sesame and other oils the oldfashioned, tedious way. Here, another hurdle emerged. Women were not allowed to work in this region, and Kulkarni was adamant that the business would be socially responsible. “We met with the individual families and worked hard to convince them,” she says. “This was a big victory for us.
Soon, we opened bank accounts for the women and they were absolutely stunned to be making their own money!” The next challenge was to build a client-base—to change the perception of Ayurveda among luxury consumers. “I wanted to stay away from words such as ‘herbal’ and ‘Ayurvedic’ when coming up with a name for the company, for this reason,” Kulkarni recalls. “Ayurveda was considered medicinal, not pleasurable. A friend came up with ‘Forest Essentials’, and I loved it. We sketched out a mango tree right then, and that’s how the logo was born.”
Forest Essentials’ first store opened at Khan Market in 2004, mainly stocking their range of specialty oils and soap bars. “The rents were off the roof and the space was difficult to get,” Kulkarni says. “We had no supply chain then, and barely a manufacturing facility to speak of. It was crazy at the time for us to invest so much money into it, but we took a leap of faith.”
Now, the brand has 55 standalone stores in 18 cities, spanning Kanpur, Ludhiana, Goa and Cochin in addition to the big metros. They add an average of eight to 10 new stores each year, and the Tier-II market, Kulkarni says, is performing better than they ever expected.
A major, and totally surprise, breakthrough came in 2007, on the sidelines of the glamorous Liz Hurley-Arun Nayar wedding at Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhawan Palace. American billionaire Leonard Lauder, chairman, emeritus of Estée Lauder Companies, was a guest at the actor-industrialists wedding extravaganza. There, American-British businesswoman Lynn Forester de Rothschild presented him with Forest Essentials products.
Lauder visited the Khan Market store for research and then asked for a meeting with Kulkarni. “We met over a cup of tea, and Lauder was the most charming man you could meet,” says Kulkarni, with a smile. “Our tea meeting went on for quite a few hours.” Lauder saw similarities in how Kulkarni runs her business and the way his mother had built Estée Lauder. Among conversations about his mother, his visits to India and business talk, he asked Kulkarni, “Where do you want Forest Essentials to go?” “I want it to go exactly where Estée Lauder has,” Kulkarni replied. Of this meeting, a fruitful relationship was born. Estée Lauder took up 20% of Kulkarni’s company, and their investment helped Forest Essentials strengthen its R&D department, and gain from its knowledge of markets and technicalities. The companies are now in talks to further increase Estée Lauder’s stake. “It’s been a wonderful relationship, and we are excited to take it to its full potential now, as we launch internationally,” says Kulkarni.
Forest Essentials is currently evaluating its global options, considering markets in the Middle East, Europe and Singapore. “Each has different formats of retail, and we’re thoroughly studying them before zeroing in our best option,” says Kulkarni. Globally though, especially in markets like Japan, consumers are moving away from strongly scented products. Would Forest Essentials alter its products to suit a certain segment? “It’s possible that we will,” says Kulkarni. “But we have a large e-commerce presence and have found manytakers from such countries, who seem to like our products as they are.”
Estée Lauder’s involvement mandates that Forest Essentials’ factories follow EU regulations for quality control. “It wasn’t easy to manage this in India, and took a huge amount of staff training,” Kulkarni says. “For instance, we throw away batches that don’t meet our standards. This isn’t a policy that is ever followed in India.”
While the packaging and bottling processes are modern, the actual making of the product still follows age-old, laborious techniques, perfected after consulting vaids as well as modern biochemists. This involves using fresh herbs, a lot of ghee, hand-pounding powders, fermenting essences, and cooking ingredients over fire when necessary. “This is our USP—we use processes that others do not or cannot,” she adds.
For instance, the Forest Essentials Advanced Soundarya Age Defying Facial Serum is infused with 24K gold, which can improve the skin’s elasticity and act as an age-defying agent. The pure Gold Bhasma is prepared using traditional Ayurvedic methods, and infused in a mix of oils, herbs, cow’s milk, ghee and roots. The mix is then simmered over a slow fire and left to cure in copper vats, which impart their own nutritional properties into the serum. For the Sanjeevani Beauty Elixir, four Ayurvedic practices that are defined in the CharakSmitha are involved. One of these is the Himor Sheet Kashaya, where herbs are infused and soaked in cold water overnight, so that they absorb the rays of the moon. The elixir resembles the texture of natural skin sebum, and can be used as a pre-moisturiser.
With a treasure trove of knowledge and hills with the most exotic herbs, how can we make India the next frontier for luxury beauty? “In one word, quality,” says Kulkarni. “The perception of India has changed over the years, and you see some fantastic luxury products made here, across verticals. We need to strengthen our processes and convince consumers that we will provide quality that they can trust.”
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