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Mamaearth's Ghazal Alagh brings a touch of art to skincare

The co-founder of Mamaearth talks about early struggles, the company’s purpose in creating toxin-free products, and how her baby drove her career path

Fond of painting, Gazal Alagh is the chief mama of Mamaearth.
Fond of painting, Gazal Alagh is the chief mama of Mamaearth. (Priya Kuriyan)

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Ghazal Alagh had set herself up for a colourful life, filled with the art that was her passion, joy and source of income. “I thought this is it—for the rest of my life. I could live, breathe art and make money while doing something I loved,” says the co-founder of Mamaearth.

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“Until we got pregnant and Agastya happened.”

The child, born in 2014, had some skin conditions the parents struggled to find solutions for. Mass-produced lotions felt toxic. Alagh started cribbing to husband Varun, saying this is not how it should be and asking why their baby was suffering. “He said one thing: ‘Try doing something about it.’ That one sentence pushed me.”

It propelled her enough to start a company that has today become part of India’s bulging bouquet of unicorns (private companies with a valuation of over $1 billion, or around 7,900 crore). Mamaearth, the baby-care brand she started with Varun in 2016, helped the parent company, Honasa Consumer Pvt. Ltd, become profitable in 2020-21, with sales peaking in the pandemic period. In January, Mint noted that Honasa Consumer had reported a net profit of 24.6 crore for FY21, against a net loss of 5.9 crore in 2019-20 (FY20), according to the company’s filings with the ministry of corporate affairs—making it one of the country’s rare profitable unicorns. Alagh, chief mama of Mamaearth, says they aim to double the 500 crore they closed on last year.

Honasa has added to its bouquet of brands—Dermaco, based on active skincare (such as options for daily care, acne), Aqualogica, which works on the science of hydration, Ayuga, which combines the values of yoga and Ayurveda, and haircare brand Bblunt, acquired in February for about 135 crore.

“When we announced ourselves as a unicorn,” says Alagh (when Honasa raised $52 million from Sequoia Capital earlier this year), “there was no celebration. It was just a word. We celebrate different milestones than being recognised as a unicorn because it doesn’t change anything within us.” They celebrated the first order on Amazon, a congratulatory call from a consumer, their first hire—all between the end of 2016 and early 2017. They felt chuffed when they hit 200,000 trees planted—Mamaearth plants a sapling with every order, on behalf of the customer, sharing the name and geolocation of the tree. “When we recycled double the amount of plastic we were using, we celebrated,” she says, smiling.

It’s mid-morning when Alagh, 32, gets on the Zoom call from her Gurugram, Haryana, home. Dressed in a printed top, she had considered bringing her newborn, Ayaan, on the call because he was under the weather; she didn’t need to ultimately. “Women shy away because (they think) it does not look professional. But you are sending a message—this call is important and so are both my babies (Ayaan and Mamaearth). I don’t feel any of this mom guilt…”

Alagh grew up in Chandigarh, part of a joint family that ran businesses while multiple cousins ran around the house. Even though the family rallied in every crisis, her mother taught her to make her own choices and be financially independent.

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A studious teenager fond of painting, she “disappointed” her parents somewhat when she opted for a bachelor’s degree in computer applications, while doing a course at the National Institute of Information Technology. They would have preferred her to take the competitive exams, the norm among bright students. The Chandigarh-based tech institute offered her a job as a corporate trainer, an opportunity to convince and train old-school firms in computer use. More importantly, it helped her make enough money for evenings out with friends.

In 2011, she got married and headed for the Philippines, taking a break from work and focusing on her painting. Varun, who worked with Hindustan Unilever, surprised her by applying—on her behalf—to the New York Academy of Art, where she trained for eight months in figurative art.

In New York, she witnessed the movement to take some skin brands off the shelves because they contained cancer-causing ingredients. So when Agastya was born in India, the anxious first-time parent started experimenting to come up with products based on home remedies.

Varun and she spoke to manufacturers making products for smaller brands—but made no headway because there was “no business or vision, there was nothing at all” except that the couple, no experts in science, wanted to create safe products for babies using the best natural ingredients. One vendor finally agreed, allowing the couple to work in his laboratories and experiment with lotions. By the time Mamaearth launched, they knew how to make lotions and shampoos themselves.

They put in roughly 40 lakh from their savings, raised a round from friends and family and worked with partners who had the facilities to research or manufacture. One, in Parwanoo, Himachal Pradesh, is still with them. The hard work paid off and Mamaearth began with a six-product launch in Greater Kailash, Delhi. The response was positive but one question kept dogging them, then and later: Other baby brands have been there for years, why should we trust you? This is when Mamaearth decided to reach out to the US-based non-profit, which certifies non-toxic products.

Their process is rigorous. They track ingredients that are trending and have built an R&D team to create and test formulations—timing the launch. Not only do they do multiple rounds of consumer testing before closing an idea, they also do blind tests, sending samples to consumers, and conduct consumer studies to test concepts, even for packaging.

Today, they have about 200 personal care products across categories, for adults, skin, hair, etc. Their mosquito repellent, a sunscreen lotion for babies and a diaper rash cream, part of the initial group of products, remain best-sellers.

Initially, Alagh worked during the day with people in India and at night with those in the US, surviving the first four months on just a few hours of sleep. “I was figuring a business along with baby, because, well, babies don’t come with a manual,” she says. “Agastya was the first to try all of those products,” she adds, grinning. “We believed that if it would suit him, it would suit 90% of the children. Till today, any product we launch, I am the one who uses it for 30-45 days. No product gets launched unless Varun or I or the babies have used it. This is apart from all the testing we do.”

The first six months, there was no office. Then six people started working out of a basement, their first office, as big as Alagh’s kitchen now. Today, their corporate office in Gurugram seats more than 200 people; their team is 500-strong. Alagh works on the content, influencers, community, innovation. Varun, chief dad, focuses more on sales and marketing.

Mamaearth services almost the entire country—online and through roughly 45,000 multi-product outlets—and is now working on setting up an exclusive store. Currently, 60% of their sales are online and 40% offline. As they scale, they expect it to be 50-50. This time, she says, the vision is clear.

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“What is interesting about Mamaearth is they are going after this massive $20 billion FMCG (consumer goods) industry, which till now has been traditional, incumbents-driven, and nobody has really taken a tech-first approach,” says Sequoia India managing director Ishaan Mittal on email. “Another thing that stood out for us was their incredibly strong and inspiring brand purpose. Everything that Mamaearth does as a company, as an organisation, as a brand, is driven by their purpose, goodness inside.”

“She has used technology as the fuel that enables their product engine to run at 10x capacity and speed, both for new product launches as well as their existing product innovations. This has enabled Mamaearth to always stay at the top of the curve,” he adds. “One lesson I learnt,” notes Alagh, “was that when you give your 100%, or when you think you have something to prove, you take it so seriously that if I was not working towards it, I could not sleep at night. If you are passionate about doing something, you figure your way around it.”

Since Mamaearth works with social medial influencers to spread the word, it gets both positive and negative responses. “We chose influencers who have a strong community and aligned with our values,” she says. “If it is constructive feedback that can help me get better, I take it and work on it. If they are trolls, then the only thing one can do is to ignore it.”

She admits there are clear challenges to working with a spouse. “It’s not as easy but it’s better than working with anyone else. The benefit here is you know the other person so well. There were doubts early on—people were shying away from funding us because we were married and the common question used to be, what will happen if you separate? I would be like, business toh start karne do, divorce toh mat karao (Let us start the business first, don’t get us divorced),” she says, laughing.

When she finds the time, she heads to the basement, and paints. “No matter how sad or stressed I am. The time when I am painting, I am not thinking of anything else. I can paint for 24 hours without eating/ drinking,” she says animatedly.

Her art is abstract, paint squeezed directly from the tube on to a canvas with knives and rollers. “Even I can’t copy my art,” she says, because it’s 25-30 layers of paint over each other. “When you touch them, you can feel the textures coming to life. All my paintings will have some form of animal life and are created as per my emotions. When I start, I don’t know what it will look like in the end—it evolves.”

Alagh, who took part in the first season of reality TV show Shark Tank India as a potential investor, has a clear idea of how they manage a business with two children. She uses a calendar not just for professional engagements but weekend activities too. Her advice to every young mother: Don’t shy away from asking for help. “That’s a sign of strength, not weakness. It means you don’t want to give up, that you want to make it work.... We think we are supposed to take care of everything. That does not happen. You can’t do everything, so have people who can support you.”

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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