BeautyTalks with Shrankhla Holecek, UMA Founder and CEO
Tell us about a bit how UMA came to be.
Tempted as I often am to tell others - and even myself - that it had a deeply strategic or intellectual rationale, I think the reality is that I started UMA for deeply personal reasons. After what felt like a tryst quite deliberately executed to get as far away from my family’s roots through moving to Los Angeles, business school, and a consulting career, I think I came full circle in acceptance and appreciation for all that I had grown up with - the unique value of my Ayurvedic heritage, as well as the beauty, complexity and richness of the Indian culture.
In starting UMA, I felt that I could serve as a conduit for a deeper and more authentic understanding of Ayurveda in the West via a platform that demystified its brilliant tenets, but without ever compromising their integrity. There’s clearly a need for wellness wisdom in the world we live in (wherever one may be on the spectrum of integrating it in one’s life, I think most will agree) - and I believed that Ayurveda could offer that in a time-tested way. Importantly, building my own business allowed me to prioritize some of the core values I felt very passionately about - gender-equality and equal pay being one of them. Which is absolutely not to say that I couldn’t have realized these elsewhere, it simply was easier to optimize decision-making for these values in the running of the business every day, especially since we have chosen to remain bootstrapped.
So, I’d be lying if I said it was an epiphany or triggered by a life-changing circumstance. It was gradual, and it started to take shape when my history with essential oils intersected with my present life living in the United States. As I think about it, there were three key drivers.
"Essential oils are powerful substances in arguably a plant’s most concentrated form – we combine our scientific knowledge of their components such as esters or naturally occurring compounds as azulene, with our rich, long study of their behaviors to determine every last percentage of each oil that goes into our blends."
You are a product pioneer. Tell us about the process of developing your oils and the formulation process.
For every formulation we bring to market, we have three key considerations - in the following order of importance: known therapeutic value and results, how it works within the body (such as its absorption quotient, longer-lasting effects), and the experiential value, such as the aroma. I realize that the last can seem superficial, but we didn’t want to create a great product that isn’t as great of an aromatic luxury.
We believe that a truly potent blend is much, much more than the sum of its (independently great!) parts and that’s where I believe that our generational expertise comes in. Knowing what oils, and in what proportion, would extend the performance and efficacy of another is as much art as it is science. Sandalwood, for instance, enhances the active lifespan and staying power of other essential oils – and is also wonderfully sublime in its aroma, blending in beautifully with some of the richer notes such as that of Rose. Another reason we blend with such pristine attention to percentages is to minimize the risk of sensitivity to any one essential oil. Essential oils are powerful substances in arguably a plant’s most concentrated form – we combine our scientific knowledge of their components such as esters or naturally occurring compounds as azulene, with our rich, long study of their behaviors to determine every last percentage of each oil that goes into our blends.
Share with us your go-to essential key ingredients and what issues they tackle.
I’ll start with the go-to carrier we use for our Face Oils - Pomegranate oil is a remarkably lightweight and absorbent oil, which allows it to deliver nutrients more rapidly to the subcellular epidermis. Its texture dispels notions of oils as too heavy or thick for facial use – which is a frequently mentioned barrier to entry for women who haven’t used facial oils before. It’s also incredibly rich in nutrients, especially vitamins A, D, K, and E – and a wide range of antioxidants for extra defense from environmental factors and free radicals.
We also love Frankincense because of its cytophylactic properties which is just a big word for aiding cellular turnover and regeneration! Dark spots, lines, rough skin – factors that detract from brightness and cause the appearance of aging – are rapidly repaired when your skin’s natural cellular turnover is restored and boosted. Frankincense does that powerfully – and without drying, sun-sensitivity, or thinning your skin out as retinols can sometimes do. Many know that that is the underlying property of retinols – aiding cellular turnover.
Rose and Geranium are potently anti-inflammatory essential oils, that also have wonderful moisture retention and skin balancing properties. They have an excellent effect on improving overall skin health and in helping repair scars and dark spots. All-round wonderful oils, they are among the best skin-toning agents in our arsenal and that’s why it makes its way into all our facial and many of our wellness oils as well.
"Our brand celebrates the Uma in each of us – our ability to find peace amidst chaos, to balance our complex ambitions with our most fundamental emotions, and to find contentment in the knowledge that everything we need is already within us."
What inspired your brand’s name UMA?
UMA was the name of my dear aunt – a truly remarkable woman, who played an integral role in raising my sister and me. She was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known, inside and out – and I hope to honor her with a brand that celebrates her generous spirit and indomitable sense of self. I never saw her wear make-up, and yet she looked radiant until the day she died.
Our brand celebrates the Uma in each of us – our ability to find peace amidst chaos, to balance our complex ambitions with our most fundamental emotions, and to find contentment in the knowledge that everything we need is already within us. My aunt taught me that true beauty is found in simplicity, integrity and equilibrium – and our brand strives to honor her by ensuring every drop of our oil consists of the same.
What role does social media play in your brand?
We’ve actually stayed purely organic in our go-to-market strategy - so while we do present to traditional press, and partake in speaker opportunities, etc. we’ve never played in traditional influencer marketing. We invest heavily in non-commercial content and try to bring bite-sized consumable wellness knowledge from Ayurveda into as many lives as we can, without a direct emphasis on how it will translate to revenue. It's a very long tail play, but one we believe is right for us, as well as the only way to build a brand that relies on 5000-year wisdom with integrity. Counter-intuitively, we don't over-anchor on social media - because we've believed that the way the current social media is structured is somewhat antithetical to the slow-content approach we're taking, not to mention that when approaching wellness - supporting the idea of instant gratification is a disservice to the thoughtful, time and compliance-oriented commitment to wellness that is necessary to seeing results.
What are your morning rituals?
I’ll go back to pre-Covid times for this one! I typically have a very simplified but efficient morning skincare routine as I’m raring to get to work. I focus on a quick cleanse since I typically do a thorough evening cleanse, my skin doesn’t have a ton of build-up – it’s usually a single cleanse with an UMA cleanser, or often – I’ll even just leave a layer of honey or face mask on my skin on as I step into the shower – and let the steam go to work. I’ll remove it with a warm washcloth and rinse it finally with cold water. If I have an externally focused event for which I need some extra glow – I’ll rub my face with an ice cube after masking! I then use UMA’s Ultimate Brightening Rose Toner, and a homemade Vitamin C serum. I typically fresh batch this every week since Vitamin C disintegrates so easily, and then massage in 4-5 drops of UMA’s Ultimate Brightening Face Oil all over my neck and décolletage. I never skip a 1-minute face massage and sunscreen – but all said and done, this takes me less than six minutes in the morning. If I have a little extra time – I dry brush and give myself a self-massage with our Absolute Anti-Aging body oil.
What has been your favorite part about building this business?
Trite, but I think my favorite part has been the educational aspects of taking it to consumers. I love breaking down the science, talking about Ayurvedic lifestyle habits I grew up with, and also breaking down myths. I think it's important to be extremely honest about both the amazing benefits - as well as the limitations - of what essential oils can and cannot do. I see my job as one to provide as much information as I can and trusting consumers to make decisions on what feels most right for them their lifestyles. A close second is the customer engagement we’ve seen. I actually sit in on a lot of calls, respond to a lot of emails - and am constantly amazed by just how kind, how patient people really have been with us. As a very young start-up, we've had some growing pains - and I'm just constantly amazed by how much grace our customers show us. I often find myself being kinder to people on account of the kindness we get shown every day!
What have been key learning experiences being a D2C business?
Trusting your instinct and embracing your personal leadership style. If you don’t, you’re building someone else’s business – not your own. I’ve realized that there are some things I am not a natural at, or simply don’t like doing, so I try to play to my strengths – and have found that gets me the most return on my effort investment. Yes, there is a balancing act involved – you’ll always need to do a few things you don’t love – but don’t use the entrepreneurial journey to become a better “general manager.” Run with what you clearly shine at and that’s how you’re going to be a breakaway hit.
"I was and continue to be surprised and overcome with gratitude for the incredible support of so many women who’ve been so pivotal to where UMA is today."
As a female founder have you faced distinct challenges or found support in the industry?
I believe entrepreneurs are rewarded for a healthy risk appetite. As a woman, and this maybe just my own perspective, I felt that I embraced a more cautious, slightly more conservative approach to building the business - which can hold you back from some bigger growth opportunities. As I started to realize this, I’ve started to add more leadership within my executive team that balances this trait out - and has enhanced our decision making. A clarifying note though - there are certainly many women leaders who’ve surmounted this mild risk aversion I refer to - and those are the new additions to my team. We’re proud to be an all-women team!
On the flip side - I was and continue to be surprised and overcome with gratitude for the incredible support of so many women who’ve been so pivotal to where UMA is today. I’m so very glad that I knew what I didn’t know early on, and reached out to friends, friends of friends, acquaintances of friends, even complete strangers on Linked In, to help me fill in the blanks! Completely altruistically, this amazing network has made time in their busy schedules and opened up their rolodexes to support another woman founder and while I know I could never thank them enough, I know it has built a great sense for the need to “pay it forward.” I can’t think of a better time to be a woman in business.
Ok, aside from beauty, what are you passionate about?
Travel. Red wine. Classic Fiction.
UMA is a leader in minimizing your carbon footprint, can you share a bit about that?
Ayurveda philosophies dictate all the practices within UMA’s product lifecycle – from our farming methods to the actual formulas in our products. According to Ayurveda, a close relationship exists between human and the universe we exist in – of which nature is a key part and has long been held in a place of reverence. Ayurveda dictates that we give back in equal part what we take from the environment, a mantra we closely follow.
Our essential oil distillery is uniquely self-sustaining and environment-friendly, with its innovative machinery that converts waste product back into reusable fuel. This allows us to operate with minimal dependence on outside energy resources, while leaving behind the smallest of footprints. The water used for the distillation process is cycled back into the farms, while we also take measures to minimize our dependence on artificial irrigation. Furthermore, fragrant remains of flowers and plants left over after the extraction process are converted into incense – a very popular product for home use and celebrations in India.
Pesticides – a relatively recent development – would interfere with the natural balance of a plant’s composition per Ayurveda, and hence we farm organically. We also respect plant seasonality and adhere closely to practices that enrich the earth’s natural fertility –– all in accordance with the belief systems that natural energy thrives when natural functions are least disturbed. The harvesting and processing of our crops, including timing (e.g., never harvesting before ripeness or in the late evenings), all integrate Ayurvedic wisdom, as do the processing of our raw materials into their ingredients (never overheating substances to try and get higher yields, etc.)
Let’s close with your powerful take on how UMA empowers women.
UMA has a long history of providing safe and dignified employment for women and takes great pride in the fact that local women make up over 50% of its workforce. From its inception and as a pioneer for its time, UMA has provided men and women equal pay for equal work. In a country that where gender discrimination is sadly too often the norm, Uma’s progressive stance on gender equality sends a powerful, positive message that past injustice will be tolerated no more. We believe that giving our female employees financial independence through fair pay, enrichment programs, and flexible and supportive employment terms is a necessary contribution toward the broader movement to emancipate women in India.
To support and enrich this vibrant ecosystem, we invest heavily in initiatives that are crucial to ensuring that women in our community are able to come to work while balancing social expectations around their caregiving roles. We run the only Health Clinic in the village (providing free services and medication), free childcare, as well as academic scholarship funding for their children. At UMA, we believe that these initiatives are not only the “right” thing to do but that it is impossible to create the highest quality, locally sourced essential oils without investing in the community that makes it all possible.