There is serious history, 800 years of it, behind Uma’s essential oil-based beauty and wellness products. And it’s one steeped in family lore, Uma founder Shrankhla Holecek’s ancestors were the Ayurvedic practitioners to India’s royal family. Today the family’s 100-acre farm in India supplies the highest grade essential oils to companies like Estee Lauder and Tom Ford. (Their rose oil is so precious its cost almost rivals that of gold.) But Shrankhla had zero intention of going into the family business. That is until she moved to California, where everyone’s focus on wellness and organic beauty convinced her that maybe what her family did had value. Since launching Uma less than two years ago, the brand has grown like wildfire and is now available everywhere from Net-a-Porter to Bergdorf Goodman. Shrankhla is quick to point out that it is a testament to the product. When you meet Shrankhla, you realize she is leaving out a key factor, herself. Her belief in Uma and how it can positively effect both your beauty and wellness is infectious. (And for those who think essential oils are more feel good products than ones with potent efficacy, I suggest you try them.) Once you read Shrankhla’s story, perhaps you’ll become an Uma convert too.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you founded Uma? I went to boarding school very young and frankly wanted nothing to do with my family. They were rural. They were not cool. Everyone in boarding school seemed to come from cooler parents. After, I went to college for engineering. Then I moved to L.A. for business school and I did consulting work for McKinsey for five, six years. I did not want anything to do with the family business. My sister still doesn’t want to do anything with my parents’ business. That being said, spending time in California there is such an obsession with a) Organic, b) A real need to know what you’re putting on and in you and c) Transparency. A distinction of our company is that it’s more like wine making, like a great wine house in France where it’s been in the family for generations. We have these oils in the family that I didn’t create, or my mom, or my grand mom. They were created 800 years ago by my family. They’ve been tested by thousands of people. And they really have withstood the test of time across skin types, skin conditions, et cetera. That was the thinking behind Uma. And that’s how the company came up.
What was the hardest thing about starting out? What was easiest? For the easy part, we’ve been well supported by people. I feel like the truth and the authenticity of Uma has resonated with the people whom I consider true seasoned experts. People who actually have influence on a market that buys Uma products. It has touched a deep chord and created an evangelist pool that no amount of money could ever buy.
What’s been very hard is finding people to build the team. Uma has a compelling value proposition so we get a lot of interest. I hire only women, even our farms are over 50% women, and our teams are in the United States and elsewhere are exclusively women. But it’s been a little bit tricky for me to find independent ownership in a lot of people I have hired recently. And I think all entrepreneurs say this, the hardest part of building a top business is finding the right people. That’s an area where we have struggled. And second, the space is cluttered. Everyone seems to be saying the same thing.
How do Uma oils stand out? It’s in the minutiae. The authentic Ayurvedic and organic components, all wrapped in a beautiful, gorgeous, sophisticated brand. And the wellness aspect of it. The fact that it’s 100% organic, composed of truly precious, differentiated, expensive ingredients. When you buy a $150-$175 oil from Uma, you are getting what you paid for. You quickly realize realize this when you look at the ingredient list. And the third thing is the idea that your wellness and your beauty are two sides of the same coin wrapped in a package that addresses both. Every time you use any Uma oil you will feel a sense of wellness, balance, and connection with your body and your environment descend upon you whether you like it or not.
It’s the way the products are formulated and the way the aromas capture and draw you in. It’s a critical next step to being truly beautiful. That in my mind is going to be the next frontier of beauty, when they start being addressed together. Uma is very ahead with the bar in that it forces you to have that deeper connection with yourself on a daily basis. Because women will continue to use beauty products every day, but then sometimes they might ignore their meditation. They may sometimes ignore their workout. I believe that Uma has an architected mechanism within itself to bring wellness to your daily life that only builds upon itself.
What are your best sellers? The anti-aging line. Our anti-aging face oil, body oil, and eye oil do extremely well. They are our hero products.
What’s next? We try to build and introduce products only if we believe that the product that comes out is going to be the best in the category. Uma’s never been about trying to introduce me-too products and trying to push it to the market based on marketing. The two or three things that we’re going to align ourselves with are more oils. So we’ve got a lip oil and an organic fragrance oil coming out.
A lip oil? Are there lip oils? Not many. The key thing about this lip oil is it will restore of your mouth to the point that you will find yourself skipping lipstick because your lips will feel so plush with natural color, healthy and hydrated. So you can be your most beautiful self with minimal makeup. That’s sort of the Uma philosophy: Give you the greatest skin, give you the greatest body, give you the greatest lips.
There will be an organic perfume oil. Something that is a little bit more than a fragrance. It’s a reminder of a daily intention you might have set and to boost your confidence up and create feeling of sensuality that carries you through the day.
We’re also building out a wellness category. The wellness oils have done very well and it’s time to introduce wellness into the home. Again, it is the concept that maybe it’s just a minute that you take when you walk into the door and are reminded because you have an incense going. The idea is to bring wellness more into your alignment so that it’s a trigger of what’s really important more often than just when you walk into a mediation class. We are launching incense in three weeks as well as a candle that will come out in November. Next year we’ll explore more wellness products.
What motivates you? Every day I try to explore if I’ve done the best job I can. Am I trying to do the best I can in terms of fulfillment? It’s not always easy to be able to do that. Days pass when you feel like you’ve accomplished nothing. But in the macro scheme will I be able to look back at my life and say, “You know, I did the best I could”?
On a daily motivation basis, it’s cool to see people love Uma. It gives you a little kick every day. Because entrepreneurship is hard. It’s very hard. It’s a lot of coach flights and managing people and having things go wrong. And it’s those little things–when someone says, “This product changed my life. Thank you,” that’ll get you through a really hard day.
What has been your biggest success so far? I believe that even though we launched more as a beauty product, Uma has built and been a leader in the wellness category. And we’ve found alliances that have helped us like Goop, and Well and Good. To see wellness expanding as it has and give us the credence and credibility that it has is an area of personal pride and success. In terms of the business, I feel like breaking into some of the retailers—Net-a-Porter is doing very well with Uma. Space NK–every one of the stores loves us. Seeing the distribution channel build up has been very rewarding.
What has been a failure and how did you deal with it? We’re still dealing with it. I think it’s a combination of depending on others for operations and the delays that come with it. People under-deliver. I don’t know if they’re deliberately doing it, but when they do then you sometimes cannot keep up your end of commitments. All our oils get harvested in India and then brought here. There are things you can’t control like breakage because DHL will throw a box at your door. Or customs delays that last weeks because someone forgot about a package sitting in the back.
And personally, I feel like I take too much time making decisions. That’s held me back in the business. I’m the kind of person that wants to know a lot before making a decision. I don’t think that’s right for entrepreneurs. I think that’s an area of personal learning for me that I need to move past. I can’t have all the information and the weight of the world where I feel like, “Oh my God. This is Uma. It’s 800 years behind me.” I should just trust that I’m not going to make any life-changing decisions.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: I hold McKinsey very responsible for this, that no matter how hard or difficult or uncharted a problem looks, I say, “I’ll figure it out.” I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ll figure it out. I’ll problem solve it. I will reach out to people. I will do whatever it takes. Sometimes I’m up many, many hours. That’s something that I feel as an attitude, I try to coach other people and my team about and say ‘You know, you’ll figure it out.’
Life goals: It’s not tied to a precise achievement but I’d love to live the fullest life I can, one where I build value, perspectives, and relationships of value, have meaningful experiences, travel, eat well and read a lot.
Daily goals: Running a young business has been more “fragmenting” than I could have ever imagined, so I’ve had to scale back meeting a “daily” aspiration but I try to hit some achievable benchmarks every day. I do try to do a short work out, do at least one thing that I believe will have a big impact on my business (essentially something that is outside the status quo of team meetings and email), sleep at least six hours, try to enjoy at least one culinary delight (a great glass of wine, a wonderful veggie burger, a flavorful salad) and see my husband for dinner (I’m on the road a lot so when in Los Angeles, this is important for me).
Favorite inspirational/motivational read: I almost exclusively read fiction. I’ve always found Tolkien’s writing riveting and inspirational. (Indeed, not all who wander are lost).
Favorite sites/people you follow: www.theatlantic.com/ and theonion.com
Daily rituals: I start my day with scraping my tongue after brushing and rinsing my eyes with cool water. The first thing I drink is a cup of warm lemon water. As often as I can, I practice oil pulling (I do it while I’m showering, so it saves me time)–using sesame or coconut oil (and remembering not to spit the oil into the drain!). Finally, I dry-brush, starting with the back of my legs and going all the way to my back, for about 5-7 minutes before showering. There’s simply no better way to cleanse your lymphatic system (and fight cellulite).
I do try to meditate a little in the day when I can, and take another break to work out. I nearly always take a working lunch and watch a bit of mindless television before sleeping. Dinner is my favorite meal and I pretty much look forward to it all day.
How do you unplug: I’ve recently started practicing Transcendental meditation and have found it quite a powerful way to find balance and calm. Plus, there’s always red wine.
Hidden talent/hobby: I’m not very broad shouldered and don’t look too athletic, so people are usually very surprised to learn that I swam competitively through high school and college. I even hold a long-standing record for back-stroke at my school. It’s a talent I have quite successfully managed to hide through years of not keeping it up and eating way more desserts than any self-respecting (former) athlete would.
Favorite charity: I’ve always been a fan of the Make a Wish Foundation, and recently joined their board. It’s a great cause and I feel very honored to be able to contribute more meaningfully via my new position.
Do you collect anything? Fridge magnets from places we travel to.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: For our fifth year anniversary last year, my husband and I took a vacation to Australia. We were pressed for time, and I didn’t want to leave without experiencing an island called Bedarra in the Great Barrier Reef that I had heard the most spectacular things about. However, given the timing, it was quite an expensive decision to make. Looking back, I’d not trade that memory for the greatest material possession I could buy.
Favorite small indulgence: I loved mangoes growing up. I eat them sparingly now given their sugary nature, but I’m that happy carefree school girl every time I put one in my mouth.
Album currently on repeat: Since May, I find myself listening to a lot of Chris Cornell songs and Calvin Harris’ new album.
Scent that brings back memories: Sandalwood takes me back to my first introduction to beauty rituals and starting to embrace the joys of being a girl and the indulgences that come with it.
Lucky charm: My relatively new-to-the-family 12-year old dog.
Favorite hour of the day: For someone who really likes sleeping in, I ironically love 8 am. Something about the ritual of coffee and the excitement of taking on another day, the mild sun and the quiet before the team walks into the office gives me inexplicable happiness.
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