Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

I believe in a certain inevitability about life; if something isn't meant to be, you can only push it to a point: Mira Kulkarni

The Forest Essentials founder talks about what it takes to build a credible and iconic luxury Ayurvedic beauty brand from the ground up and its foray into global markets

Neha Bothra
Published: Jun 28, 2024 02:20:47 PM IST
Updated: Jun 28, 2024 02:50:49 PM IST

Mira Kulkarni, Founder and chairperson, Forest Essentials  Image: Madhu Kapparath   Mira Kulkarni, Founder and chairperson, Forest Essentials  Image: Madhu Kapparath 

In a rare interview, Forest Essentials' founder and chairperson Mira Kulkarni, a pioneer in luxury Ayurveda, talks about how she converted her passion for crafting pure Ayurvedic skincare and haircare products into an iconic $1 billion global beauty company.

Kulkarni shares how her 'extreme fixation with quality' helped her carve a strong niche in India's rapidly growing beauty and personal care industry. "Going global and making an Indian brand comparable in its category to any of the best brands in the world is the next goal," Kulkarni says as she explains Forest Essentials' growth strategy in a free-wheeling chat on Pathbreakers.

With the emergence of VC-backed new-age beauty companies, the entrepreneur discusses what it takes to build a credible ‘Made in India’ brand—that stands out from the clutter—in times of unsustainable beauty fads, steep discounts, and copycats. Edited excerpts:

Clutter in the D2C segment: ‘They all look like clones of each other’

I don't look at competition myself because it has never bothered me. But when we're at work and everyone says that it's ridiculous that we bring out something and immediately there's somebody who has exactly the same thing. Whatever we have as content or whatever (ingredients) we put, suddenly there are 27 other brands who're saying the same thing. I'm amazed to suddenly see these 30,000 brands… where have they come from… and they all look like clones of each other. But one has to take it as an inevitable part of becoming more successful because there's nothing you can do about it. The consumer also has become more discerning which was not the case many years ago. The regulations (on accurate labelling of ingredients used in beauty products) have to be much more stringent.

Innovation with trending ingredients: ‘I personally don't agree much with that’

Well, I personally don't agree so much with that. Something suddenly becomes the focus and it's all over the place and it's funny. Suddenly everyone is talking about ghee, before that it was aloe vera… there’s something new that comes up all the time. But I think they've been around and they've been a part of traditional usage as well. But these fads that come and go are something that is possibly a millennial thing, or I'm not quite sure what it is, but I think it's faddist to a degree. Ultimately, the things that are there are still going to remain. Something may be in focus for a while, but it doesn't sort of cut out everything else.

Contract manufacturing: ‘Would not advocate it’

There's a huge, huge difference in getting it done from a contract manufacturer and a product that is manufactured yourself. Today when you put up a company so quickly, and you give it out to a contract manufacturer, and you put in all the PR… it's not possible… that degree of actually keeping the kind of quality control… it's not possible. So, would I advocate it for us? No, but I don't know. Probably works for other people.

Adopting digital: ‘You do reach a wider audience’

Going online has been a strategy in recent years. So you do reach a wider audience. But it's a fickle audience because they're not really… until they actually sort of experience and understand what they are using… it could be from that point of view… it becomes are you getting a similar product for Rs 500 and are you getting it for more? The whole discounted game comes into play. Which is why it's been something that I personally am not comfortable with. Everyone says to me that that's the way it works online but the consumer at the end of the day is looking for high quality and value. All of us.

Some people have a sale once a year for instance. And it's still great because you're waiting to see when that happens. But a company that offers 70 percent on sale all the time, has eroded the brand completely whether they've made money or not. I'm sure they’re making money, but they've eroded the brand and that's not important for some. So, I think for us, the branding is important and giving a value proposition is important, so there's a line there. Sometimes you have to go with the market and you have to do what you have to do. But I think mindlessly doing it or not is the balancing factor.

Going global: ‘Want to be an Indian brand comparable with the best’

Going global is a large part [of our future roadmap for growth] because I think we are fairly sort of established in the Indian market. We've been lucky enough to start doing it much earlier. We’ve got into tier 2 and tier 3 cities. But going global and making an Indian brand comparable in its category to any of the best brands in the world is the next goal.

Overcoming challenges: ‘Women are much more resilient’

Personally, I think women are much more resilient. When there is a crisis, there are only two ways to deal with it. You either go under or you don't think too much about how difficult it is. You just think that you need to overcome it. When you think you need to overcome it then how you are to overcome it becomes easier. Because it's not thinking, can I overcome it? It's thinking ‘how will I do it?’. It gives you that ability to say, okay, so the sky has fallen, how do you go ahead?

I am basically very spiritual as opposed to being extremely religious. I believe in a certain inevitability about life. I feel if something is supposed to happen, it will happen, and if it's not supposed to happen, then you can only push it to a point. It's not supposed to be there. It is the power of acceptance. Because I'm very fatalistic, I just feel what is meant to be is meant to be.