The rise of the ‘conscious consumer’ has led to multiple homegrown Ayurvedic brands mushrooming in the personal care space in India in the last decade.
For Neena Chopra, Co-founder of Chandigarh-based Just Herbs, it was her passion for studying Ayurvedic texts that led her to launching what is today one of the topmost wellness brands in the country.
One among the pioneers of the Ayurvedic personal care industry in the country, Neena Chopra’s journey with Just Herbs began in the early 2000s. A biochemist by education, she had experimented with herbs, plants, and flowers for developing cures for common skin and hair care problems. The concoctions tuned out to be a hit among friends and family, setting the wheels in motion for Just Herbs. Today the all-natural Ayurvedic beauty brand has amassed a cult following with its PETA-certified products that include natural makeup items.
An innate interest in ancient medicine
Despite having bagged multiple gold medals during her university days as a student of biochemistry, Neena Chopra did not pursue it as a career. Talking to MAKERS India, she recollects, “I finished my M.Sc in biochemistry in 1982 and got married soon after. I had always been interested in ancient Indian medicinal systems such as Ayurveda, Unani, and Naturopathy. Thanks to my educational background, I could scientifically equate why certain herbs, plants, and flowers when mixed in certain proportions led to a particular result.”
But she founded APCOS Naturals (the parent company of Just Herbs), an Ayurvedic company which has been certified by the Ministry of Ayush, only in 2002 after her son and daughter were grown up.
Neena quit her bank job (after her children were grown up) and delved into the world of Ayurvedic texts. She says, “In 2003-2004 I started making my first formulations - a few basic ubtans, a lotion, and some creams at our family-owned garden lab in Mohali. This was a time when there was little knowledge about ‘organic’ and ‘natural,’ and there was no real market for Ayurvedic products in India. It was not really a business so to speak, but more of a labour of love. I’d say, it was little more than a hobby and the products had very limited reach. The idea was to keep me busy with my passion! Friends and relatives started using them and they were sold on the efficacy of my formulas.”
Although Just Herbs was officially launched in 2010, Neena’s hobby only took the shape of a proper business when her son Arush Chopra and his wife Megha Sabhlok quit their cushy jobs in Singapore and moved to India to scale up the business in 2013. Arush and Megha, both Co-founders at Just Herbs, has a background in finance and marketing respectively.
Neena says, “On returning to India, both of them saw the value in the basic products I had created and said they wanted to take them to a wider market and make a brand out of it. They started looking after the marketing and operations and also steered the direction of our product development, giving me ideas around what products needed to be developed as per evolving customer needs.”
Unsurprisingly, given that the company’s ascent to success is quoted as an example of women empowerment, about 80% of the total staff at Just Herbs is women. Neena says, “Our finance and accounting department, for example, is completely female while the pool of factory workers too is female-heavy. We have mostly employed women from Punjab and Himachal from underprivileged backgrounds.”
According to Neena, finding the right formulations that can effectively address a particular concern was a herculean task. She says, “Developing results-driven beauty formulas while following the exacting principles of Ayurveda is always an challenge in the Research and Development (R&D) department. Finding the right plant-based ingredients that can replace commonly-used synthetic ingredients is a challenging and time-consuming process.”
To ensure quality control, Neena oversees the R&D team and the product development division. Arush has taken over the role of CEO and Megha has been responsible for transforming the family business into an established player in the Ayurvedic personal care market. The brand sources raw materials from farming cooperatives that hold organic certifications and from herb collectors who procure herbs directly from forests.
Neena says, “With Ayurveda becoming a buzzword today, there is a need to intensify research trials. With the government’s support, I am sure Ayurvedic research trials will find greater space in scientific journals.”
Ironically, the purity of the products and the absence of chemical and artificial ingredients created a new challenge. Megha says, “Products made of plant-based ingredients may not smell very good and it takes time for people to get used to it. We only use certified safe synthetics when natural ingredients are not available.”
According to Megha, educating customers is a gradual process. “Lots of consumers still want their shampoo or face wash to foam a lot, or their conditioners to give that silicone –induced silkiness on the first wash. It is a challenge to educate them that harsh surfactants can be potentially harmful and that silicones have zero nutritive value.”
The economic upheaval spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a severe blow to businesses across the country, and Just Herbs was no exception. Neena narrates, “Our supply chain was disrupted and we faced a shortage of ingredients. There was also a hike in the prices of certain raw materials. Luckily, a lot of our factory workers live close-by and some of them could start coming to work while maintaining social distancing.”
Just Herbs’ recent virtual launch of a range of Ayurvedic lipsticks is the brand’s third crowdsourced launch wherein consumer and expert feedback from across the country was factored in the product development process.
That the brand could successfully launch a new product during an unprecedented economic crisis speaks volumes about the prowess of women leaders.
(Edited by Athira Nair)