Arkish Jewels

A whiff of India

Shrankhla Holecek has concocted a homegrown brand with a lineup of face, body and hair oils that aims to familiarise everyone with the science of Ayurveda. 

 

Your family-owned estate has been supplying carrier oils to global brands for decades. Did you visit it often?

Yes and ironically often against my wishes. I was of an opinion that farming was uncool. Today, I absolutely adore being back there talking many of our teammates’ ears off. But, the romanticism people often associate with farms, thanks to Indian films, is far from reality. I mean we are using cow dung to fertilise. That said, it has its own charm.

 

The kind of childhood we have really shapes our youth. Isn’t it?

Yes, that’s true. All through my journey from Chhatisgarh to Beverly Hills, where I stay now, I was greatly influenced by my businessman father and professor mother. But, the impact that my aunt had on me has really shaped my outlook towards life. I stayed with her since the age of five until I went to study at Welham Girls’ School in Dehradun. The love and respect I have for her can be measured with the fact that my brand, Uma Oils, is named after her. Her influence only grew with time. Even as I shifted to the US after finishing my engineering at BITS, Pilani — exactly ten years ago — to start business school at UCLA Anderson, she stood as a constant source of inspiration to me. Her selflessness (she never married to take care of her younger siblings), effortless beauty (gosh, did she look radiant even at 60), and elegance made her stand apart. Even when she is not around me, she inspires me to live with those values. It is also what I would like to see her eponymous brand create and stand for.

 

What triggered the thought of having your own line?

We were supplying essential oils to brands like Estée Lauder and Tom Ford, it was only after I moved to the US that the thought struck me. Many Indian traditions such as Ayurveda were being misunderstood, almost bastardised by pandering to the fringe elements that seemed to have just some shock value. Everything seemed shrouded in mysticism, as opposed to the highly scientific and proven system of medicine that Ayurveda is. This general lack of understanding often gives it a bad rap among those who seek an educated perspective on how it works.

 

On top of it, a plethora of low quality and diluted essential oil products have inundated the market. Customers are paying high premium for it. Having grown up in a family that has farmed and manufactured essential oils for generations, I knew I had to do something. Starting my own line was the next logical step.

 

Is there any difference between being a supplier and creating your own brand?

A lot! We have never formulated for anybody, only produced raw materials. And as you would understand, when it comes to natural products, efficacy and impact is all about formula. It is about understanding how five per cent neroli behaves differently when combined with five per cent sandalwood than with five per cent frankincense. It is about having a deep understanding of why a calming essential oil such as jasmine can also have energising properties (by relieving stress, which consumes a lot of nervous energy that we can unlock). It is about knowing precisely which carrier oil works better for anti-ageing and which for acne-prone skin. We have a very deep and nuanced understanding of these topics, which lends itself to potent, time-tested formulas with results that surprise and sustain.

 

It can’t be all that easy as you make it sound like.

I have to tell myself this every morning: if it was easy, everyone would be doing it, right? Starting a beauty and wellness company in a highly inundated space is an overarching challenge. How do you stand out when all the stories seem to be blending together, and when everyone stretches their truth just a little? For me it has always been about getting the products in the hands of as many people as I can, because they tell their own stories the best.

 

What do you grow on your farms?

A lot of cypriol, vetiver and lemongrass as we still supply a lot of those oils. And then there are fun stuff like rose and jasmine. While a majority of our crops grow in Central India, we also do a little more farming in northern and southern parts of India depending on terrain and weather. Our team has over 100 people across farming and the distillation units —most of them women — know these plants as well as the back of their hands and nurse them like their own children. Our manufacturing unit is in a rural area, 50 kilometres off Raipur,  Chattisgarh. Over the years, we have built a community of workers that feel like family. We also have several distillation and fractional units, where essential oil extraction is carried out. My uber-talented, all-woman team in the US is dedicated to marketing and public relations.

 

Are you a part of these processes?

These days I am back at home more often than I was when I lived in India, about five to seven times a year. I implicitly trust my team on production as they have done it for decades. I am there to be a part of the creative process, as well as to collaborate on new ideas, share feedback that we receive from customers and retail partners. It keeps the team excited.

Plus, how can I pass up the chance to be with family so often?

 

You have an impressive lineup of products.

We began with a set of nine oils — five for face and four for wellness — and today we have an extensive lineup that integrate Ayurvedic principles. We will never have hundreds of SKUs. We will introduce products that we have the rare expertise, and perhaps unilateral access to raw materials in. If a great competing product already exists out there, why waste your own and people’s time with something similar?

 

A natural extension was the introduction of masks. We use sandalwood powder and saffron threads as a base. We power pack the nutrients into smaller quantities to multiply the effects. We all know turmeric is great for skin, but that its essential oil has tenfold benefit in nearly a fifth of the volume is a revelation. Beauty is authenticity and simplicity. Keep your beauty rituals (and your life and thoughts) uncomplicated.

 

All of Uma Oils products are handcrafted, is it?

Always! It is handcrafted in small batches, with extreme care taken to formulate and package it right. Luxury, in my opinion, can’t be about slapping a fancy label on something to create the perception of value. It is about investing time and effort to create high quality products.

 

What kind of response you receive?

We have been pleasantly surprised by the appetite of our American and European consumers to understand and appreciate Ayurveda. I feared that it should not seem too esoteric, so I stuck to more well understood — mainstream if you will — marketing. The effusive reaction has allowed us to introduce more nuanced concepts. Take for example our Ultimate Brightening Powder Cleanser that we Indians have grown up with in form of ubatan. The idea of a dry, powder cleanser with Ayurvedic ingredients such as ashwagandha, dried orange peel and oats, would have made me nervous a year ago. Not any more.

 

A very loyal customer is getting married, and her wedding planner has our number on speed dial. She has planned all gifts around our products, so that guests take home a bit of Uma with them. She also had her fiancée buy her products worth a lifetime. At a recent retailer event, a customer drove over 50 miles in rain to thank me in person for the wellness oils completely transformed her life. Moments like these give us the steam to go that extra, nay, those ten extra, miles.

 

Even celebrities swear by your products. What sets Uma Oils apart?

So we have been told. I wish there was a way to share a drop of Uma with everybody reading this, because it is impossible to articulate just how transformational people’s first experience with Uma is, be it Hollywood stars or divas around us. People see results quickly and develop their unique rituals. That’s the primary thing that sets us apart. People also appreciate that we are among the world’s only vertically integrated producers of products. I think there’s transparency and authenticity about Uma that touches everyone.

 

Would you like to associate with an Indian actor as a brand ambassador?

Great question! While it would be an honour to work alongside an admirable Indian actor, I haven’t thought it through. My commitments are focussed primarily on building a great product line and a support system in terms of infrastructure, customer service and education base.

 

You seem to refrain from going overboard with your marketing?

We want to grow organically, thoughtfully and without any compromises since the brand’s inception in 2016. It means saying no to outside funding and retail partnerships when our values are not aligned. Building a business has taught me a lot of patience and showed me reserves of endurance that I never thought I had. It has also given me a fair amount of understanding on different perspectives. I am a lot nicer to cold calls than I ever was!

 

I have also come to realise that Uma believers are discerning, but very kind and willing to share it with friends and family. In a way they are marketing and evangelising for us, a great help when you run a company on a shoestring marketing budget.

 

Are Uma Oils available in India too? 

We retail in the US, Europe, Canada, Thailand and Hong Kong through our retail partners. Indian customers can place an order on our website and it takes around three to six days to reach them. We are stringent with our retailer selection and only give products to those that meet our expectations in terms of customer support.

 

What’s on the cards?

Thoughtful expansion into more countries, retail channels and an exclusive

collaboration for home country are in the pipeline. While it would be easy to launch Uma in 200 more stores, but we would run the risk of it being just another skincare brand on the shelves with no glowing testimonial to its credit. I am not worried that it won’t sell. I am worried that consumers may not fully understand or appreciate its results. It means holding back, but I believe it is the right thing to do. I want Uma to be around long after I am gone, just like its ethos was here long before I arrived.

BY Nidhi
Associate Editor

Nidhi Raj Singh is the Associate Editor of L'Officiel India. You can find her hidden behind a book, when she is not writing or taking photos.