In this, the first, of our series on young, exciting women achievers from Kashmir, Global Order's Akasha Usmani speaks to Malika Shah, the founder MaSha by Malika of one of Kashmir's most exciting skincare and beauty start-ups based on heirloom treatments and recipes. This is part of our work in highlighting stories of change from Kashmir, once one of the world's most troubled hotspots with raging separatist movement, but which this year has seen more than 16 million tourists, the highest in 75 years.
Malika Shah trained as a lawyer but followed her heart to start a skincare and beauty start-up in Kashmir.
Akasha Usmani (AU): Can you start by telling us your journey, tell us a bit yourself and how you came up with the Idea to start a cosmetics start-up from Kashmir, MaSha by Malika?
Malika Shah (MS): Sure. So I am a law graduate by profession. I did my graduation in law from the University of Kashmir then I did a course called ‘Young India Fellowship’ from Ashoka University and after that I also completed my masters and I was given this Chevening scholarship, which is a fully funded scholarship given by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office to pursue a fully-funded masters program in any field of your interest in any college that you like in the UK (United Kingdom), so that is what my educational background has been. I studied law at UCL (University College London).
After I came back from London, I was very academically oriented all my life but I was very interested in recreating all my traditional, grandmothers and heirloom recipes that have been flowing from generation to generation in the family so that is what I was interested in and I suddenly happen to create a few formulations and i posted it on the group on Facebook and this was just a hobby, I never thought that it would get the response that it did eventually but people started liking it, they started re-ordering that's why I thought maybe this could be turned from a passion into business and that is when I started ‘Masha’
AU: How did you build your customer base?
MS: With the customer base I reached out to few people on social media, I had posted on a Facebook group which already had quite a few customers, it was primarily Kashmiri women, the platform is called 'Yakjut' and that is where I posted this and that's how I got response and then ultimately it spread through word of mouth and there were different media channels that covered my story so people all over India also got to know of it and that is primarily how we are marketing Masha, it's mostly word of mouth.
AU: Were there any challenges you came across?
MS: Most certainly, yes we did, like I said I was very academically-oriented and from a legal background so I do not had much information on how to run a business, this is something that I have been doing very intuitively and this is something that whatever comes to me and whatever I feel is right I do that in the business but the business acumen is something I did not have and also initially I did not see any support from the state because I was running from pillar to post looking for mentorship, looking for institutes most of which were defunct in Kashmir already, so there wasn't much support, no mentorship, no direction so I had to struggle on a lot of fronts on my own and see how I could manage things, what is it that I could do with the limited resources that I had. Secondly there was also not, it is a completely bootstrap business so I started this, continued to do so out of my own savings and what I was earning out of business, there was no funding, nothing so that was a major challenge.
When I started it, I started in sometime in 2019 and there was internet shutdown and there was Covid and I didnt have a physical store so it was mostly online so the internet shutdown also impacted me a lot and then because of Covid also, there was a lot of turmoil so in terms of stability, right from the period I started it was quite turbulent so that was also a challenge that I faced.
AU: Did the conflict in Kashmir deter your work in any sense?
MS: So yeah, like I said, the internet shutdown really impacted my work because this is an online business so if there is an internet shutdown, there is practically nothing I can do because I don't have a physical store so yes.
AU: As a professional lawyer, how did you decide to change your profession and what was your family’s reaction to it?
MS: My family has always been supportive of it, they don’t really ask me to do this or that, they let me do whatever I think is right and I really feel that If I want to get back to law, I can do that it's just that this is something that I have found was interesting because I am creative and I thought this gave me an opportunity to create things and looking at people’s feedback, they want me to make more products and that is what keeps me going so I really don’t see it as change of profession but I see it as a, as something where I follow my passion. I still teach law though, I do teach law and that continues to be a part of who I am and what I have studied but this is also something that I really keenly follow and not only as a passion but also as a business.
AU: That's amazing! What is your vision for the future of your brand?
MS: The formulations that we have currently we very keenly focus on ethical forcing and organic natural products because we don’t realize a lot of what we put in the face on our body it finds a way into the body and into the system and the way it affects us in terms of different diseases this is something that we might not have even thought of. With PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome], hormonal imbalances - all the diseases that we have - one or the other can be linked to the cosmetic products that we use so we want to get back to what was traditional, what was easily available and what is natural because I genuinely feel that nature has a cure for every disease. We are trying to get back to our roots and trying to get the most of our nature’s bounty and my vision for the future is to provide clean beauty to everybody and I really want Masha to be not only an Indian well-known brand but an International brand where I look at exporting my products to people all across the globe. That is my vision for the future.
AU: How do you think your work will inspire the budding women entrepreneurs from Kashmir?
MS: I will be very modest here but I really think my entire journey not only entrepreneurial but otherwise also I was probably one of the first few people especially from the legal background who got chevening scholarship so that, because I was probably the first from Kashmir University in my department, it paved a way for a lot of other young, not only female colleague or female candidates but also other male candidates also to look for what chevening scholarship is, to apply for it and after that I have seen there has been a huge increase in the number of people who has been selected from Kashmir into Chevening scholarship which is a very prestigious scholarship, so it's just like Fulbright [scholarship programme] in the US, this is for the UK and very difficult to get into so I think in my own modest ways I have been able to influence and motivate a few people. Even my own batchmates and school mates, they say that we really thought that when you could do it, we should also give it a try so that is one thing.
When I talk about natural skincare, this industry was not this huge in Kashmir, In Kashmir later other brands came up but this wasn't the case when I started it so I think one way or the other people have probably accepted what I have done and they have been - I wouldn't say inspire but probably they liked this field and thought of giving it a try so whether entrepreneurial or academic I have really seen that I have been, God has been kind to me, to allow me that people could actually that I could give guidance or support to people
AU: How did you build your brand, what did you think of and how does this work?
MS: Initially it was only heirloom recipes that my grandmother and grandparents and their grandparents had been using it for a very long time so I recreated it into commercial formulation but then we also had a person who is an MSc in medicinal plants and we created some formulations based on the skin concerns or the hair concerns that people generally have so that is how it started and we keenly focus on sourcing our product because we believe as long as raw material is good the ultimate product will be really good. We also work very closely with the local farmers so the procurement process does not involve middlemen but we work closely with farmers so we can also provide fair wages to them and we also employ some Kashmiri local women in the entire packaging production and logistic process so we also feel that's our way of giving back to the society where we create a change and employment chain for people, howsoever small it may be but thats our small effort into creating a sustainable business.
A model holding a MaSha by Malika product.
AU: Do you have any message for the people who will be reading this interview?
MS: My only message would be to follow your passion however late or early it is, I think one should never just be academically oriented, one should definitely be intellectual but that shouldn't be a means to an end, it should be a means in itself and then you can follow whatever you are passionate about, it doesn't have to be what you have studied, it can be anything you are passionate about so education is a completely different arena we shouldn't take education as a means to an end.
AU: Yes, thank you so much for doing this interview with us. It was lovely talking to you. Thank you
MS: Same here, thank you!