The brain behind a INR 920 Crore brand, Ghazal Alagh speaks in soft, measured tones as she shares the saga that led to the birth of her business and the phenomenal success it’s seen in just six years. When you speak with the 34-year-old co-founder of Mamaearth, what comes to the fore is her fierce determination to succeed, hunger to achieve even more and ability to brush aside insensitive remarks and soldier on to reach incredible heights.
In conversation with HELLO!, the charming businesswoman shares snippets of her journey and beliefs around work and motherhood that paved the way.
HELLO!: During the brand’s initial days, a few team members had left because they seemingly weren’t confident about your inexperience at the time. How would you describe those days?
GHAZAL ALAGH: “One thing that massively stands out from back then is self-doubt. I had to fight the feeling for a while. That’s why I say that to build a strong business, you don’t need a professional degree; I didn’t have one either. We tend to take any kind of feedback personally. So when those guys left, I was disturbed for some time and started to question whether it would still make sense for me to be a part of the business. When we got our first funding, hiring experienced people would have been one route. Instead, I chose to challenge myself, give myself time and see where I could take the business. Once our sales picked up, I grew more confident and it made sense to keep at it. Wonderfully, very recently, many of these ex-employees applied for jobs at our firm. They were told they would still have to report to me and are now fine with it.”
H!: Tell us about your background from before your Mamaearth days.
GA: “I was a corporate trainer working with Infosys and NIIT. I didn’t have an MBA from an Ivy League school, which is what most venture capitalists look for. And unlike my husband Varun, I didn’t have any FMCG experience either. So I had to really hard sell myself, and my strategy worked. I still remember my selling point: I’m a mother and would like to know what goes into what I apply on my child. I had talked to several mums about childcare brands before I met the venture capitalists. They were able to relate to this need for clarity when I explained that I wanted to build a brand that didn’t have any toxic ingredients in them. So that’s the story I sold.”
H!: You were motivated to launch a skincare brand after your first son Agastya was born with a skin condition. Could you tell us more about this?
GA: “I was in New York before I gave birth to Agastya in early 2013. At the time, there was this movement where certain products were being taken off the shelves in the US [United States Of America] for containing cancerous ingredients. When you’re a young mother, you don’t want anything harmful around your baby, let alone something associated with the word Cancer. When I delivered my child, that was on my mind. We were such paranoid parents that our doctor called us ‘Google parents’!
Back then, no baby products in India would pass our safety checks because of the toxic chemicals they were made from. It was challenging to chase relatives or order products from overseas. So, after a point, we decided to create a brand to not just resolve this problem but also listen to consumers.
That’s how Mamaearth came into being. We launched in December 2016 with six babycare products. Today, we have more than 300 products across various categories. And the one aspect of our business I’m most proud of is that every employee talks to about 25 to 30 consumers every quarter for feedback.”
H!: You have spoken at length about the guilt that working moms face. How did you overcome this sentiment?
GA: “Fortunately, I’ve had a 180-degree turn from when I first started working. When Agastya was born, my husband and I were raising him and building our business simultaneously. I wish we had a manual back then! Amid critical meetings on funding, reaching out to investors, talking to partners, etc, there were times I had to prioritise work and would be plagued by mom guilt.
But with our second child, it got easier. I recently took our younger son Ayaan, who is eight months old, to the office when I had important meetings to attend. It sent the message that these meetings were important for me to not miss them, and that bringing my baby was a sign of strength, not weakness.
When you’re a new mother, you expect a lot out of yourself in terms of the things you want to do for your child, and sadly, we live in a society where people pass insensitive comments on working mothers. But I’ve made peace with the fact that I can’t strike a perfect balance between motherhood and my career every day, and that’s fine. As long as I can prioritise, that’s good enough.”
H!: How was your experience on Shark Tank India?
GA: “The experience was nice. I was heavily pregnant at the time with many complications. I was on medications and had to get shots twice a day, which made even a regular workday difficult. But when Shark Tank came about, I saw it as a great opportunity. It would have been easy to turn down the offer, but I’ve always talked about how it’s possible for life and work to go hand in hand. I’m so glad I did this as many women wrote to me saying they were inspired to see me on the show seven months pregnant. So it was totally worth it.”
H!: You’ve also mentored other female entrepreneurs...
GA: “I needed a mentor when I started out but couldn’t find one. Today, I try to be a mentor, but I still have only six years of experience. So I simply share my journey, and people can relate to it. I’m also an active angel investor, mostly in companies started by women who need mentors.”
H!: Working with your partner can be fulfilling, but it also has its downsides. Your comments, please.
GA: “It took the longest time to get my husband onboard with the plan. But I appreciate that he was honest with me all along. That’s also when I realised I needed him onboard, and that if I could convince him, I could convince anybody. Varun was doing very well with Coke at that time. We had our fair share of doubts about both of us taking the plunge, but it was the birth of our son that pushed us to make this decision. We argue and disagree over things, but early on, we realised that we needed to divide our roles and take executive calls in our specific functions. So I handle product innovation and marketing, and he oversees the business side of things.”
H!: What do you hope to achieve in the coming year?
GA: “I still have a lot to achieve personally. I want us to be the number one choice for consumers, a leading FMCG name in India. And I want to raise my boys with a certain value system and need to pay a little more attention to that.”
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s February 2023 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!