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‘Don’t be afraid to lead from the front’

business Updated: May 08, 2013 21:51 IST
Zofeen Maqsood

Shahnaz Husain’s name is synonymous with the beauty-care industry in India. She founded a company in the 1970s named after herself, and has grown it into a billion-dollar global brand over the years, in the process gaining a reputation for shrewd business acumen.

This would have been a factor considered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when it invited Husain to deliver a talk on “Woman empowerment and the positive impact of innovative entrepreneurship.”

The lecture, held on April 24 at MIT Sloan School of Management at Cambridge in the US, sought to understand the challenges that women entrepreneurs in emerging economies face. It was attended by graduate students, MIT faculty, business leaders and aspiring entrepreneurs of an array of nationalities.

“Everything from accepting the invitation for the lecture to the journey and the experience was a series of resolving obstacles, just like the topic of the debate,” Husain said. “I had thought of my lecture day to be a usual business day in Massachusetts, the urban peace there was shattered because of the Boston bombings a few days ahead of my arrival. I had to face endless detours due to sealed roads, constant checks and heavy police patrolling before I got to the university.”

Husain, who has previously lectured at Harvard, Oxford University and the London School of Economics, points at the irony that while she herself could not manage a university degree — given her early marriage — today her strategies and business wisdom inspire the industry and are a topic of academic study.

“I always say that it is the challenges that prepare you to be gritty,” she said. “I exhort women to make a start (professionally), even if in a small way, maybe by setting up a salon at home… that way they are laying the foundation of a future career” — in the same way that she did.

“I started off with a small salon in my house, with an initial investment of Rs 30,000,” she said.

“I grew my own herbs, formulated them in the night, wrote the labels by hand and stuck them on the jars myself,” she added. “Because I persisted the business grew from one salon to a global network of franchise ventures.”

Today her beauty brand is present in over 100 countries, has over 5,000 franchisees worldwide, over 500 beauty schools and over 375 products.

Her parting words for her MIT audience: “Think of yourselves as leaders, not followers. Don’t be afraid to lead from the front: that is what makes the all difference.”