How a single mother of two turned Forest Essentials into a global favourite

Mira Kulkarni had it all, and then had it snatched away. Yet she never gave up, rebuilding her life and giving the world Forest Essentials. Her book ‘Essentially Mira’ covers her life’s biggest milestones.
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The signboard with Forest Essentials written in bright golden letters can stop many in their tracks, as the grandeur of the outlet and the whiff of floral scents emanating from the place are ready to awaken your senses. But beyond the luxurious edifice lies another story - one of determination and courage. They say ‘the road to success and the road to failure are almost exactly the same’, and there’s hardly anyone who has lived that phrase better than Mira Kulkarni. The creative genius and driving force behind the billion dollar company who reimagined Ayurveda - India’s age-old secret - to give it a totally new identity. One of luxury.

The journey that began at the turn of the millennium in a garage office has transformed into 110 company-owned and company-run stores across 28 cities in India, with more stores being added rapidly. The team caters to over 140 spas and 300 hotels all across Southeast Asia, with their distribution channel reaching a total of 98 countries. In her book, Essentially Mira, Mira gives us a rare glimpse into her life, circumstances that shaped her, and how a single mother of two ended up building an iconic brand.

“Life is kind. It does not let us see the future”

Mira recollects an idyllic childhood, spent in Delhi, in the picturesque hostels of Shimla and then Madras. Life till the age of 18 was all about being the apple of her parents’ eyes, her sister’s playmate, and the rapt audience for her grandmother’s stories. But life posed a strange choice eventually - an attractive marriage proposal or education at Cambridge. I feared change. Going abroad would be a new, unknown territory,” she wrote, and she chose the former, against her father’s wishes. But she soon came to regret it.Looking back, how could one marry someone that one did not even know at all? But then I did not even know myself,” she added.

It did not take long for the marriage to start crumbling. After two children, her husband’s business started failing and along with it came alcoholism. Mira knew she had to leave, and she was back in her maiden home, this time in Delhi. But the challenges were just beginning. She lost both her parents in quick succession, finding herself a single mother with two young children without any support at 28.

It didn’t take long for Mira to realise that there had not been much savings. Her father had been 52 and unprepared for death. To earn a livelihood, she decided to let out half the Delhi house on rent. It was in the summer of 1999 when her life took a strange turn. While on holiday in a cottage, the lights kept going off. The family ended up gathering the melted candles and reheating them to make a new one. That was probably the start of Candlemania, Mira wrote. And that was the beginning of Forest Essentials, only no one knew yet. I moved slowly from candle-making to making soap. Life-changing because it would be more than soap, she added. As the orders came in, she moved to working out of her garage.

“If you cannot eat it, do not put it on your skin”

While learning the process of making a handmade soap, Mira realised that India lacked good quality soaps. Rishikesh, ancient and steeped in tradition, was the home of Ayurveda, which I was convinced had a recipe for soap,” she noted. Mira tracked down some Ayurvedic Vaids to ask about the formulations for soaps but the ingredients were expensive.But as I saw it, expensive or not, there was no other way that they should be,” she wrote, adding that there was an advantage to the higher price. It came with the surety of an excellent, pure product. Middle and upper-class users could afford it. But the question was would they believe her? Would they truly know that the soaps would be good for their skin?

As usual, the answer suddenly came to me. Our products should also look and feel pleasurable, taste delicious, and smell divine. They should be enjoyable in every way. I needed to conjure up both together - effectivity and pleasure,” Mira revealed. She came to the conclusion that the products would be handmade to the most exacting specifications and would be available to buy off the shelf. Traditional formulations for beautiful, health-giving products were lying with us for centuries, waiting to be used. They just needed the elegance and purity that was missing. Luxurious Ayurveda was our answer,” she added. After trials and experimentation, the soaps started coming together and then began to sell, steadily. ‘Forest Essentials’ is now a reality. Along with soaps, the teams quickly created massage oils. Then came the Ubtans and milk baths. They all followed the Ayurvedic principle - respect for the senses - the Panchmahabhutas.

The steady orders made the team invest in their own store, the first of many at Delhi’s Khan Market. Within three months, we realised the Khan Market store was a success. A success that had no strategy and no future business plan as yet,” Mira wrote. She also quickly noticed that Forest Essentials was more than a product or brand - it was an experience and their stores needed to reflect that. So it was decided that the company would have its own stores where their brand ethos would be reflected.

“You just have to want it enough”

By now, Forest Essentials was selling body polishes, hair oil, age-defying serums, and many more. Estée Lauder showed interest and the chairman of the company Leonard Lauder met Mira in person to compliment her brand and in 2008, the two companies officially signed a partnership. The Estée Lauder team loved their work so much that it offered to buy a 20 percent share in Forest Essentials. By 2009, awards started coming in for the products, the brand, and even Mira - from Harper's Bazaar, Vogue to The Economic Times. Their Haridwar factory got formal credibility with a GMP pharmaceutical-grade certification. And through all this, Forest Essentials got an entire new logo, overseen closely by Leonard Lauder. Alongside this, competition began to appear, further signaling their popularity.

The team also found itself diversifying its portfolio. While chatting with Leonard Lauder over a meal, the conversation steered to natural makeup. And so, Forest Essentials came up with an extension to skincare to accentuate natural beauty. While their products kept touching lives across the globe, their partners grew too. Hyatt, Taj, and many illustrious hotel chains were their partners, who were trying to get exclusive access to their latest products.

Mira credits this success to her belief and determination.Having never worked a day in my life, I decided to start my company at 45, after my daughter got married,” she wrote, adding that one of the key reasons she succeeded was that she was never satisfied. There was always more to do and the next time had to be better than the last. Finally, it is never about giving up. Never believing anyone who says that something is not possible. You can find a way and make anything happen. You just have to want it enough,” she added.

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