Q + A WITH SHRANKHLA HOLECEK FOUNDER OF UMA OILS

On the iBE showroom floor in LA, Shrankhla Holecek cast a spell on me. I couldn’t tear myself away from the petite and passionate founder of UMA Oils as she spilled mesmerizing details of centuries-old Indian beauty traditions that contained supremely potent, rare botanicals harvested from her single-estate farm.

For decades, her family’s estate was legendary for growing and sourcing high-grade essential oils for respected beauty brands around the world.  From an early age, Shrankhla participated in the farm’s time-honored traditions, experiencing first hand ancient Ayurvedic beauty rituals and testing treasured family recipes. Today, the perfected formulas make up the UMA line – a pristine range of exquisite face, hair and wellness oils imbued with the wisdom of her ancestors.

I distinctly remember when Ayurveda emerged as a standard fare treatment offering in spas.  Watered down versions of spa-yurveda offered a glimpse into the traditional medicine practiced in India. In contrast to the vast majority of Ayurvedic products offered in the West, nothing about UMA’s formulations are watered down. Much like its founder, UMA delivers a full-strength dose of pure Ayurvedic potency.  With each drop, UMA Oils takes you on a beautiful journey; one that is rooted in tradition, but with a modern twist. In the following interview, Shrankla proves that everything old can be new again.

What inspired you to create your brand?

Interestingly, in large part, it was because when I first moved to the US, I realized how Ayurveda and many Indian traditions were misunderstood, almost bastardized by pandering to the ‘fringe’ elements that seemed to have more shock value. Everything seemed shrouded in mysticism and lore, as opposed to the highly scientific and proven (over thousands of years!) system of medicine Ayurveda is. This general lack of understanding often gives Ayurveda a bad rap among those who seek an educated perspective on how Ayurveda creates results.

As an engineer, I really appreciate the value of good information that explains how something works before expecting people to adopt it. UMA is very focused on creating that solid base of education around the science behind our products (and for essential oils and Ayurveda in general) so thinking consumers can understand how and why it is having such great impact on their skin, mind and bodies.

Also, I witnessed first-hand the plethora of low quality/ diluted essential oil products that inundated the market, and that customers were paying ridiculously high premiums for. There are few standards, and even fewer honest distributors and most companies are buying unreliable essential oils from unreliable sources. Having grown up in a family that has farmed and manufactured essential oils for generations (guaranteeing the ultimate purity), I really believed that our 100% organic, straight from the source oils would be an excellent fit for consumers who want (and deserve!) nothing but the best.

And finally, I wanted to bring to our customers the interpretation of luxury that I had grown up with – the investment of time. Luxury isn’t about slapping a fancy label on something to create the perception of value – it’s truly about investing the time, effort and care that it takes to create the world’s highest quality products. All our products are always handcrafted, and in small batches, with extreme care taken to formulate and package everything right. Most importantly, the UMA regimen was created around giving yourself the ultimate luxury – time. We request that you spend a few minutes following the 3-part wellness oil ritual in full, and give yourself a lovely facial massage every time you use our face oils. To me, that is the age-old idea of luxury we practice in India, and I wanted to bring that to the world through UMA.

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How did you learn the art of formulating?

So, I should clarify at the start that I don’t formulate any of our products. Truth is, I’m not allowed to interfere much with the creative process! Traditional and respect mandates that I defer to our most senior family formulator when it comes to each product – and frankly why wouldn’t I? He has spent 35 years working exclusively with these oils and formulas and understands form and function like the back of his hand!

That said, I started very young in my “study” of Ayurvedic formulations. I watched my mom or aunt pull together the gram flour based body scrubs every young child must use on Sundays, or mix together the hair oil that’s left on overnight before Saturday hair washes. I didn’t use a store bought face wash until age 14 (that too was “borrowed” from a girlfriend at boarding school!) so I have a homemade face wash recipe for literally every day of the week! I formally started understanding essential oils and formulating as a teenager, studying engineering strengthened my understanding of their interaction with each other, as well as the human body, and I continue to learn every day. But still, miles to go before I sleep!

When it’s time to create/develop a new product, what is your process?

Great question. I think the idea develops very organically, and almost through the process of repeatedly hearing a given concern in 3-5 different ways (within Ayurveda you learn that the same root cause can manifest itself into differing symptoms). Take our wellness oils for example: from my husband to my best friend didn’t sleep well at all (work stress and young child, respectively). The more I read about Ambien the more freaked out I got – and the number of people using it was quite staggering. So I knew we had to have something that helped people get to bed and stay asleep. Another example is eczema. From babies to stressed adults, we’re all getting it so we determined that a product in that space would be helpful (we are testing it as we speak).

“Formulating” is somewhat the easy part – we defer heavily to the book of family formulas that is passed down from generation to generation within my family. (Random fact: I recently realized that at a given time only 4-5 people in the world know an UMA formula!). We don’t modify actives in the formulas – we work with environmental factors to determine strengths, appropriate carriers etc. Then there’s the testing. We don’t release anything until it has been tested (and positively so) by a few hundred people.

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What’s been your biggest discovery in terms of the creative process?

That patience is a virtue, and that the creative process simply cannot be rushed. Or you’ll end up with something short of perfect. (And as we all know, anything less than the extraordinary is a waste of time, right?) So, there’s a lot of unpredictability in the process that you’ve just got to learn to be “zen” about. Even sitting atop these incredible formulas that have withstood hundreds of years of use and testimony, we’ve to ensure that they make sense for the modern audience. E.g., the carrier oil in Pure Rest was traditionally a heavy sesame oil, which stains bed sheets and is very hard to get off clothes in general. I knew we would need to change the carrier oil (as I said we NEVER tweak the formula of the “actives” in a product – so the performance and integrity are never compromised in the slightest). That process, that I’d initially considered trivial, took forever! We tested over weeks and months because my family wanted to ensure that we were putting forth something that worked just as well as it had on the kings and queens this was formulated for centuries ago! We got it right (Pure Rest still works like a charm!) but it was the first of many moments of understanding I had about how my family has preserved the pristine quality and integrity of all formulations over the years.

Do you have a mantra? Tell us how this came to represent your brand.

Honestly – I don’t quite yet! I realized after starting this business that I didn’t have all the answers (or even very many of the answers) – but the cool thing was that I was OK with the time and process (and the tears and frustration) it would take to get them. So no, I’m not about to write any books just yet about motivation and so forth!

I will say that I’ve come to trust my instinct more than ever. It’s not about being right or wrong – it’s just that if you didn’t trust yourself, anything you do will never ever be truly yours. If that’s not the purpose, then why start something in the first place.

Do you have a favorite ingredient? What do you love about it?

I’m kinda obsessed with all things sandalwood. Oil, powder, everything. It’s in nearly all our oils, and masks! It’s incredibly brightening and calming topically, but it’s truly life-changing therapeutically (in your wellness or your body oil). I apply it at night on my forehead just between my brows because it’s incredibly pacifying and anger-diffusing (I’m a Pitta type in Ayurveda, and let’s just say that running a young start-up doesn’t lend itself well to tempers for our type!)

Can you share some of the details on how you source your ingredients sustainably?

Ayurveda philosophies dictate all the practices within our product lifecycle – from our farming methods to the actual formulas in our products. According to Ayurveda, a close relationship exists between human and the universe we exist in – including nature, which has long been revered in Ayurvedic tradition.

Pesticides – a relatively recent development – would interfere with the natural balance of a plant’s composition per Ayurveda, and hence we farm organically. We also respect plant seasonality and adhere closely to practices that enrich the earth’s natural fertility – and try to minimize our dependence on artificial irrigation – all in accordance with the belief systems that natural energy thrives when natural functions are least disturbed. The harvesting and processing of our crops, including timing (e.g., never harvesting before ripeness or in the late evenings), all integrate Ayurvedic wisdom, as do the processing of our raw materials into their ingredients (never overheating substances to try and get higher yields, etc.)

Furthermore, our farms and factories work synergistically to support operations in a way that we leave behind a minimal environmental footprint. Essential oil extraction leaves behind a lot of fragrant by-products – that we convert into incense for local markets. The final refuse actually powers all the heating systems in the distilleries so we actually don’t purchase any fuel! Also, we cycle a lot of water used in the distillation process back into our farms.

What’s your workspace like and a little bit about your team?

In the US, we have a small – but incredibly scrappy, creative and hardworking team! Our offices are in Beverly Hills and we focus entirely on Marketing, Customer Service and Fulfillments (nothing within UMA is outsourced as you know). There’s a crazy amount of (largely unintended!) diversity within the six women that compose our team. Dogs come in on a few days, and there are always a million post-its running around. It’s nothing like Silicon Valley (we are bootstrapped) but a method to the madness. I’m very grateful for the love, commitment, and spirit of ownership that everyone puts in – it’s nice to feel like even with the US, UMA is still run from “within the family”.

What’s next for your brand? Can you share some of what we can expect from you for the rest of this year?

So there will be a few new products – keeping in the vein of efficacious and exquisite, rather than following a “beauty industry” guideline. We’re just not a face wash + toner + serum + cream kind of brand. Indian beauty rituals thrive in their simplicity and power, and my hope is that our customers will see both the value and results in that, so we’ll continue to introduce products along those lines rather than strictly around “developing a portfolio around standard beauty rituals” as it were.

There’s a product for eyes and a few treatment oils we are launching, and maybe .. something for our littlest UMA gals (and guys!). Stay tuned.

Do you have a creative muse?

Oh gosh, don’t be fazed. But Rock legends continue to inspire me. While there’s little I can traditionally borrow (in terms of songwriting or music making), they help me stay inspired in pushing the envelope. Did Kurt Cobain think about making words rhyme or ensuring that everyone fully understood every lyric? No. I try to remember that when we’re going into uncharted waters. (You want to start a company that’s just oils and that has a line of “wellness oils”, a word that you’ve literally come up with? Seriously, quitting you McKinsey career to do that? Yes, please.)

Do you collect anything?

Magnets from places I travel to.

Where might we run into you on a Sunday morning?

Well, first there’s my yoga class and then I am wandering the local Farmers Market for fresh veggies that I will later juice. I’M TOTALLY KIDDING! Sorry, no offense meant – I’m just being real about the fact that my weeks are kind of intense, so I usually kick Sundays off lazy, typically I enjoy breakfast out with my husband (usually an outdoorsy restaurant – so grateful for LA weather) and catch up on some HBO. I usually have dinner with friends on Sundays.

How do you relax?

Travel. Red wine. Reading fiction (I read almost exclusively fiction, mostly classics though). Running.

What is your vision for the future of your brand?

It’s a great question, again. I don’t think I have growth or size targets – I just have a “feeling” about what I want it to be – something that represents the spirit of my late aunt that the company is named after. A brand that represents great beauty in simplicity, that inspires confidence in all of us to be whatever we want to be, and that never stops adding value to every life it touches.

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