Sahi Cosmetics Offers Science-Backed Products for Olive Skin Tones

Shelly Sahi, founder and CEO of Sahi Cosmetics, thought she wanted to be a doctor. It wasn’t until she finished her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan that she realized how burnt out she was—and that a career in the medical field was actually her parents’ dream, not hers.

“I discovered entrepreneurship later because I didn’t think it would be an option,” she explains. “I have a very science-y background, and entrepreneur was not on the list of careers I was allowed to explore.”

After a heart-to-heart with her parents, Sahi changed course and instead ended up landing a job in material science research at Ford. She worked her way up to a position in the automaker’s business office and took classes at night, earning an MBA from U-M in less than three years.

“I loved new car technology and thought I’d stay in luxury goods for the rest of my life,” she says. But then she was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug after taking a few innovation courses. In 2015, she went to the university’s Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies with an idea.

“I had always done people’s makeup for proms and weddings for fun,” Sahi says. “I knew I had a problem finding makeup to match my olive skin, but so did other ladies with brown skin.” If someone complimented Sahi on her lipstick and asked about the brand and shade, she would tell them to get a pen and paper, because it was a custom mix of five lipsticks she had blended together.

So she pitched Zell Lurie on a line of beauty products for ethnic skin tones, particularly those with olive or yellow undertones—typically women of Arabic, Indian, Pakistani, Mediterranean, and Hispanic descent—that would incorporate her material science knowledge. Most makeup is formulated for Caucasian skin, Sahi points out, resulting in options that require additional blending to flawlessly match non-white skin.

“It felt really natural talking about the issues us brown girls have; it felt really easy,” she recalls.

The folks at Zell Lurie loved the idea, she says, and helped her create a framework for the company. Sahi Cosmetics officially launched after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2016 and late last month, the student-led Zell Lurie Founder’s Fund doubled down on its support by announcing it had made a $100,000 investment in Sahi’s company.

The company’s website went live in May, and it carries a full line of products: concealer, foundation, eye shadow, blush, mascara, lipstick, and more. The prices skew toward the premium end of the spectrum, but they’re not unreasonable. (Tubes of liquid lipstick are priced at $24.50, for example, and the company’s newly released velvet finish diamond foundation clocks in at $45.)

Fifty-two percent of the multi-billion-dollar annual cosmetics industry is made up of customers with “tan to deep tones” in their skin, Sahi says, and she sees a big opportunity for smaller beauty brands like her company.

“It’s really hard to cater products to all skin tones,” she says. “Companies like L’Oreal are backing out of research and development and moving toward acquisition because they can’t compete with niche brands that are doing it really well.”

Sahi says she’d be open to an acquisition, but only if she could stay on as the company’s CEO to make sure the quality of her trademarked, science-backed products doesn’t suffer. Sahi Cosmetics also emphasizes inclusivity, a sentiment that she says her customers appreciate.

“Twenty-seven percent of our customers are male because of how open and engaging our brand is, and I wouldn’t want to lose that,” she adds.

The four-person company is currently operating out of Ann Arbor’s Startup Garage. Between U-M’s Desai Accelerator, where Sahi Cosmetics was a member of the winter 2017 cohort; Zell Lurie; and assorted grants and business competition prizes, the company has so far raised a total of $200,000. Sahi says she plans to spend the new investment capital on an “aggressive marketing strategy” and further product development.

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