Running a startup is said to be like driving a car without shock absorbers. Running a startup in lockdown in the middle of a pandemic is probably like driving a car without shock absorbers, or wheels.
But Navneet Kaur, the co-founder and chief executive of Singapore-based earth-friendly skin care company Yours, has been on rollercoaster rides before. After a life of relative comfort working for one of India’s largest conglomerates, Kaur joined Uber. In just over three years at the ride-hailing firm, she did four different jobs, latterly as head of driver operations for Southeast and North Asia. In April 2018, she moved to bicycle sharing company Ofo, a firm that went from billion-dollar startup to near bankrupcy in four years. Kaur’s tenure there as head of strategy and operations lasted six months.
She founded Yours in July 2018. The idea came to her after her husband Shivam, who would later become the company’s marketing director, asked her for help with his skin problems. “If he had acne on his face, it affected his mood. That was a big moment of understanding for me. Skin care is about how we feel, not just about how we look to other people,” she said.
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If someone convinced me that palm oil didn’t harm the environment, I would consider using it.
Kaur set out to build a brand that could, using machine learning technology, create personalised skin care solutions. She was also determined to rethink every part of skin care, from ingredients to packaging, to tackle the industry’s considerable environmental footprint. She has pointed out that synthetic fragrances in sprays pollute the air, sunscreens poison coral reefs, packaging pollutes the ocean, and palm oil, which 70 per cent of cosmetic companies use, has resulted in mass deforestation.
Yours’ products use palm oil-free ingredients approved by research and advocacy non-profit Environmental Working Group that are not tested on animals, and packaging that is recyclable and minimises waste. A reusable refill option is coming soon, Kaur said.
In this interview from her home during lockdown, Kaur talks about what prompted her to move into the sustainability world, the hardest thing about her job and why she is obsessed with customer reviews.
What’s your educational background?
I went to the Shri Ram College of Commerce New Delhi, where I got a Bachelor of Commerce, and then the Symbiosis Centre for Management and Human Resource Development in Pune, where I got an MBA in marketing.
What prompted you to move into sustainability?
I started my career as a brand manager for a large conglomerate (ITC) in India, where I launched a number of skin care brands. As I got deeper into understanding the manufacturing side of things, I became aware of the sustainability story behind skin care. I noticed how much single-use plastic and non-recyclable materials were being used. It was 2011, the time when ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ were buzzwords. It dawned on me that natural resources were being exploited and not replenished, and natural ingredients are not always better than synthetic ingredients. For instance, essential oils can cause allergies and chemicals like vitamin B12 can be produced in a lab and are good for the skin. A good skin product is about finding the right balance between science and nature.
Who has been your career mentor, and what was the most valuable thing you learned from them?
Rajshree Pathy, a celebrated entrepreneur. She founded Kama Ayurveda, a luxury beauty company. She understands the challenges of building a sustainable skin care brand and was fundamental to me taking the intiative to build Yours. She had faith in me was our first first angel investor.
What did you learn from your time at Uber and Ofo?
Staying agile is extremely important. It’s almost a super power for a company. Build a culture that can adapt quickly. Stay competition-aware but not competition-obsessed. You can’t build an amazing product by picking up the best features of other companies, you have to build your own and innovate.
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
Finding sustainable packaging that is not too expensive. After a lot of research we found a sugar cane supplier to make our tubes, but it was much too costly (and the minimum order quantity was 70,000!). We are also looking for bioegradable fungus packaging, but finding a supplier was tough. Our products always get delayed because we’re looking for better packaging.
Our packaging now is [plastic and] recyclable. We use airless pumps so that our customers can squeeze out every last droplet of the product, and ensure that the packaging can be recycled. But while packaging may be recyclable, a lot of it doesn’t actually get recycled. So we’re working on introducing refill packs, so that our packaging can be reused. A personal goal of mine is to cut packaging waste by half.
You don’t use palm oil in your products. Do you not believe in sustainably sourced palm oil?
Palm oil is linked to tropical deforestation and contributes to climate change. If someone convinced me that palm oil didn’t harm the environment, I would consider using it.
What motivates you?
What gets me up in the morning are customer reviews. I love reading stories about how customers have found support, not just from our products, but from each other through the conversations they have about their skin. My favourite review was from a customer who said she loves our products, and now feels so confident she doesn’t wear makeup.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give someone starting out in sustainability?
Be patient. I learned early on that if you want to be in sustainabililty, it’s a long term investment.
What’s the one thing you wish you knew before you started out in sustainability
I wish I’d known how difficult it can be to access innovations in sustainable packaging and ingredients. There’s a lot of research involved, and a lot of cost that goes into research and development. Governments should support innovations in sustainability to make it easier for businesses like ours to find and use them.
You recently had record sales despite the Covid-19 pandemic. But how worried are you about the future?
We will struggle in a few months’ time, if supply chains don’t open up. The virus has impacted our product launch plans. We were going to launch cleansers and toners. That will get delayed. But we have set up packaging sources across different countries to diversify the risk, and implemented strict hygiene standards for each potential supplier.