Of Kulfi and Kajals: How One Beauty Brand is Bridging the Gap Between Tradition and Innovation

Featured Image: Badal Patel

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Kulfi Beauty is as sweet as it is disruptive. While inclusivity is necessary for any industry, this upcoming NYC-based beauty brand is set on exploring something more — self-reflection and celebration.

Through intentional storytelling, Kulfi boldly confronts colorism, classism, and patriarchal norms that have been historically embedded within the South Asian community. Rarely do we see a brand so culturally empathetic represented in mainstream media and rarely do we accept it for what it is rather than a brief, trending hashtag. The Kulfi team hopes to change this notion by creating a purpose-driven beauty community by and for people of color.

The following excerpt highlights the voices of three core members of Kulfi Beauty — Founder and CEO, Priyanka Ganjoo, Head of Partnerships, Pritika Gupta, and Content Lead, Samia Abbasi.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

By Badal Patel
Can you briefly discuss how Kulfi Beauty began?

PRIYANKA GANJOO

I didn’t see myself in the beauty industry I worked in. I spent years in the background helping indie and established brands grow their business, but I rarely saw South Asians represented at the forefront. It was so hard to find beauty products that matched the color and quirks of my skin. I kept waiting for a brand that celebrated and centered us South Asians in its narrative and created products for our skin tones and undertones. All I found were brands that tokenized and appropriated our culture, without even creating shades that worked for our skin tones! At some point, I said to myself, this isn’t good enough. So, I left the world of corporate beauty and started Kulfi.

Interestingly, I never wore makeup until I was 22. Growing up in the South Asian community, there was a lot of judgment that came with wearing makeup. I didn’t consider myself beautiful. I never sought products that would help me feel different because I felt I didn’t belong. I started interviewing hundreds of South Asians and heard a similar narrative, which pushed me to keep going.

How did you get started at Kulfi Beauty?

SAMIA ABBASI

I graduated recently in 2019 from Mills College with a degree in creative writing and after graduating, I did a couple of editorial internships. Right after those internships, I stumbled on Kulfi through a Facebook community called Little Brown Diary and it felt so serendipitous. It was Pritika who put out a call for writers and interns to help build content at Kulfi. When I had spoken to Pritika and Priyanka, they had mentioned the name was going to be Kulfi. I just thought it was so beautiful and amazing to be a part of this mix in representation, beauty, and design.

PRITIKA GUPTA

I spent five years out of college in investment banking with my most recent job being on the Mergers and Acquisitions side (M&A) in the retail space. So, while I understood beauty business models, revenue ideas and the way retail worked, I didn’t know too much about brands. But I have been following enough to question why there aren’t more brands that are centered on a population that actually fits its needs.

In 2019, I moved to New York for business school and I told myself that the one thing I wanted from business school was to work for a startup that I personally believed in. It didn’t have to be in a specific industry and it didn’t have to be funded by venture capital. I just wanted to take a chance on something that I would commit to. And the best piece of advice I received from somebody in school was when people ask you who you are, tell them what you’re interested in. So, I started telling people I was interested in retail and I love to write. Well enough, somebody met Priyanka at a Diwali party and came back to me and introduced us by email. Fast forward to now, I think I’m more nostalgic and almost a little emotional because we are launching in February. A year and a half ago in October, everything felt so distant. It really has been a journey for us.

What do you think still has to change in the industry?

PRIYANKA GANJOO

Despite beauty slowly becoming more inclusive, South Asians and BIPOC feel that we still aren’t being heard or viewed as a demographic important enough to center.

As an ex-beauty merchant and beauty consumer, I knew there was a product gap for makeup for our skin tones and undertones. But the bigger gap is an emotional one – we don’t feel beautiful. South Asian beauty standards are defined by eurocentric standards and a patriarchal culture that hasn’t been challenged enough. Kulfi wants to enable that change in the beauty industry.

Part of the reason these changes have been slow is that not enough BIWOC are owners or decision-makers in the beauty industry. It’s difficult to change the agenda from inside the corporate beauty world unless the people at the top are willing to invest in the change. We need leadership at the corporate level that recognizes that their old formula of selling us eurocentric beauty is not going to work anymore. That’s why I love the Pull Up Or Shut Up initiative — it pushes corporations to be transparent about who is making decisions behind closed doors. It’s very easy to revert back if you don’t have an internal sponsor who is pushing for inclusivity every day.

PRITIKA GUPTA

I think there are two problems with the funding mechanisms that exist for POC entrepreneurs today. The first one is ‘the willingness’ and the second is ‘the pipeline’. A common question we would get is “oh you’re another POC brand?” but nobody says that to brands that come up for other demographics. I thought it was interesting that in a space for POC brands you are only allowed to have three, but brands for non-POC are suddenly revered as another innovative brand. I think that narrative is so telling. It’s upsetting, but it’s telling. It informs you that there is limited space for POC founders and POC-driven businesses.

The second problem is the pipeline. Because there aren’t enough POC founders or products being pitched, we see companies that don’t even know how to react. They don’t know how to support or how to invest. I think sometimes, much like representation, when you haven’t seen enough of something there’s a natural level of doubt. I think that’s also true for investment and financing for these companies. You ultimately need to have a set of people who believe in you monetarily and that’s where the challenge can often start.

What does Kulfi Beauty represent to you in such a competitive and saturated industry?

SAMIA ABBASI

I have been thinking a lot about the way I’ve been involved with beauty as a Gen Z, South Asian Muslim woman. Growing up, we all had different ways we approached beauty — be it through society, culture, family values, patriarchy, etc. All of this adds to the mix of how we view beauty, how we internalize it, and how we express it. So, I think Kulfi does a great job of recognizing and navigating all those ideas by building a landscape where the everyday person really shines in and for themselves.

PRITIKA GUPTA

The archetype that we have in our minds for Kufli is that it’s relatable but aspirational. The actual dessert, kulfi, is very much associated with weddings, free-time, family, and celebrations — and that is the ethos of our brand. At its core, it’s how you celebrate all that you are in and of what you are. It has so much to do with self-acceptance and celebration. It’s about just taking yourself each day for what you are instead of reaching for an unbelievably complex standard that can be portrayed in South Asia, which feels almost unattainable.

Social media can be overwhelming and there are so many micro and macro communities that continue to grow. At times, it can be quite isolating and even hard to find an authentic community to ease into – how have you used this digital space to Kulfi’s advantage? 

SAMIA ABBASI

This is essentially the story of Kulfi Bites. Early in February 2020, we started to think about ways to create a digital platform that allows us to get to know people and build a community organically. Kulfi Bites is an editorial section on our site that spotlights in-depth storytelling of South Asian women especially, and their experiences with beauty. But from there, our content expanded to portray interesting intersections of our lives for a Gen Z and Millennial community. So I think that’s what really drove people to our page. And though there are so many different pockets of South Asian representation and pages around the world, we are still seeing this need for real, yet resonant storytelling across this space.

In what ways does Kulfi as a brand mix passion with purpose?

PRITIKA GUPTA

I think to that extent, Kulfi will be partnering with the South Asian Sexual and Mental Health Alliance. We felt the reason there was so much synergy was because, while different in our missions, both organizations are dedicated to having tough conversations. Our missions mirror each other in that the idea of redefining beauty standards can be both personal and community-driven, while on the other hand, mental health can be entirely community-driven as well as personal. There was such an authenticity to the missions where you couldn’t help but hope that the other also succeeded in what they were trying to do, and I think that’s what makes it so special.

Can you tell me a little bit more about Kulfi’s product and strategy moving forward?

PRIYANKA GANJOO

Our goal is to create the deeply gratifying experience of walking down a makeup aisle and finally finding a set of shades made for us, and finding a brand that sees us, loves us, and inspires us to express ourselves.

We’re launching with Kajals, and our launch campaign is #NazarNoMore. Nazar (evil eye) is something many of us grew up within South Asian culture. Especially as women, we are told to not fully express ourselves or share our accomplishments, so we don’t catch Nazar. We chose “Nazar No More” as our campaign to call out how beauty in our culture has been defined by the male gaze and how we are reclaiming that narrative to define it for ourselves. We want to encourage and empower young South Asians to create their own narratives, express themselves freely, and embrace their beauty.

Our Kajals are clean, vegan, and cruelty-free. They are designed with our South Asian and BIPOC community members, so they are beautifully pigmented in colors that look great on our skin.

Our next launch is concealers. Complexion products for brown people are a huge gap in the market that we aim to fill.

As we dismantle what society tells us what beauty is supposed to look like, how have your personal values or roots been refined to create your own notion of beauty? 

PRITIKA GUPTA

Growing up, I didn’t think about beauty, but I think I felt it more than anything. Because it can manifest as disappointment, shyness, and a little bit of hurt depending on the context.  I would say colorism was a larger theme in my community. If anything, it was also social commentary. You’re driving through Bombay and you see a huge Fair & Lovely billboard. You turn on the TV, people are telling you the fairer you are, the more likely you are to get a husband, get a job promotion, and probably go on a holiday in that order. I wish that I had taken a step to process that information, but it just stayed in the background of my mind. As a result, you grow up with those standards and find yourself accepting it because it stems from good intention. That is the root of the problem — we accept social commentary that is supposed to be “good-natured” and because society said so.

So, within the last few months, I’ve become more experimental with makeup, I’m definitely more confident and feel bold — bold enough to cut off all my hair earlier last year! The point is that I’m going through a phase where I’m trying to relearn my accepted beauty truths. This process might take a long time and involve a lot more experimentation, but it feels like a lesson I should teach myself. I think I’m happier for it too.

SAMIA ABBASI

When I was younger, I thought of beauty through motifs and scenes. Something that was really impactful from my childhood was when my parents got married, my dad didn’t want my mom to wear makeup. It was my dad’s religious way of thinking this is what a Muslim woman needed to look like — put together but simplistic. My mom stopped wearing makeup. That really affected my sister and me growing up because we never saw her any other way. We would always look at old pictures of my mom and her sisters when they were in their twenties wearing sarees with bright, bold lipstick. It was a confusing time but as we got older we just started doing what felt right for us and started exploring makeup for ourselves.

When I got to Kulfi, that’s when I started realizing there were things I would shy away from. I would appreciate a certain makeup look on someone else but wouldn’t dare try on myself. But I am now someone who wears blue eyeliner and I didn’t think I would be that kind of person! Kulfi has allowed me to acknowledge that makeup is playful and is meant for self-expression. Essentially, beauty should look and feel what is right to you, explore colors that excite you, and make you feel like your best self.

As a women-led team, what does empowerment mean to Kulfi? 

SAMIA ABBASI

I personally connect to it as someone who went to a historically women’s college. There is just this baseline of empowerment already ingrained, where you don’t have to cross certain hurdles and where things happen so fluidly in that kind of framework because you understand each individual in such an integral way. That is something we see at Kulfi too, and that is how we think about partnerships and content pieces — they’re very human-driven. Oftentimes self-expression and gender expression are linked together, so at Kulfi we think about how we can highlight different kinds of people in a purposeful way.

PRITIKA GUPTA

I think on the women-led team, it’s honestly really special because it’s not just the core team — it’s our designers we work with, the people who handle our photoshoots, our models, etc. There’s a certain bond that we have as a mission-driven company. I think sometimes in my life I’ve been very driven by perfection or standards that have felt unattainable and because of those beliefs, they have taken away from the authenticity I bring to social interactions or to the workplace. Somehow, Kulfi has completely broken that down. I think having a space so safe and so meaningful to all of us is really what drives us to be a better team and it just so happens that we are all female-led.

What advice would you give to young women (especially minority women) who want to start something that can potentially be bigger than themselves?

PRIYANKA GANJOO

First, believe in yourself and your mission. I was surprised by how much I doubted myself as I started Kulfi. It doesn’t help that as women of color, many people discourage you or warn you about all the things that can go wrong. They are not used to seeing people who look like you succeed. But we need to believe we can change that and keep pushing forward.

Second, just do it. Don’t keep thinking about the idea, get started. My idea of what Kulfi can be has evolved so much since I started, thanks to the amazing team and community we’ve built who push me to dream even bigger. Break down the big problem into little chunks that you can do every day and then have the discipline to keep working on it.

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Kulfi Beauty officially launched on February 16th, 2021. Check out Kulfi Beauty’s official website and Instagram to shop for products and keep an eye out for new stories, news, and updates!