What is aavrani and what was your inspiration behind founding this company?
Rooshy: aavrani is the first premium skincare brand inspired by ancient Indian beauty rituals. As a first generation Indian-American, my upbringing was enriched by cultural celebrations and traditions. Some of my fondest memories growing up involved the gatherings of women within our immigrant community—grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and daughters—re-creating the skincare solutions our families passed down many generations, using household ingredients from our kitchen, such as turmeric, almond oil, and neem. As I got older and started to buy my own beauty products, I became increasingly appreciative of the all-natural solutions that worked best for my skin but didn’t have the time to source all the ingredients myself, let alone create the formulas.
… and how did you two find each other and decided to work together?
Rooshy: On the second day of pre-term at Wharton (the first week of August in 2017), I met Justin Silver in line for lunch. In the natural course of discussing each other’s backgrounds, Justin spoke of his experience in private equity in consumer-focused investing: most recently, he had helped build and scale a Japanese-inspired skincare business. This was a brand that two business school students had started after one of the founders’ trip to Japan, discovering how well ancient Japanese ingredients (e.g., green tea, rice, algae) worked for her skin. Of course, I couldn’t help but think about the ancient Indian beauty rituals that I grew up using, and my own pain point of not having access to them in a read-to-use format. I shared my experiences with Justin, and we couldn’t help but discuss, “why doesn’t a brand exist that honors the tried and tested rituals of India?” This question came to define the rest of our lives as we created aavrani.
That’s exiting. I must say, networking at its finest during pre-term! So how was it like to build a company from scratch?
Justin: We took the first leap in October, after many weeks of business planning and market research. We incorporated with the name aavrani, intentionally centered around the word “rani”, which means “queen” in Hindi. After all, if female empowerment is going to be core to the company, we needed to pay homage to the mission in our brand name. We were motivated by three main things: 1) each other, being a uniquely competitive duo 2) a clear white space in the U.S. prestige skincare market and 3) just enough naiveté to overlook the setbacks and stay fiercely optimistic. After transferring both our life’s savings into a new business account, we got to work. Over the next 8 months, worked tirelessly—managing a variety of global vendors, testing products with hundreds of women across demographics, and developing the aavrani brand & website. We also met with and enlisted our third co-founder, Nina Davuluri, the first and only Indian-American Miss America (2014).
These were some of the most trying and exciting times of my Wharton experience. We started out with a simple concept, and in less than a year, turned a vision into a reality. One of my favorite moments was when we received the first iteration of products based on our initial formulations. Rooshy and I had been working meticulously for months on the ingredients, the texture, the smell—we let no detail go overlooked. I will never forget the feeling of holding the samples in our hands for the first time. We teared up just looking at what we had created, and I felt a fresh burst of inspiration as I looked at Rooshy and said, “See? We can do this.”
I can certainly feel the chill and inspiration now. I heard that you both dedicated your summer in aavrani?
Rooshy: We launched the aavrani (the website went live and we started taking orders) in June 2018. Committed to seeing through product-market fit, Justin and I stayed in Philadelphia for the summer alongside a team of three interns. Throughout these fourteen weeks, we had the privilege of focusing exclusively on the business—actively engaging with existing and potential customers for feedback, creating how-to videos among other marketing content, and constantly tracking conversion data as we learned to understand how people were getting to the website and interacting with our products. Our limited budget and resources forced us to be scrappy, which resulted in some of our most successful go-to-market strategies. We executed on an entirely unpaid micro-influencer program through which we had over 100 women posting about our products on their personal social media platforms.
We were also able to collect an archive of photo and video content by holding a photoshoot in NYC, comprised of our generous friends who spent the entire day modeling for us, with and without the products. Through experiences such as these, we learned that a “low-budget” approach was not only more cost effective, but also more authentic. By leveraging our existing relationships and leaning into product quality and differentiation, we were able to spread the word via genuine, user-generated excitement around our brand and our products.
…and when did you decide to pursue aavrani full time?
Rooshy: After an incredible summer that exceeded our expectations—in terms of sales, reviews, referrals and repeat purchases—Justin and I decided to pursue aavrani full time. So instead of going into our second year thinking about courses or recruiting, we began building relationships with angel investors, retailers, and beauty editors. We started spending 3-4 days per week in NYC while doing our best to stay on top of our classes in Philly and packing orders in between. While it became increasingly challenging to balance school with aavrani, we were too excited to feel anything but energized.
For the first time in my life, I felt like I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. Work no longer felt like “work” and I finally had the courage to break out of a traditional career path to launch and build my own company. I also realized just how privileged I am to be able to take the leap into entrepreneurship. I owe it to myself and others to do what I can with what I have, understanding the special freedom I have to follow my passions.
Fantastic. How did Wharton contribute to your journey?
Rooshy: First and foremost, we have had the best experience receiving help and support from hundreds our fellow classmates at Wharton—from feedback on the products to packaging, to funding through the MBA Fund, Dorm Room Fund, and Rough Draft Ventures. We received tremendous support from professors, specifically Patti Williams through her Strategic Brand Management class and our independent study with her throughout our second year.
We are also members of the Venture Initiation Program Community (VIP-C) and through that, were faculty-selected to join Penn’s accelerator program, VIP-X. We participated in VIP-X during the spring of our first year, the only first year company ever to do so. We were recipients of the Summer Venture Award, the Elevator Pitch Award, three rounds of Innovation Funding, and finalists in the Startup Challenge Pitch Competition of 2018.
Justin: In addition, the Penn community has served as an excellent source of interns who have helped build our company since its inception. We recruited interns through the VIP Fellows program and many of our interns received Startup Internship Awards (a stipend that we otherwise couldn’t afford to pay ourselves). Other programs that have helped aavrani grow including the Entrepreneurs-In-Residence (EIR) through which we met with dozens of executives who shared insights and advice from their own entrepreneurial experiences.
Many people asked us, “why didn’t you drop out to pursue aavrani full time?” Our answer has always remained the same: there is no better place to start and grow a company than at Wharton. From free office space to unparalleled access to mentorship, we could not have grown aavrani without support from Penn and Wharton.
How’s your journey looking ahead? Also, any advice to other Wharton students who are eager to launch their own startups?
Justin: We are thrilled to move back to New York in June and pursue aavrani full-time. This year, we’re focused on building out the team, developing new products, and executing on several strategic partnerships & collaborations, with the goal of entering retail next year. Building aavrani has been the experience of a lifetime, and we can’t wait to continue boldly in the pursuit of our dreams.
For other Wharton students, if you have the desire to pursue entrepreneurship, I would recommend to just begin! Ironically, there is somewhat an adverse selection at Wharton. As students of a highly accredited university, people are highly risk-averse. Once you are aware that we all tend to be swayed more than they think, you would be free of what others think of you. There never will be a perfect time to start a business nor there would be a perfect business plan. Unless you take that first huge leap, you can’t achieve anything. As clique as it sounds, our journey has been all about the people around us. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!