By Adrian Lancashire
Swapna Yaski is Canada’s distributor for Just Herbs – natural, organic, Ayurvedic skincare, haircare, and makeup products from India – and is encouraged by how well her new entrepreneurial venture is going. Since completing ACCESS’ Women’s Business Accelerator program in the fall of 2020, she’s sold around one-third of her first shipment.
“We’re already carrying close to 100 products!” she tells us on a Zoom call in Toronto.
Today in Canada, the cosmetics market is expected to grow to roughly 1.6 billion U.S. dollars by 2025. Swapna is convinced that Ayurveda has a part to play, as alternative herbal remedies such as these have been used effectively, its practitioners say, for thousands of years.
Communicating between her supplier in India and customers in Canada, more than ten hours apart in time zones, Swapna pays close attention to her scheduling.
“Most of my work goes into coordination with my team in India, and explaining customer demand and feedback, so I prioritize. It’s not every day, and most of the communication is by email. But if there is something urgent, I wait until the end of my day to catch them in the office first thing in the morning, their time.”
Swapna found out about ACCESS during the early stages of her entrepreneurial exploration, through the agency JobStart.
“One fine day, I got an email from my settlement counselor about a program through ACCESS. Since I was considering starting a business in Canada, I thought it was the right moment for me to join, to understand my entrepreneurial capabilities.
“When I registered for the Women’s Business Accelerator I wasn’t completely sure about my business idea – probably only 65-75% confident. I wanted to understand whether this will really work or not. And by the time the training was over, I walked out saying ‘I am going to do this! This is going to work!’ It was very big for me. ACCESS really helped me make that decision.”
Happy with this important step, Swapna lists several priority areas for investigation as a new immigrant in Canada: in legal terms, marketing, finance, and financing. She did not apply for a loan through ACCESS, at the moment managing with her own personal investment, but she’s not ruling out ACCESS’ help with this in the future.
When Just Herbs hit the market in India eight years ago, Huffington Post reported: “Beauty products already are among the fastest-growing e-commerce categories in India — driven largely by women consumers.” And, of course, not just women in India. While she’s introducing Just Herbs to Canada from her Brampton base, Swapna is also sizing up the US market. But that will come later.
“Pretty much, I’m the first person to take up the business in Canada. And I’m enjoying doing everything myself, getting to learn more and more. I can really feel the end-to-end business; business is my passion.”
She first considered the idea on a visit to India last year, when she tried out Just Herbs for herself.
“I’m personally very much into natural healing. (I am a passionate meditator as well.) Even in my childhood, we grew up with all these herbs in the backyard. And my skin is very sensitive. I thought this is something I really want to use forever because I saw results just in one month.”
Just Herbs launched their products in India in 2010, although Swapna says their research has been going on for nearly two decades now. She immigrated to Canada two and a half years ago, arriving in June 2018, from Hyderabad, in the south of India.
“I was looking for clean beauty products for my problems because the weather back home and the weather in Canada are very different.”
“I mean, India’s a tropical country, it can go up to 50 degrees centigrade. We have rainy season, winter season, and then summer. It’s not like in Canada, where it’s totally unpredictable sometimes.”
Predictability and accountability are increasingly indispensable for many consumers, Swapna insists.
“This is a very honest brand; whatever they write on the product label, that is what goes into the product. I think 99% of the beauty brands in the market don’t disclose all the ingredients, and that’s where there’s huge potential for clean beauty to grow.”
Swapna is a qualified chemical engineer with an MBA in supply chain management. Now as an importer and distributor, she’s become an expert in Just Herbs.
Swapna feels proud to promote her brand, all the products internationally certified from headquarters in Punjab, India, and distributed in many countries. She’s also keen to underscore that they are free of petrochemicals, GMOs and synthetic ingredients, and are never tested on animals.
Just Herbs’ strongest presence is in Singapore, Malaysia, Mauritius, and also Belgium. The website shows you can pay in 11 currencies. When it comes to regulations and registering the business in Canada…“Well, the registration is in progress. For the moment, I’m giving myself time to read the Canadian market. Having started selling the products, I can clearly see that Just Herbs has great potential here.”
In our conversation on Zoom, Swapna shows off several of her prize items, starting with a sleek bottle with a shiny gold top, containing an amber-coloured liquid.
“There is a lot of attention to detail that goes into the manufacturing; we prepare small batches because these are fresh herbs, and we don’t add any preservatives.
“Just yesterday, I was talking to a customer, so she has a very unique skin type. None of the flower products can suit her skin. So neem goes very well with her — you know, the bitter leaves?
“It’s another universal herb (universal and versatile like aloe vera). Neem helps the scalp, the skin, scars, black marks, and blemishes. So when she told me that flowers don’t suit her skin, I did a little brainstorming, and then I worked out the bundle (a kit) for her and she’s happy with it. Sandalwood is also good, and pomegranate.
“The target customer group is women between the ages of 20 and 60. But I have customers who are 80 years old, and they use my anti-aging cream and extra virgin coconut oil. I even have male customers. I sold my nourishing massage cream to a customer, and her husband liked the smell and so he started using it!
“Within these age groups, I have categories; if the skin type of the customer is medium oily or very oily or normal to dry, I have these categories. And for each category, I choose the ingredients and the right solution.”
The mission statement for Just Herbs is ‘to make beauty inclusive, transparent and wholesome’. Focusing on ‘inclusive,’ I asked how the brand addresses customers’ spending power.
“In the market of clean beauty, our products are at reasonable prices. We don’t fall in the higher category, and neither do we fall in the lower category. We are in tandem with the upper-middle-class groups. So, for example, if we talk about yesterday’s customer, who asked me about her unique skin case, I offered her daily care — which consists of a cleanser, toner, and moisturizer — and a once a week face pack — and these four things together cost her $140, which is very, very reasonable. That would last at least two to three months, for the right quantity and right ingredients, with the right results. If I talk about Silksplash facewash, just two or three drops at a time is very good. If I apply more, my skin will not be able to absorb it.”
As for Swapna’s next stage, currently, she’s focusing on the Canadian market and understanding feedback “from each and every customer,” but intends to expand throughout Canada. She has plans for her own Canadian website, but for now is mostly focusing on word of mouth to bring in sales, although she also uses Facebook Marketplace.
“It’s an ongoing process I would say. I would like the customer to reach out to me so that I can offer the best solution to them. If they come to me, I can do a good consultation, I can understand their skin range, and offer the suitable solution. All of my customers so far, they have recurring orders with me. Once the customer tries for the first time, definitely they’re going to come back to me.
“There is a lot of room for growth for me, a lot of room for expansion. My aim is that every household in Canada becomes aware of Just Herbs. That is my way forward.”
Swapna is determined to make her expertise and vision pay off, and strongly encourages others to pursue their own entrepreneurial projects as well.
“I have already referred three people to ACCESS for the WBA program; it’s wonderful. I think I launched my business, majorly, because of the confidence I gained from ACCESS.