Fifteen years ago, in the US, few people outside the close-knit non-resident Indian communities knew what henna was, or where one would put a bindi, or if Bollywood was an actual place. But a bubbly girl, growing up in Michigan, knew the answers to those questions, and knew that her non-Indian friends would want to know as well. But she had to find the right way to introduce them to her rich cultural heritage.
Shobha Tummala, raised in Hyderabad for the first six years of her life, always wanted to share the cultural secrets she learned from her grandmother. After she moved to Michigan, going back to Hyderabad on summer visits, she would plot ways to bring home bangles to sell at her high school. She knew Indian culture would capture the imagination of young American girls, but did not know how to capitalize on it.
Some 10 years later, she found a way with a simple thread.
Most beauty salons in the US rely on wax to remove hair; Tummala had been taught by her grandmother the natural, and less painful, ways of sugaring and threading. Tummala found plenty of threading salons in big cities in the US, which catered to the needs of thousands of transplanted Indians. However, when she tried introducing her American friends to the techniques, the small, crowded and often dirty salons would never make much of a good impression.
Tummala decided to bridge the two worlds she lived in by creating a high-end salon built on Western business practices, but providing Eastern-style treatments.
She opened her first salon, Shobha Salons, in trendy SoHo, and found herself riding the wave of Indian interest. Madonna started wearing a bindi. Saris appeared at the Oscars. And young, wealthy New Yorkers wanted threading. “It was really pre-India being cool in the US,” Tummala says. “If I hadn’t launched the salons, I would have seen so much Indian stuff out there and I would have been thinking, ‘God! I could have been doing that.’ Instead, I was one of the pioneers.”
Starting with one in trendy SoHo, Tummala now has her salons in Madison Avenue and Columbus Circle
Within five years, the business has expanded rapidly, with new salons opening in Madison Avenue as well as Columbus Circle. But before the success, few of Tummala’s friends and relatives could understand why the business—and technology—graduate wanted to enter the beauty business.
“My dad thought I was absolutely nuts,” she says.
To all outward appearances, Tummala was destined for a lucrative career in business. A degree in electrical engineering from Michigan State University and then an MBA from Harvard University. She had worked as a consultant at Bain & Co., Procter & Gamble Co., and Dash.com, an Internet start-up company.
In between career changes, she met partners at a large investment bank to discuss a job there. Before the meeting, a headhunter suggested Tummala should not wear perfume. “I don’t really care about perfume,” she says, “but I sat there thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ The job was not about being real at all.” She left the meeting certain that it was time to pursue her own path, with an idea that had been cooking for several years: Indian beauty salons.
However, Tummala was wary of investors. She had been part of Dash.com. When the Internet bubble burst in 1999, her company had $50 million investment capital that could see them through the crash. The investors were, however, no longer confident about the market and asked for all the money back. Tummala knew then that she never wanted to be dependent on outside sources for funding again.
She also knew that investors were not looking to spend money, particularly in a service company.
So, she began her business tentatively with her own money. She rented salon space from her hairdresser, Sam Wong, and hired a few threading experts, who she hired after playing the guinea pig herself. She wanted to start out small to see what type of interest it would generate and if Westerners would react positively to Eastern treatments.
“I believed 100% it could work in the market,” Tummala says, but she had to educate the public about the concept first. “Few people knew what threading was.”
Rather than rely on advertising, Tummala hit the streets, meeting magazine editors to get coverage. She says that in the beauty industry, customers are reluctant to believe advertising; they want to hear from a trusted source that the process works and is worth the money.
At first, Tummala would literally approach people on the streets, offering threading for free, hoping to get customers. But she quickly hit the editorial jackpot when Vogue, the US’ top fashion magazine, decided to write about her venture. After the article came out, people began pouring into Sam Wong’s studio, eager to try out her hair removal technique.
Within eight months, Tummala felt she had created enough interest to open her own space in SoHo. Thecompany has since been funding itself, earning enough to start two more salon spaces and invest in product lines, like its new freshening clothes that help soothe skin afterhair removal.
Today, Allure, Playboy and Cosmopolitan have written about Shobha Salons and citymagazines and websites consistently rate the salons at the top of the class. In a city of 20,826 salons—one for every 200 women—that’s no mean feat. On the top of the list of compliments: “sanitary” and “efficient”, exactly what Tummala never found at other threading salons.
Tummala said she has found a niche without much direct competition. Most New York threading salons usually charge around $7 (about Rs285) for an eyebrow shaping, compared with her $20 price tag. However, she caters to clients who are willing to pay the higher cost for more time with the technician and more hygienic practices.
“They have to see 10 clients an hour for that (business) model to work,” Tummala said. “We get four people an hour. Just from the time difference alone, you can see the quality difference. Are they washing their hands in the sink in between each customer?Do they have time to consult with clients?”
Shobha Salons do offer waxing, competing with salons such as Bliss or J Sisters—other similarly-priced New York salon chains. However, those salons generally do not have an emphasis on threading and sugaring, Shobha’s expertise.
Her customers range from young, fashion-conscious women to older ones experiencing menopause who are exploring hair removal for the first time in their lives—and even men.
Sophia Park, 28, a New York-based attorney, says, “I’m obsessive compulsive about cleanliness and it’s one of the few places I can go that I don’t freak out about it being gross.”
Tummala says the biggest challenge is keeping her customers satisfied. “It’s a service business, so you have to start over new every day. One day, I think our service is amazing and then the next day, I think we could do it so much better.”
She says she has a general idea of where she sees the salon heading, that a key goal will be sustaining a profitable business which can also help support charities, especially those in India. These days, the salons support a group of five Indian women in West Bengal, through the Sarada Kalyan Bhandar organization, pay for their college education, health care and living expenses. The salons also sponsor a charity, School-on-Wheels—that educates street children in Mumbai and Pune and, on board a bus, offers classes in reading, writing and hygiene, as well as food and water during the day.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org