Pretty When We Win: Lisa Mattam, Sahajan Skincare

Pretty When We Win is a series that seeks to reconceptualize pretty by draining it of its negative power. This first iteration highlights inspiring stories of entrepreneurs who identify as women; it hopes to encourage contemplation of the word pretty and explore how we use it in our daily lives.

When I first discovered Sahajan Skincare a few years ago, I was immediately drawn to its Ayurveda inspired formulations, beautiful packaging, and commitment to philanthropy. The woman at the helm of Sahajan Skincare, Lisa Mattam, is a force. The personification of success, Lisa makes brilliant products and runs her business with grace and humility. She’s the kind of business owner whom you’d want as a mentor and the kind of person whom you’d want as a best friend.

Sahajan Skincare

Sahajan, the Hindi word for intuitive, is based on 5,000-year-old Indian mind-body practice called Ayurveda. This ancient practice uses diet, yoga, meditation, and plant-based medicine to restore health. According to their website, Sahajan Skincare uses “only the purest plant oils and extracts, and traceable, non-GMO sources for our ingredients.”

Sahajan Skincare’s belief in Ayurveda goes as far as to back their claims using laboratory testing to evaluate the efficacy of their products. They also use independent third-party regulators to review all their claims and employ both clinical and perception studies where possible.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Lisa Mattam and I’m the founder and CEO of Sahajan Skincare. I’m a former pharmaceutical executive, and I am deeply passionate about so many things but as I sit at home in quarantine I am grateful, for family, friends, and my muse…Ayurveda. 

Please name a woman who inspires you and why.

I’m inspired by anyone who pushes themselves out of their comfort zone, who strives to learn new things or is curious. If I were to think of one woman who has inspired me in my life, I would say my mom. She moved to the US when she was quite young from India, bringing very little with her. She worked as a nurse in Chicago, then moved to Toronto and, after doing all that, she went back to India and got married. My mom is a private and humble person, so she doesn’t tell her story often and rarely sings her own praises.  I’ve been blessed to see the person she really is through being a spectator to her life, through random stories, or through asking questions unintentionally.

For example, when I was preparing to study in France as part of my MBA she encouraged me to visit Lourdes, which is considered a Holy Place in Catholicism. I told her that I would go visit and then she ended with, “When I went to visit Lourdes…,” and I looked at her in surprise and said, “When you visited Lourdes?” Before she got married she stopped on the way to India with her girlfriend and visited Lourdes in France. I was amazed.  That’s pretty incredible for a woman who grew up in rural Kerala to travel like this in the late 60s.

When she did her entrance exam to nursing in Ontario, Canada, she ranked, I believe, number one in the province, and I only found that out accidentally when grabbing something out of a drawer. She is not a native English speaker, yet she quietly dominated. Her life and her example have taught me to be humble, to be resilient, to be faithful, and to shoot for goals.

What served as the impetus to start your business? 

I remember it like it was yesterday. I came home and I found my daughter at the top of the stairs, fully covered in my skincare. She looked super cute, but I immediately thought to myself, what would all the chemicals in my products be doing to her young, beautiful skin? The things I used for her were products and ingredients my parents had used on me, that their parents had used on them. I realized that if my skincare wasn’t good enough for her, it certainly wasn’t good enough for me, and if I really trusted these ingredients from my early life, I needed to share them with the world.

I delved into these ingredients that I considered to be tradition or part of my heritage and discovered they were part of the science of Ayurveda. As I dug deeper, I came to believe that Ayurveda is the gateway to your best beauty, but I knew that people had to believe it worked…so I took this old world science and I married it with modern science. We work with Ayurvedic doctors in Kerala to honor the traditional and authentic blends of this gorgeous science, but they are formulated by pharmaceutical chemists. I invest in regulatory work and for two of our products, the Nourish Face Cream and Radiance Face Serum, we have valid clinical trials. 

What’s hard is that there’s still an inherent bias against women starting their own businesses. While there’s an increase of female entrepreneurs, women only get 3% of all investor dollars. 

What is the hardest part of doing something on your own?

It’s that you feel at times that you are truly on your own.  Much like how we say it takes a village to raise a child I believe it’s the same with a business. You need to shore up the right team around you, and that team doesn’t always have to be formal.  It fluxes with the changes in the business, but you need that village. I have friends who, in the early days, would come work at our pop-ups and who, to this day, continue to share our Facebook and Instagram posts. My nieces and daughter stickered the first samples of our Essential Cleansing Oil.  I even had my dad pick up the first set of boxes from our printer for the Brightening Mask.

I also formalized a set of advisors after launch: a former beauty executive, a lawyer, and an accountant to name a few. I was proud to be in the first cohort of the Sephora Incubator, and it gave me the gift of other beauty entrepreneurs whose support is invaluable. Each of these people plays an incredible role, not only in growing the business but in ensuring that in those moments when the business stretches you to the edge of your skin, you don’t feel alone.

What struggles have you encountered that you feel are unique to women entrepreneurs? What’s the toughest part of being a woman entrepreneur?

There have been so many positives to being a female entrepreneur. Particularly in this time where women and men are getting behind gender equity. They’re rallying behind women because they believe beautiful businesses are born of women; they recognize that being a female entrepreneur does come with its own set of challenges and nuances.

What’s hard is that there’s still an inherent bias against women starting their own businesses. While there’s an increase of female entrepreneurs, women only get 3% of all investor dollars.  I have, in many moments, felt those biases. I was once speaking with a distributor who asked if I would ever do this “full-time and really make a go of it”—the inherent assumption being that this was a hobby or a side project—; a question, I believe, would never have been asked of a man.

With having a beauty brand there’s also a tendency to underestimate the industry. It’s thought of as “cute” or having limited potential. I’m grateful to have role models, other female entrepreneurs who’ve experienced the same challenges and have the same aspirations. There’s comfort in knowing this is achievable, this is possible, and that you’re not alone. 

Sahajan Skincare products flat lay with ingredients on wooden background
Photo credit: Sahajan Skincare

What kind of weight does the word pretty have for you? What does pretty mean to you?

I grew up fairly self-assured about my intellect. I didn’t believe I was a genius, but when you come from a South Asian family and you’re pushed to do well in school, there’s a level of confidence that comes with that. But I don’t have the same feeling about the word pretty.

India, and often the Indian diaspora, still suffers from a sort of “colonial hangover” that results in beauty beliefs that don’t typically nurture or celebrate the pretty in the dark-skinned women. I have been conscious of that through my adult life—that I don’t fit the stereotyped image of an attractive South Asian woman.

I much prefer a word like beautiful instead of pretty. I believe that beauty is inside all of us. Ayurveda teaches us that it’s our responsibility to take care of our inner and outer beauty. To me, the inner and outer are inextricably linked, and nurturing those is so much more valuable to me. Yes, I’m getting grey hair and I’ve got dark circles under my eyes, but those are part of my beauty. So the word pretty to me doesn’t have the magic and the sincerity and the inclusion that the word beautiful does.

Where do you find strength?

In so many places! Most certainly in my roots and my family. My world provides me with so much strength when I don’t feel like I have it. I’m a practicing Catholic, so I find strength in my faith along with my spirituality. One of the things that’s incredible about being from an Indian family is that culture and religion are intertwined. So even though I was raised a Catholic there’s an element of my spirituality that comes from the Vedas and from Hinduism—the mantras, the stories, the symbols. I find strength in my children, my family, and my friends. I have been blessed with an incredible extended family who supports me, and that is a true privilege. For Sahajan, I find strength from our community—from people like you, who support, who share, who provide feedback, and who care.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by anyone who pushes themselves out of their comfort zone or to just try to strive. I have always been a fan of Paulo Coehlo and his concept of a personal legend, so anyone who’s moving toward their legend or is committing to self-growth inspires me. Whether it’s for their health, or engaging in a practice, or planting a garden. People who are saying, “I’m passionate and I want to lean into that passion”—that sets my heart on fire.

I was once speaking with a distributor who asked if I would ever do this “full-time and really make a go of it”—the inherent assumption being that this was a hobby or a side project—; a question, I believe, would never have been asked of a man.

What’s your favorite way to connect with your clients/partners/customers?

Ultimately, it’s about personal connections. I have a team member who is the creative mind behind our social media, but I’m the one who responds to everything. There may come a time when that’s not possible, but I feel like when I post a video and people ask questions, I can really be a part of the process that helps answer those questions. I was part of the creation process. I did the research, and I am grateful to be part of the answer. I learn so much from doing this as well. I also reach out to some of our top customers on a regular basis. It’s a piece of advice I would give to anybody with a business—those customers are gifts, and they are an incredible source of knowledge. 

Can you offer some advice to other women who are looking to start their own business and/or make a career switch?

At the outset, you need to be crystal clear about what you are offering, how it’s different, and why someone should believe in it. You may need to practice this many times so that you can articulate it to people, but this is critical. The second piece of advice, which I have already shared, is having the right village or team around you. Even solo entrepreneurs need to turn to others. It might be friends. It might be colleagues you can call for advice. It might be getting mentors or getting paid advisors. Decide what you need and create that team so you can soar.

Feature photo credit: Sahajan Skincare

For more from the Pretty When We Win series, visit the Entrepreneurship section of The Mocha Minimalist.

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