Shelly Sahi knows the children are our future.
Growing up, the future cross-disciplinary scientist had a passion for helping others—and stealing her mother’s makeup. She fell for science and wound up working for the University of Michigan Hospital researching H. flu and chronic kidney disease before joining the materials science research group at Ford Motor Company. There, she completed a lauded Ross Evening MBA in two and a half years.
During the MBA program, Shelly Sahi started Sahi Cosmetics, an eponymous, high-end makeup line for people of every skin color. (On the site, a Beauty Concierge even offers advice based on each specific shade.) As CEO, Sahi raised the money and support for her company through Dare to Dream grants, Kickstarter campaigning and various Zell Lurie Institute of Entrepreneurship scholarships. She also won first place at the Michigan Business Challenge 2017 and is the Weiser Family Entrepreneur of the Year.
Here, the innovator explains why it’s so important for children of all colors to see images of themselves reflected in beauty, fashion and media:
Live The Process: To what do you attribute your passion for science and your fearlessness about powering ahead in that male-dominated field?
Shelly Sahi: Growing up, I had dreams of being a doctor. I had a passion for helping others and it manifested into a love for science. I had a mother who encouraged me to fulfill my dreams, so I was never stopped from entering a male-dominated field.
LTP: How did your scientific background intersect with your interest in beauty, particularly for women of color?
SS: My career trajectory is all over the map, and I’m quite proud of it. My background in biology and disease research landed me a position at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center. At the University of Michigan Hospital, I learned microscopy and SEM work on frog neurons. By chance, Ford needed that skill set for analyzing aluminum spot welds for the 2014 F150 all aluminum truck bed. The manufacturing company was looking to lightweight the vehicle with new technologies, and I got to play a fun role in that and in carbon fiber composite research. I learned a great deal about material science, understanding how resins work and tweaking the percentages of emulsifiers, drying agents and hardening agents to get the product to behave and materialize how we wished. The same principles and learnings can be applied to cosmetics.
My love for beauty grew organically. As a child, I wouldn't leave the house until I had on my pearl necklace and matching purse, with a touch of my mom’s (stolen) lipstick on my face. I grew up reading fashion magazines. I loved analyzing the fashion and makeup trends in every issue delivered to my house. But I never understood why the magazine models never looked like me. I love my brown skin, but wondered why brown wasn’t beautiful enough for the fashion world. I knew I wanted to do something about it, but I didn’t have the idea right away.
When I turned 25, I started an evening MBA program at one of the best business schools in the country: Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. It was there, in December 2015, that I created Sahi Cosmetics to solve this issue plaguing Sahi queens all over the US. I wanted to create high-performing products that work for brown skin just as well as fair skin.
LTP: Why was this venture important to you?
SS: It’s important to let our children know that they are beautiful regardless of their skin color. If our children don’t see themselves on TV, in movies, in magazines, they feel as if they are the “other”—not important enough. The cosmetic world further cements this idea by declaring that certain skin colors aren’t relevant. We’re expected to mix two shades together to find our own solution. As a businesswoman, I stress the importance of an inclusive economy for the betterment of America’s economy, but also for America’s psyche. We need to encourage our children to be proud of who they are and how they look, so they may gain the confidence they need to achieve their dreams.
LTP: Aside from using your own cosmetics, do you have any rituals or practices that keep you feeling healthy and balanced?
SS: Many people are surprised to learn that I am an amateur boxer. I belong to Empire Boxing Club in Detroit, Michigan. I work out everyday and that keeps me sane. Having some downtime each day is really important because you come back energized and ready to tackle problems with a clear head.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
SS: Peaceful. Feeling content with where you are emotionally, physically and spiritually.
LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?
SS: With most startups, the first few years are challenging. The process has ups and downs; there are so many obstacles that may come your way. But it’s important to understand that no problem is so big that you can’t find a workaround. It’s all a learning process and you will find ways to get better with each step. So, go through the process with a wide, analytical lens and learn your way to success.