Dec 31st, 2021
Storytellers: The magic of turmeric (and human connection)
by Synne Lindén
The story of how reconciling with her Indian heritage meant the beginning of Rooshy Roy’s career as a beauty brand entrepreneur.
When Rooshy went to high school, she was assigned Catcher in the Rye in English class. She didn’t like to read – the stories felt unattainable, irrelevant, uninteresting. There was no point of connection between her and the likes of Odysseus or Atticus Finch, and so Rooshy got into the habit of simply reading the Cliffs Notes.
J.D. Salinger’s novel was so short, though, that there was almost no point in switching it for an abbreviated version. On a weekend, she sat down in her living room, opened the book, and did not move until she had finished it.
I can’t explain it. It felt like I was reading about me, but in someone else’s body. I would think and react exactly like Holden would throughout the entire book; his perspective on everything, his attitude, his whole paradigm was exactly how I was thinking. It made me feel so much less lonely than I had felt in that time (…) And I think that sort of sparked my imagination, in that shared humanity. Just because someone looks different, acts different, is in a different setting, we might have so much in common. It’s just a matter of finding it. And so it kind of changed the way I viewed the world.
This power of honest and meaningful human connection has remained important in Rooshy’s life since then and is something she strives for. It’s visible in her eloquent reflections, in her empathetic approach to other individuals, and in her inquisitiveness towards unknowns.
In her professional life, it’s meant pouring the intricacies of her life experience into the core of Indian beauty brand AAVRANI, which she founded alongside Justin Silver in 2017. Storytelling, interestingly enough, has evolved to become a key strategic factor in Rooshy’s business – and one that’s simultaneously allowed her a stronger sense of appreciating her own story.
When we first launched the brand, I did not understand what storytelling was in the context of a brand. I thought it was very much that you have a good product, it works, and that’s that. That should be the thing that makes a company thrive. And in many ways, that is how a lot of companies thrive.
The hard thing for me to internalise was that because of the nature of the product, and it being unfamiliar to a lot of the audience in the US, there needed to be a point of connectivity. Otherwise, it just feels like this floating, foreign object. When I talked about AAVRANI, and especially in business school when we were ideating the brand, I was surprised to see that the people I spoke with found it very cool and interesting and intriguing – but not enough to want to dive into it themselves. There was a clear barrier to that level of inclusivity. At first my reaction was ‘Well, that’s their problem. They don’t get it. Other people will, though’
And then over time, as the CEO of this company, I realised that it was not a smart decision to write off the people who were so close to understanding. In fact, those were the people I needed to cultivate and share with and engage with.”
To convince these almost-customers, Rooshy did what all those other, big beauty brands modeled for her to do: She leaned on the product properties. The clinically proven results; the purity of the ingredients; the scientific foundations of each formula. Impressive as all of these were, the argument still didn’t hold – it didn’t resonate or compel people to commit to AAVRANI. So then Rooshy went for another approach. She began telling stories, and she did it to an unlikely audience: her investors.
It’s important to know that in the years between her early teens and mid-20’s, Rooshy had gone through a period of actively trying to remove herself entirely from her Indian heritage. She had encountered so many negative experiences rooted in this aspect of her identity, that she had eventually resolved to leave it behind. AAVRANI became, in large, a first big step on Rooshy’s journey to rediscover and reconnect with her Indian-ness.
Bearing this in mind, it isn’t surprising that – when pitching the brand’s story in its early stages – she’d chosen to largely avoid her personal identity conflict as a topic. When she discovered that no matter the amount of clinical studies and pure ingredients she presented the brand still wasn’t resonating effectively, though, this changed.
When I tried bringing people who were on the fence along, I would focus on the product – on the objective truths like the clinically proven results, the effects on the skin, the numbers – and it still didn’t resonate (…) But when I was fund raising, and there were these opportunities where I could really share stories for the first time, in those conversations when I started talking about the turmeric on my fingernails as a child, creating the masks at home with my mum and my aunts, the care and excitement with which we would prepare all of this for weddings, all the feeling associated with that for me, it would fascinate people.
Every single time there was a woman in the room, we would end up going off into the stories behind these products. And I could see that that’s how they were getting hooked onto what we were trying to build. That’s when they were starting to believe in it.
It was Rooshy’s heart being so closely connected with the products – the stories they entailed for her – that gave her investors a vision of what they could be for everyone. By sharing them, she provided insight into the core of her brand, and since then, storytelling has become a strategic communication tool for AAVRANI. It also fits nicely together with another of Rooshy’s philosophies: that brands need to tell stories as a way of taking a stand. Of being something to someone – rather than nothing to no one.
When you’re on the side of the business – delivering the message or the product – it’s very easy to feel (that you should be universally approachable). ‘Oh, I don’t want to rub anyone the wrong way, I don’t want to be too niche, too specific, I don’t want to alienate a group of people.’ But then on the other side you forget that customers are like ‘Well, if you’re just this blah thing, then I don’t find my point of connection. I don’t see what it is.’
Rooshy understands why consumers are reluctant to commit to brands lacking in areas of humanity and approachability. It’s the same concern her teenage self had when sitting down with Catcher in the Rye: that it would be exactly like all the other books she’d read before. There has to be a connection between any two sides of a relationship, and for AAVRANI, creating and cultivating that relationship with the brand’s customers is now solidly rooted in mindful storytelling. By coming to terms with her own story, and sharing it over the past few years, Rooshy has found common ground in new and unexpected spaces. And her company has thrived as a result.
I think stories are important for connecting humanity. For showing that we are at our core all the same and for broadening our imagination from the little bit we get to experience on our own. Understanding other people’s stories or hearing other people’s stories even, you don’t have to understand them, but just knowing certain experiences and knowing certains types of people exist help you understand who you are, because it compels you to react in some sort of way. And by having that experience of internalising a story, you learn about yourself. I think it’s the truest form to become who you are, whether that’s a better version of you or not. I think it sort of helps dictate who you want to be.