Successful entrepreneur talks about the power of ancient South Asian beauty rituals and traditions
Michelle is the founder of Ranavat, a skin and hair care brand, based on age-old Ayurvedic traditions. Leveraging her expertise in the pharmaceutical industry and her background in engineering, Michelle honors her South Asian heritage to create a line of beautiful skin and hair treatments.
Founded in 2017, Ranavat became the first Ayurvedic skincare brand to launch at the iconic retailer Sephora. And is now even available at Harrods.
The brand proudly donates 1% of proceeds to Desai Foundation, a non-profit organization in India that empowers women and children through community programs to elevate health and livelihood in India and the U.S.
Michelle’s journey to becoming a successful entrepreneur is so grounded in her South Asian culture and is super inspiring.
S5 Ep 7 Michelle Ranavat: Beauty entrepreneur on South Asian rituals
Michelle Ranavat 0:00
So we’ve been embracing Western culture for quite some time, right? But I am sort of seeing now the other way around and that’s really exciting. I think it just really brings us close together. So whether it’s someone that’s never had hair oiled before, and they’re hair oiling, and they’re like, “wow, this is so amazing.” They’re embracing our culture, as simple as that is. So the more that they do that to us, we start creating this cycle of we’re all just lucky to be who we are, and we can learn from each other. We don’t want to be someone else, we want to be ourselves.
Sangeeta Pillai 0:52
I’m Sangeeta Pillai and this is the Masala podcast. This multi-award winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, from sex, sexuality, mental health, menopause, to nipple hair, and more. This season is a US Special, and it took me by surprise. You see, I interviewed these incredible South Asian American women. I expected to hear some angst around identity and belonging. Instead, they told me how comfortable they were with both their South Asian and American identity. I confess this is not the podcast season I set out to record. It’s so much more powerful. Talking with Michelle Ranavat took me back to my own roots. Michelle is the founder of Renard, a skin and hair care brand, based on age-old Ayurvedic traditions, as well as modern science. Michelle, who used to work in the pharmaceutical industry used her engineering background to create a line of skin and hair care products that honour her South Asian heritage. Founded in 2017, Ranavat recently became the first Ayurvedic skincare brand to launch at Sephora. In fact, I saw a really sweet social media video of Michelle’s dad at Sephora, checking out her products on the shelves. Michelle’s journey to becoming a successful entrepreneur is so grounded in her South Asian culture and she inspired me to connect back to my own roots.
Michelle Ranavat 2:41
I actually loved engineering and my parents never forced me to do it. My dad’s actually a chemist so sciences are something that was always very important in our family, but my mom is an artist. So there was always that appreciation for Arts and Design. I don’t think they forced anything upon us but I saw growing up being a part of my dad’s story, I mean, all of our family vacations were work trips, or my dad’s business and what he started when he came to this country, was really what my upbringing was about. I saw so much of the world through him growing his business and I think entrepreneurship just came naturally to me, because I saw that as my dad’s career path. Then when you add a passion for science and engineering, and when you look at any of my cousins, we’re all engineers, and very stereotypical, but I think we embrace it. I think all of us did it and really love it and are passionate about it. I personally am very involved in the College of Engineering, even now, finding ways to attract students and especially women into the major because I just find so much value in it. I agree that it’s not the only path, but I think it’s a great one so I almost have that old school mentality, I think.
Sangeeta Pillai 4:05
No, that’s great. Look at what you’ve done with it. It’s not going down the expected path, but what are you doing with it? I think there’s an aspect of going down the expected path and being very safe, you certainly have not made the safe choice, you’ve not said “I’m going to have this job for 50 years”, I don’t think you’ve gone down that path. So talk to me Michelle, about Ranavat, your whole journey, starting it at home to now this, I don’t know global luxury brand. How did it all begin?
Michelle Ranavat 4:38
It all began with the idea and a dream really, just thinking about creating something that represented a little slice of Indian history, Indian artisanship, craftsmanship, modern science all began in India and so on. I was very passionate about sharing that and giving that spotlight where I feel like it was just not shared traditionally. I never envisioned like, I’m going to create this global company and get to travel and connect with South Asians and introduce the concept of IRA to so many beyond the South Asian community. I was honestly just really happy, doing the work, discovering, or rediscovering these traditions or ingredients, and just living my life with its purpose tied to my heritage and culture. That’s really all I ever wanted and that’s what I still want. I think, some of the launching inherits, and Sephora and all of that is amazing. That was, of course, as someone that’s ambitious, something that I would have loved to accomplish but it was never the goal, it was always a byproduct. The goal is always to serve the customer and I knew that if I could serve the customer in a way where they felt connected… I’ll actually try to pull something up, I received a very sweet message and it’s very indicative of the way people connect and feel when they try the product and that just summarises my goal, which is to make people feel something.
Sangeeta Pillai 6:27
That’s really beautiful. Did it literally start in your home? Because I remember watching something on Instagram, where you said, I just used to ship these products from home and now you know, this massive kind of chain behind me? Did it start at home?
Michelle Ranavat 6:39
Yeah, it started at home. I mean, I didn’t know… and I think honestly, most ideas probably start in the home, right? I mean, we come up with something we want to do and we just pull out our laptops, and we start mood boarding and Googling and researching. That’s really how our brand started and in the typical South Asian way, I didn’t just decide I wanted this idea and then started spending a ton of money and being like, “oh, I need an office and I need these people to work for me. And I need this.” and I was still working my other job. I wanted to prove out this idea because, at that time, it sounded like Indian beauty brands did not exist. It’s such a weird…I mean in the US, but it’s such a weird thing to think about, but it wasn’t like the idea of even hair oiling was an odd concept. Now because we’ve all kind of come together and champion and we’ve been messaging and sharing for five years now, it’s really surfaced into the mainstream. But back then, it wasn’t like, yeah, I had a big idea, and all of a sudden, I was ready to spend, whatever it took, it was all about proving out the idea. Over time, we created a business where we could afford to invest in office space, and people and everything that goes along with running a business.
Sangeeta Pillai 8:05
So true, what you just said there about the traditions that for us are so natural. The hair oiling that you mentioned, I was thinking about it, like it was such a… coming from South India, it was such a part of a daily ritual, we held your hand and you had a bath and that was what you did every day. But I remember when you went outside, even Mumbai, where I grew up, a lot of kids would make fun of me saying, “oh, look at her oily hair,” this kind of thing. There’s so much judgement sometimes about rituals that maybe are specific to your heritage outside of that heritage. So it gets me a bit annoyed now that everybody’s drinking turmeric lattes and using coconut oil in their food and these are rituals and traditions that we’ve had for 1000s and 1000s of years, you know?
Michelle Ranavat 8:59
Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a little… there’s a few ways to look at it. I mean, when I started the brand, there was a huge wellness boom. People were really focused on meditation, especially during the pandemic, people were really excited about meditation. Obviously, yoga for so many years has been permeated in the West and this whole smoothie culture had really started in LA. And you know, what kind of adaptogens would you like to put into your smoothie and people would pay like $10, $20, $30 for like a national game, this smoothie, and they would call it wellness, which is fine. But I think the goal is really the responsibility that many of us have, especially if we are South Asian, we understand the roots. We need to share the origins and we need to tell people the why. This is not a new trendy thing, but adaptogens are really great for managing stress. Why is that important? While stress creates inflammation. How do we create a long, balanced healthy life? Ongoing meditation, exercise for the brain, and those ideas, are things that I think we have the opportunity to share, because we’re just a little closer to the history of it. So while I’m so glad it’s happening, that people are seeing value in our traditions, but so long as I’m a part of this conversation, I really want people to understand the why. Not to prove anything, but to really share the deeper meaning behind all of these rituals. Even something like God’s will, right? But there’s a huge meaning in terms of evil eye and that eye aspect of it, what beauty and how that relates like eyes being windows to the soul, that it is just deeper than a beauty product, and how can we share those really authentic stories that might have been lost along the way when we’re in a drugstore and pulling eyeliner? How can we tie that to the real origins of why we even wear eyeliner, why it exists. That’s what I want to bring to the world.
Sangeeta Pillai 11:18
I have this memory of my mother making Kajal, which is homemade eyeliner. She followed traditional ways, which she probably learned from her mother. The memory is faint and fuzzy, I remember her using camphor, the gorgeous fresh smell of it. Mom would use a homemade wick or deal for flame. Maybe there was castor oil or coconut oil or not sure. But I do have a memory of her covering the flame with a small copper plate and the next morning, this black sooty kajal would form on the plate. My mum would scoop this up and use the Kajal to line my eyes. I still remember the gentle cooling feeling of camphor in my eyes, which makes me want to curl up and go to sleep. Then mom would use the kajal to put a big black dot on my cheeks for Narasimha to protect me from the evil eyes. That still makes me smile. I still have a photo of me with lots of dark sooty kajal in my eyes, and a big dot on my face. In this world where we’re consuming and even self care is the thing we’re doing, we’re like, oh my god, you got to do this, got to do that. Why are you putting Kajall in your eyes? Why are you holding your hair? What’s the actual kind of scientific reason? Because I read science, I think this education that you’re doing to the world about these products or these rituals is really, really meaningful and I’m so glad you’re doing it. It’s fantastic, actually.
Michelle Ranavat 13:14
Well, thank you and one thing I just want to mention, it kind of ties back to your original question about engineering, I think I get asked these questions and I want to know the why all the time, because that’s the engineering mindset that I have with me that I bring to everything that I actually do want to know what is the science behind Ira though, why does putting oil in your hair benefit your hair and scalp? So digging into that you end up coming out with a lot of science based reasoning, which is such a universal language, right? If I told you that there’s a reason that oil can balance your scalp and in turn, increase microcirculation of this area that can promote hair growth, it doesn’t matter what language if you know anything about Ira, you’re excited because we’re talking about science, it’s universal. So it’s just such a full circle moment.
Sangeeta Pillai 14:10
Yeah. I wanted to talk to you about Ayurveda, I’m a huge advocate of it. I went to this Ayurveda hospital in Coimbatore. I did the whole 21 Day Panchakarma and changed my diet completely based on a lot of things they said to me, but I’ve really seen the benefit and the reasoning and like you say the science behind it, right? What role has that played in your life and your work?
Michelle Ranavat 14:40
I mean, it is my life. So every moment of every day is Ayurveda for me, I mean whether it’s the work aspect, but even when we launch a product, we actually really start with Ayurveda itself, to think about what concepts that haven’t really been popularised? So for example, we just launched our largest cleansing bar, one thing we talked about is Sharia, then Sharia is about having a routine and having a ritual and how important that is and it’s not a crazy complex concept. But we really like to use these moments as an opportunity to share the Ayurveda toolbox with others. How can we make the entire area practical to everybody? How can we just increase awareness to the benefits of having a routine and so we actually work with an Ayurvedic practitioner Keerthi she’s amazing. We are partners with each other all the time, because I have an engineering background, but she really comes from someone that studied Ayurveda and I always kind of have this respect. I want to shine a light on the practitioners, because they have really spent their life studying and I want to do justice to the fact that it’s not just something that like, oh, I’m gonna read a couple articles and say that I’m an Ayurvedic expert, like I’m not an Ayurvedic expert. I’m an engineer, and I love formulation and Ayurveda is an inspiration for me. But I’m actually not an expert, so that’s why we really like to happen to people like Keerthi, and make sure that we’re doing justice and not just saying anyone can be some Ayurvedic expert, we really like to do that. But in doing that we enrich so much of our own knowledge, when it comes to these amazing practices and it’s such a great thing for our people, for our community, because they can take little pieces of it and add it to their life.
Sangeeta Pillai 16:39
Ayurveda is a system of health and healing that’s 1000s of years old. I rediscovered Ayurveda a few years ago, going back to India for a 21 day Panchakarma program, which is sort of a cleansing and balancing program for the body, mind and spirit. You see, Ayurveda says it’s all connected, that we are one being and, therefore, you can’t treat the body and the mind as separate. I sat in this beautiful Ayurvedic retreat in South India, and really learned about myself. It has led me to make massive changes in my diet, in my lifestyle and I can really see the benefits in my body and my life. Everything from Venachar, which is a daily routine that I follow to the foods that I put into my body, to the media that I consume. I can see how it all affects me. I’ve really loved going back to my roots. Back to Ayurveda.
Sangeeta Pillai 17:50
I wanted to talk to you about Ranavat and ingredients because I know you talk about this a lot. But you source the ingredients from the source, I think which is wherever it’s coming from, whether it’s saffron, whether it’s whatever you’re using. And you go to a lot of Indian towns and villages and cities, I’m guessing. Could you talk about why this is important to you. I also know that you work with a lot of artisans who have been doing that particular preparation of creating that for 1000s of years. So they know what they’re doing and that very much is the ethos of your brand, isn’t it?
Michelle Ranavat 18:24
Absolutely! I mean there’s two aspects of it. One is the science and formulation. So you have to go where the plants are the freshest and where they exist, right? So number one is understanding the whole supply chain. How long is it taking from when the flowers are blooming, to when you’re actually extracting the oils? What’s the process of extraction? Once it’s extracted, where is it stored? What’s the movement? How quickly do they move out the batches? So there’s a lot that goes into, when you just pump a product in their hands, there’s really such a huge, vast supply chain behind that all the way down to like a farmer or someone mixing, all the way to where you get it today. And so understanding that process is hugely important to me, because it impacts the entire experience, the efficacy and the quality. I think all of those things work hand-in-hand together. So I want to bring to people experiences that they, like for example, I actually found the note that this woman sent and this is just on a DM that she sent me yesterday and she said that she lives in France, and she’s a South Asian living in France and she said after 25 years away from my homeland, your product not only makes my skin glow, but the aroma takes me back to my childhood memories. When putting Jasmine on our hair while doing Bharthnati or while doing puja, we called it mullypu in the south. We have loose flower sellers walking the streets and if we needed a garland, they would sit under the shade of the porch and with the gentle breeze you would smell the whiff of Jasmine. It has given me goosebumps. Isn’t that beautiful? And she’s saying that she’s connecting to those moments because of our product and that we’re bringing her back to this time in her life. You can only do that, if you have actual Jasmine from that area that you’re bringing, and between what happens, when it’s picked, and when I get it, there’s so many things you have to go see with your eyes and really understand the time in which it’s picked. And so really in order to get that type of comment from someone that lives in France that I’ve literally never seen, and she’s able to conjure these memories, and she feels so moved that she has to write me this message, there has to be something there that’s really real and substantial in order for someone around the world to make that comment. I think that goes into the whole process and supply chain and why that’s so hugely important to me.
Then when it comes to artisans, and your question about that, I think it goes back to luxury and defining luxury. For me, luxury isn’t the most expensive thing in the world. Luxury is the most precious and precious to me means, if someone’s making a console one, actually, this is a product that we’ve launched, it’s a kansa comb, and there’s a lot of imperfections on this comb but it’s handmade in Rajasthan, by an artist who’s been doing it for six generations so it just means when you hold it in your hand, every imperfection, and every little divot is really unique to this comb. And I just feel that there’s something really powerful when I’m holding six generations of this work in my hand, and I’m supporting these families, and preserving this art form, because we see that in fashion all the time, the embroidery and the couriers and all that there’s that whole concept beyond just fashion. And so that’s this tool, a beautiful object isn’t necessary for every person. No, it’s not at all. But for people that really want a luxury that you can’t buy, really, that’s what this is, it symbolises something more.
Sangeeta Pillai 22:18
Absolutely. And I think, not only is it luxury, because it’s that rare. But I guess with that work, you keep alive traditions that’s existed for 1000s of years as well, that Garriga, who’s making that comb in that particular part of Rajasthan, it carries on and I think that’s really, really beautiful. Talking about beautiful, and beauty, I wanted to talk about beauty being still very much a very Eurocentric concept that I see in the world. So whether it’s magazines, or fashion, or advertising, beauty still more or less is in my head, a skinny blonde woman, is this what you think as well? And how do we change that? How do we make women like you and I, and other people like us feel beautiful in this world?
Michelle Ranavat 23:10
I think that it is very hard, because for so many years, we were told something. And so all of a sudden, we’ve now had the approval to say or the realisation to admit that, ‘Wow, there’s so much beauty in what we do.’ It doesn’t automatically happen that way but I’ve always had a deep, deep sense of pride for our culture and I do feel everyone’s culture, no matter where you come from, is so precious. You’re so lucky to be a part of wherever you’re a part of. I think that the more we see people embrace each other… We’ve been embracing Western culture for quite some time, right? Like, we’re obsessed with the sitcoms and we always wanted to be like those icons, you know, in ‘Friends’ and whatever. But I’m seeing now, it’s like the other way around and that’s really exciting. I think it just really brings us closer together. So whether it’s someone who’s never used hair oil before and they’re trying it out, and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, this is so amazing.’ They’re embracing our culture, as simple as that is. So, the more that they do that, we start kind of creating this cycle of ‘we’re all just lucky to be who we are’ and we can learn from each other. We don’t want to be someone else, we want to be ourselves. So I see that, but I think it takes a lot of time to unlearn those habits because, you know, for half of our lives, we’ve seen other people get the spotlight and those are the gears changing so I think we’re making progress. We don’t need to bring ourselves up by bringing other people down. Not to say that, ‘Oh, well now, you know, we don’t want to support those people. Now only these types of people are pretty.’ And it’s… I don’t really think we need to do that. I think we just need to be assured in who we are and be happy to be who we are as much as we can, to find that gratifying or just to find that confidence inside because that emanates out. I think we’ll all… like there’s no need to now say, ‘Oh, well now it’s our turn and we have to only, you know, focus on this one type of person,’ because then we’re doing what was done to us. So let’s just all celebrate who we are and, you know, come together. That’s sort of my mentality
Sangeeta Pillai 25:43
Hey, I wanted to pause this episode for a minute to share something that I’m really excited about. Podcasting changed my life. I went from typing into Google, “what is a podcast?” Yes, I did that, to create the multi award winning masala podcast and now, I’d like to share some of my knowledge with you. I’m starting podcasting master classes on my website, and one of them’s been created, especially for women podcasters. Just go to my website, soulsutras.co.uk and look under courses, or email me at email@example.com. and I’ll share details with you. I look forward to helping you on your podcasting journey. Now, let’s get back to our guest for this episode.
Sangeeta Pillai 27:02
I also wanted to talk about beauty from a South Asian angle. You know, it’s very limiting. What is the typically beautiful South Asian woman like Bollywood stars, for example? They have fair skin, long hair, a tiny waist, you know, so they represent a particular type. Most of us don’t fit that, I mean, regular South Asian women don’t. How do we broaden that ideal of beauty within our own culture? Do you think?
Michelle Ranavat 27:30
I mean, Bollywood is, let’s just say, maybe not the most fair or wholesome industry and I think there’s a lot of broken things in Bollywood. It would be really hard to completely dismantle this industry that has been fueled by stereotypes, pushing a certain type of love, pushing a certain type of family. It’s pretty well known that it’s not, I would say, a healthy industry, the way that it’s been crafted. But I also think some of it is, you are what you see and do. So if you don’t want to consume that media and you want to understand or take it for the surface level that it is, knowing the problems that it has, I think that’s okay. I love Bollywood songs, and I think it has its charm. I’m not going to shun the whole thing, but also, it has a lot of problems. It doesn’t treat a lot of people well, and I know that that’s an issue so I think it’s just about bringing awareness to that and then, taking it at that surface level and hoping that it changes, because I don’t think that will last forever, I just hope. I have no control over Bollywood but yeah, I would love to make a change.
Sangeeta Pillai 29:06
Absolutely, but it’s beyond Bollywood, though, isn’t it? And that’s what I mean, you know, the idea of beauty in our culture is very narrow. Bollywood is one big example of it but even within that, say, you go to a wedding and Auntie might say, ‘Oh, you’re too thin, or you’re too fat, or you’re too whatever,’ you know, it’s a very narrow lens, I think and I think that’s quite problematic. So, as much as the Western world has one stereotypical image of beauty, so does South Asian culture. I think that’s my kind of query rather. I mean, not that I expect you to give me an answer, but it’s more, you know, this is not okay. And we need to change it. And how do we change it?
Michelle Ranavat 29:47
I think it is changing a lot. I mean, again, not living in India, but I’ve seen more inclusive campaigns. I feel that, I mean, even in brands like Papa Don’t Preach, they showcase different types of people. They’re one example of the way that the next generation of Indian brands are really positioning beauty. Yes, the fair and lovely era was there and did exist. You could go into a lot of detail on why we felt that way, what was the influence, and why we did not want to be who we were. That’s a whole traumatic past. But I do think that Indian companies and brands, and Indian people themselves, are starting to wake up a bit and realise that we were, you know, in a bit of a trance. We have to wake up to accepting and not putting down our own selves. It’s a very, very sad concept if you really think about it. We were taught to not love who we were. But I really do feel very optimistic, I have to say. Looking at this new generation of brands, the conversations, it’s amazing – there’s so much promise. Yes, we could look back on the history and see how backwards it was but let’s look to the future. To echo Gandhi, let’s be the change that we hope to see. So that’s kind of what I’m hoping for.
Sangeeta Pillai 31:25
I also wanted to talk about beauty in the context of growing older. Again, traditionally, in the West and in the East, beauty has been considered the preserve of young people. As women, we’re told that only the young are beautiful, and as we age, we are seen as less. So, that really bothers me and I think we need to find ways to stop the world from making us feel bad about what is a really natural, beautiful process: ageing.
Michelle Ranavat 31:54
Yeah, I mean, I’m almost 42. I definitely have signs of ageing, as one would naturally. I think there’s a difference between finding pride in taking care of yourself, but then, that can go in the wrong direction if you’re overly fixated on preserving a 20-year-old figure, because that’s obviously just going to become disappointing at some point. I think there’s a part of the work that we have to do ourselves. Yes, of course, people are focusing on Gen Z in marketing, and a lot of the models that we see, it’s hard. There’s always this external stimulus of what a 40-year-old looks like and how do we fit into that but I also feel like there’s some work that we have to do ourselves in accepting and coming to terms with our changing bodies and finding joy in that process. It’s not easy at all but I think it’s work that we have to do ourselves. And it’s hard work, because despite everything around us that’s telling us that ageing is not good, we have to somehow find it within ourselves. I think it’s an important exercise that we all have to do.
Sangeeta Pillai 33:15
Do you not find, that’s almost an impossible thing? If, all around, and I talk about it personally, also, you’re 45 and I am 50. So all around when the message is very much, ‘Young is beautiful, young is beautiful.’ and we’ve all got to aspire to look younger, to be younger somehow, I think, and it’s a question to myself and to you.
Michelle Ranavat 33:39
I think I don’t aspire to look younger, but I aspire to look good at my age and there’s a difference between that. It’s funny, when I was at home with my parents, my dad was saying that when my parents got married, I’m the age that my nanny was. So when we think about how old my nanny was when my parents got married, we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s wearing a sari. She’s older or whatever.’ and I’m that age right now. Some of it is just like, first of all, the average life expectancy in India was much lower at that time, even 40 years, and things have changed. We’re living a lot longer, so now the actual acceptance of ageing is coming into play more because we have longer lives to live. We’re actually in this above 40 phase for longer than we’ve ever been. So it’s kind of new territory, but it’s also like what she was doing at her age, like she was getting her kids married. I have a seven-year-old. So it’s a very different phase in how old we are acting and the phases of life that we’re interacting with. I do think that, yeah, I mean, what we thought was older is changing now, like what someone can do in their 40s is very different. My dad was like, ‘Oh my god, 60 is so young,’ and I think that too. I think, I have to say, I do think the perspective is shifting, but I don’t have a real answer other than it has to come from within. There’s no, yes, we could create a world where everyone celebrates ageing. I don’t think that’s gonna happen in our lifetime, but let’s say that it does, I still think it’s gonna be hard. It’s not easy, I think it’s just up to us. How can we accept where we are in life and enjoy the moments and the ageing that we’ve done and understand that we’re not going to be happy about it all the time? Who’s going to be happy when it hurts to get up, you’re not as cool? Celebrate? Like, that’s…, of course, but you can find ways to appreciate where you are in life. I think if I asked you, would you want to, you know, I remember those days when we lived in New York, and we just wanted to go out all the time, and I was like, I can’t believe a day where I want to stay in. And now I’m like, over stuff. Maybe you do go over certain things and maybe come to accept, or maybe you don’t want to do things that you don’t care about. Get over the idea of having a forehead wrinkle. I think that is what naturally happens, but it has to come from within. Being in the beauty industry myself, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking your best and I think that’s very different from looking good. That’s a huge point of differentiation that I want to make. We’re not trying to be who we’re not, we’re just trying to feel really good in the skin that we have.
Sangeeta Pillai 36:30
So we were talking about this a little bit earlier but I really wanted to touch upon the kind of beauty of ritual, you know, the rituals and the traditions we come from, like the hair oiling or the Divali morning. I don’t know if you do that in your part of India, but in the south, you wake up and you have this warm oil bath on Diwali morning.
Michelle Ranavat 36:52
I haven’t done that to be honest.
Sangeeta Pillai 36:54
I’ve started doing that in London, I live on my own, but every Diwali, I wake up really early, and I warm up sesame seed oil, til ka tel. I do this warm oil and I feel really warm inside, my stomach feels warm. It’s such a beautiful kind of feeling and it feels very special. So I wanted to talk about why these rituals are important, and why they are so good for our sense of well being. Why do you think that is?
Michelle Ranavat 37:23
Yeah, ritual, the definition of it is actually a simple act of devotion. So it can be a ritual for religious purposes, or it can be your own personal ritual. But this act of devotion, whether it’s to someone else or to ourselves, I think there’s something to be said about the word devotion, and what that means to us mentally or spiritually. I really do think there’s something beautiful about the concept of devoting your time, your energy, your mindshare to something that’s been done in your family for generations, taking a moment to connect with that part of yourself. There’s something about ritual, whether it has nothing to do with where you’re from, but something that makes you feel really good today. You can set new rituals. It’s this idea of combining habit, which gets back to the entire routine, and outward devotion, or some sort of spiritual connection, whether that be religious or to your own roots and ancestors. I think that gives us a mental compass and a reminder that we’re here today. This is really precious, and we’re valuing the moment now. We could go on, and once we get to our desk, we’re really busy and we’re focusing on all of our emails but that moment that we were doing our ritual, we actually stopped time for a moment and lived in the present. So I really think it’s a way that we live in the now and we appreciate the moment. The same goes for going to temples and religious ceremonies, really, there’s something there that feels very grounding.
Sangeeta Pillai 39:14
The oiling of hair is a very South Asian ritual shared between mothers and daughters for millennia. On Saturday mornings, my mother would warm up coconut oil on a kerosene stove in our Mumbai home. She’d heat it up to the smoking point until we could smell the coconut all over our little home. Then she’d get me to sit down on the tiled floor with my legs crossed in front of me. She perched behind me on a little stool, so she could reach all my long dark hair. We’d spend an hour there, my mother and I. She’d massage every inch of my scalp with the oil, letting it soak into the length of my long hair, which by then had grown past my hips. With every stroke of her hands, heavy with the coconut oil, I’d feel my limbs grow heavy with love. It was the only physical expression of love I ever remember from my mom and I still treasure it. I wanted to talk about self-care. It’s become a buzzword in the last couple of years, and everybody that we see on Instagram or anywhere else is like, ‘This is my self-care ritual. I journal and I do this and I do that.’ But self-care doesn’t have to be a 20-step skincare routine or spending thousands in a spa, or any of that, right? Self-care can be simpler than that, right?
Michelle Ranavat 40:49
Yeah, I think self-care is a mindset, right? It’s about lighting and what is the intention behind it. Because I could do a skincare ritual and just be really quick about it and that’s not really self-care, that’s just me cleansing my face. It’s just a part of my routine. But if I make it more of, you know, mentally, like, ‘Ooh, this is a special moment. I’m thinking different thoughts. I’m using special products. I’m creating a ceremony.’ So, it’s all about the intention that you have and it’s drawing and pairing that intention with the process or act and combining those two together.
Sangeeta Pillai 41:24
What can we do? So if you were to give advice, say to me, “Sangeeta, here are three things, here’s how you could approach it. This evening, when you’re putting on your makeup, removing your makeup and putting on your moisturiser.” What do I think about that makes it more self-care? That makes it more of that moment?
Michelle Ranavat 41:43
I mean, for me, of course, I’m very biassed. That’s why I love using our products, because the scent and the texture are very sensorial. So it’s very easy to put yourself in that ritualistic mindset when you’re using them. Saffron itself is very meditative and anti-anxiety so when you’re putting saffron on your third eye, this is such an important part of your intuition. You can dig into that and say, ‘Yeah, when I’m putting on the saffron serum, it’s very easy.’ Because of the ingredients and what they’re known for, in the sense and the ideas that they conjure up for you to feel like it is a ritual. So, you know, I think that makes it a lot easier. That is why and how. I don’t think it definitely has to be so elaborate but it’s really in that intention, that moment and that is one way that I love connecting.
Sangeeta Pillai 42:37
I love that, absolutely love that. Why do you think it’s important for young brown girls to see someone like you in magazines, to see your products on their beauty shelf? What does that do for a little girl in another small town in America today?
Michelle Ranavat 42:55
I mean, aren’t there a few things? Of course, from a product perspective, being able to see a hair oil that maybe we grew up with feeling shy about, you know, the fact that it’s at Harrods, it’s very exciting for us because we get to see our traditions in a way that maybe we didn’t get the opportunity to see. So I think it is really important to show their value, not just in a superficial way, but it is still kind of nice to have that representation for our rituals in those types of places that they’ve never been before, I think that’s very validating. And then I think one thing that I hope to bring out more is, you know, there has been a focus on the kind of youth and being this entrepreneur, you know, the ’30 under 30′ kind of thing, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think that’s great, to find your ambition early and tap into it but that’s not the only way. I want people to see that moms with kids are doing these remote jobs, people that don’t have kids that are, you know, in their 50s, living their dream and are creating this amazing show. That’s such a great example that you’re creating. It’s about different archetypes of success. You don’t have to be this cookie-cutter mould of what we think success looks like. So I really hope to see more examples of that.
Sangeeta Pillai 44:31
So if five year old Michelle was sitting here with us and yoou had something to say to her. What would you say as this Michelle, who’s created this amazing brand and is the success story, what would you say to five year old Michelle?
Michelle Ranavat 44:44
I would say trust the journey, I guess. And that’s something that I feel like our parents say to us, and we just say, ‘Well, you don’t understand because it’s so painful.’ Now, whether I got laid off from my finance job or moved from New York, which I never wanted to leave, and came to LA, all these changes were so hard for me but they actually were putting me in the right place. I think that’s what I’ve learned now, having lived over 40 years. I can say that I now finally see those pieces come together. You have to live long enough to understand that.
Sangeeta Pillai 45:19
Yeah, so trust the journey, that it will all work out for the best.
Michelle Ranavat 45:23
That it is happening for you, not to you kind of thing.
Sangeeta Pillai 45:27
Yeah, that’s beautiful and that’s a huge difference, what you just said there. Finally, have you got any advice for listeners and the Masala podcast? Anything that you’d like to say to them?
Michelle Ranavat 45:37
I would say that, I guess it depends on what their perspective in life is. But I would say if there’s something that you can do, kind of back to ritual, and think about instead of going through the motions every day, and crossing things off your to-do list, take a bit of a different approach, and think about what things you might want. Instead of your schedule running you, you running your schedule. Is it a beautiful elaborate skincare routine in the evening that you can look forward to? Every now and then, is it something special that you’re treating yourself to? Is it this incense? What is something really simple and special, and it doesn’t have to cost anything for you to just add as a moment of joy, a moment of reflection, and intention in your day. I would just love to encourage people to think about that
Sangeeta Pillai 46:26
Thank you Michelle, this has been an absolutely lovely conversation. Thank you for taking the time and talking about your journey and all the ways that we can add these little rituals in our life that make it a lot richer. Thank you for being a masala podcast.
Michelle Ranavat 46:40
Oh, no, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Sangeeta Pillai 46:47
Thank you for listening to the Masala podcast. Masala podcast is part of my platform, Soul Sutras, dedicated to celebrating and supporting South Asian women. This is a space for all of us bad betties who don’t do as we’re told. This is where we get to celebrate our culture our way and be exactly who we want to be. I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch via email at soul sutras.co.uk or my website soul sutras.co.uk, I’m also on Instagram and Twitter. Just look for Soul Sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me, Sangeeta Pillai produced by Anushka Tate, opening music by Sonny Robertson.
Sangeeta Pillai 47:45
Another lovely podcast is called That Desi Spark hosts Nehal Tenanyi and Annika Sharma talk about topics that impact their dual South Asian American identity. I loved listening to their interview with Maitreyo Ramakrishnan from Never Have I Ever. That Desi Spark is making bold statements on all things Brown, go listen on all podcasting platforms.