Hire diverse teams to widen your perspectives! You may not know that you are about to approve a concept that could potentially be offensive to someone because you only see it from your point of view! You need a team of people around you from different ethnicities, genders, socio-economic groups, sexualities and ages to truly ensure you are gaining multiple perspectives before making important decisions. Nowadays with this extreme ‘cancel culture’, brands don’t often have a second chance once they have made a mistake or upset their customers. You reduce these risks of error if you have a different mix of trusted individuals around you that look, act and think differently than you do.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing, Aleezeh, Aleena and Naseeha Khan, three sisters who are the co-founders of the disruptive cosmetics brand CTZN Cosmetics. The mission of CTZN Cosmetics is to be a truly inclusive beauty brand: genderless, catering to all skin tones — which is why they launched their Allure Best of Beauty Award-winning Nudiversal Lip Duos in a ground-breaking 25 shades of nude, so everyone can find their perfect shade of nude lipstick — with the cleanest formulas possible. All CTZN Cosmetics products are 100% vegetarian, cruelty free, paraben free and talc free. The genesis of CTZN Cosmetics began when Aleena, Aleezeh and Naseeha went shopping for cosmetics at a major beauty retailer and realized that not a single model in mainstream beauty campaigns looked like them, or better yet represented them. Models with ‘middle brown’ skin tones were hardly ever Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern. Beauty campaigns aside, the same issues were prevalent in beauty brands’ product formulations, where certain skin tones and undertones are often not considered. The CTZN founders soon started to realize that many of their friends of color felt the same way about their own demographics being underrepresented in beauty and fashion. The conversation then evolved when Aleena, Aleezeh and Naseeha noticed that the lack of diversity in the beauty industry spans way beyond skin tones — but also gender. The Khan sisters identify themselves as third-culture kids, with their diverse backgrounds of being born in the U.S., raised in the U.A.E., with Pakistani ethnicity. Aleena, Aleezeh and Naseeha are currently based between London and Dubai.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Naseeha: Makeup has been a passion of mine for years — I remember, during high school years, being so excited to come home and spend hours searching makeup tutorials on YouTube. I would beg my sisters to let me do their makeup on random weeknights just to practice my techniques on them. I then got certified as a makeup artist at LA Make Up School and did some freelance work on clients while I was a university student in London. I never thought I could have a career focused on makeup, and for it to be socially accepted; I thought it would always remain as a passion on the side. But one day, my dad and I had a serious conversation about what I wanted to do after university. He did extensive market research on the cosmetics industry and its exponential potential and soon after we were aligned on creating a color cosmetics company together, as a family.
Aleezeh: My sisters and I all have such different strengths and skills so Aleena and I knew that we could add major value in completely different ways as well. We knew together, as a team, we could really come up with something disruptive. We were all on board — but it took Aleena the longest to join the team!
Aleena: At the time we were having these conversations, I was working with Snapchat in their Content team and didn’t think I was ready to stop working for other companies and to fully commit to a family business. But once we started the creative brainstorms for CTZN, I knew this was the perfect role and opportunity for my personality! I always knew whatever I did had to be creative and entrepreneurial, with a lot of travel. This was exactly what I had been looking for.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Aleezeh: Well, we got to see our first ever campaign blown up on a building in Times Square as our official launch! That was incredibly iconic for us to experience in person with our family and loved ones. We’ve never treated our brand as a startup — from inception we kept the standards as high as established veteran beauty brands in the industry. Launching on a Times Square building was the perfect way to introduce our brand to the world in a way that they would take us seriously and realize there’s a new brand on the block worth keeping an eye on!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Aleena: Let me just say, no mistake feels funny at the time when it’s your own brand at stake! But we’ve definitely had our share of learning lessons. For starters, there was definitely a spelling error on one of the first product boxes that got printed! Another thing we learned is that you can’t approve a formula unless you’ve tried in a variety of color shades! So for example our nude lipstick collection — we were testing out multiple matte lipstick formulas and approved one that we all sampled because the pigmentation was amazing! Then months later, we travel to our manufacturers lab to test out our nude lipsticks in the approved formula. It was a disaster — the pigmentation and color payoff was average. What happened was — we approved the lipstick formula after trying it on in a bright red shade. We did not realize that the same formula could have such different color payoff when you make it in nude shades. So we had to completely tweak the formula and delay our product launch by months.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Aleena: We stand out because we truly represent everyone! You look at our NUDIVERSAL collection where we have 25 shades of nude lipsticks and lip glosses and you feel considered. The coolest moment was presenting our brand at Beautycon LA this past August and seeing how many people were drawn to our small booth once they caught a glimpse of our inclusive nude range. Hardly any beauty brands are acknowledging that dark brown lipsticks are “nudes” for some people — many people do not even realize that shades other than beige are “nudes” until you explain it to them. At Beautycon I’ll never forget this one interaction — there was a beautiful African American woman who came to us with this look of defeat. She said “I’ve never been able to find a nude”, and there was this sense of hopelessness in her eyes as if she was convinced we would also disappoint her. My sisters and I immediately promised her she was not leaving our booth without a nude lipstick in hand. And of course, we had a shade for her. That’s why we do this — moments like that are priceless.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Naseeha: Yes! We are developing our blog: Of the World with captivating content that centers around cultural awareness. We produced this segment called CULTUTORIAL: a fun video segment where someone tells you about their culture while doing their makeup routine. We’ve already uploaded 4 on our website (Page: Of the World) where you can learn about Egypt, South Korea, India and Tanzania! You can actually learn about traditions and lifestyles around the world through makeup tutorials — we’re all about doing more with every opportunity for having a platform.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Aleezeh: Hire diverse teams to widen your perspectives! You may not know that you are about to approve a concept that could potentially be offensive to someone because you only see it from your point of view! You need a team of people around you from different ethnicities, genders, socio-economic groups, sexualities and ages to truly ensure you are gaining multiple perspectives before making important decisions. Nowadays with this extreme ‘cancel culture’, brands don’t often have a second chance once they have made a mistake or upset their customers. You reduce these risks of error if you have a different mix of trusted individuals around you that look, act and think differently than you do.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a team?
Naseeha: Keep the energy in the office positive! It’s not always easy to do, but your team is not going to be excited and enthusiastic about their workload if you are not bringing that same energy to the office. Keep the passion alive about your business and remind them every day why they decided to be apart of your vision. Passion is contagious — when a founder consistently shows how much he/she believes in their business — the team sees the potential and gets motivated to work harder and to work happier. If the founder of the business doesn’t seem to care, why would the rest of the team?
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Aleena: Without a doubt, our grandmother Noreen Khan has been our mentor from day one. Her entire philosophy is centered around the power of positive thinking, which has truly enabled us to believe we can do anything we set our minds to, and that no goal is too big. The way we think changes everything — it’s crazy how much you can accomplish if you actually shift your paradigm and see every success as a possibility. When I was a kid, I remember clearly anytime I would be feeling down, she would tell me to stand up, wave my arms in the air and sing “I feel better, I feel better”! It is the art of positive affirmations and they work wonders if you believe they can.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Naseeha: By changing the norms and standards within the beauty industry! We’re showing what it truly means to be inclusive, and that it should be absolutely expected to have shade ranges that suit every skin tone and undertone. Ultimately, we want everyone to simply feel they were considered. This is all only the beginning, we have major plans on using our platform to enhance cultural awareness through beauty content.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Schedule weekly calls with every department in your team, especially if you are all on different time zones like we are! You can get so much more accomplished in a phone call that emails would take triple the time on.
Don’t let emails roll over to the next day (have a policy where everything must be answered by end of day)
Try to detach emotions from workplace communication — don’t be sensitive to criticism. Understand everyone is there to make this business successful so do not take comments personally.
Keep the energy positive, light and exciting in the workplace to increase motivation levels.
Consider your colleagues’ advice and feedback before making your decision, even if you feel you are an expert on a certain topic.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Aleena: For all of us to love each other’s differences. If we all viewed our differences from a lens of admiration and respect, the entire world would be different. There would be zero discrimination of any sort, which in my opinion, is the most impactful movement to ever witness. This is one of the reasons why we launched our Cultutorials (a combination of “culture” + “tutorial”) on our blog — instead of just showing you another makeup tutorial with musical overlayed, we’re featuring people from all over the world to share their background, so you hopefully learn something about another culture in the process.
Can you please give us your favorite. “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Aleezeh: “Have goals so big, you feel uncomfortable telling small minded people”. We’re in our early 20s and get to live our dream of being co-founders! Surround yourself with ‘doers’ who are fearlessly chasing their goals even if they sound overly ambitious to the average person.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
All sisters: The women behind Red Table Talk, without a doubt! Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith and Adrienne Norris. The way that these women from three different generations discuss such vulnerable topics with raw candor and lack of judgment is truly inspiring and is reducing the stigma around discussing important topics such as mental health, addiction, racism and self worth. We admire anyone using their platforms to do more!
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