The mother-daughter duo building a lifestyle empire

Falguni Nayar’s wisdom and experience, combined with Adwaita Nayar’s forward-looking thought process, have grown Nykaa into India’s most formidable cosmetics and fashion business

The mother-daughter duo building a lifestyle empire

Tuesday October 10, 2023,

8 min Read

Key Takeaways

  • Nykaa founder Falguni Nayar's entrepreneurial spirit was encouraged by their parents who allowed her the freedom to pursue her dreams.
  • While the former investment banker brought financial expertise and acumen to the business, her co-founder and daughter Adwaita brought a young thought process and deep knowledge of the digital domain.
  • The brand grew with an emphasis on a progressive positioning among women customers and the art of retailing.
  • Following the success of Nykaa’s beauty business, Adwaita wants to build the company’s fashion arm into an incredible business.

Growing up in 1970s Mumbai, Falguni Nayar rarely heard a ‘no’. Not when she wanted to go on a student exchange programme to Kashmir and stay with a Kashmiri family. Not even when she wanted to trek up the Parvati Valley as one of only two girls in a group of 12. Her father never treated her differently than her brother, and encouraged her to travel and experience things. Today, as her company scales the peaks of success, she attributes her entrepreneurial spirit to strong parenting.

“That stayed with me, (the fact) that when you get the freedom to pursue your dreams, the sky is the limit,” the banker-turned-founder and CEO of cosmetics giant Nykaa tells YourStory Founder and CEO Shradha Sharma in an exclusive interview.

Strong parenting is also the driving force behind Adwaita Nayar, Falguni’s daughter. The 33-year-old co-founded Nykaa and is the CEO of Nykaa Fashion, the company’s clothing and accessories vertical launched in 2018. “I get my joy of living from my mother and the sense of discipline from my father,” she shares. Adwaita lived in India, London, and the US growing up, and was encouraged by Falguni to experience music and summer camps. “I feel so lucky that (my mother is) a mentor and inspiration for millions of women across the country, and I get to live with her and see her every day in action.”

Falguni’s financial expertise, combined with Adwaita’s insights as a millennial, gave rise to the formidable makeup and lifestyle brand we see today, which has won over buyers both online and offline.

We were speaking at the Nayars’ well-appointed home in Mumbai. I remember being here to interview Falguni six years ago, and when she saw that my fingernails were bare, she promptly handed me a bag full of nail colours. That is a sign of the warmth that comes naturally to the Nayars. The Nykaa business is just as much from the heart as it is from the head.

Starting up together

In 2012, Falguni left a top investment banking role at Kotak Mahindra Bank to begin selling cosmetics over the internet. As an institutional stockbroker and banker with IIM-A credentials, she was involved in the early IPO journeys of many major companies in the country. Talking to founders of those companies sparked her own entrepreneurial dream at 48. “I wanted to experience a similar journey where I wanted to come up with an idea for a gap in the market, something that Indian consumers would want,” says Falguni. And she wanted to do it before turning 50, because she knew it would take 15 years to reach maturity.

With the move to entrepreneurship, her family saw her go from sitting at an enviable corner office to watching a handful of orders trickle in on the laptop at a small workshop. After cracking IPOs worth billions of dollars in her earlier life, she was celebrating 10 orders worth Rs 800 each from Varanasi. “She was doing her own scheduling, she was starting completely hands down from scratch. No task was too small for her,” remembers Adwaita.

The junior Nayar became involved in the company right from inception when they were building its wireframe, says Falguni. “We've come so far thanks to being together. What that did was it married the best of wisdom and knowledge with the young thought process,” she adds. At the time, a young thought process pointed to Nykaa’s millennial energy, understanding of the digital world, and understanding of the social media world.

They worked out of the 190 sqft industrial gala where Falguni’s father once used to run a small bearings business. “There were mushrooms growing in the bathroom,” the duo recalls. But Falguni wanted to feel the pressure of a startup, where everything matters and you must make things happen. The company worked Saturdays in the beginning, and Adwaita made sure that if their employees were working until 4 PM, the co-founders would not leave before that either. She stepped away for two years to pursue an MBA at Harvard, all the while thinking about what ideas she could bring back to Nykaa.

The brand gained virality—Falguni says young girls in remote Indian villages recognise the brand too—by going after authenticity. “That came from first principles of observing how that category sells in the physical world and replicating that online,” she says, adding that Adwaita had a big role to play in this strategy. With her input, Nykaa leveraged the way women talk about makeup and give each other advice, and brought that to social media.

Two things drew customers to the brand, Adwaita notes. First, it had a forward-looking positioning—it encouraged women to be the ‘nykaas’ (actors) of their own life, for instance and also encouraged them to make any choice they make without fear of judgement. “These are examples of positions we took that just really hit the pulse of the Indian woman,” she says. Second, the brand also focused on the art of retailing, in both digital and physical stores.

Breaking glass ceilings

It all looks impressive now but was there a bias when they started out? Was raising capital ever a challenge, I wonder, given the business was led by women?

Within her family and among investors, Falguni has always found a supportive environment. “I didn't face the glass ceiling and I think women should just have a strong mind ... I actually ignore those signals and not let them affect me,” she says.

Adwaita has an alternative view of what women should do with negative signals. She believes in recognising and calling them out. “Biases in the workplace do exist and we have to acknowledge it. Perhaps (my mother) at the age of 50 with a stellar investment banking career did not face it, but there are a whole bunch of women in their 30s who do not have that track record and are facing it,” she observes.

The Nykaa leaders, for their part, prioritise a bias-free environment. “We have a very positive, equal ratio of women in the workplace at every level in our organisation,” says Falguni. Empowerment, for her, works both ways. “I'm very excited when I see a woman working in technology. But for me, empowerment is also when men are ready to work in beauty and swatch that lipstick.”

Adwaita has her sights set on breaking new ground—and she is not driven by headlines, market cap, or valuation. “What drives me is ‘can we build some incredible businesses’? We did it in beauty, and, personally, I want to do it in fashion,” she says.

No ego, only entrepreneurial energy

The mutual admiration and respect the mother and daughter share is evident.

Adwaita sees her mother as her best friend, boss, and mentor. She is inspired by her love for things beyond business, which include trekking, a saree collection, celebrating birthdays, and maintaining old friendships. She also admires Falguni’s lack of ego and openness to ideas. “Her leadership style, not just with me, is to throw people in the deep end and let them swim. She allows a lot of freedom and flexibility which sometimes may not come in other parent-child equations,” she noted

The senior Nayar, however, had to overcome feelings of guilt during her investment banking days when she would sometimes return at 2 AM and fly out again at 7 AM. “Mid-career at work can be really tough and that’s when your children are young and need your attention too.” But both Adwaita and her brother Anchit were focused and excelled at academics, putting their mother at ease.

The siblings did miss having her around more but Adwaita is now glad Falguni took the time to pursue her dreams: “As I get older, I realise that actually by living for yourself a bit, you can build the best life for the people around you.”

Her mother’s willingness to take risks and get things done inspires the whole organisation now, Adwaita says. “In this company, 70-80% of people are so entrepreneurial. With everything that they work on, they feel complete ownership and young people have very large mandates.” Nykaa is also bringing together a diverse team, including in terms of gender, sexuality, educational background, and age. “You have (my mother) leading from the front, full of wisdom. And then she's got this very vibrant team of like 25-30-year-olds, and that amalgamation of so much diversity is just wonderful.”

Now, 11 years into building the business, the duo prefers not to chase the typical markers of success. “We were never in a race to be a unicorn,” says Falguni. “We must have been one of the few companies that achieved unicorn status much later, and then the IPO helped us discover value because we had built a good company.”

Adwaita says the duo go more by instinct. “You just know in your bones when you're running a business well, you know deeply when it's working for the customer, and you know deeply when it's structured the right way and it has the right opportunities. That's what we strive for.” Their ambition is to continue building on that authenticity.

Watch more videos from 'In Conversation with Shradha Sharma'.