Rooshy Roy and Nina Davuluri, Co-Founders of aavrani
Meet Rooshy Roy and Nina Davuluri, co-founders of aavrani, an Indian-inspired beauty brand that’s reimagining luxury skincare by curating best-in-class ingredients, formulating all-natural, highly effective solutions, and returning to a deeper, more authentic meaning of beauty. Rooshy, a former finance professional and Nina, a former Miss America share with us their journey of coming together to build a brand that deeply resonates with their heritage and shared cultural experiences. We love how aavrani is all about embracing our most natural selves and inspiring a movement in which a woman’s real beauty unleashes fierce confidence and self-compassion. Read on to learn more!
Nina: I was born in Syracuse, New York, but my grandparents raised me in Vijayawada, India for two and a half years. My first spoken language was Telugu. I came back to the US when I was three and a half, and then grew up in Oklahoma for seven years. I grew up around a lot of stereotypes and some people thought I was even Native American! We eventually moved to Michigan when I was 10, and then back to Syracuse. Growing up, I was on the traditional med school path, but I competed for Miss New York and Miss America. From there as you know, med school kind of took a backseat!
Rooshy: I grew up in a suburb of Detroit and my parents immigrated from Calcutta in the late 80s. They moved to Detroit because my dad was an auto engineer and his first job was at General Motors, where’s he’s since built his career.
I was lucky to grow up around a very tight knit Bengali community of over twenty families. Our families would embrace our heritage and rituals, celebrate poojas and share beauty rituals. My first exposure to skincare was through this community, and the foundation of aavrani is so deeply embedded in these roots. It’s been really cool to share these rituals with other South Asian women more broadly, and with women of all different backgrounds.
I went to college in Indiana, then moved to New York and worked in finance for six years. I started business school in the fall of 2017, and that’s when the idea behind aavrani really started taking shape.
Unpacking Beauty and Skin Color
Nina: Skin color is so deeply feared in South Asian culture. One of the initial conversations Rooshy and I had was about how we perceived our own skin color. Growing up, I was told not to go out in the sun, or that I’d be so much more beautiful if I was lighter-skinned. I remember looking up to a headline the morning after I won Miss America which read, “Is Miss America too Dark to be Miss India?” That headline shocked me, to say the least. First of all, I didn’t even want to be Miss India! But that aside, it came back to these standards of women achieving something great and society being quick to comment on our physical appearances. Why aren’t we celebrating the success of South Asian women across all platforms, and why are we always relating a woman’s success to her appearance?
On the other hand, my friends and peers envied my darker skin and would be like “OMG, you’re so tan, that’s so beautiful.” So I grew up with these beauty standards that were set in both South Asian and American cultures. It’s always been about wanting what we don’t have and setting unrealistic standards. But that’s just not how it works anymore. All skin types are beautiful and I really believe in embracing our natural selves. It’s about being proud and confident in who you are regardless of skin color.
Rooshy: While I’m not considered “dark skinned” in terms of the spectrum of Indian women, my mother is very light-skinned so to speak and my father is very dark-skinned. So my brother and I are a mix of their skin tones, and I grew up my entire life hearing that “it’s so unfortunate she didn’t inherit her mother’s skin tone.” Everyone would say it jokingly, but it wasn’t really a joke. Interestingly, nothing was ever said about my brother’s skin tone. It’s such a deeply rooted thing, especially given how progressive my parents are. Like Nina said, it still comes back to a woman’s looks and beauty at the end of the day despite her accomplishments.
When Nina won Miss America, that was such a pivotal moment for South Asian women in the US to see someone who looks like us on the national stage. I’ll never forget that moment, and our whole community was so proud. It was like everyone knew Nina personally, like she was a part of our families. That’s how much pride there was behind her win. And that feeling is what we’re trying to replicate across our platform.
Coming Together to Start aavrani
Rooshy: Meeting Nina was the most serendipitous thing ever. She was speaking at an event at UPenn and our other co-founder Justin and I went up to her afterwards and started talking about this idea we had. The feelings of wanting to advocate for something different in terms of redefining what beauty means were mutual. We just knew in that moment that if we didn’t execute on this, it would be a disservice to the world. This couldn’t have been more meant to be.
Nina: I had already been interested in starting a beauty brand, but it had always been on the back burner. I wanted to do something surrounding this idea around skin color to create a meaningful impact. As our conversations continued, we both knew that our core missions were really similar. You don’t find that very often. Our team, Justin included, brings different aspects to the table and we have collectively been able to leverage our experiences.
Rooshy: Starting a business isn’t easy, and we’re still making mistakes and learning from them. We anticipate it being that way for a long time! The important part about the startup experience is finding resilience around those mistakes. You can’t beat yourself up about all the missteps along the way, as you need to move on quickly. That’s been the most critical part of getting to where we are now.
Having confidence is really important too - in the startup, and really with anything you do. Confidence is more than half the battle. It’s never going to get off the ground unless you showcase conviction around what you’re doing. This was a learning experience for me. Even though people are watching you build this and you’re accountable for your mistakes, people are much more forgiving than we anticipate. That gives me confidence to take more risks. I would encourage anybody who is thinking about starting something that is off the beaten path to just start. The act of taking the leap to do so builds so much confidence, and it only continues to develop over time.
Nina: I’m a perfectionist, and I had to realize that nothing will be perfect. You just can’t expect everything to be flawless. It really comes back to the “why you started this” question. What we want from aavrani is so clear to us, that as long as we focus on our mission, everything will be fine.
Conceptualizing the Ritual
Rooshy: When we first started, we wanted to integrate Indian ingredients and stay true to the rituals we grew up with. Especially if we wanted to appeal to non-South Asian women and share the heritage with everyone, we needed to format the ingredients and products in a way that’s quickly digestible. We also had to make sure that the education gap behind these products and their efficacy couldn’t be so big that we would turn people away from them. One of the reasons for example that we don’t use the word “Ayurveda” in any of our materials is because we don’t want people to feel alienated from not understanding it. We focus on making our ingredients accessible to everyone. For example, turmeric is our hero product, and it’s having a huge moment in our culture right now. People are aware of turmeric, but we’re helping drive more education on its topical benefits for skin.
In interviewing several luxury skincare users, we also learned that one of the most digestible formats would be a step-by-step routine. Luckily at this point in skincare, there are pretty clear, simple steps which are usually a cleanser, toner, moisturizer and then eye cream. Having this outline was really helpful for us. We then iterated on formulas, knowing exactly the ingredients we wanted to use. We also wanted to keep the ritual simple and not intimidating as other skincare rituals can often be 12-15 steps.
Nina: As we were creating the ritual, we focused on aligning every part of the ritual towards empowering every woman regardless of her skin tone. Our brand name is integral to that. aavrani is about honoring the real queens in our lives - our moms, sisters, fans, friends, and role models. We’re creating an “iBeauty” (Indian beauty) movement around them that’s Indian inspired and all about self-care.
Rooshy: Everything Nina said is the core pillar of the brand. We’re pioneering a movement around self-care, self-love, and celebration of all women rooted in iBeauty. We’ve been blown away by how the brand has resonated so quickly with non-Indian women. That’s constantly a balancing act for us, because we want to be able to show our Indian roots but also not feel like we’re closing the door to other women. We’re also an all-natural brand and don’t use any harmful chemicals or toxins.
Our goal is really to grow and build the aavrani fam. Once people are aware of the brand and understand who we are, we find that we resonate with so many women because we fill this white space of advocating for self-care. We want people to be so excited about our product that they share it with their communities. When we get a message about how much we’ve changed somebody’s life, that’s exactly the kind of impact we seek to have.
Rooshy: The women I worked with in my professional career are some of my biggest mentors. Unfortunately, there weren’t very many women at all in my workplaces so it was great to understand how female leaders at work navigated their careers in a male dominated space. I’d also say that Nina has been an amazing mentor to me in terms of how she advocates for diversity, inclusion and pushing for representation.
Nina: I’ve been lucky to have a few mentors in my life that have advised me on career and life in general. When creating aavrani, it was pretty difficult though to find mentors who had created a similar experience or went through the same process. Even in this beauty / brand world, you don’t see many diverse beauty brands that share similar aspects to aavrani. We are navigating uncharted territory in some ways and that’s really exciting! We also recognize that for iBeauty to take off, there should be more brands out there. So we want to create an inclusive movement where more and more brands and efforts rise up with us.
I also think that collaboration is everything. Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve experienced is that in South Asian society, we sometimes come from an individualistic place and focus on “I,” rather than thinking about “we” and creating something great together. That mindset is everything. I couldn’t do any of this alone. There’s so much more strength in having people come together from different fields. More than anything, it’s about finding those partnerships and really believing in each other as well.
Rooshy: I would go so far as to say that there isn’t a clear community around female entrepreneurs that isn’t at least a little bit competitive. In any industry where we are the minority, women sometimes think that there’s only space for one of us. I am confident that as more women build their own initiatives, more collaborative communities will form as a result.
Inspiring More Openness in our Community
Nina: I’ve shared parts of my story over the years through the Miss America platform. I’ve talked openly about my struggles with an eating disorder, and it was really difficult for my family to hear that. My dad was more understanding, but my mom still cringes that I was talking openly about this to the world. At this point she’s gotten used to it, but there’s certainly a stigma in our community around this. As more influential people are open about these topics, it’ll definitely start to change.
To be vulnerable is a difficult place, but I’ve recognized it’s also a very powerful place. Every time I’ve spoken about my journey, I try to showcase the good and the bad. We’re all human - and regardless of me winning Miss America or not, there are still those days where I wake up not feeling my best self. The more honest we are and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, hopefully more people will see and relate to that.
Rooshy: I think it’s going to be a matter of setting an example and leading by example. There’s a long way to go particularly in our community in terms of having open conversations about such difficult things. Any time any one person with a platform is able to share, it encourages everybody around them.
On Love and Family
Nina: Luckily, I grew up with a family who is genuinely quite open-minded. I’m also the youngest of 17 cousins, and every one of them has married a different race or ethnicity. So I’m lucky in that sense, but dating is definitely hard for any South Asian family. Although my parents are very open, the idea of dating was a difficult conversation to have in my household. I would always say “Prince Charming doesn’t show up when I’m ready for him to show up!”
I think I was 22, and I remember thinking “I’m an adult, and I’m going to act like one.” I was dating this gentleman at this time, and I finally told my parents after a year on my birthday, because people can’t get mad at you on your birthday! My parents were of course accepting and open, but I realized I had built a much more difficult conversation in my mind for so long. I’d encourage others to just try and be as open and honest as possible. If you truly have a reason and are able to articulate that well to your family, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be honest with them.
Rooshy: As second generation South Asians in the US, we often impose a lot of pressure on ourselves because we assume there are certain standards we have to meet or our parents won’t be happy. I’ve generally seen that our parents don’t end up being nearly as harsh or critical as we anticipate. It’s hard to be open and honest with our families, but I would encourage us not to be as hard on ourselves in that regard.
My parents are super progressive and they’ve always been education first. But at the end of the day, my mom still jokes that “OK cool you have a company now, so when are you going to give me a grandkid?!” Our parents’ generation grew up with standards that aren’t directly applicable to us. So we have to decide if we’re going to internalize those standards, or make a decision not to let outdated standards affect us.
Nina: At the end of the day, I tell my parents you can’t raise your children in the US and expect them to be 100% South Asian. It’s really about balancing both worlds. Take pride in your culture, but be open to other mindsets. If someone is asking you questions about your culture, or if your parents don’t see eye to eye with you on something, take every opportunity to share and educate. When people ask questions, it’s often not with malicious intent. It comes from a desire to understand and learn more.
Nina: It’s really nice that self-care is part of my job! I’m all about “Self-Care Sundays” and everything. Honestly though, in this world of technology and social media, I think unplugging has been the best way to truly destress. Put your phone down and do something without technology. Go outside and meet friends, and just enjoy and take everything in.
Rooshy: Because my days are so unpredictable, there are so many ups and downs where the highs are so high and the lows are so low. I’ve had to think of self-care more as a lifestyle shift than anything else. I set my alarm in the morning through Headspace. Before I get up, I do a 5-7 minute meditation, which has been so calming. Nowadays when things occur that would have previously stressed me out, I’m much calmer in my approach. Self-care really has to be an everyday thing, not just when you have time off or think about it. Doing a spa day certainly helps, but I think it’s more about taking care of yourself every single day!