You may remember Sunita Ramnathkar as the woman who launched India’s first facial bleach, Fem, in the early 1980s. Her product range was so successful, it made larger FMCG players uncomfortable with the shelf space the little company was taking up in stores. Twenty seven years later, she watched ruefully as one of India’s largest conglomerates swallowed her brand in a corporate takeover, and put a five-year, non-compete clause in the contract.
But nine years later, Sunita is back in the game. And this time she’s eyeing not just India but the world.
Brought up in Mumbai, Sunita did her Bachelor’s in chemistry and botany, and then her post-graduation in advertising and PR. “That came in useful later when I started Fem Care,” says the amiable Maharashtrian.
Egged on by her brother Sunil — an IIT graduate who was impressed by the potential in the Indian beauty industry after his short stint at Lakme’s factory — the 22-year-old newlywed Sunita set out to make a product that would help Indian women with their facial-hair woes.
It took two years of collaboration with scientists for Sunita to develop a face bleach for Indian skin. Finally launched in 1981, Fem bleach was such a miraculous product that it was profitable from year one itself. Initially, the brother-sister duo sold only from pop-up stalls and exhibitions across Mumbai suburbs, in college hostels and offices, demonstrating the ‘instant fairness’ that India’s first facial bleach was capable of. They always sold out.
Soon, distributors came knocking on their doors, and they had to up the ante in terms of production and product variety. By then a mother of two little girls, Sunita’s enthusiasm and determination to make a success story of Fem pushed her to work harder and harder.
Within two decades, Fem Care was one of the most formidable names in the personal care market, offering a range of facial bleaches, liquid soaps, and hair removing creams across 300,000 outlets in the country.
Godrej and Marico made offers to buy them. “Like fools, we went public,” says the dynamic woman in retrospect. The constant attempts by larger companies to swallow them had left her drained. And so, in 2008, when Dabur bought out Fem Care for Rs 203 crore, she let it go.
But Sunita’s work wasn’t over yet.
In 2009, Sunita was approached by a US skincare brand that specialized in developing cosmetics for women of colour, Mitchell USA. Convinced by their ideology and products, Sunita picked up a stake in the brand. Initially, she only helped them manufacture their products for global sale. But they were “keen on an India story”, and invited Sunita to check out their latest research on an ancient 1,228 year old lotus seed discovered by UCLA scientists.
Sunita, whose children are now grown up, was blown away with the findings and the anti-ageing skincare potential of the seed. “The brahmi kamal was historically seen as the magic potion of mystical beauties,” she says.
So, she launched a new range of skincare specifically for Indian skin with the power of the Sacred Lotus backed by scientific research. Potent and luxurious, the Mitchell USA skincare range includes facial moisturizers, neck cream, face cleansers, skin brighteners and scrubs, among others.
The products feel rich in application, and show results within just days of use. One expects nothing less from a woman with over three decades of experience in beauty.
Mitchell USA is a new chapter in Sunita’s book. No doubt, it will be a bestseller.
This article was first published in the December issue of eShe magazine. Read it for free here, or buy the print edition.