Until six years ago, Dr Gasheri Mugao Thuku was a dentist at the Maragua Sub-county Hospital where she doubled up as the head of the dental department.
But at the height of her career, she left the health sector to venture into the beauty and cosmetics industry.
Through Sheth Group, Dr Mugao is the founder of the growing range of African-themed Sheth Naturals beauty products. She runs Sheth Group from its head office off Lunga Lunga Road in Nairobi’s Industrial Area.
Dr Mugao spoke to Money Maker about her investment journey, including her decision to leave the security of a regular paycheque for the murky world of business.
Dentistry is one of the most lucrative professions in the world. Why did you decide to swap it for business?
Dentistry is a health science, and I enjoyed practicing it for five years. But by starting Sheth Naturals, I discovered how much more positive impact I would have on the public by influencing their everyday choices in what they use on their hair and skin. Many people don’t put much thought into the ingredients in the products they use, and sometimes they are one application away from harming themselves. I had seen all manner of diseases in my career, but cancer bothered me the most. Beauty products, unfortunately, carry some of the most carcinogenic ingredients, something the consumer is sometimes not aware of. This is just one among the many conditions one can suffer from by prolonged use of harmful products on the skin, scalp, and even the hair itself. I left my profession to be a voice for healthy beauty through manufacturing clean products for the African population. I see it as a different way of applying health science.
How much was the start-up capital, and how did you raise it?
When I started, I didn’t imagine I was starting a business. I was solving a problem I and other women out there have or had experienced. I started very small with about Sh20,000. No one understood African cosmetology well enough then to know everything, so my clients and I learnt on the go. After about six months of doing it as a hobby, I began to understand the scope of it and how much I needed to put in. Funding was mostly from my earnings as a dentist and I ploughed back everything into the business. Investing in your business comes with the satisfaction that can’t be explained.
What differentiates your products from the rest of the market?
Natural African hair is beautiful in its curly, kinky style and so is the African skin with its melanin. We have, however, graded our beauty products against other standards, which has come with its fair share of challenges. Being able to embrace our natural hair and skin and use the right products as our forefathers did to enhance our beauty and not change it is powerful. Products that have existed previously sought to change the curly and kinky pattern of African hair to make it straight or looser. Women being the majority users of these chemicals have “burnt” their hair and in more serious circumstances lost it temporarily or permanently. At least every woman who has used chemicals to change the look of her hair has a story to tell. I had many of those too, and I needed to free myself. I realised that the products I had been using all along did not have African hair and skin in mind. The ingredients used sometimes also do not promote health. We are, therefore, reshaping the narrative of what is beautiful and healthy.
Who are your clients, and how has the market responded to your products?
When we started, women were our main clients. They, however, introduced their children, spouses and significant others. We now serve the whole family, and our brand is evolving every day to be able to serve the needs of our clients better. The market is dynamic, and there is something new to learn daily and adjust to.
How did you prepare yourself for the transition from employment to being self-employed?
I didn’t prepare myself for the transition. I woke up one day and I knew it was the end of me practicing dentistry to concentrate on my venture. It was such a strong feeling. I couldn’t push it away. The push to leave was greater than my fears. I do not remember having any fear, though I was alive to the fact that I was going to earn less than I did in dentistry for a while, I was at peace with it. I knew it wouldn’t be so for long.
What do you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before quitting employment?
Not a thing. The beauty of this journey is in self-discovery about how the industry runs, how being in a clinic is different from being out here putting your blood and sweat into a venture. It’s all beautiful! I wouldn’t change anything about the experiences I have had. I am a learner, and I am thriving in the lessons.
What do you miss most about employment, and would you go back?
I don’t miss employment. I’m an adrenaline junkie, and business is where it is served fast and furious. It’s thrilling to find yourself in a new experience every day. Sometimes they don’t feel great when you are going through them, but then you surmount them and look back with a smile. It makes you look forward to the next one. I am in my element here. I am never going back to employment.
How does what you earned then compare with what you make now?
If your motivation in life is money, you will never be able to achieve anything. A lot of the roles I serve in are not paid for. What keeps me going is the change my input makes in society. That said, employment brings about security, and we are all different; some people love the security of employment, while others love the uncertainty of entrepreneurship. That is what makes the world a colourful place.
What business lessons have you learnt in the process?
Things change, and we must be adaptable to change. No day is the same, and we have to handle each day uniquely. What worked yesterday won’t work today. Create room for change, always.
What are some of the challenges you have faced so far?
The cost of running a business in Kenya, especially a manufacturing business is very high. Government policies also change every other day, sometimes unnecessarily so and without proper consultation with stakeholders, making it difficult for businesses.
How many employment opportunities has the business created?
Directly, we have 30 employees, but the power of our business is in the number of indirect job opportunities we create. We have distributors and retailers countrywide and in the East African Community, most of whom didn’t run beauty businesses before they became our clients. We have supported these through our distributorship model to run successful businesses and grow. We create a lot of opportunities downstream too as we source most of our raw materials locally.