By Karen van Kampen
In 2015, with 15 years of work experience and a Global Executive MBA, Sahar Saidi couldn’t find a job. Rather than working her way up in a company, Sahar had a diverse background in consulting and employers didn’t know where she fit into their organization.
“I was applying for jobs that I knew I was qualified for,” she says. “I was really shocked and disappointed.” So Sahar continued to forge her own unique career path.
In 2017, she launched LUS Brands, a direct-to-consumer premium hair care brand, earning $1.3 million in sales the first year. In year two, she grew her company 750 per cent. After four years of high growth, Sahar has built a profitable business with less than $100,000 in start-up capital, and she is being recognized for her achievements.
As founder and CEO of LUS Brands, Sahar was the 2020 winner of the Start-Up Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours an entrepreneur who has built a profitable business since its inception, and whose company has been in operation for three to five years.
“I’ve always had a very unconventional career path,” Sahar says, reflecting on her road to entrepreneurship. The summer before starting her Bachelor of Business Administration, she took a commission-based sales job selling energy contracts. “At the age of 18, I started making a six-figure income,” she says. After her first year of business school, Sahar took a year off to pursue the sales opportunity, and never went back. “Not having that piece of paper never stopped me in my career,” she says. By the time she turned 25, Sahar had a VP sales position at a multimillion dollar company.
Yet Sahar says she has always valued education, and in her early thirties, she set her sights on an MBA. Sahar met with the Associate Dean of York University and explained that while she had only one year of her BBA, she had 12 years of work experience — “and that should suffice for a bachelor’s.”
In 2013, Sahar began her Global Executive MBA at Rotman School of Management. For the first week of her program, Sahar spent hours straightening her hair. “I wanted to fit in with my peer group,” she says. “I wanted to look professional.”
“People around the world with wavy, curly, textured hair have been told that their hair is not beautiful, it’s a problem to be solved.”
It wasn’t a new ritual. As a girl, Sahar spent Saturdays straightening her hair; it was an all-day ordeal in which her mother used curlers to remove small, frizzy curls before blow drying Sahar’s hair with a large, round brush. For pin straight hair, her mother would iron Sahar’s hair on an ironing board.
“People around the world with wavy, curly, textured hair have been told that their hair is not beautiful,” she says, “it’s a problem to be solved.” Sahar kept up the weekly routine until she was in her teens and continued to straighten her hair for special events and important business meetings — until she launched LUS, short for “Luv Ur Self.”
During her two-year MBA program, Sahar continued to work in consulting, but the excitement was wearing off. “I wanted stability,” she says. “I wanted certainty at this point in my life.” When she couldn’t find a job after graduation, Sahar started thinking about her own experiences with curly hair products. After 20 years of trying every product on the market, Sahar still couldn’t find one that worked. She was also turned off by the negative messaging in the curly hair space. Those with curly hair were told, “Tame your frizz. Control your mane. Get sleek, professional curls,” she says, which required multiple hair products. So Sahar set out to create an all-in-one styling product for three different types of curls.
Sahar used Google to find the best hair care formulators in Canada. “I Googled how to start a hair care brand,” she says. “Google will teach you anything.”
She spent months testing out different formulas on her own hair before enlisting the help of family and friends, using their feedback to adjust her first line of products. In 2016, she began pitching to investors. “I had my MBA. I thought I’d put together a pretty rock solid business plan,” she says. But investors couldn’t see how a “shampoo company” could thrive in such a competitive, fragmented space.
So Sahar used her personal line of credit and a small business loan to launch LUS, with about half of her $100,000 in start-up capital used for inventory. “If you’re serious about your company, you have to get rid of your safety net,” she says, explaining that it’s difficult to keep your full-time job and launch a successful business on the side. Sahar also advises entrepreneurs to ignore the naysayers. “If you have a really big idea, most people should tell you you’re crazy. If everyone gets it, your idea isn’t novel enough.”
Working around the clock, Sahar built her line of five products with only two part-time remote contractors. Today, LUS has 37 employees and sells 20 products online — and she has big plans for future growth and expansion. LUS partnered with a third-party fulfillment centre in the Netherlands to ship to customers across the EU faster and with lower shipping costs, and Australia and the UK will soon be added to the LUS global website.
Sahar is also focused on a long-standing personal goal. “One day I will be able to leave a legacy behind for my family and take care of my parents,” she says. “That’s something that’s been really important to me and a driving force.”