How Huda, Mona, And Alya Kattan Built Huda Beauty Out Of Dubai

The Kattan sisters on building the Huda Beauty megabrand out of Dubai (and no, they aren't done with their ambitions just yet)
How Huda, Mona, And Alya Kattan Built Huda Beauty Out Of Dubai
Image credit: Entrepreneur Middle East
Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East
15 min read
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In person, Huda Kattan, the driving force behind one of today’s fastest-growing beauty brands, Huda Beauty, radiates steely self-assurance. Not that I have expected anything different from a woman who is currently ranked 36 on Forbes’ list of “America’s Richest Self-Made Women.” Sitting beside me at the brand’s headquarters in Dubai, she looks as striking as seen on the front cover of this issue- the abundant curls of black hair frame her flawless face, complete with immaculate makeup, and she is dressed for not just any but exactly the type of success she wants in a sequined power suit. And, during the interview, she wants to broach the topic I least expect. “When you hit a certain level of success, you realize that it can cause some really serious issues to come up,” Huda says. “And if you don’t find the right way to deal with it, it could make you very depressed, very purposeless. It’s scary.”

Up until now, Huda has used a makeup brush as an empowerment tool to guide women on how to paint their own stories of betterment on their own faces. Over almost a decade, her brainchild Huda Beauty has grown from a blog to a beauty brand that now offers 213 products across five categories (complexion, lips, eyes, body, and tools), the newly-launched sub-brand Kayali, a fragrance line developed by her sister Mona Kattan, while an arsenal of the brand’s skincare products is also in the works. However, what makes the story of Huda Beauty extraordinary is that Huda is now willing to take all those layers of makeup off, confront her insecurities, and learn how to feel truly confident inside- while sharing it all with her 40 million and more followers, of course. “A lot of issues from my childhood were driving me, and I had no idea,” she says, adding that she has been working with a life coach over the last couple of years. “I never felt like I belonged in society, I never felt really comfortable in my own skin, and there are literally billions of people who feel like that. However, I never understood that it was the thing that gave me my drive, that I always wanted to prove that I was good enough.”

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A turning point for Huda (and Huda Beauty) happened in 2017 when the Kattan family agreed to sell a small stake in the business to TSG Consumer Partners, a San Francisco headquartered private equity firm focused exclusively on the branded consumer sector. It was a positive change that hard work and perseverance had brought to Huda Kattan, but surprisingly, it also uncovered that, in her mind, she was partially still a person she used to be: an American-born daughter of Iraqi immigrants exposed to daily bullying due to her ethnicity. “Getting our investment meant that we were now good enough, and it made me question to whom I was trying to prove it. I actually went through a lot of getting to know myself after that happened. It’s crazy, because you think it’s the best thing that could ever happen, but I’ve heard it from so many of our friends, and it is that after they get these crazy valuations and crazy investments, they hit rock bottom, because all of a sudden, they realize that they have been doing everything for society, and never for themselves. And then, they have to question themselves, like, ‘Why do I actually care?,’ and that is such a hard conversation to have with yourself.”

Huda Kattan, founder of Huda Beauty.
Source: Entrepreneur Middle East

In opening up on this topic, Huda proves that she is a part of the millennial generation that is prioritizing purpose over profits- according to Deloitte’s 2018 Millennial Survey, 80% of millennials believe businesses should make a positive impact on society and the environment. On her part, Huda is eager to inspire an honest dialogue around different self-confidence related personal challenges. “They [millennials] want to buy from brands that are sustainable because they want to be a part of the companies that are doing something good for this world. I think that there will be an even bigger shift in the world, and people will need to be vulnerable enough to be able to expose their imperfections in a way that can be very challenging,” she says. “It’s really hard to actually say, ‘I don’t love myself enough,’ but it’s such an important conversation to have, because you can only get over those things when you start talking about them. People see me from the outside, all this hair and makeup and our glamour team that does all this stuff, and think I cannot not feel self-love, but I do, and I see it in other people. It’s like a wound that they carry with themselves.”

Her wound, which she now describes as the ugly child syndrome, inspired her passion for cosmetics, turned her into an expert on beauty products, and became the main pillar of her brand. “The heartbeat of the company is definitely that transformational idea, the idea that you can transform, and be beautiful. The vision of the company is definitely to allow people to understand their capabilities, and how far they can go.”

With us are Huda’s sisters, Mona and Alya Kattan, who both have stakes and executive positions in the company- Global President, and Chief Instagram Officer, respectively. Spending an hour with the three Kattan sisters, all three of whom come across as kind, thoughtful, and sincere, it is evident that the family support has been crucial for the Huda Beauty brand to grow in its influence and ubiquity at such a fast pace. To give you an example: when Huda says that her first few video tutorials “were not done very well,” the soft-spoken Mona jumps in saying, “Not very well, but you did it.” Instantly, the ever-supportive Alya, who is the eldest among them, adds, “Huda knows how to do everything, you know, even to edit her videos, so she was blogging, shooting, editing, really doing everything. People don’t realize how much work it was. We would see her sleeping with her laptop in her lap. And today, she always makes products for herself first, and she will consumerize them afterward only if they are good enough.”

The Huda Beauty blog launched in 2010, and in a region where people don’t shy away from spending on cosmetics and personal care products- according to Euro monitor International, consumers in the UAE are forecast to spend US$294 per capita on cosmetics and personal care by 2020. However, a makeup artist at the time, Huda only intuited the opportunities her blog might offer. “All the makeup artists I was working with were telling me, ‘You’re so stupid, you’re giving away your tips, nobody is going to book you,’ and I did not really understand the value of it until much later,” Huda recalls. “I got pregnant, and could not take as many makeup jobs, but then a Sheikha from Abu Dhabi called me and was willing to pay for what I would normally charge for a week, and it was then that I realized that there was something in it, in my blog. All of a sudden, and very quickly, I was elevated, and people saw me as somebody who knew something. From then on, it did take some time for the blog to become interesting globally, but I will say that I have been very diligent and very focused.”

L-R: Alya, Huda, and Mona Kattan.
Source: Entrepreneur Middle East

Mona adds that another reason for the blog gaining a huge amount of traction and credibility is in Huda being vehemently against advertising from day one until today. Indeed, Hopper, an Instagram scheduling tool, recently revealed that Huda Kattan topped Instagram's 2019 Rich List in the beauty category, with the ability to charge $91,300 (Dh335,344) for a sponsored post on the photo-sharing app- if she wanted to, of course. “I was in PR at the time, and people were chasing me asking what Huda’s rate was, and what they could do to get her to review their company,” Mona recalls. “And I was like, ‘You need to have a good product.’ She was super authentic and genuine, and she really cared.” Huda adds, “It was weird, because, at the time, bloggers were like, ‘We’ll go to events across the world, and we will party and get free products.’ And I would be the only one sitting behind with a scientist.”

Related: An Open Call To Innovators - The Middle East Needs More Women Entrepreneurs

Huda’s particular work ethic has been instilled in the Huda Beauty brand as well, with Mona saying, “We really want to revolutionize the beauty industry itself, by giving the highest quality products to the consumer at a lower price, which will really disrupt the industry and will give more to the consumer. Huda has always been really firm about giving back, and I think we have made other brands think about that as well.” Huda can go deep on all of her products, but we start with the very first one- a series of false eyelashes whose release in February 2013 by beauty retailer Sephora at Dubai Mall marked the launch of the Huda Beauty cosmetics line.

A year before, in 2012, Huda took her beauty tips to YouTube and Instagram, which, in addition to her blog, were the only marketing channels used to promote her first product. Sephora Dubai Mall expected to sell roughly 7,000 units of the lashes in a year, after comparing them with other brands in the lash category. Instead, what happened was, the 7,000 units were sold in a week. “They told us that we were a no-name, but we blew the numbers, we blew the established brands, and on the first day only, I think, we sold 2,000 lashes,” Huda says. “There were not many press who featured us back then, they were all like, ‘You’re a blogger,’ because, at the time, no one knew what bloggers would become. It was a weird time for us, to be honest, because it was one of the very first times that an influencer was releasing a product, but Sephora MENA had a great General Manager who was like, ‘Let’s do it,’ but then Sephora US said no, Sephora Europe ignored us, and they kept on saying no for years, which is crazy, because now we are like the number two brand in Sephora Europe.”

Building a beauty brand from scratch with only four people -the three sisters and Huda’s assistant- and without proper infrastructure was a challenging endeavor, Huda recalls. “The distributor we were working with was really taking advantage of the fact that we were a small company,” she says. “They were not paying us the right way, they were not ordering right quantities, so we were always out of stock, and we were literally dying as a brand, because of our distributor. I want to say this to all young businesses, because, in the beginning, it is really challenging, because you have no other choice. Those were the two most challenging years of my life, because you didn’t know whether you’ll survive. You know that you have an amazing product, but you don’t know whether you are going to be able to continue. When we finally managed to save enough money, my husband joined us, and we were able to get rid of our distributor.”

In 2015, Christopher Goncalo, Huda’s husband, joined the company as its Chief Operating Officer, and he created a proper distribution channel that enabled the company to finally fund their cosmetics. A year later, the company launched the Huda Beauty makeup line; however, it brought Huda face-to-face with one more of her self-limiting beliefs. “For the longest time, we were holding ourselves back, because we said, ‘We are in Dubai, so we can’t be competing against the biggest bloggers and the biggest companies in the US.’ But I feel that that shifted in 2016, when I was like, ‘Wait, why can’t we be the biggest in the world?’ As soon as that shift happened in the brain, that’s when the things changed outside as well.”

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Since then, the company has experienced an astonishing level of growth only over the last two years, the Huda Beauty global in-store distribution has grown by roughly 18 times. The team has grown exponentially too, according to the company, in December 2017, it had 115 employees globally, and that figure has doubled now. While 2017 was marked by them bringing private equity on board, 2018 was marked by the company’s global expansion, with Huda Beauty opening its first offices in the US and UK. However, Huda says she is only getting started. “Originally, my goal was to become number one blogger in the Middle East, but before you even reach a goal, you don’t even realize that you have a new goal,” she says. “You don’t even take a minute to think that you’ve reached it, because you’ve already moved on to the next goal. And so now, I still feel that we are at the beginning of doing things. There are some very influential companies in the world, like Apple, Google, Amazon, and to me, that is where I want us to be. So, I think that we still have so much work to do, and I don’t think that we are anywhere close to it.”

In 2018, the Kattan sisters also launched into the fragrance category. A passion of Mona, the company released a collection of four scents (Elixir, Citrus, Musk, and Vanilla) under the brand name Kayali (meaning “my imagination" in Arabic), priced from $85 to $118. The four fragrances are designed to introduce the rich heritage of fragrance layering of the Middle East to the West. “When I got my first job at 14, I spent money on fragrances, and during my whole time at university, I used to do side jobs, promoting or modeling, and all my money was spent on expensive perfumes, so I have this attachment to fragrance, because it makes me feel good,” Mona explains. “That confidence that Huda feels through beauty, I feel through fragrance. It instantly changes my mood. It’s so strong and powerful what it does to your brain, it can ignite memories and emotions.”

L-R: Alya, Huda, and Mona Kattan.
Source: Entrepreneur Middle East

Recently, the Kattan family has also set up a family office, Huda Beauty Investments, which includes an early investment fund for women starting consumer-facing brands. “In the Middle East, for the longest time, women were expected to be completely reliant on their husbands, but there is a shift happening, and I do want Middle Eastern women, Arab women, Muslim women, to feel empowered to do things, to support their families, but also to understand that their success does not change things in the house, which is the scary part,” Huda says. “My husband is still the king of my castle, and at home, I am a very different person than I am in the office. When needed, I was the king of the castle, because protecting the home is important, but it took me a long time to realize that being an alpha female was not what I needed to be. Actually, I lead with my feminine energy, but, at the same time, I can be very firm and very tough. So, I feel that we are kind of re-learning what it means to be a woman right now, and I think that the Middle East will benefit from that.” Having spent a morning with these three women who have built a brand valued at over $1 billion, one thing is clear to me: the Kattan sisters do not waste their gifts, even if they come in the form of their deepest wounds- and neither should you.

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