Sorry Russell Crowe, but if you want to see a truly beautiful mind then turn your attention to Zahir Dossa. With not one, two, or three, but four degrees from M.I.T., including a masters of engineering in computer science and a Ph.D. in sustainability, it’s safe to say he’s pretty comfortable in the hallowed halls of academia. Born in Hamilton, Ontario to parents of Indian heritage, he’s also been awarded the Soros Fellowship, a program that honors the contributions of immigrants and children of immigrants to the United States.
His success in the classroom has translated to the real world as well. While still an undergrad, he co-founded Selsabila, an aid organization that provides water pumps to low-income farmers in Sudan. The project helps tackle Sudan's burden of malnutrition and poverty by allowing farmers to grow crops year-round and triple their food production. From Sudan, he traveled north to help Moroccan farmers come together to create The Argan Tree, an ethically sourced beauty business run by a local cooperative of women.
His newest venture is Function of Beauty, which makes one-of-a-kind hair care products that are so personalized that the company can create 27 trillion combinations, and each bottle comes with the customer’s name on it. Here we explore his inability to rest on his laurels, how he helped disrupt a whole industry, and what he does to recharge his brain.
Money. Customers. Notoriety. You get these things and you’ve made it, right? Time to kick back and let the company run itself. That’s one way to look at being a business owner, but it’s not how Zahir approaches things. Instead, his entrepreneurial spirit is more focused on problem solving. Case in point, his first foray into the beauty industry: The Argan Tree, which he launched in 2009 as a result of studying value chains in various industries while earning his Ph.D. at M.I.T.
“The idea was to directly connect a cooperative of 60 women in Morocco producing and manufacturing argan oil with customers who wanted argan oil-based products,” he remembers.
The business did well and helped Moroccan farmers create a sustainable business in which 100% of the profits went to the producers in the North African country. Also, considering the countless other argan oil beauty products that followed it into the marketplace, it certainly had the legs to keep going. But Zahir amazingly was able to step back and see the forest and the trees.
“While it was a successful brand and we were growing rapidly, it got to the point one day where I took a step back and said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re starting to look like every other beauty company.’ That’s when I knew it was time to make a change.”
Intuitive enough to know he didn’t have all the answers, he sought out feedback from the people supporting The Argan Tree brand. “I started asking customers how I could make the perfect product and found that each person had a slightly different answer based on their hair type and needs. Those answers eventually led to the idea of custom formulations and Function of Beauty.”
This might seem like a trite statement, but Dossa quickly discovered that this classic business axiom was being sorely overlooked by the beauty industry as a whole. “Through a series of random events during my Ph.D. and beyond, I learned that women had a huge unmet need in hair care and that the industry was not really changing,” he recalls. “We know now that women have an average of 3.8 hair goals, but even back then, I saw that there weren’t any products that were actually solving any of these problems.”
Looking closer, he realized he had issues with how the beauty industry continuously segments people into generic categories and dictates what beauty looks like for everyone.
“The industry blatantly ignores each person’s individual needs and suggests that one has to conform to some singular notion of beauty in order to be thought of as such,” he explains. “The way ‘Big Beauty’ companies continue to espouse themselves while simultaneously using airbrushed models and Photoshop to sell that archetype is not only antiquated but also increasingly toxic to our society, which is why I’m constantly looking for ways to transform and disrupt the industry.”
And how he’s currently disrupting it (along with co-founders Josh Maciejewski and Hien Nguyen) is with Function of Beauty, a hair care line that makes hyper-customized products based on an individual’s hair type and hair goals.
“Our philosophy was (and continues to be) to let customers tell us what they want rather than the other way around,” he reveals. “As a result, we developed our own unique algorithm that analyzes the results of each customer’s hair survey and uses the latest automation technology (all developed in-house) to create an ideal product based on the data received.”
And again, though the launch has been successful—it was chosen for prestigious seed accelerator program Y Combinator and received an estimated $1.4 million from angel investors, Dossa and company didn’t sit back and relax.
Instead, they are continually pushing to improve their products and how they are created. “We get feedback across the algorithm so that we are constantly learning and improving with each customer, which allows us to create the best possible product for each individual,” he says.
By taking personalization to the next level, Dossa is really helping others look and feel their best. Having turned tailoring products to specific people into a successful business model, it is no wonder he also applies this concept to other aspects of his life—including what gives him the most enjoyment.
“I think it's important to figure out exactly who you are and to do what makes you happy, as often as possible,” he advises. “Life is tough and stressful, but it’s also joyous and fulfilling. I don't pretend that I love every single thing that I do. But I try to maximize the things that bring the most fulfillment to me—spending time with loved ones, working out, laughing with friends, taking trips, and even challenging myself at work.”
With a brain like his that is always coming up with new ideas and thinking of ways to improve on his already successful endeavors, you’d think he’d be working all day and night, but he’s come to realize that it's not as productive as it sounds.
“I try to shut off as much as possible on evenings and weekends,” he says. “There are certain times when I cannot avoid work but trying to set consistent work hours is super helpful to being able to sustain a long career as an entrepreneur without burning out.”
To make sure he can keep the flood of ideas coming when he needs them, Dossa gives his brain the rush of endorphins that come with rock climbing, scuba diving, and flying planes. Some might say he’s out of his mind to do such daring activities, but if Dossa has proven anything it’s that he knows what he’s doing.
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