Choosing BeautyMatter’s NEXT Award Person of the Year in the Visionaries category was not an easy feat. There are many brilliant minds and caring hearts in our industry who use this medium as their platform to do better in the world at large and not just to benefit their bottom line. Anisa Telwar Kaicker trailblazed cruelty-free brushes as the first female-owned manufacturer in the world, being an active philanthropist looking to make positive strides for the next generation to come in the process. “I was so surprised. I'm new to knowing Kelly [Kovack], and for her to see that this meant something, she sees something I've done for a really long time that I don't see, I am honored and excited,” she remarks on winning the award.
With her calm, steadfast presence and soothing cadence, it’s easy to see how Telwar Kaicker has built an empire of over 600 employees, growing her company to garner over $50 million in annual revenue. She founded Anisa International Inc. in 1992, launching the DTC arm of the company, Anisa Beauty, in 2019.
Aside from its headquarters in Atlanta, with further stateside offices in New York and Los Angeles, Anisa International’s production facilities are based in China, at its Jinghai and Tianjin locations, which were opened in 2002. The “made in China” association has at times been associated with unfair working conditions and inferior quality, but for Teller Kaicker, ensuring that the exact opposite—ethical production and superior quality—has been a key proponent of her success. She did so by employing a management team at her facilities that ensured proper ventilation at the workplace, and that made sure employees were given adequate breaks and time off, as well as bonuses and HR support.
“I don't think I had any real understanding that it [a “made in China” label] was a problem because that's where I saw most brushes were coming from. Yes, there were Japanese, French, Korean or Italian suppliers. The thing nobody was talking about was all the suppliers were still pulling their raw materials from China,” she states. “That was the difference between me and the other supply chains. I started speaking to the truth. I could share with them the control of quality that we had in place. If you're going to manufacture in China, the advantage to have is transparency. We had an open-door policy from the very beginning.”
Producing product for the likes of MAC, Nars, Estée Lauder, and Sephora, brands that spearheaded beauty as we know it, today, the company is in possession of over 30 patents and trademarks, and has innovated over 80 different brush types. Perpetually moving forward, it’s also improving production processes, like with the launch of its ferrule anodization facility in 2018, fully automating a process that was traditionally done by hand. With an on-site reclamation system, it uses 50% recycled and 50% treated water, reduces scrap metal by 20%, and its environmental footprint by roughly 33%.
The entire journey began in Telwar Kaicker’s family home in the southern US. Born to a father of Afghani and mother of Russian descent, she witnessed the power of beauty first-hand by watching her mother engage in the beauty practices of dyeing her hair blonde and dressing fashionably, even when the family finances were limited. “I just thought she was the most elegant thing ever and noticed how she impacted people. Beauty to me, at that time, was watching her and how she presented beauty. From a very young age, I was taught about self-care. I was having manicures and getting my hair done. When we would travel, the European experience showed me these beauty services that are available to women,” she remembers.
That feminine power and strategy was also evident in seeing her mother start an international trading company, which she joined after graduating high school. “My mother, to do what she was doing, was a bit unheard of. She was a woman working with Middle Eastern countries, government contracts, big distributors. That was the foundation of me being able to start my own business,” she states. Her mother’s company shipped products to the Middle East, but the onset of the Gulf War devastated the $100 million import-export business. It was at this point in time that Telwar Kaicker took the entrepreneurial reins, founding Anisa International. “I had the foundational experience of import, export, banking, not being intimidated to bring products into the United States, and also looking at the marketing aspects of that,’ she states.
She was able to apply all the business acumen she had acquired when she met Jae Woo Lee, the son of Y.Q. Lee, founder of Korean brush manufacturer Baosheng. She was just 21 years old, and he was 25. Basoheng, founded in 1952, was inspired by the Japanese craftsmanship of brush construction. Lee acquired the company in 1994 and turned it into Baosheng Corporation, moving operations from Korea to China. Behind the scenes, Telwar Kaicker was helping build the company’s reputation and partnerships. He was the manufacturing arm, with her taking care of distribution and marketing. She managed to cleverly harness the tools at her disposal, shipping brushes in post envelopes to New York City in order to set up meetings with potential clients. “We both needed each other and needed to prove ourselves in our family businesses. It was really the luck of the draw that it ended up being brushes. Even though we were young and immature, we still had a lot of understanding of the potential that we could create,” she recalls. In the early ’90s, being a female entrepreneur meant boldly paving a way for her professional place in the male-dominated C-suite. “The challenge was getting myself recognized as a stable supply chain because I did not own one. I really had to emphasize the control I had over our supply chain and the partnership I had within supply. People did not believe me that as a woman I could be controlling the operations and backend,” she states. It was only until over 15 years into her career that she was able to prove herself.
Even though her working relationship with Lee severed, it actually provided the fuel for Telwar Kaicker to set up her own manufacturing facility. He passed away unexpectedly in 2007, and despite their ups and downs, she still credits him with being instrumental in her success, recounting the challenging situation with humility, grace, and wisdom. “He and I went through a really tough time when we separated professionally, but we made peace with each other before he passed,” she recalls. “I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for him. He taught me so much and believed in me. We had a really great run.”
For Anisa Beauty, the creation of brushes is an art form, with brush hairs, shapes, and structures chosen in accordance with product viscosity and ingredients. Categories not only include face, eye, and lip brushes for color cosmetics, but skincare brushes for masking, cleansing, and neck treatments as well. “The brush doesn't live alone. I was talking to a celebrity makeup artist recently and she said you can't flip a pancake with a knife. Every brush that we design has to work with a product that exists—whatever kind of powder, complexion products, liquid, eyeshadows, eye shapes, face shapes,” she states. As for skincare brushes, Telwar Kaicker aims to help customers not only have a more hygienic and mess-free product application, but maximize the benefit of their product. “I am doing everything I can to pair skincare brushes with skincare products so women have a better experience. There's something about applying skincare or makeup in the best way possible, I feel very empowered by it. That's again what a tool is for and how I look at it,” she says.
Emerging from the pandemic and an increased interest in makeup artistry have driven consumer interest in makeup and skincare brushes. Gone are the days of using dingy foam applicators in compacts (although many brands still produce them), replaced by precision in application and tool selection, with an added hygiene benefit of not being applied with fingers. Telwar Kaicker sees a growing appetite for her products consistently rising alongside increasing consumer education via social media platforms, with an increasing breadth of demographic as well. “There's education, there's artistry, maybe people have more time to think about what they need for themselves and people want to see something more relatable. That is definitely moving the needle for people to be more interested in trying products,” she states.
In its own commissioned survey across 1,125 women, the company found that 65% don't know what material their brushes are made from, although 63% say the material is an important factor to them. 79% consider the environment and ethics of the product an important purchase consideration and 54% would only buy synthetic fiber brushes—statistics to back up what Telwar Kaicker’s intuition told her from the early onset of the company.
The segue to completely synthetic fibers was gradual. At first she wanted to use animal fibers that weren’t causing animals to be killed solely for their fur. “I realized that you couldn’t innovate with animal fiber, it was going to get more expensive,” she recounts. “Then I finally found out how the animals were being violently killed and decided that it was going to be really important for us to bring someone in who could act as an engineer, and help me to create fibers that would emulate animal fiber. If I was going to ask people to change their whole ether, I was going to have to give them a solution. And that solution would have to be better than what they were currently buying.”
She committed to working with a China-based designer over the course of the year to create said fibers, digging into the different qualities and properties of each animal hair in order to recreate them in cruelty-free form, at a better quality and cost. Boldly placing principles before profits, she gave clients an ultimatum: switch to synthetic fibers or find another producer. Thankfully, all her clients knew to trust her foresight and abandoned animal fiber brushes. In 2016, she launched the New Naturals collection, made with cruelty-free fibers, ceasing all production of animal fiber brushes a year later.
Launching Anisa Beauty was a natural evolution of her growing business, but not without risk, especially given the immensely challenging timing of her launch, right before the onset of COVID. In hindsight, taking the risk turned out to be her key to professional survival. “It was a big deal and a scary thing to do. I've always been behind the scenes on the supply chain,” she states. “All the traditional distribution networks were having a hard time, our biggest brands were not moving fast enough, and I knew I had innovation on the table that was not being taken up. People did not trust the insights I was having, so therefore, if I didn't create my own platform, I just don't think we would even be here right now.”
Now, through working DTC, she is able to get direct consumer feedback, and innovate faster and on her own terms. “This was a whole new business model, but it's been the best thing for me because now I understand what my customers deal with on the wholesale side. I see their pain, and I want to make it easier for them,” she comments.
Telwar Kaicker works with an empowered alignment strategy to ensure the well-being of her employees, company, and overall business structure. “Being a founder at 24. I didn’t start with a mission statement. I didn't finish school, I don't have a master's degree. I was just trying to pay my rent, and I knew I didn't have anybody else or anything to fall back on,” she adds. The “tough as nails” spirit that her mother had practiced in her own business proved helpful for the first decade of Telwar Kaicker’s career, but as the company evolved, so did she, both professionally and personally. “I started to do some self-awareness around 40. It made me wake up to how this is a real thing I've created and that how I am with people matters. I'm still working really, really hard on empowerment, because the issue when you're a founder is that the energy and all the juice comes from us. We have the vision, we know exactly which direction to go in. It's difficult for someone else to come into a room and take over that,” she reflects. “That's what I'm trying to figure out right now: how do I hand that founder magic on?”
This is where her leadership style can unfold its full potential, making sure every member of the Anisa Beauty team, no matter how senior or junior, is in harmony with that energy flow and vision. “It’s not easy, but I feel that I'm in a place now more than ever where I'm ready to align with everybody around me. I'm going to do everything I can to empower them to grow and evolve,” she proclaims.
That evolution is a key point to her success, but doesn’t come without its challenges. “Self-awareness is painful when you're running your own business, because it can be questioning yourself all the time: Did I handle that correctly? Was my response on point? I'm a very sensitive person, and so, when I walk into the office, I feel whatever energy there is and I want to give people what they need. But also at some point I have to give myself what I need. That's the next phase,” she remarks.
Seeing her mentorship help others, and her team’s lives flourish as a result of sharing the empowering energy of Anisa International, keeps her motivated on a daily basis. “When you see someone start to grow and evolve and respect what you've done and they take it on, make it even bigger and better, find a love for it—that's amazing,” she says. On the flip side, when a team member leaves the team, given the deep roots of her company, an in-tune ecosystem built from the ground up, it’s not the easiest matter. “When someone doesn't want to be part of the vision anymore, that's okay. But my name, my heart is in it, so to not take things personally, it's tough for me,” she adds.
Finding an oasis of calm amidst the day-to-day runnings is indispensable, with Telwar Kaicker finding her own tools for combatting the heavy demands of the CEO life. “I feel like I've been rewiring my brain through meditation and who I am today,” she praises. Such moments are incredibly important given her hectic lifestyle. “I have been in problem solution mode for 27 days straight,” she tells BeautyMatter at the time of our call, nearly a month of working seven days a week. “Just getting out of Atlanta, creating distance wherever, self-care and meditation is really good. I've always been a proponent of therapy and advisors. I'm always looking for an outlet,” she says. She’s passionate about sharing these solutions too. The Anisa International headquarters have an on-site meditation room, with remote mindfulness resources available to all employees worldwide. The company also wants to spread that positivity with philanthropic endeavors.
“As soon as the company was experiencing financial success, I immediately wanted to start giving back, and I think that did have to do with working with my mother. She always thought of others in need. I was able to find organizations within Atlanta and I did not just want to give money for money's sake. I wanted to give it to organizations that exactly knew who they were going to help,” she explains. With a 10% annual giveback policy, that sentiment certainly goes a long way. Anisa Beauty’s partners are Families First, Georgia’s largest family and children’s services organization (partner since 2006); Atlanta Mission (partner since 2018), the state’s longest-running provider of services to homeless men, women, and children; LifeLine Animal Project (partner since 2002), Georgia’s largest animal welfare organization; and Fernbank (partner since 2016), a not-for-profit museum that aims to inspire lifelong learning of natural history. Telwar Kaicker continues her alignment ethos by supporting the (largely female) CEOs behind these companies.
“They focus on solutions that I can get my head around,” she says of her partnerships. “I feel very passionate about change, and if I have the right organization that wants to impact that, I know I can contribute, money being only one part of that. Nonprofits need someone to be outside of the bubble, bringing the resources, and that's something as a CEO I have learned is the most valuable thing I can do for any organization, my own and others. That's what my mentor recently told me: the greatest asset you have to contribute is your network.”
Her own network of enthusiastic beauty connoisseurs and C-suite leaders continues to grow by the day, and it’s that drive to continue to grow and uplift others that fuels Telwar Kaicker’s business drive. “The key to our longevity is that we still have the passion for what we do, and hiring people that will carry the work forward. It’s not about me anymore. Yes, my name is on the brand, we're doing a rebranding, but all the people I am hiring help me to teach the next beauty generation about brushes and leadership. They're super important for our industry and continued impact, so that we will still be here 30 years from now,” she says.
Using beauty as a tool to impact change and mentor others entering our industry is the pulse of her approach. Here’s to the next three decades of success for Anisa International, one cruelty-free brush at a time.
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