Read about how our founders’ South Asian roots shaped their vision for CTZN

It’s officially May, and that means it’s also AAPI Heritage Month! In May 2009, then-President Barack Obama officially recognised the month as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, commemorating centuries of Asians’ contributions to the United States.

As we celebrate all of these diverse Asian cultures, we’re turning the spotlight onto our founders’ South Asian roots, which helped shape the ethos of CTZN. From naming certain product shades after places and words like “Lahore,” “Laal” and “Chaar,” to manifesting their dream Bollywood brand ambassador (keep reading to find out who that is), Aleena, Naseeha and Aleezeh Khan are deeply inspired by their heritage, and a shared mission to make Brown girls everywhere feel included in the conversation :

    1. When did you realize that the mainstream beauty industry didn’t cater to you?

      Naseeha: I remember being at my friend’s house in my early teens, and I had forgotten one of my makeup products. I used some of hers – she had much lighter skin than me, and it looked so bad on me. But when all the other girls were trying on makeup together, it suited them perfectly, and I kind of felt like the odd one out. At that time I didn’t really understand that your skin’s complexion needs a certain color to work, I just thought that makeup works for everyone!

      I think experiences like that definitely inspired us to create shade ranges where makeup was for everyone, for every complexion, so that you don’t feel left out, or not considered, or “othered.”

      Aleena: If only everyone was able to equally access shades made for their unique skin tone and undertone, we would all feel included in the conversation, it’s that simple. But sadly simple is not standard yet.

        2. Why is it important to be able to embrace your unique heritage and beauty when wearing makeup?

          Aleena: I think it’s actually becoming important to claim what belongs to your heritage in an era of cultural appropriation. Like when we’d put oil in our hair as kids, we’d be nervous that it would smell or look weird in front of our friends – but now oiling your hair and wearing turmeric face masks are all the rage. It almost resonated more with our generation when it came from a non-South-Asian, and that sentiment hurts, so I think it’s important to own your heritage.

          As a beauty brand founder, it’s important to help make people understand the history of where something originated from, so that you can rewrite a narrative in the industry and not allow something to just be seen as some 90s trend.

          Naseeha: I remember back in school when some South Asians put oil in their hair they’d be made fun of, but now with the whole clean girl makeup look, they go out with their hair in a tiny bun and their oil in… it wasn’t cool back then but now it’s a trend. It’s like, it’s only cool if it's a white influencer doing it.

          Aleena: And, our Chief Creative Officer Sir John recently spoke about the brownie lip trend, which is a brown liner worn with a glazed lip, that actually originated in Black and Latina communities, it wasn’t just a look that materialized today.


            3. Why is it still rare to see many South Asian beauty influencers?

              Aleezeh: I think in the beginning South Asians didn’t have the confidence, we had a bit of imposter syndrome. We’re raised to believe we need to follow certain career paths and we’re not meant to be in the creative industry, stereotypically. But I feel like we’re having a moment now where we’re owning our power.

              Aleena: The South Asian demographic gets overlooked when brands are thinking about diversity. I remember seeing a brand that was doing a big diversity campaign but still, within 15 models there were no South Asian or Middle Eastern ones. I think the influencers exist, but they just aren’t being considered or thought of, brands are often thinking “middle brown skin tone”, and select certain demographics but just because you found someone with a middle brown skin tone, that doesn’t mean that it has the same undertones as a South Asian with middle brown skin. A Latina and South Asian can have a similar family of skin tone but our undertones are different. Sometimes it’s just that this culture gets overlooked.

              People approach diversity as a box to check, but if it’s really about global representation then you should be testing on these different ethnicities – and we can feel that when we’re trying on your product, because then it will actually match our skin.


                4. What are some key things CTZN does to cater to skin tones?

                  Naseeha: We try to have a lot of in-person focus groups of different ethnicities, and as many skin tones as possible to test our products on them, to make sure we’re getting the right shades for every complexion. We also hear from the customers about what they want different, or what suits them better, because we’re not claiming we know what works for different skin tones.

                  Aleena: Also through online surveys, and a lot of research on YouTube and TikTok to see what people are saying they’re wearing, and what they don’t like about what they’re wearing. And, within our advisory board panel and our really diverse team, we have all backgrounds, ages and genders, and include them in our product development conversations to get everyone’s feedback.

                  We like to be a brand that co-creates with our community, so we’ve recently started posting questions on Instagram Stories asking what people want to see more of. We really do feel that we’re that brand that’s not creating for you, but we’re creating with you.

                    5. Who are the South Asian women in the beauty industry who have inspired you?

                      Aleena: Poorna Jagannathan from Never Have I Ever. She’s so amazing and she’s actually a shareholder of CTZN. I love that she’s so unapologetically and fiercely herself, in whatever setting she shows up in – I’ve never seen someone as authentic as her.

                      Aleezeh: Punjabi-American influencer Seerat Saini. She does really good brown-girl-friendly beauty tutorials, and is really good about shouting out brands that have brown-girl-friendly shades.

                      Naseeha: Diipa Khosla, the first influencer we ever collaborated with for a CTZN collection. She has this brand called Inde Wild – all of the ingredients are derived from her Indian culture and background, and she’s bringing it back into a modern skincare world. She also has this oil called Champi, which is all about that process of hair oiling, and I just love how she’s bringing the culture to the modern-day woman, but incorporating it in a really cute, wholesome way.

                        6. Your dream model you’d love to work with on a CTZN campaign?

                          Aleezeh: We’ve seen our products on actresses like Aliaa Bhatt and Sonam Kapoor, and it would be so cool to have one of those OG Bollywood icons, like Aishwarya Rai. We love her!

                          BRB while we track down Aishwarya’s stylist. In the meantime, please make a conscious effort to support and amplify beauty brands owned by AAPI founders throughout May – you can start by checking out this list that Vanity Fair put together last year. 

                          May 01, 2023 — Scratchpad Studio