Soraya Hendesi recently sold her skincare business, Snowberry, to Procter & Gamble for tens of millions of dollars. Damien Venuto meets the Persian immigrant who fused nature and science into a multi-million dollar business.
"Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart," wrote the Persian poet Rumi of our relationship with work.
And although some might legitimately question the idea of a preordained occupation as suggested by a mystic who lived in the 13th century, there are also those so intrinsically aware of what they have to do from a young age they almost bring physical life to Rumi's words.
Soraya Hendesi is an example of the latter.
Growing up in Tehran under the wings of her mother and grandmother, who both worked for Unicef, Hendesi would spend long hours in the garden, mixing together lilies, berries and flowers into "magical potions".
She didn't sell any of these concoctions, but they served to spark a curiosity that would later see her venture to the UK and study to become a cosmetician – a career that gave scientific structure to her fascination with fusing components into something new.
She says learning about the chemical makeup of skincare products, she came to realise many soaps and creams were harsh, harmful and more about marketing than science.
"The more I investigated skincare and especially those that promised to reverse the signs of ageing, the more disenchanted I became," she says.
"It annoyed me that a luxury brand might ask hundreds of dollars for what many of us have come to realise is 'hope-in-a-jar' or worse, that included ingredients I knew could only be harmful to the skin. But at the same time, simply 'natural' skin care products made promises that had no scientific foundation."
These dual frustrations fused together into the idea that would become the Snowberry brand, which she launched with her Kiwi husband, Mark Henderson.
Ten years after the company was formed, Snowberry was last week acquired by multi-national consumer goods company Procter & Gamble - a giant that includes SKII and Olay in its portfolio.
A source suggests the deal was worth tens of millions of dollars. P&G is listed as the 98th largest business on the Fortune 500 list and is considered the biggest and most powerful advertiser in the world, spending more annually on promotion than any other organisation.
The company, which earns US$65 billion ($89b) in annual revenue, is based in Cincinnati and has a global employee base of 100,000.
Hendesi laughs at how alike her and her husband's surnames sound. But looking back at the relationship that started when the pair met in Dubai, it's clear they had more in common than phonetics.
Both had a keen interest in the entrepreneurial side of life. Henderson ran an engineering business called Fleximak and Hendesi used her skills as a cosmetician to launch her first range of craft soaps.
"I was the designer and 'pedlar', and in a way, that tiny business was a template for Snowberry," she says.
After six years in Dubai (his second stint in the city), Henderson wrapped up his business dealings and decided it was time to return to his homeland in 2006. There was no extended vacation, sabbatical or period of looking for new opportunities. The pair almost immediately turned their attention to developing Snowberry.
This time, however, they pulled in the same direction, with Henderson agreeing to work as managing director alongside Hendesi on her ambitious objective of entering one of the most saturated industries in business.
From the outset, Hendesi's aim was to create something Kiwis could trust every time they squeezed some cream on to their fingertips.
"Most of us aren't scientists, so we need to trust our skincare brand," she says.
"The trouble is many brands make big promises but offer little tangible evidence they can do much beyond moisturise."
One way Hendesi does this is by sourcing high-quality natural ingredients for her products. It's an aspect of the business she takes so seriously that she bought an entire plot of land to grow and harvest some of the plants that go into the products.
Dubbed the Snowberry Gardens, this former stretch of farmland north of Matakana now hosts a diverse range of rainforest trees and plants native to New Zealand.
"Many New Zealanders aren't aware we have a very diverse and wonderful rainforest here, but Māori most certainly did, and we have much to learn from traditional Māori medicine or rongoā," she says.
"In addition, scientists had already investigated many plants and had identified some very exciting properties in several of them. So, guided [by these findings], we've planted over 8000 plants in the Gardens."
Although nature certainly plays an important role in the business, Hendesi is a scientist at heart and doesn't buy into the militant philosophy that everything natural is automatically good and that everything scientifically altered is somehow bad.
"I think of it this way: skin ages prematurely when we damage it, either externally or internally. Through science, we know what is causing that damage and we know how it works. To me, it follows that if we know how skin ages and especially how it ages before its time, we must use skin science to help us to develop skincare."
It's a simple sentiment, which is also expressed in comedian Tim Minchin's hilarious animated short The Storm, in which he uses the example of aspirin to show how science can be used to make a natural remedy – in this case, one derived from the willow tree – more easily accessible.
Hendesi similarly doesn't believe nature and science should be mutually exclusive and has invested heavily in clinical research to ensure her products are backed by science. These research and development efforts have been supported for a number of years by Callaghan Innovation, which gave the business access to funding to try new things.
"To put it bluntly, it is unlikely I would be talking with the Herald on Sunday today, had we not had the support of Callaghan Innovation," she says.
"For any new company, investing in original science is really challenging, because it's money that isn't going into communications, the rent or even salaries. And because it's original science, there are no guarantees anything useful will come of it. It's a real gamble."
That gamble has paid off, with the P&G deal.
The team first tried for years to get local investment in the business, but Hendesi says they eventually had to turn to the international market. This hasn't been a popular decision across the board, with some fans of the brand expressing concern that the business would change under the control of the massive international organisation.
"I suspect that some who believe that we are 'selling out', don't truly understand just how much of your heart and soul – and your own resources you must put into a venture like Snowberry to make it successful," she says.
Hendesi understands these concerns but says the business will remain committed to the objectives she set for the company in 2006.
She says the local team and efforts will remain largely unchanged and P&G will focus on spreading the business beyond New Zealand, China and the United States.
With the added marketing and R&D clout behind the P&G machine, Hendesi also expected continued innovation at Snowberry.
"The moment we talked with Procter & Gamble, they said that Snowberry's values aligned with theirs. They loved what Snowberry offers, and they described how they could help us grow Snowberry in ways we had only dreamed of doing."
And despite cashing in on the business and having every opportunity to leave for some other venture, Hendesi fully intends to continue blending science and nature for the foreseeable future.
Rumi is clearly still whispering in her ear, reminding her of the work she was made to do.