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How are 800-year-old recipes creating opportunities for women?

An alum carries on a family tradition with her essential oils company.
Headshot of Shrankhla Holecek
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Shrankhla Holecek (DM West Coast, LAN, SCA 08-14) is passionate about promoting wellness.

It runs in the family. Centuries ago, Shrankhla’s ancestors, royal Ayurvedic physicians, were granted land in Chhattisgarh, India to grow and harvest the ingredients for their healing treatments.

Today, Shrankhla grows the ingredients for her essential oils company, UMA Oils, on the same land – and combines it with the very modern trend of empowering women.

Here, she talks about following in her family’s heritage, the key values that drive her company, and why she will allow herself an occasional (very non-Ayurvedic) doughnut.

Tell us how and why you started UMA.

Tempted as I often am to tell others – and even myself – that it had a strategic or intellectual rationale, I think the reality is that I started UMA for deeply personal reasons. After what felt like an attempt to get as far away from my family’s roots as possible by moving to Los Angeles, going to business school, and starting a consulting career, I came full circle in acceptance and appreciation for all that I had grown up with: the unique value of my Ayurvedic heritage, as well as the beauty, complexity and richness of the Indian culture.

In starting UMA, I felt that I could serve as a conduit for a deeper and more authentic understanding of Ayurveda in the West via a platform that demystified its brilliant tenets, but without ever compromising their integrity. There’s clearly a need for wellness wisdom in the world we live in – wherever one may be on the spectrum of integrating it in one’s life, I think most will agree – and I believed that Ayurveda could offer that in a time-tested way. Importantly, building my own business allowed me to prioritize some of the core values I felt very passionately about, gender equality and equal pay being one of them.

Many of us may not be familiar with Ayurvedic medicine. Can you give us a quick description of what it is?

The beginnings of Ayurveda extend deep into ancient Indian history. This science of medicine, arguably the oldest in the world, was originally an oral tradition, passed from person to person, teacher to student, before it was ultimately recorded in Sanskrit more than 5,000 years ago as part of the Vedas.

The Vedas are rich bodies of literature and form the basis of the Ayurvedic belief that we are all interconnected and intrinsic parts of our environment. They span a multitude of subjects and ideas about health and wellness, including spirituality, environment, botany, behavior, art, and astrology. Over time, Charaka and Sushruta, two of the most prominent contributors to Ayurveda, catalogued the practical learnings and teachings into written texts roughly 3,000 years ago – and that is what forms the basis of the Ayurvedic practice as we know it today.

More simply (and literally), Ayurveda is the science of life. It is as much a guidance on an individual’s daily existence and wellbeing as it is a powerful system of medicine that delivers long-lasting results by addressing the fundamental root causes of disease. You’ll find valuable, practical, and wonderfully “moderate” guidance on diet, meditation, yoga (many don’t realize that yoga comes from the same roots) and much more within Ayurveda.

Shrankhla Holecek sitting in a field of lavender
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To what extent are your products old family 'recipes'? Have you made any changes to formulas, and if so, why?

By and large the formulas have been wholly preserved in their execution for UMA. We’ve made very, very few changes – I think 2 or 3 ingredient swaps in a couple of formulas – and it was primarily for reasons of sustainability. The reality is that some ingredients have become unviable to farm over the centuries (climate and soil changes being some of the top reasons), and earmarking land and resources for the exclusive production of an extremely temperamental ingredient seemed wasteful. Also, we knew that in terms of the impact of the swap to the efficacy of the formula, the gargantuan effort of farming the swapped ingredient would yield a depreciating return.

How do you feel about carrying on 800-year-old tradition?

I think I’m a little escapist about it, in part because I’m forced to be, given the realities of running a small business. However, when I have to reckon with it, I take solace in the fact that when I’ve had to make compromises it’s in pursuit of the greater good. And I should clarify “compromise.” I do believe that, in terms of product execution, we remain very purist – but it’s harder to walk the talk in my current environment than it may have been for my foremothers. For example, a doughnut or three cups of coffee in a day aren’t very Ayurvedically lauded, but after a red-eye and en route to an editorial meeting (where I get to talk about the merits of Ayurveda), if that’s what I find, that’s what I’ll eat.

What are some of the key values built in to the company's mission?

I talked earlier about gender parity being important to me, and I feel privileged that I was raised in environments like McKinsey where that was a given. But I think a large part of the workforce still stereotypes roles somewhat, though I’m greatly enthused that the trend line is positive!

Shrankhla speaks with several of her women employees surrounded by cloth sacks of herbs
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For instance, I find that fewer women apply to technical marketing roles within UMA, but we remain committed to developing that talent and empowering our women colleagues to navigate the domain through education, time and encouragement. Also, all our warehouse and operations roles are filled by women, so challenging “traditional” gender roles at a workplace is definitely one of our core values. I also believe that intellectual diversity is a key value at UMA – our team is composed of such a disparate set of brilliant people that you’re constantly learning new things, challenging yourself, and growing every day.

What is UMA’s corporate culture and personality?

We put a great emphasis on individuality so it’s a little difficult for me to define a “culture” as it were, but I do believe that the values of passion for the brand, creating value for our customers, and kindness – for lack of a better word – do bind us as a group. I realize that “passion for the brand” sounds a bit trite – but it has been remarkable for me to watch our current (and even former) team members explain UMA to others. I sometimes wonder if I could do as good of a job!

We also value and encourage independent thinking and accountability, and hierarchically we try to remain very flat. It’s a small team so it works for us. I imagine things may need a little more structure as we grow, but it’s a natural and efficient model for now.

Have other alumni played a role in your life since you left McKinsey?

Of course. It’s amazing to have this incredibly trustworthy resource for answers, especially for the myriad nuanced, and often unstructured, questions that you have early on as you build a business. Conversely, it’s also really cool to be in conversation with someone you’ve met through a different channel but who clearly speaks your language (which happens less and less in the “outside” world), only to realize shortly thereafter that they’re also an alum.

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

Running a startup can be an extremely rewarding and incredibly daunting experience at the same time (it’s also like therapy on steroids in how much it teaches you about yourself), so to get down to brass tacks, I suppose I take some comfort in the fact that 4 years after our launch I’m still excited to do this, and that UMA is viable. There are several mini-lessons that got me to this point in UMA’s lifecycle – a certain belief in my ability to structure and problem solve in completely foreign situations, persevere through some really hard schedules, and lead in very uncertain times, all of which I’m grateful for having learned.

But I’m hopeful that what I’ll ultimately be most proud of still lies ahead. UMA was named in memory of my aunt, an incredibly independent and selfless woman who helped raise my sister and me, and my hope is that the brand will ultimately stand as a legacy and testament to women's phenomenal power and grace.