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EXCLUSIVE: Meet Filipino Social Entrepreneur Sara Ku Of Organic Beauty Brand Kaya Essentials

Get to know the founder of an all-natural Filipino coconut skincare brand that stands for sustainability and the Filipinos' can-do spirit

Thick, frizzy hair that requires weekly maintenance to keep it tamed and lush—it's not exactly a situation most women would be happy about! But not for Filipino entrepreneur and beauty brand Kaya Essentials founder Sara Ku. She has much to thank her strands for. 

On the days she spent meticulously massaging coconut oil into her hair from root to tip in her London university dorm room, she hadn't yet realized that what she had in the palms of her hands and at the tips of her fingers was a substance waiting to turn into liquid gold. The aroma of the Philippine Holy Grail for beauty, the newness of it all, and quite possibly, the wonderful results that her religious application afforded her raven locks didn't just pique her friends' interest in doing the same—they were enough to get them hooked. 

The experience would become a pivotal moment for Sara's journey of social entrepreneurship; those days weren't just brief moments of one girl sharing her best-kept beauty secret with another, but they were actually Sara's initial introductions of organic beauty—of the almost magical properties of all-natural, Philippine-made products—to others. 

Who would have thought? Who would have thought that buried underneath all that hair was a light bulb waiting for its moment to shine, sitting tight until it was the right time to illuminate the path that lay ahead of Sara—one defined by a passion for social entrepreneurship and guided by a heart that calls the Philippines home. 

Much has happened since Sara was in university, but two things have remained true for this 21st century business owner: she's a heroine of Philippine products and the farmers behind them, and she has dedicated her life to carving a space just for them in the international beauty market.

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But this was just one half of Sara's great beginnings; if her dormitory days unsheathed the light bulb of ideas, a chance to hear Filipino non-profit Gawad Kalinga founder Tony Meloto give a lecture at the London School of Economics was the switch needed to turn them up to maximum brightness.

"After hearing Tito Tony give a lecture at the London School of Economics, I remember looking at the coconut oil jar I was using. It was French-branded and when you turned to the back of the jar, in the smallest font, it said 'Made in the Philippines,'" Sara begins.

"I remember feeling, 'Why does Filipino coconut oil not have the same recognition as argan oil has for Morocco? That is when I decided I wanted to create a Filipino coconut skincare line that would bring that representation to the beauty market," she continues. 

Now, as Sara went about her days reflecting on these thoughts, fate's hand was hard at work behind the scenes. An opportunity of a lifetime came in the form of an internship offered to her: a position in none other than Gawad Kalinga's research and development team which, at the time, was developing business opportunities for its Enchanted Farm, an initiative that focused on helping Filipino farmers create wealth for themselves with their land.  

It was a program designed to last for a summer. Sara ended up staying with Gawad Kalinga for three years. 

"When I learned about their focus on building social enterprises and seeing the impact buying local could have, that was the first time I felt my life purpose and my coconut dream was born," she explains.

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"...They were not looking to solve just one area of poverty (housing, education, food access). They looked at the impact from a holistic viewpoint. To me, that was important because all areas are interconnected," she continued. 

The plight of Filipino coconut farmers became the cause closest to her heart; she had learned that a third of them lived below the poverty line despite high demands for their produce and an even higher potential for their crop to be used in a variety of products in and outside the country. There was a weak link in the chain and Sara was bent on spotting it and repairing it with her own hands.

How she would do so was crystal clear: establish a beauty brand that wasn't just a business, but a social enterprise built on a foundation of uplifting the lives of everyone involved.

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"After researching different coconut oil farms and their operations, I partnered with one based in Davao that is fair trade certified. Fair trade ensures wages are not only above minimum wage, but a sustainable income with safe working conditions," she explains.

Several trips back to the drawing board were made, but in any success story, they're part and parcel of the life of an entrepreneur with big plans that are worth every erasure, revision, and draft. 

Taking slow but deliberate steps towards her goal, it would take only two years after Sara's graduation before she would officially launch what many skincare addicts have fallen in love with: Kaya Essentials, a skincare brand that rightfully prides itself in being Philippine made, organic, sustainable, and simple yet powerful. 

Pop-up markets were at first Sara's bread and butter before eventually moving to the digital marketplace where her brand truly found its rhythm. 

Kaya Essentials has since made waves in LA's beauty scene, gaining praise from buyers old and new for its approach to beauty. Filipinas who recognize its Philippine roots hold a special place for Kaya Essentials in their hearts, of course! Uniquely Philippine ingredients and aromas like virgin coconut oil and calamansi aren't only lovely on the skin, but evoke connections to home, family, and travels to the Philippine archipelago. 

"I’m really proud for the representation we’ve brought being a Filipino coconut skincare brand. We have so many in our community that share how they’ve just started paying attention to how ingredients are sourced and why it’s important to have recognition as a Filipino beauty brand. Especially as we decolonize the traditional beauty standards of skin-whitening, 'natural and organic' means embracing our unique self," Sara points out.

Understanding her brand's promise on a deeper level, you'll be happy to learn that it's also made of the best stuff there is. There was no compromise between quality and making a profit for Sara; the reason why Kaya Essentials products are made in small batches is because its ingredients and formulas are so meticulously made that mass producing them commercially would strip them of their essence. 

She explains, "Not all coconut oil is created equally. We use centrifuged organic virgin coconut oil, which is a spinning process that uses no heat and separates the coconut oil from the coconut meat. This retains more of the nutrients that give us the skin deep hydration, antioxidants and vitamins."

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Kaya Essentials' very name has a pretty great story to it, too.

"Kaya originates from 'kaya natin' because we believe we can have the greatest impact, when we #kayatogether," Sara smiles.

Just as importantly, Sara's "kaya natin" philosophy extends to being a female business owner. She points out how representation in her work doesn't only pertain to one's race, but also to the gender disparity in the business world. This includes the beauty industry where a big chunk of umbrella brands (and the biggest ones, at that) are run by men. 

So to women aspiring to one day become entrepreneurs themselves in their industry of choice, Sara has this to say to them: "Kaya mo!" she assures them.

"I encourage every woman who has a passion for entrepreneurship to launch their own business... I also really encourage connecting with our female founders. Having a community that supports and inspires you helps so much, whether that is a mentor who can help guide you or an accountability group that helps you set and achieve your goals," she adds.

For Sara, a woman she looked up to in Kaya Essentials' early days was Tea Drops founder Sashee Chandran. Without connections, she established and grew her business in a few years' time, and it's now worth millions.

"You got this girl. Talk to yourself as you would to your best friend. I know we can be so critical and hard on ourselves, but it’s important to create your own future because no one has your back stronger than yourself," she further says. 

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But even with the heights she has reached, she's transparent about the hiccups she's had to deal with along the way.

She learned the true meaning of resilience, for example, and the value in being yourself's biggest supporter. "Being comfortable in the uncomfortable," as Sara put it, is also an essential skill for those who wish to expand their already big dreams and live to see them materialize. 

Sara's also not a stranger to founder's fatigue. She admits to needing to re-energize and be reminded of why she's on the path she is from time to time, but what has helped keep her eyes on the prize is the clear set of goals she attached to her business. For Kaya Essentials, it was specifically longevity and organic growth. Slow and sure was the name of the game. 

"...It allowed me to not rush and make all the mistakes before launching. That being said, as someone who is super detail-oriented, I’ve had to learn to let go a little," she reveals.

"'Perfection is the enemy of progress'—that is an affirmation that really helps me and would say is my personal struggle to this day. It’s been the most rewarding, though, because it gives me the space to dream bigger and to go for opportunities that otherwise I would’ve not felt ready for. You realize that so much of the challenges are within yourself, so on a whole, you have to prepare to be really honest with yourself," she says. 

And with the progress that Kaya Essentials has enjoyed in its three years of existence, Sara is definitely doing something right.

The brand doesn't only offer skincare collections and standalone products, but has expanded to hosting live online events that stream discussions centered around female entrepreneurs as well as colorism in the beauty industry.

Just this year, Sara has also delved into the business of beauty's twin sister: fashion.

The new venture was also done in partnership with Gawad Kalinga, something she considers to be a beautiful way to go full circle with her beginnings as an entrepreneur. 

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"Through my work with Gawad Kalinga, I was able to meet so many amazing female entrepreneurs who are working with female artisans in different local communities in the Philippines, providing a sustainable livelihood and the opportunity to work from home. A lot of our partners work in the fashion space and upcycle a lot of the fabric waste from manufacturers. I’m so proud to share that we will be expanding our product line and partnering with 12 different artisan communities!"

And with more grassroots partners, that only means one thing for Kaya Essentials: more Filipino lives can be reshaped for the better.

As Sara looks forward to a bright future ahead, she also takes this time to slow down. 

It's not that she's losing steam—never! This is her life's purpose, after all.

Like millions of people around the world, Sara has also been affected by the global health crisis. Spending days at home, however, has allowed her imagination to flourish so much more than the days she spent indoors in her college dormitory. 

She misses her family the most; her parents are in Kuwait, her brother is in London, and she's in the US. Despite being used to being based in different places in the world (Sara and her brother were born and raised in Hong Kong then spent their teenage years in India and Turkey before going off to college), there's nothing like being around the ones nearest and dearest to her especially in a time like this. 

But in the end, she believes everything will be more than okay—for herself, her family, her brand, and the Filipinos her social enterprise supports. 

With a boss like Sara on top of Kaya Essentials, no matter what comes her way, she can convincingly tell herself, kayang-kaya ko ito

Photos courtesy of Sara Ku

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