When February 2021 began, I noticed the storytelling of self-care and Black history taking place from multiple perspectives. For the first time I was seeing this beautiful thread of self-love and brown and black skin intersecting. Perhaps it was there in years past, but to me this felt new. In the spaces I filled, I saw celebration of each other and ourselves. For the past 6 months, I’ve consciously invested my energy in other local womxn business owners, centering BIPOC. Carving out time each day to research and spotlight the power in women, especially women who look like me, is a special kind of self-care. It’s keeping me in an inspired state because when we honor each other, we are honoring ourselves.
For the 6th article in this Women-Owned series, I got the chance to sit down with Sarah Zareen, founder, creator, and owner of Ishq Skincare, a line of ethically sourced, organic, skincare products. With a company name like Ishq (ee-shuh-quh), which means love in Urdu, it feels appropriate for Sarah to be my February interview and for the name itself to be the beginning of our conversation.
“What about Ishq? As a name?,” Sarah shares how she discussed the idea with her husband.
“It’s hard to pronounce for some people because it’s a letter from the throat, but I can teach them. Because it has to be Ishq. That is my culture. I want to normalize having a brand that sounds non-white. Ishq in Urdu means love. It’s a love that you feel in every cell of your being.”
Even though I’m meeting Sarah over Zoom, I can feel her passion and enthusiasm as I listen. She is glowing with joy and I notice birds chirping outside of her window. Sarah’s dialed in from India, where’s she staying with her parents to help her dad who has fallen ill. Being in Bangalore the past few months has given Sarah the opportunity to reflect.
“I come from a family of healers in Southern India and that is a fact I took for granted when I was growing up. Being surrounded by healing energies was very normal. My family focuses on physical healing combined with spiritual connectedness. It doesn’t matter what you’re putting on your face or what you’re eating. The healing isn’t going to be as sustainable or as profound if you are consuming from an impure source.”
For true spiritual alignment, Sarah explains the importance of purity. She learned early on that whatever is happening at the source, your body is absorbing. But she admits to me that she lost this perspective as she got older. Growing up in the 80s, Sarah and her family enjoyed the convenience and instant gratification of mass production and supply chains. As consumers they moved away from their roots of knowing where things come from, but this wasn’t the case with skincare. If anything happened to their skin, the first resource was the kitchen. For example, for a breakout they’d take fresh mint leaves, squish it in their palms, put it on their face and sleep with it.
“I remember it so clearly, “Sarah recalls her 18th birthday. “I was at my grandmother’s house. I wanted to make my skin glow so my aunt took me into the garden and plucked a hibiscus. She then mushed it in her hand and patted it on my face. That was the beginning of being rooted in healing, but not being conscious of the teaching.”
Sarah was born in India, but in 1984 her dad got a new job in Saudi Arabia. At just 5 years old, Sarah joined her dad in 1985 with her mom and younger brother. They lived there for 11 years while Sarah attended 1st-10th grade. Every summer they’d vacation back in Bangalore for 2 months. Sarah has a strong connection to her extended family and leaving every summer was hard for her. It was an ache she lived with into her teenage years, but her parents still surrounded Sarah with an Indian community in Saudi Arabia.
“All of our friends were Indian as were our schools. We didn’t know too many people from other cultures. I was encouraged to be an independent woman, but growing up, everything revolved around marriage and kids. It was a message I absorbed. You get married. You have kids and then that’s that. I did get married, but no kids.”
There wasn’t a lot of pause here, but I observed a change in Sarah’s tone and her pace of speaking quickened.
“My husband and I tried to have kids and it didn’t happen. But trying also held me back from pursuing a 9-5 career. Because, what if I got pregnant? It was always in my head and held me back from living a truly full life.”
Prior to opening Ishq Skincare, Sarah volunteered with different organizations for 14 years. From social justice conscious street theatre organizations in India to doing Children’s theatre in Pennsylvania when she moved to the US in 2001 after graduating from college. Her husband’s job then brought them to Milpitas, CA, where she volunteered for 7 years with Stand Up for Kids, a national non-profit organization dedicated to ending the cycle of youth homelessness in local communities. There she mentored and trained youth as well as helped open a drop-in center. This experience forever left an imprint on Sarah, but the theater performer in her didn’t go away. She split her time with trying to pursue a career as a travel show host. In fact, if you visit her YouTube channel you can see her on-camera path since November 25, 2011.
As Sarah entered her 30s, she sought out a better connection to the Divine by going back to her roots. Paying special attention to whether or not her sources were pure, she became mindful of what she said, what she saw, and what she consumed. This journey of purifying everything that surrounded her made her question the source of her food and clothes, which led her on a learning path about fair trade and ethical practices. Discovering how large corporate supply chains treat Indigenous people and the environment was a true wakeup call for Sarah. She explains to me the impact it had on her life.
“I started to consume less. I researched to make sure my food and spices were organic. I’m trying to buy as local as possible. I stopped shopping at Forever 21 to reduce fast fashion. I’m still on this journey and it isn’t easy. But I’m in a better place now than when I started 8 years ago.”
Out of all her everyday consumption, skincare was something Sarah struggled to afford at the California organic prices. Already practicing the ritual of making things by hand, she researched ways to create her own organic moisturizers at home. After playing around with locally sourced ingredients, Sarah had uncovered her next endeavor.
“The first time I made it, I was like, what is this goodness? I loved it and in my family we share anything good that comes our way. So that’s what I did. I shared the creams with everyone I knew to expand the sharing circle.”
Sarah lived in California for a few more years and then moved to Seattle before finally settling in Oregon in Fall of 2017. It was the PNW that inspired her to pursue skincare as a full-time business. Ishq Skincare was launched on May 2, 2018, a day after Sarah’s 38th birthday. I ask Sarah how her business has weathered 2020.
“When 2020 started, I didn’t think Ishq would survive with the markets closing, but luckily I joined the MOB alliance just before Covid hit. It was there that I found my two business coaches. I had a lot of unlearning to do from my first 1 ½ years of business without coaching, but 2020 was clarity for me. I joined the leadership team of the Equitable Giving Circle. I did a lot of farmer’s markets because those were the only markets open. It gave me the opportunity to meet so many of the local farmers and to build friendships and collaborations.”
With loss, many of us can also see how much we have gained in the lessons of the last year. Sarah is no exception. As a woman who has so much to give this world, Sarah has found peace in honoring and loving who she is. Best of all, as a business owner, she gets to put purpose behind all the skills she’s collected over the years.
As I think about the stories Sarah has shared with me this evening, I hear someone on a continuous path to be motherly, which by Webster’s definition is to be caring, protective, and kind, to everyone and everything she encounters. This is a trait we can all choose to be whether we have children or not. It’s what I admire about Sarah. With each opportunity, she searches for ways to take care of others and the environment.
“With women of color it’s give, give, give and when you take you are selfish. Doing Ishq has empowered me to take better care of myself by taking care of others. It is in my genes to do this and the blessings of my Ancestors are guiding me in every step.”
I believe these words from Sarah. The transformation in her life and the healing she brought herself with Ishq makes me think about the other women I have spoken with through this series. No matter the industry, the transformation women go through as they begin to own their ideas, voice, path, and wealth is such a powerful display of unlearning society’s limiting constructs and birthing a new identity. Ishq or love, has healed Sarah in her quest to heal others. To me, this is the ultimate self-care.
Thank you Sarah Zareen for all that you do and for sharing with me today.
Feature photo of Sarah done by Halsey Hendrickson Photography.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Amanda Mailey is the owner of ALIST and a new indie author who released her first book sidetracked in July 2020. She’s a lifelong writer specializing in observation and reflective narrative. She grew up in Oregon and graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Oregon.
As a biracial Filipina-American woman, Amanda is passionate about advancing womxn- and bipoc-owned small businesses and leaders in her community. Through this blog series and social media, Amanda centers and promotes the stories and achievements of local womxn owners.