Episode 177: Dr. Zahir Dossa, CEO and Co-Founder of Function of Beauty

Dr. Zahir Dossa is an unexpected beauty entrepreneur. He pivoted his dreams of outer space to the beauty industry after a meandering career journey here on earth. Now the CEO and Co-Founder of Function of Beauty focuses on sustainability and individuality, reminding his customers that beauty is about them, not what’s in the bottle.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®, hosted by Jodi Katz, Founder and Creative Director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey, it's Jodi Katz, your host of Where Brains Meet Beauty® podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in. This week's episode features Dr. Zahir Dossa. He's the CEO and Co-founder of Function of Beauty. And if you missed last week's episode, it featured Casey Georgeson, she's the Founder and CEO of Saint Jane. Thanks for tuning in.

Hey everybody, welcome back to the show. I am pleased to be here with Dr. Zahir Dossa. He is the Co-founder and CEO of Function of Beauty. Welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®.
Dr. Zahir DossaThank you, Jodi.
Jodi KatzIt's nice to meet you. So I hear you're in Florida, right? That's where you're based?
Dr. Zahir DossaI am in Florida.
Jodi KatzIs that where you always are, or is this like a COVID time period trip?
Dr. Zahir DossaThis was actually just before COVID. I was commuting back and forth from Miami to New York on a weekly basis. I have always walked to Function for the most part, and so there's just no separation between home and work, and then decided to take the ultimate separation and move to Miami just over a year ago. So it was pre-COVID, and then now I'm back living and working in the same area problem, but yeah,
Jodi KatzWhen I was younger in my career, I had a job at a startup website, it was 1999, and the website moved me to Miami to work and they gave me an apartment, so, but that was where I lived and worked. And it was amazing because I was like 21 years old, and it was a nightlife website, so my job was to go to the clubs and write about it the next day. It just was a good job, but the best part was just running on the beach every day after work was incredible.
Dr. Zahir DossaYeah. Your lifestyle was much better than mine actually, but I'll live vicariously through you.
Jodi KatzSo does that mean that you're all work and no play right now?
Dr. Zahir DossaI'm a good, healthy balance. I don't live on the beach, I live right in Brickell, so more of the downtown, "I just moved from New York, still need to be surrounded by shops and people," kind of vibe. So, I like it, and I have a golf simulator that I put in my guest bedroom during COVID. So I guess when you live in Florida, you're supposed to be good at golf or something, so I'm slowly getting there.
Jodi KatzSo let's go back in time, but really, really, really back. When you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Dr. Zahir DossaAn astronaut.
Jodi KatzThat's cool.
Dr. Zahir DossaYeah, I thought so.
Jodi KatzAnd was that something that you wanted to do and then it disappeared, or did that idea travel with you through your adolescence?
Dr. Zahir DossaYeah, I actually wanted to be an astronaut for a very, very long time. In fact, Josh, my co-founder and I, both had the childhood dream and both had the same approach to get there, which was either go into the Air Force Academy or Naval Academy, and it was a toss up on you're a Naval aviator or an Air Force pilot, which one kind of sets you up better to become an astronaut, but nonetheless, so we actually had the same set of goals and ideas. So all the way through high school, I applied to colleges, also looked at the Air Force Academy. There was too much against me. I didn't have perfect vision, so that was disqualifying at the time. Sure enough, the year I started undergrad, they started accepting LASIK, but another thing was asthma, so I had childhood asthma and I have a way of dealing with it, but nonetheless, that's another slightly disqualified factor, and then the weirdest one was allergies. I have hay fever, and I guess based on the location of the Air Force Academy or whatnot, that was also one of those that threw a question mark.

So anyways, I did all I needed to do to make sure I could pass the physicals and whatnot, but I didn't want to use up a nomination since people get very few to give for something that I wasn't too hopeful in. So I decided to go the MIT route, and I guess long path forward, ended up where I am now in Miami with a golf simulator.
Jodi KatzSo Zahir, when you're in high school applying for all these things, realizing that this is not going to be your future, what level of disappointment was that, like on a scale of one to 10, were you in tears, "I can't believe that my dream's not going to be realized," or were you like, "Okay, I'll pick a new dream?" What did that feel like at the time?
Dr. Zahir DossaYeah, it's so crazy. It almost all added up together. I had a really cool internship at NASA, and so I was ready to do a summer internship in 11th grade at the Johnson Space Center, and they just didn't have my security clearance correct because I was a Canadian citizen at the time and a US permanent resident, and I guess something got mixed up, and so, at the last second ended up not being able to do that internship.

So that was probably the worst. When you try so hard to get your dream internship, show up only to find out you're not going to be able to actually do it, and I guess that foreshadowed the rest of my non-existing career at NASA, but I came back to Dallas and really spent this summer focusing on, "How do I just make sure I have a really cool research experience?" I did some really neat things with electrical engineering, and started realizing how much I was passionate about other aspects of engineering, and could also see myself really engaging in that way. I had a weird childhood dream to always want to go to MIT, which was randomly set, but ended up becoming the proper dream for me to have, at least when I had an informed decision, and so I ended up deciding to go to MIT for undergrad, and yeah.
Jodi KatzSo out of curiosity, did your partner make it farther in his journey to astronaut?
Dr. Zahir DossaNo. No, he did not. We met at MIT, he ended up joining the Nuclear Navy and ended up getting some really cool officer positions on nuclear submarines, was the top of his class getting into the program, he was great. But after about five years of that, ended up switching into heading up operations at Amazon, and then I somehow convinced him that a career automating shampoo production at the time was the right career path for him and me both, so yeah.
Jodi KatzOkay, we're going to get to that, but out of curiosity, did you read Mark Kelly's Endurance?
Dr. Zahir DossaI did not.
Jodi KatzIt's such a great book, and I got to take my kids to see him speak because he grew up in a town next to where we live, so the kids got to hear him talking about being an astronaut, and his brother was an astronaut too, so it's such a great book for anyone listening.
Dr. Zahir DossaThat's really cool.
Jodi KatzYeah, it's a great read, and he had to work really hard to overcome a lot of obstacles to be able to make his dream come true. Okay. So now we're going to pivot from dreams of outer space to yes, the beauty industry. It does seem pretty random, I have to say. So, I'm looking on your LinkedIn, because that's where we all go first, and it's research studies about sustainability. Does sustainability for you, as somebody at MIT, mean what sustainability to me means?
Dr. Zahir DossaA bit. I think my real research focus was on broadening what we thought about sustainability, or just accepting that it was this idea of flourishing and creating positive impacts, and not just for the environment, but for society and the economy. So it was a more holistic, and what I say is a positive approach to sustainability, with the idea being that we really used to focus on, how do we mitigate harm? So how do we do less and less bad things? And largely that was focused on the environment, but we never really focused on, how do we just make the world a better place, and I think that was some of the aspects of sustainability that I was really impassioned by. I was really big about poverty alleviation, and then obviously improving the environment, but also thinking about improving economic systems and the way it worked. And so, I wanted to look at the intersection of companies who are able to positively impact the world, not just do less harm by improving the recycling programs.
Jodi KatzRight. So I think what I'm hearing you say is like, it leads to the opportunity to kind of rebrand what sustainability means, right?
Dr. Zahir DossaAbsolutely.
Jodi KatzIt's not about a lack of, it's about growing something.
Dr. Zahir DossaYeah, that's good.
Jodi KatzWe actually, my team and I at Base Beauty just did a workshop around the topic of just less waste, because the idea of sustainability and like, which plastic is better? I'm not going there. Like, is it getting recycled, or is getting thrown out? I don't want to go there. It's so complicated, but what about just making less stuff, right? And there's this influencer who is amazing. She makes like a Mason jar worth of waste in a year. And so, that was basically the topic of our workshop, and we had some packaging suppliers brainstorm with us, because who better to talk about this than people whose jobs are on the line in this topic? And we came up with really good ideas, but one of them was about actually rebranding what less waste means, and making the beauty consumer feel like she's getting more.
Dr. Zahir DossaNo, absolutely. I think that's... Yeah.
Jodi KatzEven though the impact is less.
Dr. Zahir DossaYeah, it's something as a... Now I don't know if we still qualify as a startup or not, but just as a young company, you're really focused on survival and growth, but sustainability's always been something that's been very top of mind for us. And so, we incorporate in really cool ways, so one of the things to your point is the bottles that we use, at least until COVID had shortages of it in some areas, are 100% post-consumer recycled waste. So it's still clear transparent bottles, but it's all from previously recycled plastics, so there's no Virgin plastic. And so again, how do we at least do right by that, or offering our customers the ability to put pumps or not. So there's some aspects of it that are still incorporated, but I wouldn't say that PhD and research focus ended up being the guiding light for Function of Beauty, just something that I'm still able to leverage and use.
Jodi KatzSo do you have thoughts in your head of what you want to do beyond beauty? Like for me, for example, I'm obsessive with actually making recycling work. I don't personally have the technology to make it happen, but I feel like I can go out in the world and find the people who do, right? So I mean, I think of WALL-E, you know the movie WALL-E? Have you seen that?
Dr. Zahir DossaYeah, yeah. Love WALL-E.
Jodi KatzRight? So this is one of my favorite movies. We don't have to live that way, we don't. So that's just sort of what I think about like, "Well, when Base Beauty does X, Y, Z, and my podcast is X, Y, Z, that's where I'm going to focus my time." Do you ever have thoughts and dreams, and sort of fantasies in that realm?
Dr. Zahir DossaI do. I don't think they're one faceted. I think about a lot of different opportunities where I could give back and improve, so whether that is, "How do I think through job creation?" or "How do I think about poverty alleviation?" Or I'm a big scuba diver, and I love the idea of growing coral and making new reefs, although the reefs that we have been regrowing aren't too, too pretty. They're functional, but as a diver, it's like, "Okay, I don't know if I'd go out of my way." So, there's some things in ocean that really fascinate me as well, but I ended up just starting a foundation, hoping that I can slowly put money into it so that I can slowly work on all of these various initiatives, and also give back to a lot of programs that helped me get to where I am as well, and I think it's a cool way to work with some of my friends on thinking through what are the cool ways to give back?
Jodi KatzIs that foundation part of Function of Beauty, or is that separate?
Dr. Zahir DossaIt's not, it's a separate foundation that I think I started having this itch and craving to, "How do I make sure I have an outlet for all my other passions and ideas?" So, I just started literally a couple of weeks ago, but I think when it came to Function, I don't want to say it was devoid of social purpose. One of the things that I didn't like in the industry, the beauty industry, which I think is still a weird name to call an industry, especially when beauty is something that should be more identified with an individual and a person, and is unique, but was this idea of, "Here's what beauty looks like," and then creating ads and imagery, and perpetuating "Here's what beauty looks like." And then we started getting more advanced by showing, "Okay, well, if you are a person with darker skin, here's what beauty looks like," right? Or similarly, "If you have a man bun, here's what beauty looks like."

So we ended up coming up with various buckets to always put people in, but still coming up with this idea or this image of, "This is what beauty looks like," and so I think that was one of the things that moved me, Josh, and Hien, we all come from very different walks of life, and just this idea of, "How do we just celebrate people and individuals as that, as individuals, and can we create a brand that's able to do that, that celebrates people?" And so, this idea of putting names on bottles, which is something we still do to this day, is my favorite part of this brand, because it is this idea of yeah, you personalize everything and you get this unique formulation, but it's this extra touch of just seeing Function of Zahir on a bottle where it's like, "Wow, this is mine," and you feel that cool feeling of upliftment that ideally you get from brands. And so anyways, I think that was one of the more uplifting or motivational reasons to do what we did, and then obviously turned into this huge movement and created an entire brand around it.
Jodi KatzSo you mentioned that it seems strange to call the industry the beauty industry. What can we rebrand it to? What should it be named?
Dr. Zahir DossaPersonal care industry, hair care industry, skin care industry, cosmetics industry. Those are actual, tangible things, those are the products you sell, right? Calling it the beauty industry almost makes it feel like you are selling beauty, or creating beauty and packaging it up. Anyway, so that was the idea by calling ourselves Function of Beauty, we eliminate beauty and all the assets that go to people, and it's Function of Jodi, Function of Zahir, it's a function of each and every one of our customers.
Jodi KatzSo let's talk about that journey from MIT to not the beauty industry, but personal care, or hair care, or skin care.
Dr. Zahir DossaThanks.
Jodi KatzSo how did that happen? My guess is it's maybe a little convoluted, but that's not a typical place to start.
Dr. Zahir DossaYeah, it's definitely not. One of my best friends had this idea when he was touring on where to go to for high school, flipping a coin and going with the route that when you flip that coin, you find out where you're going, are you excited or are you just like, "Ugh?" And I think that the takeaway from that was always, when torn on a decision, do the thing that is less commonplace, or the one that you're almost more afraid of doing, or the more unique path, with the idea being the thing that's most different. A, there's a reason why that's tearing you apart, the fact that you're torn between choosing one of two things, the fact that something is so different and shouldn't be even thought about, is holding its weight, I think gives rise to, "Well, maybe there's a reason for that," and there's something subconscious that just drives you towards it.

And so, my path from MIT to Function of Beauty was a series of those kinds of decisions. So, going into MIT, I first wanted to do computer science, was really passionate about becoming a programmer, but at the same time, loved business and found some really cool internships along the way. But at the end of it, I was really gearing up to take a job at a great consulting firm called McKinsey. If you're in management consulting or whatnot, it's a big name, but if you're not, it probably means very little to many people as well. But nonetheless, it was a great career path, nice, high paying job, a really clear way of going from there to a really great business school, and then figuring out what was next.

And at the last second, I ended talking to a couple of my best friends at MIT who somehow encouraged me to just do a PhD instead. I was really interested in sustainability, social entrepreneurship, poverty alleviation, but never got to study any of those things at MIT. And so, the idea was, "Why don't you just apply to do a PhD? It could be a really cool experience, and maybe a less crazy, structured path of education." And so, at the last second, ended up choosing to do a PhD. So very uncharacteristic, literally had no idea that that's what I wanted to do, a week before I applied, even. But ended up-
Jodi KatzSo you were peer pressured into going into a PhD program?
Dr. Zahir DossaYeah, yeah. I don't know if peer pressured is the right word, maybe. Yeah, I was. I think they just saw that I wasn't as excited about the opportunity of the path that I had kind of really focused on achieving. And so, it was one of these crossroads, and I took the more interesting path, and so that got me into the PhD program. And then that, it was really cool, I really got to focus on some really cool programs, and randomly through that, started an argan oil cooperative in Morocco, grew it to about 60 women with the idea being, "How do we get producers to create goods and sell them directly to consumers?"

And so, ended up starting a couple small brands that started getting some traction, and the argan tree was the beauty component of that, so I had a shampoo, conditioner, body wash, body lotion, and then just argan oil serum. And then one thing led to another, I was designing the site, then pitching it to Whole Foods, and Sprouts, and decided to do a survey on like, "How can I really improve these products?", and was not very enthused by the responses, because no one said anything in common, everyone was all over the place. Some were focused on fragrance, others were on, "I want this for curly hair," others were like, "I want this to be more moisturizing," others, "More cleansing," literally across the board.

And so, I just, I kind of sat on that. I didn't really respond to it at first, but my dad was holding these interventions, I guess, these subtle interventions where I'd show up and there'd be another friend of his that was kind of giving me career advice, because you start off as this golden child with a great education, get a PhD, and suddenly, all of a sudden it's like, "Well, what are you trying to do here?" But anyways, after this series of interventions, I ended up getting really drunk with the same friends who inspired me to really always take the less obvious path in life.

I came up with the idea for Function of Beauty just looking at all these customer, not even reviews, just feedback from the survey and realizing "Well, shoot, if the only way to satisfy everybody is by making a unique product, I can probably tie in some of my engineering background to actually make that possible, and for the first time, create a unique product for every single person." And so, the next day, reached out to Josh and Hien, who I thought were the natural co-founders. Very, very different from me, very different from each other, and the three of us are very different from any set of founders the beauty industry's ever seen, but obviously is something we're very thankful for, and one of the real reasons why I think we've been so successful.
Jodi KatzSo how statistically significant where were the survey results? Was it hundreds of names, thousands? I'm just curious to know how big a source of information was that to inspire this really unique idea?
Dr. Zahir DossaI round it to about maybe 50 responses, and I don't know if any were in common. So, so statistically insignificant that I realized there's just... And this is for a product that was really well reviewed, at least relative to its competition, and still just wasn't perfect. And I am a perfectionist, I can not create something that is less than perfect, and pursue perfection is one of the values we have at Function. The military or ex-Navy folks have this value of continuous improvement, which works hand in hand, but it's at the core DNA of our company. How do we just always make ourselves better?
Jodi KatzSo let's talk about this, because I'm a recovering perfectionist. I see it differently than you, I see it as sort of not great for me. It doesn't mean I don't continually improve, the universe gives me so many chances to do that. So when I think about the entrepreneurial experience, myself as an entrepreneur, and tons of friends and clients as entrepreneurs, nothing's ever quite right, you just have to go for it. Has that been uncomfortable for you, launching something or starting something and knowing like, "Wow, I'd really like hours worth of tweaks on this, but I just have to move forward?"
Dr. Zahir DossaI think it's twofold. So on the one hand, it forces us to make sure we never half-ass anything and make sure we get something out the door that we're really proud to literally put our name on, and would be proud to put our customers' names on. So I think that's the first half, but the second half is it does force us to never get complacent. So we are constantly trying to improve what we offer, how we do what we do, the people around us, et cetera, and I think that level of never getting complacent has enabled us to continue to really lead the industry. Because obviously after we launched, there became a lot of other players in the personalized beauty space, but the idea of never accepting where you're currently at, continuously improving until you're going to be perfect, at least makes sure that we're never really looking at the competition, and always looking at who we are and how we can improve ourselves, and that makes it really, really clear to just get us to hone in on our North Star, and our vision, and our mission, and everything else along the way.
Jodi KatzSo you told us that you're at ease going to the path that's least comfortable, right? So what's been one of the most uncomfortable things that you've had to deal with being an entrepreneur in this space so far? I mean, it's been six years, it's like an eternity in this business.
Dr. Zahir DossaYeah, and I think there's something almost every single day. I'm trying to think through, as an entrepreneur, you're constantly trying to make sure that you're raising the right amount of money, not too much, not too little. You're constantly stressing about making sure you're deploying it in the ideal way possible, you're constantly stressing about every single person in the company and the team you're building. Is it perfect? How do we make it better? Is everybody performing at this super high level that we've set for ourselves? How do we know when a product is good enough to launch? When do we think we should keep improving things? How do we say no to things, I think that might be one of the harder things, especially when we're engineers at heart who want to solve problems, it's really, really difficult to suddenly say "No, even though we can solve this problem, we don't want to, because we've got this other bigger problem that we really want to make sure we fix."

And so, I think that's been one of the biggest obstacles and the biggest areas of growth that I've had as a founder, is really picking and choosing what those battles are. But honestly, as a perfectionist, it's hard to get a good night of sleep. They do happen, and when they do happen, it's the most incredible thing ever because it's just, "Okay, great," but then very soon thereafter you just realize, "Okay, you knocked down one obstacle. There's a whole host of others that stand in your way," but it's a source of excitement and motivation for us, so I think it drives me, and I enjoy it.
Jodi KatzSo for me to keep my head screwed on and focused on my goals, I have a therapist, I have a agency growth consultant, I have a coach, I have a sales coach. I have a real village, and I need it, I really do. I need them all at different points for different challenges, but having that team is so important to me. Do you have any techniques or types of people that you surround yourself with that help you move through these uncomfortable situations on a daily basis?
Dr. Zahir DossaYeah, I think I have almost all of those things. So I have a personal therapist, or had a personal therapist. I ended up getting a little too busy for therapy, which is terrible. So I do need to find another therapist too, but I had a personal therapist, which is incredibly helpful. I mean, there's a lot of personal struggles you go through as an entrepreneur, and it's a really, really emotional journey. I think one of my favorite partners at Y Combinator said that, "The hardest part about starting a company is the mental game," and I didn't appreciate it enough until I was well into the company, and really torn between my personal life, the company, went through a divorce really soon after getting married, so it was just, it was really tough. And so, you start to see the toll there, and so it was really helpful to have a personal therapist. I also got an executive coach to help me really focus on how to really take the business to this next level, and that's been really helpful too, like making sure I constantly improve.

And then the last are my friends, and probably a combination of people within the company and outside of the company. It can be really, really lonely if you go at it alone, and so I rely a lot on the team that we've built to help, because it's the only set of people that really are going through the exact same things as you are and obviously, you're focused on different problems, but it makes it not be lonely and I think without them, I would question a million times what it is that I'm doing and why am I doing it? And then your friends, right? Like the people who've been around, especially during some of the hardest chapters of my life, and of all the things that I'm thankful for, and I have a lot to be thankful for, I have exciting news about a new fundraising round and all of that, but the thing that I'm most thankful for are the friends that I've had that have influenced and helped me get to where I'm at today, but then also enjoy the journey as well, so yeah.
Jodi KatzSo Zahir, what I've learned about myself for the past 14 years being an entrepreneur, and I didn't see this for most of the years, it's a new finding, that every day I spend most of my time working on myself, like growing as a human. My job, my career, my companies, they are conduits to these uncomfortable, difficult situations that let me look inward at my historical self, myself now, and I realized yeah, I'm working on my business, but I'm actually working on myself, and I think that's why having these people around me is so important, because I see the value in it beyond the surface. So it's so cool that you're surrounded by so many people as well.
Dr. Zahir DossaNo, that's a really cool perspective. I don't know if I really thought about it in that way, but I can attest to it, so yeah.
Jodi KatzWell, it's been so exciting to get to know you. I long for the day where we can be in the same room together, and I'm glad that you have the company, and your golf game in the next room to take the edge off a little bit when work gets a little tough. So thank you so much for joining us today.
Dr. Zahir DossaThanks, Jodi. I appreciate you having me.
Jodi KatzAnd for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Zahir. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes, and for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram @wherebrainsmeetbeautypodcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to where Brains Meet Beauty® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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