Anisa Telwar Kaicker is founder and CEO of Anisa International.
Anisa Telwar Kaicker’s earliest lessons in entrepreneurship started when she was twelve years old, watching her mother build her import-and-export business from the ground up. As her mother navigated the successes and failures of running a business, Anisa watched her every move, learning about taking risks, resilience, and strategizing — but at the time, Anisa’s primary concern was her mother’s happiness.
“She was unhappy in her marriage to my father, and she wanted to create independence,” says Kaicker. “She started an international trading company, and it really took off. It was phenomenal to watch — I saw her go through so much fear and insecurity, and she just kept going anyway.”
When Anisa graduated high school, she was quick to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She took a job working for her mother, trading in a college education for hands-on learning at a $100-million family business. Her mother was a tough boss and refused to give Anisa any special treatment. She had vision and drive, and Anisa did her best to keep up and learn the ropes as she went.
“At the time, I didn’t realize how much I was learning,” says Kaicker. “I was just going in every day and doing what I had to in order to survive in a family business. Looking back more than 20 years later, I can see how much I learned and how much she taught me about how to run a business.”
For all she learned from her mother’s successes, Anisa also learned from her failures. Her mother was shipping products mainly to the Middle East, and when the first Gulf War occurred, it devastated the business. It felt as if everything they’d built disappeared in an instant.
“The U.S. embargoed everything that we had ready to ship. There wasn’t much that she could’ve done to prevent it, other than to have diversified more,” says Kaicker. “It was pretty awful to see her go through that.”
With little opportunity left for her in the family business, Anisa ventured out on her own, focused on becoming an entrepreneur herself. She called a contact from the family business who sold cosmetic brushes, and she convinced him to let her try to sell some of them. “I called Mr. Lee and asked for the opportunity to market his products. He was in Korea and I was in the U.S.,” says Kaicker. “He agreed, and I started putting little brushes in pink envelopes and mailing them to New York City. That’s how I would get meetings.”
Keeping in family tradition, Anisa’s first venture in business was a huge success. It didn’t take long for her to break out on her own. She secured a bank loan, established her own supply chain with her partner in Korea and in 1992, Anisa International was born. The business skills she’d learned from her mother served her well: she already knew how to handle everything from cash flow to hiring decisions. And like her mother, she was fiercely driven and unafraid to tackle any challenge.
Anisa International continued to grow and was successful year over year. Under her leadership, her company became the only female-owned brush manufacturer in the world. Over the years, it evolved from a marketing and distribution partner into the industry pioneer of cosmetic brush innovation, design and responsible manufacturing.
But behind-the-scenes, Anisa’s personal life was defined by anxiety and stress. As a woman in a male-dominated industry, it felt like she constantly had to prove herself. There weren’t as many women in business in the 1990s, and every decision felt like uncharted waters. Over time, she built up a tough exterior and a harsh approach to leadership.
“I was laser-focused on generating revenue,” says Kaicker. “I often took out my frustrations and fears on my team, thinking that I was motivating them. During those first fifteen years, I wasn’t taking good care of myself, and I wasn’t the greatest person to work for.”
When Anisa first started her company, she couldn’t have imagined what was in store for her. Her company was hugely successful, and quickly. She built a team around her, but she’d never learned how to effectively lead people. Like many, she felt that the surest path to success was a command-and-control approach to leadership.
“I felt like I had to be in charge of everything,” says Kaicker. “That’s what my mother did, and she had been successful. It was a different time in business. People weren’t talking about culture and building teams. It was a grind just to survive. I was living in a lot of anxiety, and my behavior was affecting others.”
She was fifteen years into the business, but she was still operating in survival mode — and it was exhausting. Anisa started to wonder if the company was outgrowing her mindset as a leader. Could she really do it all? Should she even try? And how was her behavior affecting her team? Realizing it might be time for a change, Anisa decided to start learning again. She delved into leadership books, hired coaches, and enlisted the help of mentors in her life.
“That’s when I realized that I’d built something worth growing – and I couldn’t grow it on my own,” says Kaicker. ‘My entrepreneurial journey didn’t really start until that moment. I realized the impact I was having on people, and how my behavior could motivate, or de-motivate, others. I also realized the importance of self-care, and that when I’m good to myself, everyone benefits.”
Anisa International was named a 2018 Forbes Small Giant for its great culture and business success.
Fast forward to today, and you’d barely recognize Anisa as the same leader. In the time since that epiphany, Anisa has built a culture so remarkable that it earned a spot on the 2018 list of Forbes Small Giants: Best Small Companies in America. She developed core values and defined a clear mission statement for the company. She also discovered mindfulness meditation, and used that as a tool for self-care and becoming a more effective leader.
“Being a leader, and having the energy to inspire people to follow your vision as an entrepreneur, is a daily challenge,” says Kaicker. “ I’m at my best when I’m being authentic, real, and transparent. I realized that was the person I needed to be to get where I’m going.”
Mindfulness is now a daily practice for Anisa, and she’s also incorporated mindfulness into the company culture. Anisa International has an on-site meditation room, and mindfulness resources are available to all employees, globally. Philanthropy is now a driving value in the organization, and the company has a 10 percent annual company give-back. In the beginning, it was all about the brushes and generating revenue — now, she views the product as a means to achieving a more meaningful mission.
“We have goals to build the business further,” says Kaicker. “The brushes are a hero to us, because it helps us do a lot more than just create beauty tools.”
Anisa Telwar Kaicker, founder and CEO of Anisa International.
Anisa’s investment in culture hasn’t taken any toll on the company’s success – in fact, it’s more successful than ever. Anisa International has 600+ employees globally and its revenue is close to $50 million. She’s successfully replaced her singular focus on driving revenue with a real passion for people, and she’s much happier for it. Still, her journey isn’t over. The way she sees it, leadership is a daily challenge to grow and empower others in new ways.
“My hope is to blend real strength with genuine softness so that I can better support my team in meaningful, teachable ways,” says Kaicker. “The more I open myself up, the more compassionate I become.”
To hear more of Anisa’s story and interviews with other purpose-driven leaders, subscribe to my Growing with Purpose podcast.