vol. 3 Self-Fulfillment

Credit: Sara Shah

02 / 02

Sara Shah:
"I've learned to allow myself to be creative"

Beauty Entrepreneur & Dancer & Lawyer

On learning to ride a bike as an adult, being okay with spelling mistakes, the delights of drinking mangos and the healing powers of dance


May 6, 2021 | As told to Cherie Yang

Sara responded to my email invitation with alacrity (we’re talking within minutes), something which I immediately attributed to her lawyerly habits. I was particularly excited for our chat, as I wondered how much of these habits still stay with her in her “second life” in creative entrepreneurship as the founder of Journ.

We chat about creating Journ as a passion project, holding on to law for too long, and being a “creative at heart”.

And also unlearning habits like structuring your time rigidly (lawyers typically keep time in 6-minute blocks) and obsessing over Oxford commas (a famously controversial topic).

We share a few lighthearted moments about her failed attempts at pranking her husband and having a CTO (chief toddler officer) who does make-believe Journ product tutorials.

I also learned a few fun facts about Sara. For example, she just learnt how to ride a bike during the pandemic. By her own admission, she’s a clumsy person—she has flipped them off a jet ski and almost flipped a snowmobile—and Mir, her husband, was especially skeptical about teaching her. But just as she allowed herself the space to be creative in her new role by letting go, she allowed herself to not think about anything and just do it.

Follow Sara on Instagram and visit Journ's website here and Instagram here.

Listen to Sara's episode on our Podcast here.

Pics below courtesy of Sara's Instagram

  • Dancing away

  • &: Your Instagram bio says “every problem can be solved by dance.” Tell me more.

    SS:

    I've danced since I was three. I did ballet, and also tap and jazz. My love for dance really started with that. And it's something that I've continued on through my journey.

    I was 16 when I started college. In the US and Canada, you can do any bachelor’s degree and take the LSAT to go to law school. I remember fighting my parents and saying I just wanted to do a dance degree for college.

    But they said that if law school doesn't work out, I should have another backup plan with my college degree. So I ended up minoring in dance. I did all kinds of dance and I've danced through the years.

    Most recently, I was part of a Latin ballroom dance performance team and would do little performances in our local area.

  • I say, “Eliza, do you want to dance?” and then we put a song on the Alexa and just dance away. We're dance lovers in this home.
  • &: Why do you love dancing so much?

    SS:

    I think dance has healing powers. If I'm having a stressful day, I just put on my favorite song and dance in my living room with my daughter.

    I say, “Eliza, do you want to dance?” and then we put a song on the Alexa and just dance away. We're dance lovers in this home.

    My neighbors probably think I'm crazy, but it's just definitely something that I love.

  • Sara and her daughter Eliza

  • &: What’s your favourite song to dance to with Eliza?

    SS:

    I'm not going to say it's Baby Shark, because that plays a lot around the house. [laughs]

    I love dancing to stand by me, the Ben E. King version. That's our dance song.

    Before she could even talk to me, she would just mouth some of the words. When I'm exhausted after a long day or just wanna dance, that's our song to dance to.

  • Sara and her husband Mir

  • &: Where did you grow up?

    SS:

    I grew up in Dubai until I was about 13, and my family then migrated to Canada. There was a big wave of people migrating from the Middle East to Canada during that time.

    I grew up in Canada and went to college there, and then went to the States for law school in Michigan.

    I then moved to the New York area to be with my then-fiancé/now-husband. And we recently moved to Austin, Texas.

  • When I was younger, I was just so fixated on becoming a lawyer that I don't think I really understood what that actually meant.
  • It's almost this expectation that you put on yourself that you have to fit into this 80-hour work model. It’s almost like a cool thing, like a badge of honor.
  • &: Wow! That’s a lot of moving around. Did you always want to be a lawyer?

    SS:

    When I was younger, I was just so fixated on becoming a lawyer that I don't think I really understood what that actually meant.

    I started my law career in New York in securities fraud and white collar crimes. Post-financial crisis, there was a lot of SEC prosecution, so that was a really active field around the time when I graduated, which was back in 2011.

    I think I burned out. I did that for about like a year and a half. I just remember working those 80-hour weeks and spending all my time behind the computer. I missed friends’ weddings and I would justify it to myself that I had to work.

    It's almost this expectation that you put on yourself that you have to fit into this 80-hour work model. It’s almost like a cool thing, like a badge of honor.

    I burned out and I ended up leaving there and going to Barclays to do more compliance-type work. I was there for about a year and a half.

    But I wasn't happy. I wasn't fulfilled.

  • I bucketed law into two buckets: happy law and not-so-happy law. Not-so-happy law included criminal work or personal injury. On the other hand, with happy law, I love the idea of people starting businesses and helping founders live their dreams.
  • &: What did you want to do instead?

    SS:

    I remember my husband asking me, “What do you enjoy?”

    I really hadn't found my passion at that time. I thought about what I thought I'd enjoy.

    I bucketed law into two buckets: happy law and not-so-happy law.

    Not-so-happy law included criminal work or personal injury.

    On the other hand, with happy law, I love the idea of people starting businesses and helping founders live their dreams.

    I ended up starting my own law practice, where I helped startups and small businesses from pre-formation to seeking venture capital.

  • But even after all that, I just felt like I was unfulfilled. I couldn't explain it because this whole concept of “success” was not lining up with how I felt at the end of the day. I really felt like something was missing.
  • &: What was it like branching out on your own?

    SS:

    It was very scary.

    People don't know me and I would have to go get my own clients, but it was a fun challenge for myself.

    Coming from a legal background, I'm so risk-averse, and always making sure everything is safe and then taking calculated chances.

    It was interesting to go: “Okay, I'm just going to do it.” I ended up doing really well. I was able to get clients and, because I was a startup too, I feel like my clients could relate to me as opposed to the larger firms. I was able to add more of a human element.

    But even after all that, I just felt like I was unfulfilled. I couldn't explain it because this whole concept of “success” was not lining up with how I felt at the end of the day. I really felt like something was missing.

  • Sara on one of her travels

  • &: Was there a turning point?

    SS:

    I was turning 30 and my husband asked me what I wanted to do for my 30th birthday. It's a big milestone. But I just wanted to go away by myself. I want to figure out what I want.

    I’d been so set on going to law school and becoming a lawyer and I'm living my dream. I should have been feeling satisfied and happy, but something was missing.

    There was a big hole and I didn't know how to fill it. I said that I just wanted to go away and do some soul-searching, as cliche as that sounds. One of my other friends was also turning 30 and was going to do the same thing. So we decided to take this soul-searching trip together.

  • There was this one moment when it felt like the stars started to align.
  • In Morocco

  • &: Where did that take you?

    SS:

    We planned a trip to Morocco, and started in the North and went all around.

    There was this one moment when it felt like the stars started to align.

    I remember we were in this shop buying argan oil, which Morocco's famous for. I was testing these oils and they smelled nothing like any argan product that I had experienced in the past before. I was like, “Are you sure this is real?”

    I was so curious and I started researching when I got back to the hotel. Why does this argan oil smell nothing like what I had used before? Even the colors were very different than the stuff that I'm used to seeing.

    I soon learned about this concept called marketing level ingredients. Let's say you buy an argan product and it has 0.1% of argan oil in it: it could claim to be an argan oil product. A lot of products that we use today include synthetic fragrances and colors to make them look a certain way or smell a certain way.

    I remember feeling cheated by all the products that I had been using, but that was also my aha moment.

  • Testing Journ formulations

  • We started this passion project. I was still practicing as an attorney. He was still working. We started this passion project to create products that would help simplify your routine and inspire you along the way.
  • &: Why did you feel that ‘aha’?

    SS:

    It was the moment that led to the start of Journ, but I also was excited because I personally had cystic acne.

    As a person who's always in court and meeting clients, I couldn't go to these meetings bare-faced, but anything that I was putting on my skin would make me look cakey and far from natural.

    I just wanted to look like I had good skin. I was frustrated with my routine of using all these skincare and makeup products. After all the effort that I was putting in, I just couldn't look natural. I was so frustrated with that.

    I remember turning to the industry and saying that I wanted to find the product that does two things. Being the lawyer I am, I was asking myself, “What are my needs?”

    Firstly, I wanted to simplify my routine. I don't want to use a bunch of skincare and makeup. Secondly, I wanted my skin to look flawless, like good skin. That's it. But I couldn't find anything.

    There have been great brands in more recent years, like Fenty Beauty, that have really helped bring light to inclusivity, but no one was really focusing on the underlying skin issues of those with medium to deeper skin tones: people of color.

    We have dark circles. We have hyperpigmentation or our skin scars differently.

    Over dinner one night, I turned to my husband in frustration, “This is a need, yet I can't find anything.”

    And he said, “Well, let's create it.”

    And I said, “What do you mean?”

    It was so easy for him to say that because he's got the “ops (operations) brain”. He was the first ops hire at several companies. His job is to take ideas and bring them to life, walk through all the steps and make the whole process efficient.

    So we did. We started this passion project. I was still practicing as an attorney. He was still working. We started this passion project to create products that would help simplify your routine and inspire you along the way.

    We started formulating with local labs here in the U.S. and a year and a half later, we had our first suite of products, which are color correctors that contain active ingredients, which not only conceal any skin concerns, but also help improve them over time.

  • When you have something like a legal career, there’s a feeling like you have to continue with it. I'd invested seven-plus years of education, did the bar exams and all. I just thought, “I have to continue to practice.”
  • &: So this started as a passion project you did on the side? When did it stop being your side hustle?

    SS:

    When you have something like a legal career, there’s a feeling like you have to continue with it. I'd invested seven-plus years of education, did the bar exams and all. I just thought, “I have to continue to practice.”

    I told myself I'd wake up two hours earlier and put X amount of hours towards this passion project. Using my lawyer brain, I was segmenting my day into “passion project hours” and “legal hours.”

    But I started realizing how big of a need we were tackling. I talked to countless women and makeup artists and realised they had similar struggles, and learned all about the "hacks" they were using to overcome them. I realised this was bigger than just me.

    Slowly, my passion project hours started to become bigger. I was spending less time taking on new clients and I was handing off some bigger cases.

  • I just sat there and I realised he was right. I had invested seven years of being not satisfied. I wouldn't say I was unhappy for all of those years, but was I going to invest the next seven? That thought was scary. I started counting—I'd be X years old—and do I still want to be doing something that doesn't really inspire me every single day.
  • &: Was there a moment that felt right to let go of the legal career?

    SS:

    I was holding onto law because I felt like I had invested so much of my time. Also, my parents had migrated to Canada for us to have this higher education and amazing careers.

    I held onto it way longer than I should have.

    My husband was the one who told me that I needed to close out my law practice and let it go. I remember him saying one thing: “Are you going to let your past impact your future?”

    I just sat there and I realised he was right. I had invested seven years of being not satisfied. I wouldn't say I was unhappy for all of those years, but was I going to invest the next seven? That thought was scary.

    I started counting—I'd be X years old—and do I still want to be doing something that doesn't really inspire me every single day.

    I decided that I was not going to practice law anymore. And I was going to announce it.

  • Spending Eid with family

  • &: What did your parents say?

    SS:

    It was definitely tough to explain the transition to them because for so long my life cantered around first getting a law degree and then becoming a practicing lawyer. I knew they would be supportive, but there is this pressure you have when you’re about to reveal to your parents that you no longer will be pursuing what I (and my parents) spent a significant part of our lives planning for.

    It was hard to tell them that I would be putting aside a stable career and taking on a venture full of risk in my 30s.

    I think the concept of entrepreneurship or start-ups as it is in America today is a foreign concept to parents who immigrated to America or Canada in search of secure careers to provide for their families, and rightfully so. They’re definitely coming around to it but societally there is still pressure to reach certain milestones in life by a certain age, for example getting a degree, a job, getting married, having kids, that if you have an enterprising idea that may require one of those things not to happen on time, it’s hard to explain and in certain cases you feel like you may have failed them. But it’s a great check, because you have to have the conviction in your idea to resist the more traditional expectations.

Looking Back & Looking Ahead

What was the one job you were the happiest at?

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  • Makeup swatching at Sephora

  • &: You created Journ partly to solve a personal need. When did your personal journey with beauty begin?

    SS:

    When I was going through my soul-searching, Mir asked me, “If you don't want to practice law, what do you want to do? What was the one job you were the happiest at? Go back to that. It doesn't matter what it was.”

    And it was that one job when I was a makeup artist.

    I used to work for this company called Merle Norman. My mom used to go shop there and she would talk to the owner there and tell them about how I love doing makeup. So the owner told me to come by the store for an interview.

    That's how I got my first real job at Merle Norman, which was mostly where older women shopped. But they had these amazing skincare and color cosmetics. I remember the owner took me on and taught me a lot and sent me to training as well.Being a makeup artist was the happiest I felt like I ever was.

    I went out to freelance for many years after. In retrospect, it was my creative outlet: for myself when I use makeup, and also when I was able to make women feel their most beautiful for their big days and events.

    Beauty has been a huge part of my life. I’m a makeup junkie.

  • Being an attorney, everything is very structured and boxed into hours. Everything is about billable hours. You’d spend 45 minutes working on this client case, and when that 45 minutes is up, you can usually put it away.
  • &: Going from a structured legal career into creative entrepreneurship: what was that like?

    SS:

    I didn't realize what creativity meant or how creative I was.

    Being an attorney, everything is very structured and boxed into hours. Everything is about billable hours. You’d spend 45 minutes working on this client case, and when that 45 minutes is up, you can usually put it away.

    I remember when I first started working on Journ, and I was working on our Instagram. I said I wanted to spend 45 minutes to come up with a name for the product, and then we're going to write up the story.

    I sat there for 40 minutes and I had nothing. Oh my God. I turned to Mir (my husband) in despair.

    He just looked at me and said, “Babe, creativity doesn't work that way. You could take two minutes and you'll have something, or you're going to have to spend 10 hours.”

  • I think I've learned to allow myself to be creative and allow myself to have the space to do things. If it's not happening, it's just not going to happen. Let it go and go to something else.
  • &: That must have been a shock to the system. How do you handle things now?

    SS:

    I think I've learned to allow myself to be creative and allow myself to have the space to do things. If it's not happening, it's just not going to happen. Let it go and go to something else.

    I know now that I’m a creative at heart, especially coming from dance, but I'd never allowed myself to really explore that. With my legal career, you could always put things inside a box and there's only so much creativity you can come up with when you're writing contracts or reviewing them.

    I still like to create the structure and be methodical. Those are things that I learned and that were bred in me for so long from law school and living that type of life.

  • Early Journ packaging

  • &: How much of the lawyer is still in you?

    SS:

    I try to let go of or unlearn habits, but it’s not easy. Even if we're looking at a packaging concept, my brain immediately starts checking for spellings and making sure sentence structures work.

    It drives my husband crazy, but I’m like “No, but you have to fix this comma before I can read the rest of the packaging.” He tells me “Let it go, let it go.” [laughs]

    So I think it’s important to walk in and give yourself that empty space to take in things with no expectations.

  • Journ pop-up at Hudson Yards in New York City

  • &: There was a picture you posted on Instagram of a Journ pop-up. Was this your creation?

    SS:

    There was a pop-up happening in Hudson Yards in New York City, and we were one of the last ones to get into.

    It was our first pop-up; we'd never done one before. And I was like, “Okay, how do you even do a pop-up like, I have no idea.”

    We tried to, in a very short period of time, find someone who can help create something for us. And we weren't able to find anyone. We had only five days and I wanted this to be special.

    So I took on the project to create this. I remember I opened up PowerPoint and Amazon. I literally took screenshots of product images and put them on a PowerPoint. I have no skills in tech. Then I went “Oh my gosh, I'm not good at decor.” I didn't think I was going to be good at it. [laughs]

    The green wall represents Dew, which is one of our products that is reminiscent of walking through a forest for an early morning hike and you're smelling the dew in the morning.

    The flowers in the front are reminiscent of our product Matcha, which was inspired by experiencing a tea ceremony in Japan. We wanted to incorporate some of the cherry blossoms. The day we had the experience of the tea ceremony was also the day we saw a bunch of cherry blossoms.

  • Journ packaging

  • &: Journ is so inspired by your travels. How are you sharing that?

    SS:

    Experiences are key.

    We want to create these beautiful experiences, not only take you away to that moment. Every time you use Journ, you take that moment for yourself.

    We’re working on some cool ways to play on other senses as well. We want to create those experiences, and we hope that with the unboxing you will remember that moment every time you use our products.

  • I personally believe that if I take good care of myself, I'm going to be the best founder and the best mom. I definitely prioritize my mental health. It’s about being present and conscious.
  • &: Your passion project’s turned into your full-time job. What self-care routines or rituals do you have?

    SS:

    Having a two-year-old forces balance in your life. In the middle of the day, she'll get this urge to dance and she'll come over and we'll play a song on Alexa. I'm like “Eliza, just two songs.”

    I personally believe that if I take good care of myself, I'm going to be the best founder and the best mom. I definitely prioritize my mental health. It’s about being present and conscious.

    We’re in Austin and we have this beautiful lake that runs through the city and it's 10 minutes from where we live. If I'm having one of those days and feel that I need to step away for an hour, I go out on the water, recharge and come back. It's obviously not possible all the time, but it's a matter of being able to just step away and say to myself that I need to go for a walk.

    My favorite form of self care used to be dance, but given the pandemic it’s not as easy. I’d love to bring that back in my life and be in a space where there are other dancers too.

  • It takes 15 minutes but it's so refreshing. Just knowing I gave myself the time that was mine—I think that is really important, especially before the craziness of the day starts.
  • &: How do you start your day?

    SS:

    I wake up quite early. I do a prayer and a five-minute meditation. Then I have my coffee without doing anything else. We have a cute little backyard. I like to sit out there and just take that time for myself to be present. It's simple.

    It takes 15 minutes but it's so refreshing. Just knowing I gave myself the time that was mine—I think that is really important, especially before the craziness of the day starts. I try to do something small for myself every day, just to nourish the soul.

On the Feed

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Off the Cuff

with Sara Shah

Ampersand
  • More than skin deep. When we think of beauty, it is not just what’s outside. For me, beauty is self care. Even as a brand, we don't want to just be a beauty brand. Women education is really important for us. That's something that we want to get involved with or help with.


  • Patience. I wasn't very good with patience before and it's definitely taught me to be patient and also present. Eliza is two and a half now but I still remember bringing her home from the hospital. Now she's talking and we're looking at schools for her. Motherhood taught me to be present every single day, because they do truly grow up fast.


  • Flexible. I'm learning. I always obviously have plans, but I try to be flexible when they don't go as planned, which was something that I was not very good at before. Being a founder, hardly ever anything goes as planned.


  • I try to find inspiration in everything. Sometimes I'm walking through this beautiful patch of flowers and I'm inspired. Or a great meal is inspirational. Also, I think it’s about being able to not always look at just one big thing as a form of inspiration, but finding inspiration in every bit.


  • It's an experience. I just remember standing there and it was one of those moments that I was consciously present. I just stopped, and I took in the hustle and bustle of this beautiful market where you see spices and you smell flowers and you smell bread and you see cloth hanging. I'll just never forget it.


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It’s important to encourage people to tell their stories and own their stories.

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