100WomenChi: 003. Sapna Gandhi

When Sapna Gandhi describes Biba Lips, the word she uses most often is “precious.”

It’s easy to see why. The golden compact glitters like a tiny treasure chest in your hand. Inside, the lip creme is smooth and silky, beautifully tinted. This is an object created with the utmost care. But within it hides something even more precious: a story of adversity, love, and hope across three generations of women.

Sapna grew up in India, enjoying a modest childhood with few toys but many friends. She adored her mother, Bharati. Often Sapna watched in fascination as Bharati sat at her dresser and applied her beauty products. More often than not, these were simple household items: yogurt to rejuvenate the skin, coconut oil to protect against wrinkles.

“My mom was an Ayurveda student of Mahatma Gandhi… he had a beautiful ashram where people would go to study natural living… healing your body with the things around you, what nature has given you. So, I grew up in an environment where we used home remedies to cure ailments and for beauty routines as well.”

In particular, Bharati favored kokum butter, distilled from the kokum fruit used in Indian cuisine. When Sapna moved to the United States at the age of 17, Bharati sent her care packages of precious kokum butter to protect against cold Chicago winters. Sapna missed her mother dearly but embraced the busy life of a young person living in a large city. She got married and became an entrepreneur, opening a tea shop on Michigan Avenue. While she maintained a deep love for her mother’s traditional remedies, her fascination with makeup grew to include the glitzy consumer culture of cosmetics. She was smitten by the aisles of glossy packages at stores like Sephora and Nordstrom.

Years passed, and in 2009 Sapna decided to start a family. Despite a difficult pregnancy, she joyfully awaited the birth of her first child. She did not know that she was entering the most challenging years of her life.

Her daughter Simran was born with serious medical issues, requiring Sapna to step away from her business to care for Simran full time. Shortly after, Sapna’s mother was diagnosed with blood cancer. Only a few days after her daughter underwent surgery, Sapna learned that her mother was in critical condition. Sapna made the difficult decision to travel with her fragile baby daughter to India. But upon arriving, she was told that her mother had already passed.

“It broke something inside me. When you’re so attached to your mother… something inside you dies, too.”

Upon returning to the U.S., Sapna struggled with depression and eventually health issues as well. In 2012, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. Among other symptoms, the disorder caused her body to show adverse reactions to the many beauty products. She made a decision to go completely natural and organic, not just in her diet, but in her skincare and cosmetics as well.

But, Sapna missed the allure of shining, sleek products stocked in her favorite stores.

“I love make up, I love dolling up myself once in awhile… l missed the gorgeously packaged lip products from stores like Sephora… I missed that feeling of owning something golden and precious. So then I had an amazing idea: why don’t I make a product that’s the best of both worlds?”

The spark of a great idea rekindled her entrepreneurial spirit. She set out to make a completely natural product: safe for the body but beautiful to hold. Drawing upon the memory of her childhood, Sapna incorporated ingredients from India — including her mother’s favorite, kokum butter. After nine months of research and development, Biba Lips was born. By pouring her energy into a worthwhile pursuit, Sapna found a source of strength and inspiration to carry her through a dark place.

“There is beauty in every woman’s courage. My mother never broke down, even when she had cancer… I saw a beautiful smile on my mother’s face even as she was passing. I wanted my daughter to see that her mother was brave and courageous. I wanted to show her the same example my mother showed me.”

“I had to pull myself out of this difficult situation. Biba Lips has given me the power to put my depression away, put my sorrows away, and be happy for my little girl.”

The future holds a great deal of hope for Sapna. Her daughter is now a healthy, happy 5-year-old. Sapna hopes to expand Biba Lips into a full line of beauty products.

Sapna has found an unexpected joy in being embraced by a community of women seeking health and contentment through natural living. She delights in seeing more women gain knowledge about how to be good to themselves and their bodies.

Contributing to her newfound community has been empowering, but the most profound facet of her success is personal. When she reflects on the how a simple lip creme has helped preserve the legacy of her mother, she smiles.

“‘Biba’ means ‘beautiful woman’… I find lot of beauty in the color that every woman holds.”

“My mother was the most beautiful woman in my life. It’s a tribute to her.”


This article is part of 100WomenChi, a project aimed at interviewing the 100 most interesting women in Chicago. It was originally published in September 2015.