Sara Munafer has always been an artist. She’d scribble art all over her walls as a kid in Sri Lanka, and started learning the traditional temporary tattoo practise of henna when she was just eight years old. Like many countries in South Asia, henna is quite popular in Sri Lanka—particularly among Muslim and Hindu women, who adorn their hands and feet during weddings and other special occasions. In the summer of 2016, shortly after getting married, Munafer moved to Dubai and, with her husband’s encouragement, created Facebook and Instagram accounts offering henna under the name Dubai Henna by Sara.
Fast-forward a few years, and the 24-year-old entrepreneur is now a young mother with a henna empire. Munafer is the only internationally-certified natural henna artist in Dubai; she’s worked with Fendi, The Dubai Mall, and Alice + Olivia; taught 200 students worldwide; and founded sister brand Le Inka for organic, unisex temporary tattoos. In-person at the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray hotel in Dubai and then later via phone, she discusses her work and what it means to be a female founder.
As a young girl, did you ever envision that you would become a business owner?
I have always had the ambition and passion to achieve big things in life. Among the men who expect women to just babysit and look after the house, I am super blessed to have my hubby who pushes me day in and day out, and motivates me when I am stressed with a never-give-up spirit. I believe that every individual is talented in their own ways, however there is always a person in your life who will identify that talent and push you to attain greater heights. That person for me is my husband. I thank God for making him my life partner.
Can you explain how you founded Le Inka and what set it apart from other henna on the market?
Soon after I moved to Dubai, I came across lots of salons using chemically-fabricated henna for their clients. They would add unsafe hidden ingredients such as gasoline, kerosene, paint thinner, benzene, and PPD (paraphenylenediamine) to make the henna develop colour quicker and darker. PPD in particular can scar you for life, but there was no other alternative for black henna.
The demand for black henna made me think deeply, and in my research I discovered an organic fruit called genipa Americana (also known as jagua). It took us two years of formulation and a series of comprehensive certified lab tests before we launched. Le Inka is the only product of its kind approved by the Dubai Municipality. It works like henna but rather than brown, Le Inka gives a black to dark blue colour. It looks and feels like a real tattoo and lasts one to three weeks. Unlike other artificial temporary versions of sticker tattoos, which sit on top of the skin, Le Inka’s organic formula sinks into the first layer of the skin and then fades as your skin naturally regenerates. There’s no lifetime commitment, no pain, and no needles. Unlike henna which is restricted to women, with Le Inka we have seen an equal split of interest between men and women.
You offer crown henna free of charge to women undergoing chemotherapy. What made you want to do this?
It was a dream to be able to use my talent to contribute to society. Ever since I had my baby girl, I felt extremely blessed and wanted to give back to the world in some way. The only way I could think of was to do what I am good at, which is creating henna designs. For cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, losing their hair can be an extremely difficult and upsetting consequence. This is a free service that I provide to empower the survivors and make them feel comfortable in their own bodies. I have offered henna crown services for several survivors, however not everyone wishes to share their story in public, so I keep them confidential. My dream is to build awareness about henna crowns and do it free across the world wherever I go.
What is the biggest challenge you face when juggling being a mom and running your business?
Planning and time management is the key. I ensure that my time for my daughter is never compromised; I usually have schedules prepared two weeks ahead for henna services and henna classes. Having said that, with an infant you must expect the unexpected, but I am so lucky to have my husband who is extremely supportive of me. He would take care of the baby when he is off work or make necessary arrangements for a caretaker. We are both extremely hard-working. Our values in life are: work hard, share love towards people, have fun, and travel around.
What are your hopes, dreams, and goals for 2020?
I hope to establish my private henna institute, which can accommodate more henna students in one class. In addition to that, I would love to have done free henna crowns for at least 100 cancer patients by the end of 2020.
This interview has been edited and condensed.