Arati Sharma, Founding Partner, Backbone Angels + Co-Founder, Ghlee


“I was born in Toronto and then we moved to a suburb called Brampton, which has a huge South Asian population. I always talk about that because it had a huge impact on my life. Growing up, I thought that I might want to do graphic design or something similar because I was artistic. I went to a regional arts high school, but after four years, I didn’t want to do it anymore. Honestly, I was always torn between the things that I wanted to do versus the things that I was supposed to do—but that pressure didn’t even come from my parents. At the time, I thought my parents were almost too freewheeling, where sometimes I was like, ‘Can you give me a little bit of direction?’ Now as a parent, I see how amazing that was, but what happened is that I put pressure on myself thinking about how hard it was for them to get here. I took a year off and then later went to university for a poli-sci degree. I loved ‘The West Wing,’ so I thought I’d be like C.J. Cregg, dream girl.

After university and after a brief stint working at a nonprofit, I ended up at a small tech startup called Jet Cooper. It was a digital design studio that was helping other companies build their mobile apps and websites. This was around the time that tech was the thing, and I really felt like I needed to be a part of it. I was like, ‘I'm creative. I understand social media. And I kind of understand what's happening in technology.’ [Laughs] Actually, that’s how I met my husband; he was one of the founders. We were just a bunch of young kids then, but I helped him and his co-founder build the agency from the ground up and that’s how I got to hone my business skills. I figured out our operating model and ran the community aspect. Then Shopify acquired the company, and I went to Shopify. I think I was employee 290.

I got a chance to build a couple of different marketing arms for Shopify from the ground up—I left just three years ago. It was a great experience. I got to set up Kylie Jenner’s first store, I got to launch our first product conference. The company always created space for me to get my hands dirty. But after being there for almost eight years, it was time to do something else. I kept thinking, ‘What’s happening outside of e-commerce?’

That same year, I helped found Backbone Angels, a collective of angel investors. Angel investing is very common when you're a tech employee, especially when you've gone through an IPO. Usually, the early employees end up investing in other companies, but usually, the investors that you hear about are all the dudes. Even if you look at my husband, when Shopify went public, everyone was asking him to angel invest. The 10 of us at Backbone Angels are all women who were with the company since the early days, but whereas the men were asked to invest, we were just asked to be mentors or speak on a panel or support founders. I kept thinking, ‘Wait, this is not how wealth is generated.’ We came together with the idea that we wanted to invest in the founders that we wanted to see in the world, so our focus is on women and non-binary founders—and for me personally, my emphasis lies on women of color. Over time, I’ve become an accidental DTC investor. I have brands like Blume, Sheertex, SIDIA, and Bird&Be in my portfolio.

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When my brother, Varun [Sharma], pitched me the idea for Ghlee, our ghee-based skincare line, I thought I had seen every type of skincare brand at that point. But he was like, ‘Why don’t we use ghee? Our elders have used it inside and out for ages. Why hasn’t anyone formulated with it?’ Six months after Varun pitched me, he came to me with a lip balm prototype. I have the worst chapped lips, but when I tried the product, it worked like nothing else I had ever used. At first, my mom and dad were making the ghee, and our sister came on to help with sales. It was a cute little family operation. We seeded the product to a lot of people, got amazing feedback, and then went through a lab and a chemist to launch.

When we first created Ghlee, our first couple iterations of our lip balms had the same texture as our lip mask. They were very creamy but very hard to keep stable in the applicators—but people were obsessed with them. When we did our user test, people would say, ‘I want it in a vat. I want it on my cuticles. I want it on my hands. I want it on my face.’ We did stabilize the lip balms because we, of course, didn’t want them to melt all over the place, but then we decided to build something for the OGs that wanted the product in a jar. We added squalane and kahai oil to it, and it became our mask.

Our lip scrub also has ghee in it, of course. Growing up, I used Vaseline and a toothbrush to exfoliate my lips, so when we started Ghlee, we wanted a really gentle lip scrub. I’m always annoyed when scrubs are too harsh. We went with cane brown sugar, which is a very big Indian thing. The cane exfoliates while the ghee moisturizes, so the scrub isn’t drying in any way.

I had acne growing up, but honestly, my skin was great in my twenties so I was lazy with it. Then all of a sudden after I had my child, I had crazy rosacea flare-ups on my right cheek, and that’s when I had to really start taking care of my skin again. A friend of mine went through the same thing after she had her first child and Pai Skincare seemed to really help her. I’ve adopted some of their products into my own routine since.

Some hyaluronic acid serums are too thick on my skin, but I really like Pai’s Lotus & Hyaluronic Acid Barrier Defence Mist. It’s really great when my rosacea is acting up. Common Heir’s Vitamin C Serum comes in single-dose capsules, which I love because so many vitamin C serums come in clear bottles with droppers, so the product oxidizes every time you open it up. Ranavat’s Brightening Saffron Serum has similar properties to vitamin C. It really helps with hyperpigmentation. When I stopped using it for two months, my skin definitely looked more dull. It’s South Asian-founded, too. The serum has a high price point, and saffron is obviously a very expensive ingredient, but you also never see our things as luxe. I love that the founder, Michelle Ranavat, is elevating our POV.

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To cleanse, I love Biologique Recherche’s Lait E.V., but I feel like it leaves behind a film on my skin. Sahajan’s Golden Milk Cleanser has the milky texture of the Lait E.V. without the film. Meanwhile, Caudalíe’s Beauty Elixir has been a consistent empty in my routine for 10 years. I always have an extra—if I stop using it, I break out.

Tower 28 is such a great brand overall—I discovered it through the SOS Rescue Spray. Then I tried the SOS Rescue Serum, and I remember thinking it was the serum I’ve waited for all of my life. It’s light. It’s clear. It really does have an impact on redness. It’s so hard to believe marketing when you’re in this industry yourself, but Tower 28 is dead on. My pores even look tighter after I use it.

Water-based moisturizers—like Tatcha’s Water Cream and Peter Thomas Roth’s Water Drench Hyaluronic Cloud Cream—are it for me. I love that they’re light because I like to layer an oil—like Blume Meltdown Acne Oil—on top, especially at nighttime. In the winter, I really like True Botanicals’ Renew Pure Radiance Oil. I discovered the brand when I had a facial in California that used just True Botanicals products. My skin was unbelievable afterwards. Their Neck, Décolleté & Boob Cream is also very good. I’ve also tried every sunscreen on the market, but I’ve consistently used Elta MD’s Tinted SPF 46. I always have one in my bag. It’s light. It works with my skin tone. It’s my go-to.

I’m a big fan of exfoliating. Every once in a while, I’ll use Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel Pads. If I want an exfoliating mask, I go for AAVRANI’s Glow Activating Exfoliator. It’s a clay mask that’s turmeric-infused. I run really hot, and I love that it feels cool on my skin. And I discovered Alumier’s Retinol Resurfacing Serum 1.0 through Joanna Auguste, the founder of The Face Lab. I wasn’t a big retinol gal before, but this one is really good. It has really helped with my crow’s feet.

I’m turning 38 this year. Overall, I’m not opposed to any surgeries, but they’re not for me right now. That said, I’ve tried Botox. I first got it on my massaters because I grind my teeth so hard. When I got it done, I actually realized how much tension I was holding in my jaw, and it kind of changed my life—I felt so relaxed. After that, I got Botox in my forehead because I have the most expressive face. And I love Forma, the radiofrequency treatment. It really tightens my skin.

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I’m very minimal when it comes to makeup because I have a slight silicone allergy. If I wear a lot of makeup, I’ll get pretty bad milia. I’ve tried non-silicone foundations, but those don’t blend as well. I usually end up using Vasanti’s Liquid VO2 all over my face.

When you’re a brown girl, you deal with hyperpigmentation. I have really dark, indented eye circles, and I feel like I’ve tried every concealer on the market. Kulfi Beauty’s Main Match Concealer is the only one that doesn’t end up creasing. I have a couple of shades that I rotate and mix depending on how tan I am, but I usually end up using Mango Drop and Glossy Guaba.

Patrick Ta’s Crème & Powder Blush Duo in She's That Girl was practically made for brown girls. It’s so good on my skin. I like the peachy glow a lot. I don’t typically wear cream blushes because they tend to melt on me, but this is perfect, especially with the combination of the powder.

I was very intimidated by highlighter for a long time, but I love how Ami Colé’s Light Catching Highlighter looks on my skin. It gives me a sort of golden glow that really works for me—I think maybe the issue with other highlighters is that the colors were too cool. I love their Lash-Amplifying Mascara, too. Oh, and the Lip Treatment Oil is so good. I’m learning how to line my lips correctly. [Laughs] Honestly, I go through phases with lipstick—I love a bright red like Gucci’s Velvet Matte Lipstick in Odalie Red. But right now, I like more of a gloss vibe. I’ve been using Merit’s Shade Slick Tinted Lip Oil in Pink Beet, a cool pink.

I’m Indian. We care about our hair. We’re always oiling it. Your mom’s oiling it. Your grandma’s doing it to her mom. I love Fable and Mane’s HoliRoots Hair Oil. I use it as a pre-wash, too. I’m a try-everything-gal, so I don’t have a go-to shampoo, but for conditioner, I’ve been using Bumble and bumble’s Bond-Building Repair Conditioner. Once a week, I’ll use Briogeo’s Charcoal + Coconut Oil Micro-Exfoliating Shampoo because my hair gets congested easily.

My hair is naturally very wavy, but I got into a bad habit of constantly straightening it because I didn’t know what to do with it. Now I’m trying to regain my curl pattern so I’ve been air drying my hair after I put Ceremonia’s Pequi Curl Activator on when it’s damp.

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I’m into really fresh scents—everything else gives me a headache. I was a Le Labo Santal 33 girl for a really long time, but then it felt too heavy for me. Right now, my scent is Diptyque’s Philosykos. Scent changes on my end, as it does for everybody, and I really love how Philosykos comes through. I love Glossier You, too. I usually use the Solid, but I just got the Rollerball and I always have it on me—it’s the one that always gets me the most compliments.

Kilian’s Roses On Ice is my going out perfume and D.S. & Durga’s Radio Bombay is nostalgic. It makes me feel like I’m in India. It’s so beautiful. I especially love using it during the winter. But I love D.S. & Durga candles even more than their perfumes. They’re all over my house. Concrete After Lightning, Big Sur After Rain, and Portable Fireplace are amazing.

I love what Erin Kleinberg is doing with her brand SIDIA for the body and hand care categories. I’m so concerned about my hands lately where I’m like, ‘Oh my God. Why are they drying up?’ I’m noticing fine lines around them, so I really like her Hand Serum. But SIDIA candles are amazing. Wired and Braless are named so correctly. I have Braless in my bedroom, and I kid you not, after a long day of meetings or if I’ve had a crazy mom day, I light it and take off my bra and I’m like, ‘No one talk to me. I’m going to watch Housewives.’ It’s like Pavlov’s dog.”

—As told to Daise Bedolla

Photographed by Alexandra Genova in New York City on August 19, 2023