Penelope Shihab doesn’t look like a “mad scientist.” She usually wears a bright, fashionable hijab and a wide smile in addition to her lab coat.
But her product certainly is quirky enough to qualify: She makes beauty products from camel milk.
Why camel milk? Shihab was inspired by the Bedouin community in her home country of Jordan. The Bedouins have long been aware of the milk’s “special aspects,” she explains. Stable proteins, more stable than those in cow’s milk, provide long-lasting antibodies—perfect for fighting acne and keeping skin hydrated, she says.
But Shihab doesn’t use any ordinary camel milk: Her supplier is the royal Emrati family, which maintains Camelicious, an export-accredited camel farm in Dubai. Her product line, Skinue, consists of paraben-free floral-scented creams for face and body.
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Her foray into cosmetics is new. Shihab’s Amman-based biotechnology company, Monojo, has been developing camel milk antibodies and other organic compounds for diagnostics and various medical uses since 2005.
Shihab may be the only female CEO in the biotech industry in the Arab region, which she views as an opportunity to motivate others. “This is very big for me,” she says, “because it allows me to inspire more people—more women—to innovate.”
Because biotechnology is a relatively small industry in Jordan, Shihab has set her sights on a bigger market.
Last year, she launched her American cosmetics brand in Columbia, Mo. Skinue is part of the University of Missouri’s Life Sciences Business Incubator.
As for how she ended up in Missouri: A pharmaceutical contact recommended that she build her company in the Midwest, which is less commercially competitive than launching on the East Coast. Missouri’s business incubator also gives incentives to life-science startups. Plus, the Midwest location allows her to test her product in regional U.S. markets. The product is sold in Missouri as well as online; she plans to expand to Chicago and New York in the near future.
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Shihab now divides her time between her Missouri startup and her Jordanian company and family. “It’s hard to balance everything,” she admits. “Communication technology helps a lot when I’m traveling.”
The mother of four appreciates the Middle Eastern tradition of cohabitating with family; living in the same building as her parents-in-law means built-in support in Amman. When she is away, her mother and mother-in-law take care of her children.
Her husband, who works in the clothing industry, “is very supportive of me, very proud,” she says. “He wants me to be a role model for our children, which is very rare here.”
Once she made the leap to the U.S., her initial reception surprised her. She thought that as an obviously observant Muslim and female scientist, she might be met with some resistance, or at least confusion. But “people are so nice, so warm here,” she says. “Everyone’s very welcoming.” On the business side of things, she says that “people love the idea—‘Penelope the scientist, Penelope the entrepreneur.’”
After four months of observing branding and consumer response with students at Missouri’s journalism school, she felt ready to launch.
“The story is my marketing tool,” she says.“I use the product myself, and everyone tells me I look younger than I am.”
What’s next for this busy businesswoman? “I’m a serial entrepreneur,” she laughs, though her current project expansion is keeping her busy. The Skinue products are currently made in Turkey and Jordan. Shihab’s team is also discussing distribution in France and Brazil, two large markets. She hopes to reach $3 million in revenue in the next year.
“I would like to do another commercial project in the future,” Shihab says. “I want to be a figure in the global biotech industry, to put my name out there, especially as a woman.”