St John's Alumni Magazine
Issue:Spring/Summer, 2005

Life, wisdom & the pursuit of happiness

Ayurveda.. A word not a familiar part of the Western lexicon though its principles may be the wave of the future for healthcare in the United States . Derived from the Sanskrit words for “life” and “knowledge of”, it is a system of healing based on homeopathy and naturopathy with a focus on diet, exercise, meditation and the extensive use of herbs. Grounded in thousands of years of practice, it is now being harnessed by a business-savvy alumnus who found success by honoring his heritage.

On the surface, the fascinating story of Muhammed Majeed '86 Pharm D. seems to mirror that of many accomplished immigrants. A young man ventures from his native India in 1975 carrying only eight dollars in his pocket and goes on to head a multi-million dollar corporation achieving financial reward and professional respect. These tales are always commanding, but Majeed's differs in that, while straddling two cultures, he has managed to take the best of both and tap into the future by utilizing the past. It is the tale of how making the right choices at the right time can yield rewards, and that even when failures comes, faith can be the catalyst which brings about the winds of change. It is an illustration of how ancient and contemporary beliefs can be combined harmoniously.

Growing up in southern India , young Majeed was the fifth of six children born to a family invested in work and education. His father died when Majeed was only 12 and his mother Fathima became his bedrock. “She is the one to whom I attribute all my success,” recalls Majeed. “A very, very strong woman.” He completed his undergraduate degree in pharmacy at Trivandrum Medical College in Kerala, India, then briefly worked as a teacher but he wanted to advance in his field and knew he'd have to venture to where opportunities were more plentiful. If he could just make it to America, he knew he could find work and pursue his education, but that meant leaving behind his wife, Sabinsa, who he married while still an undergraduate. He came ahead to Chicago where he already had established friends, and very quickly acclimated to his new environment. “The next morning I went out looking for a job, and at the second pharmacy I visited, the fellow offered me $3.75 an hour,” he remembers. “To me, at that time $3.75 was a lot of money.”

He moved on to Standard Pharmacal in Elgin , IL , and shortly became the head of their manufacturing division, but he was still restless and wanted to continue his studies. “I told my boss I am going for masters,” Majeed says. “He was quite disappointed but I told him that I had to move on.” Now with Sabinsa by his side, he moved to New York where he found a job in research at Pfizer Inc. while completing a master's in science at Long Island University . A colleague, who has happened to be a St John's professor, spoke to him often about the University's pharmacy program proving to be enough encouragement for Majeed to attend.

Even with his advanced degree and accomplished career at Pfizer, he continued to look ahead. He knew that Americans were growing more and more concerned with the health issues plaguing society including obesity and poor dietary habits. He was sure that certain aspects of Ayurveda, and the plant-based curatives so familiar to his homeland, could address some of those ills. Could the plants and spices he used growing up offer therapeutic benefits in the treatment of diabetes, arthritis or cardiovascular disease? Why not, he thought, combine his technical expertise with the knowledge of the curatives that exist and harness it all into a series of products? “The medical system that we know here (in the United States ) does not exist in the same form in India ,” Majeed states. “It is available to about 20 percent of the population. The remaining 80 percent still use the local, indigenous system. So there must be something to that.”

Starting his own business was a formidable endeavor. He initially worked out of his home, putting in long hours and adjusting his business plan as he went along. “In the early years, I really didn't know how to work the business,” he now confesses. “During the first couple of years, I lost all of my savings. But in those years, the one thing I did have was a very good credit, and in the United States , even if you don't have money, if you have good credit you can still make it. I was able to turn the company around.” He says he never gave up and was determined to make a go of it. “I believe that you must always do the best you can and better things will happen,” he says. “Slow and steady, build it brick by brick, and it will take a long time to fall apart.”

From the ground up was born Sabinsa Corporation, named after his wife, with a handful of employees. While Majeed initially wanted to start a pharmaceutical firm, he soon turned his attention to manufacturing and marketing alternative and complementary natural products based on the principles of Ayurveda. By supplying Phytonutrients (nutrients concentrated in the skins of many vegetables and fruits), standardised herbal extracts, specialty fine chemicals and organic intermediates to the nutritional, pharmaceutical and food industries, Majeed sought to carve a niche for himself beyond the traditional market of ingredient supplier. And to convince potential customers, he faced what he terms “the snake oil problem”. In his Piscataway , NJ, office, he takes a cue from his early teaching days and outlines on a whiteboard how the industry has grown since he first began manufacturing nearly 20 years ago. The evolution, he says, started with their egregious claims some companies made about their goods, thus giving the impression that all natural products were “snake oil”. “People would say, ‘If you take this pill, you will lose weight?'” Majeed complains. “There is no such thing. When you make tall claims, you are subjecting yourself to criticism and you are fooling people.” He would rather see products developed that act as a compliment to a sensible diet and exercise and that aid people with losing weight.

Many of his early products were standardized extract, meaning the potency of the active ingredients could be assured from one batch to the next. For example, Bioperine is a Sabinsa-patented product billed as “clinically proven” to help with the absorption of nutrients in food and supplements. It consists of powdered extract obtained from black pepper standardized for a minimum 98 percent of the alkaloid piperine. Piperine is the active ingredient in black pepper which gives it its unique pungency. Likewise, Gugulipid is an extract from the sap of a tree – Commiphora mukul, found in the rocky, rough land of warm and semi-arid areas of India which he claims has significant lipid-lowering properties and can be used for those worried about clogged arteries.

Majeed says the need for such products is even greater now since the field of holistic healing has gone from “augmentative medicine” – thanks in part to the growing popularity of yoga and the increased use of some Chinese herbs – to “complimentary medicine” and now “integrated medicine”, where more medical professionals are embracing the use of natural products and practices like acupuncture as a supplement to the traditional, Western reliance on prescription drugs. “Interest in Ayurveda is growing rapidly in the United States ,” says March Halpern, the founder and director of the California College of Ayurveda and The Center for Optimal Health. “Since we opened in 1995, we have trained more than a thousand students and graduated more than 300 practitioners who are spreading knowledge of Ayurveda across America .”

Halpern says representatives for US-based companies like Sabinsa have a responsibility to educate, which is a charge Majeed takes seriously in several ways. His “Sabinsa On Wheels” program takes company representatives on the road to share informational literature and conduct site visits with retail customers, and an open company e-mail policy allows customers to share questions or concerns such as prescription drug interactions with a product. “Education is the key,” agrees Majeed. “Just because something is natural doesn't mean that it can't be toxic. Take the example of poison ivy, which is all natural.”

Now with 55 employees stateside in his New Jersey and Utah offices and 750 in India , Majeed estimates that he spends 40 to 50 percent of his time in his native land. There, he contracts with thousands of farmers who grow the plants he then manufactures into supplements. His heart is in the lab where more than 100 researchers (all Ph.Ds) work to evaluate what parts of the plants can be used and how best to extract the compounds which are then subjected to toxicology texts. “If you don't put your money into research today, you will not exist as a company tomorrow,” says Majeed who still often rolls up his sleeves in the lab alongside his employees. “I am not in the simple distribution business. I am in the business of developing good, quality products that human beings will use for the future.” And today, there is evidence to suggest that the old ways may be the best ways. For example, Majeed is heartened by current studies being conducted that examine the effect of turmeric, a well-used spice in India , on aiding Alzheimer and cystic fibrosis patients. He points out that his company has been marketing a similar product since 1992 called Curcumin that acts as an anti-inflammatory. That's just one of 120 products he currently offers, and more are being developed daily.

His desire to heal extends to the local Indian economies where the more than 5,000 farmers in 18 districts whom he contracts are discovering the security that comes from their association with Sabinsa. “We work with the banks (in India ) to secure financing and to get them crop failure insurance,” says Majeed who honors the farmers at company celebrations. “The insurance is something the farmers have never heard of before. Rao Tatapudy, is a friend who has known Majeed since their days at the University and who last year visited his manufacturing plants and farms in India . “I was very impressed,” says Tatapudy, who is associate director for formulation and development at Wyeth, a pharmaceutical and health care products company. “He has tremendous follow-up skills and is a workaholic. In 1993, the whole industry appeared to be falling apart and he hung in the there. He dealt with the adversity.”

There are now several companies under the umbrella of Sabinsa: Sami Labs in India , Sabinsa Japan , Sabinsa Australia , Sabinsa South Africa and Organica Aroma, a flavor and fragrance company, who all collectives earned $66 million last year, according to Majed. He enjoys the corporation's positive, international reputation and his many accolades including the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the Thomas Alva Edison Patent

Awards. The father of three and grandfather credits organization like SCORE, which offers advice to small businesses, with helping him to stay afloat in rough waters and wants to now serve as a mentor to others. His dream is to continue to grow his company, and perhaps one day, go back to teaching. After all, he has the knowledge of two continents to impart.