From ‘handcrafted’ to ‘heartcrafted’ ethnic products – meet Jonali Saikia, Founder of social enterprise Heeya

In an earlier article on Artrepreneurs, we featured the work of three social entrepreneurs in the world of art, and followed up with full-length interviews with the founders. This is a growing domain area for a range of talented entrepreneurs, and in this interview we feature an in-depth chat with Jonali Saikia, Founder of . Heeya makes sarees and crafts from the underexposed communities of artisans in North East India. Jonali shares with us the story of why she left the corporate sector to start her social enterprise, how she received solid family support, and her vision of going beyond ‘handcrafted’ to ‘heartcrafted’ ethnic products.YS: Let’s start by hearing about what Heeya does and which communities you address.JS: Heeya makes sarees, women’s garments and home furnishings from handmade textiles of underexposed handloom crafts of India like the North Eastern region. Heeya also facilitates training to the artisans, provides economic and social empowerment as well as attempts to mainstream the artisans and their craft and culture through awareness and availability of the products.YS: What were you doing before you started Heeya, and why did you change track?JS: I was working in the corporate sector for about 14 years – with various multinationals before I made this move. I was with Accenture for about eight years, the last in its Learning Business where my job as the Delivery Manager required me to roll out large scale training programs in locations across the Asia Pacific countries. Prior to that, I was with other MNCs such as AOL, Kelly Services and NIIT.In my corporate life, amidst all the planning, interventions, metrics, roll-outs and rewards, I realised that I was another cog in the wheel and that this perfectly well oiled machine would run without me and that I could make a difference in an area that needed it, and which I wanted to. I did a bit of soul searching to explore ideas which needed urgent interventions from an organisational, market building, skill and capacity building perspective. After looking around I realised there is potential for eco-friendly, rare crafts that are not commonly available – starting with the North East handloom. The North East and Assam in particular has the largest number of looms in the country and a strong weaving culture. The idea was to create a model for sustainable livelihood for groups that are engaged in weaving.YS: Tell us about where you grew up, your family and what effects this had on your startup path.  JS: I was born in Shillong, Meghalaya, and spent my early childhood there. Then my family moved to Guwahati where I lived till 2000 with a short stint in Kolkata in between. I moved to Bangalore in 2001 where I have been ever since. Being born and brought up in the North East, I have seen the wealth of textiles and silks in the region but was disappointed that they were not available outside the region.I come from a large family of five sisters and a brother. My father was in the government service and my mother is a teacher turned homemaker. Both my parents were extremely devoted to our education and upbringing – they could not pursue opportunities due to setbacks in their own lives so they wanted us to! They taught us to be ambitious, hardworking and resilient. Everybody in my family is well qualified, including a sister who is the second lady Chartered Accountant from Assam. One other sister is a Senior Marketing executive in a reputed US pharmaceutical company. I am a first generation entrepreneur in my family – except my brother-in-law who runs his own CA firm.Having spent my growing up years in a place which is rich in silk yarn, handloom and handicraft, I developed an interest in the beautiful handloom – I used to carry some (while I was still working in my earlier company) for my friends. They loved what I got and asked for more. This was the first time I thought there could be potential for creating a market for more products from the North East as well as improving the economic potential of the large artisan base.There is also another reason – any place which has talented craftspeople but not good visibility needs better storytelling. Like the North East, there are other places which are rich with a lot of natural resources and talent but neglected and cut off from the mainstream markets. So I wanted to tell the story of the place through its strengths — the rare, unique silk and the weavers’ aesthetic expressions — namely through its textiles and craft. This would also be one of the measures to build a sustainable economic livelihood at the base of the pyramid and also strengthen it internally through better infrastructure, skill building and capacity building.YS: How did you go about addressing the pain point and opportunity you saw?JS: I started off producing select products made of Eri silk, a silk that is well known for its many qualities, including its iso-thermal property and hygroscopicity (ability to absorb moisture). I got garments and accessories like stoles made of this and sold them at exhibitions and online which also involved educating people on the silk, since awareness is not very high. I received a fairly good response and decided to add variety. I moved to working with other weaver groups such as the Mishings, Bodos and Nagas. Since the looms used in the North East are traditional looms which weave narrower fabrics, a full length saree cannot be woven on most of the looms at one go. The rich weaves have to be incorporated into a saree in creative ways. Each Heeya saree is unique and painstakingly crafted, right from the choice of yarn (all eco friendly) to the weave to the colors (some are naturally dyed). So each Heeya saree is a yarn-to-yard concept made to appeal to discerning customers.Heeya’s vision is of creating a strong eco system of visibility, growth, skill development and technology enablement for this industry and also to ensure respect for the craftsmen, the customers and the craft.YS: How did you choose the company name, logo and its base?JS: The brand name was chosen specifically keeping an upmarket textile brand in mind and to move away from the usual sounding ‘ethnic’, ‘handmade’ or having the word ‘hand’ in it. Thus we named the brand Heeya. Heeya means heart in Sanskrit, Assamese and Bengali and it means that the artisans pour their hearts into the work to get such quality products. Since all good quality handmade products – whether they be handwoven, handcrafted or handpainted are done with passion and love of the artisans, Heeya wanted to signify that. I even like to a step forward from handcrafted and say it is heartcrafted and both the names are trademarks (pending registration) of the business.The logo is simple but designed with a lot of care and detail. A friend of mine who is a Graphic designer cum Management Consultant understood the requirement as soon as we briefed her. The logo has the letters in simple font saying h in red and the rest of the letters in brown with a green heart on top. The letters have uneven edges to signify the handwoven nature of the products – having imperfections which lends character to the products. The heart in green signifies that all the materials are eco-friendly and have some detailing to signify the interesting textures and value additions.We chose Bangalore as the base for its conducive startup ecosystem and also for its textile/design ecosystem. Not to forget, the market – which has evolved tastes and sensibilities as well as purchasing power.YS: Who else is on your founding team and how did you all meet?  Jonali SaikiaJS: Apart from myself, my husband and my sisters are part of the founding team and are engaged as advisors. It is great that we discovered our interests converging to the same point and could come up with the vision and plan. My eldest sister is a Senior Marketing executive in the US so I get a lot of branding and marketing support from her. My husband is a Senior Consultant and has expertise in finance and strategy — as well as a strong interest in arts, culture and crafts so strong domain interest too. Two other sisters are involved — one based in Guwahati helps me with production and the other based in Bangalore with product packaging and selling.We work with about 100 women across different clusters — apart from this, we have an outsourced tailoring unit and a part time employee. We are constantly on the lookout to have like-minded people come on board full time and help to grow the vision and make it bigger.YS: What is your core offering? How has this evolved since founding?JS: Our core offering is the Heeya one-of-a-kind sarees which have the signature unique weaves from different parts of the North East. We also have a range of Indo-western garments and accessories like stoles. This year we are introducing home furnishing textiles – cushion covers, table mat sets, runners, dupattas and stoles. Going forward, we would like to add more products such as curtains, rugs, bed spreads and the like.YS: Who is your target audience, and how are you reaching out to them?JS: Our target audience is women in the age group of 30-60 with evolved taste and sensibilities, who appreciate hand made products with a story. Most of our customers are from the metros and Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities as well as NRIs.We have two major ways of selling – offline, through exhibitions and online, through social media. We are in the process of setting up our e-commerce store as also looking for stores to sell it from so our sales approach this year will be more organised.YS: What impact are you having in your domain? Can you share some testimonials?JS: From a customer perspective, sarees are a niche – designer handwoven sarees of rare weaves from Assamese, Bodo, Naga and Mishing weaves and unusual yarns like Muga and Eri silk – each saree has a story of its own which we share with the customer. Since women mostly have been wearing sarees of the main clusters and styles over a number of years, these sarees are appealing because of their novelty.From the artisans and weavers’ perspective, their livelihood has gone up by 50-100% as we deal directly with them. We also work with the government for infrastructure upgradation and technical training. We undertake training sessions on topics such as designing, colours, accounts, quality control and customer centric approach. We are also keen to organise medical camps for the weaving community at our locations.Here is a testimonial from Meera Krishnan, CEO, Lexicon Public Relations and Corporate Consultants: “I believe Heeya is a great initiative as it brings little known, exclusive handwoven/handloom pieces to larger discerning audiences. As a customer I highly treasure my saree from Heeya which has stunning hand crafted panels offset by the finest mul-mul. Simply a joy to wear behold!”YS: What is your business model as a social enterprise? JS: We work directly with the weavers, mostly co-operative groups and self help groups on a yarn-to yard concept. We travel to the locations of the various groups of weavers, live there for a few days to understand their skills capabilities and production abilities and accordingly start work. We provide training where necessary and also work with the government to provide infrastructure and technical training support. In certain cases, we also help them by giving them working capital (in the form of yarn). We are in the process of organising health camps and counselling sessions this year.YS: Who else is in this space, and how do you differentiate from them?JS: There are umpteen players in this space considering the low entry barrier — big, medium sized and small. The big ones like Fab India, Mother Earth, Indian Roots and Craftsvilla have been around for some time and have found their own niche. Others like The Good Earth, Rang Sutra, iTokri and Jaypore are doing well and many smaller ones are also there. Many of these are marketplace models hosting other producers and some are producers cum sellers. Our model is to produce quality textile products with the distinct touch of North Eastern weaves, which is the differentiator.In the next phase we will also work on crafts. But the idea would be to always work in tandem with the artisans, improving the production – both in terms of quality and quantity – thus increasing livelihood and recognition for the unique textile and crafts of these underexposed clusters.YS: How have you been funded? JS: We are bootstrapped as of now, working with personal savings – however we would like to explore alternate ways to fund when the time to scale comes.YS: What kind of media coverage are you receiving so far?JS: We have been previously covered in ‘The Times Of India’s’ Whitefield supplement in March 2013 and in a Hyderabad-based business magazine called ‘Business for All’ in August 2013. This year, we have been covered by an online magazine called YourFashionStories.comYS: How has this startup venture transformed you? What have been some ups and downs in your journey?JS: Since the day I started, I have learnt so much — the importance of an idea and execution, of taking people with you and of focus and hard work, of getting outside the comfort zone and of learning from one’s and others’ mistakes. I have transformed in the way I view problems and hurdles – they will be there as long as someone does not take it up to solve it, so every problem is an opportunity too. More importantly, I have discovered that entrepreneurs need to be patient and must be true to themselves.There have been ups and downs: ups when the products find appreciation with people and when the weavers are happy . The downs are when I did not have enough money and when production in villages do not happen the way they should.YS: How do you balance your personal and professional lives, your work and family?JS: I am able to balance my three lives — personal, professional and community primarily because of the support of my husband. He has allowed me to dream and do what I aspire to do – he is also my conscience keeper and asks me the questions I need to have the answers for. He is my mentor, guide and partner in every possible way. My nine-year-old daughter and my eldest sister are my biggest critics and morale boosters. My other sisters and the rest of family are also involved and support me completely.YS: If you could go back in time, what would you do differently the second time round?JS: Everything happens for a reason, however no regrets, only learning for the future. However, if I had known better, I would start with a team so I could do things faster and make more products. Now that I realise it, I need to have more people to reach out to, talk to, travel with and learn from, so that I can execute my plans efficiently.YS: What is your advice to our readers?JS: To other entrepreneurs, I would like to say – Once you have the idea that you believe in you can make an enterprise of, plan well and then jump headlong. If you are not sure, then do a pilot before investing too much money or energy.To society at large, I would say — We need to create a society of more equality so let’s find ways to do it. Just earning well, spending on your own family and having a good time is not enough. It is also very important to know and appreciate one’s roots, taking the good from there and building on it. 

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