I remember when I first started thinking about setting up my own business. I was around 17 and was studying economics at the University of Mumbai. While growing up, I could see all those lovely fabrics and art design products on the streets, but at the same time in terms of contemporary usage, there was quite a gap. The idea for my first business came from the need to dress up. It started as a hobby really. I was just picking up some fabrics from the wholesale market that I was passing every day and then transforming those fabrics into tops to wear with jeans, for example. After some time, my friends started noticing my new clothes and asking me: “where are you are getting that from?” So I started creating pieces for my friends.
This was in the 90s, the early days of the internet. So I couldn’t post and share pictures online. I was doing photo shoots using my SLR camera and printing the images out and showing it to peers.
I started selling more and more clothes to different people. It became a big business when I started sourcing things from one location and then a friend of a friend had a store where she was selling things. After three years, in 1998 I sold this business and made a good profit.
This first experience made me realize how selling those beautiful products, largely created by women, can really empower the small businesses and support the families. I felt it really had a social impact and that by working with the local wholesalers I was also helping them. That became the basic background for all of my future projects.
Inspired by these experiences, I decided to get a further education in textile design and development at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi and then won a scholarship to undertake a masters in Textile Management at the University of Leeds, UK. For my thesis, I was keen to use a working case study and found a project in New York in a fashion company where I was exposed to the everyday working of the textile and fashion industry. After completing my masters, in 2002, I moved to Geneva and started working for the World Trade Organization (WTO) as an intern in the Textiles Division.
This was a huge step in my career. After the internship, I started working for a United Nations agency, The International Trade Centre in the area of textiles and trade. I researched international trade and developments, cross-border export, specifically. I focused on sector development projects around the world, cooperating closely with small businesses and supporting them to access markets globally.
During these times I came across different types of businesses: from organized manufacturers to small immature businesses from all over the world. I also met many women with amazing skill sets, who never entered the broad market for a variety of cultural and political reasons. So I thought – how about creating a network specifically for women? After eight years of intense work at the International Trade Centre, WTO and UN and then working as a consultant and an advisor to many government agencies and corporates, I decided to set up my own project. I thought, how about leveraging networks that I have created during all of those years and do something for others?
This is how I started The Women’s International Textile Alliance – a global networking and mentoring club with a focus on empowering and supporting women entrepreneurs in fashion and textiles. I loved this experience even more than I enjoyed working for the UN because I really had to make an effort and think how to make this a sustainable project. In 2011, Facebook wasn’t yet popular, so we had to create our own membership network for these women so they could meet each other and work together. This was the background for Spinna Circle that I created in 2012.
From the very beginning, SPINNA was a non-profit organization focused on development, mentoring and promoting. We didn’t start with the aim to sell. We worked closely with international organizations and governments who supported activities and projects with grants. We also set up corporate partnerships. We were bringing these women together, connecting, promoting them and helping them train their skills. We started organizing international trips and the project has become very popular. We received a lot of positive feedback from some of the pop-up events’ visitors/viewers – they were really interested in potentially buying the products made by the women we supported. We already had almost everything we needed: products, followers, network, mailing list, corporate partnership events, pop-up events. I realized we could really make it a professional business. E-commerce felt like the perfect channel to make this a reality.
This is the story behind my e-commerce concept, Inclusive Trade, which started 18 months ago. SPINNA still works as a non-profit and focuses on promoting women entrepreneurs and connects women worldwide. Inclusive Trade was literally born out of this concept. While SPINNA is about women’s entrepreneurship, we took it to the next level: it’s not only about women’s empowerment, it’s also about other Sustainable Development Goals.
When I started to create the e-commerce platform, I didn’t know a lot about e-commerce. I knew something about supply chains, sustainability, product development and international trade. It was quite a journey for me to take that concept that I had developed into a physical space, to see how it worked as an online concept. The biggest challenge was probably finding the right online platform for the business.
I was often asked why I didn’t use Amazon or eBay and my answer was: none of these platforms would give the user experience I was looking for. I wanted the customers to understand the concept and the story behind every brand. All of this is difficult if you’re working on an existing commercial platform, like Amazon, because there are themes and templates and you can’t move away from that. So, on one hand, I wanted Inclusive Trade customers to have this specific experience and the feeling of responsibility, and on the other hand, I wanted it to be a commercial platform which makes money and is sustainable in the long run. And I couldn’t find such a platform, so I decided to create my own.
Inclusive Trade brings sustainable, beautiful and rare products from around the world to customers, while giving them the experience of “shopping by impact”. What that means is that every single item on our platform is tagged to either social impact, environmental impact, gender inclusivity, or preservation of craft skills.
The general business model is simple, it’s revenue sharing. So, of course, we’re looking at profits, and we want to be sustainable. We’re working with brands, designers and artisans very closely. We use a transparent method of working where we agree on costs, revenues and margins together with the brands and artisans
The business was incorporated in January 2017. We went live in November 2017. The technology is really expensive. We have had 200 returning customers so far. We are selling and are delighted with the interest and footfall. No, you won’t break even in the first year when working organically. But there is growth! That’s important. We are still in the investment stage.
We have also just opened our first inclusive trade studio in London, which offers an insight into our own backend. This is the first step for us, in combining online and offline to present our focus on authenticity and provenance. We have already received an amazing response and demand for more open studio evenings.
Five years ago sustainable fashion was a one billion dollar industry. Today it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. This is a trend that is evolving. A lot of big players have conscious fashion, which means they try to be more transparent or have lines that are organic. I can see the changing mindset of retailers and customers worldwide. They become more demanding and ask more questions. With the increase of social media and the opportunity to reach someone through Twitter, IG or FB, you’re able to reach big brands and everyone can see it. There is much more visibility.
It’s generating challenges for customers as well as retailers. It is difficult for a modern customer to recognize what is really authentic, and what is simply marketing. And for the company, the challenge is to be convincing, that you’re really doing something with impact, not acting.
What advice would I give to other women doing so many things? Different things work for different people. First of all, you have to think of yourself, what works for you and stick to what you feel. Not everyone is an entrepreneur; you shouldn’t force yourself to be something you’re not. Either you have the risk-taking ability, or you don’t. So you really need to be strong, and trust your guts.
Second, choose your partners very carefully. If you’re the kind of a person that wants to go out and do things, you need to have a partner who is equally on board. I have two little children and a husband who, like me, believes we are a team and it’s all about moving forward together. But it requires from us a lot of effort to make it all work and there are tough days and lots of juggling of schedules and agendas.
If you think about setting up a business, do your research, because it’s so important to know the facts, and the facts keep changing. Keep your eyes and ears open all the time.
The last thing, which I only started doing recently: take care of yourself. Until about a year ago, when someone told me that, I would say „yes, yes, sure” because I was running around the world, and it does take a toll on your health. Try to find a few hours for yourself every week and allocate that time for yourself, whether it’s for exercising, running, yoga, or simply relaxing. Trust me, we all really need it.
Reach Rupa Ganguli at @Rupa_Ganguli
Based on the interview by Joanna Socha
Edited by Diana Asatryan, Phyllis Budka.
Production support by Joanna Kwietniewska
Featured photo of Rupa by Lisa Bretherick