Survive and Thrive 2017, from the lenses of an Art Social Enterprise
The 13th century Persian poet and Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī, more popularly known as Rumi, once said ‘what you seek is seeking you’. And, today I have every reason to believe in it.
Slowly sipping on my ‘adrak chai’, I was absorbed into the thoughts of giving MITHILAsmita a thrust, new energy and a reason to look forward into the future. And, my phone beeped. I had got an e-mail notification from the India Network team. This had to be important. I quickly opened my inbox. It was an e-mail confirming my selection for ‘Survive and Thrive’ Camp aimed at supporting the mission driven entrepreneurs to take their businesses to the next level. Whoa, it was just what I needed at that time!
In the process of nurturing my organisation MITHILAsmita, I had spent considerable time, actually five years, to understand the handmade market in India and the world— the current status, the psyche of the Madhubani artists, their drive, the competition-challenges- opportunities –impact and the role corporates, fashion chains, art fairs and museums could play to make the traditional art sector in India and other developing nations a sustainable one.
I didn’t want MITHILAsmita to merely become a platform for selling and marketing art products. I wanted it to be a business with a soul. I wanted our products to have a flavor of purity, love, authenticity and purpose. And, to make this true I needed a more dynamic, sophisticated and liberal markets like the US and Europe.
In the past couple of years, we had sold the art and art merchandise through our erstwhile folk art gallery in Bangalore, museums and a dozen of corporates/interior designing firms in India. It was now time for us to venture into the global space and to launch our scarves in the international retail market.
We have been good at product development, integrating impact to our products, creating a brand value for ourselves that associates with authenticity and social responsibility. However, what we needed now was a commercial launching pad to develop a thriving global business.
Survive and Thrive came into our lives just at the right time! A little over a month ago, I got to know through India Network (a platform for start up entrepreneurs to connect, collaborate and learn) about their hunt for mission driven entrepreneurs, ready to launch their products in the international markets and about the opportunity to get a sponsored trip to the USA for a boot camp to meet the who’s who of Silicon Valley Entrepreneurship ecosystem including the original ‘Shark’ Investor ‘Kevin Harrington’ from the famous reality TV show ‘Shark Tank’. The trip encompassed everything right from mentoring sessions, fund raising, pitching, networking and much more.
The idea was quite exciting. I immediately worked on the application form, submitted my entry and crossed my fingers.
Around mid-August I got an e-mail from the India Network team stating that my venture was one of the few selected to be on the mission to the USA. I felt like I had got a booster shot! It seemed as if things had started to fall in place. On the earlier occasions that I had traveled to US, it was exclusively for my product market research. But, this time it was different. It was much more than that!
It looked like a more curated trip to focus on all those things that my venture needed to propel the business to become a commercial success globally!
And my preparations began! I shortlisted the art products that I wanted to showcase at Kent, updated the website with the latest products, practiced my pitch for global positioning of handmade Madhubani scarves, and my story. I was aware I was going to have very limited time to impress the investors, mentors and the influencers. And therefore, it was important to make the most of those precious minutes.
Beginning of Magic
We reached New York City on September 7. The same day we got to meet the visionary behind sponsoring this huge crew of mission-driven entrepreneurs from India, Rahul Narvekar — Founder CEO India Network and Scale Ventures. His informal talk over dinner infused us with energy and surely gave a brilliant start to the boot camp. We started for Kent the next morning, along with all the fellow entrepreneurs and innovators.
On way to Kent, I came to know about few other enterprises and their innovations too. I was more curious about the social enterprises. Some of them that caught my attention were an innovative app for farmers by Shivprakash to determine the crop diseases , an enterprise addressing the primary healthcare access to the North eastern part of India by Aeroshil and a hand glove invented by a 11 grader Hemkesh Agrawal for the visually impaired people to help them connect to the world .
We arrived at Kent. It was a beautiful camp in a picturesque location with well-equipped conference halls and fabulous stay arrangements. A group of volunteers greeted us on our arrival to add to the warmth. It was an apt place and environment to absorb so many ground breaking ideas and strategies.
Every person spoke of some brilliant ideas, be it about raising funds, expanding markets or changing the world with some disruptive product/solution. It appeared to me like a Mecca for startups!
The talks by Susie Carder, Kevin Harrington, Jesse Itzler were beyond inspiring.
They literally brought us on our feet, just by their words! Kevin’s words about personal branding and digital marketing as a stepping stone to the market launch were such validations to theories I had absorbed by reading tonnes of content online but had been attempting in a conservative way as I was not sure if it was the right thing to do!
I received a special one-on-one mentoring by the phenomenal Susie Carder during the mentor dating session. Her mentioning that my story was ‘extraordinarily beautiful’ and that ‘a powerful story can create a powerful brand’ rekindled the spark within me. Getting a special mention about my venture and its story during Susie Carder’s hugely motivational talk was an ecstatic moment. I still get goose bumps thinking of that!
One out of the many things that I always look for in such an audience is validation of my products- especially art scarves. I look for feedback from the international crowd that doesn’t know me or my story, but knows only my product story! And if my scarves sell there, I know I am ready to be there.
Rahul Narvekar, the visionary that I realized he is, conceptualized and organized a fashion show of my beautiful hand painted scarves. The gratifying moment was when the organizers of the Survive and Thrive 2017, Marva Allen and Sachin Narode not only helped in curating the fashion show but the very graceful Marva Allen enthusiastically agreed to become our show stopper.
I was touched and overwhelmed to see my friends from India and USA modelling for the show. Overnight my Madhubani scarves became the talk of the camp, and I had sold more than half my inventory within the next 24 hours. The rest I managed to retain as samples for pitching to retailers and distributors in NYC.
At the end of the show, Rahul along with the organizers got in a conversation with the Fashion Designers (with the repute of New York Fashion Week) present at the event to organize the next fashion show of ArtnHer Scarves at Times Square NYC! I couldn’t believe my ears.
Next day Marva Allen gave a short talk on my scarves, its story and the rural women behind them. Later she also offered to connect to a Museum in Abu Dhabi that would be interested in partnering with us for Art Hijabs. I had to pinch myself constantly to believe that all this was real!
The short talk and the fashion show had already ignited many more discussions with the investors! There were talks on both how best could I utilize funding to start a wider range of art merchandise for the US and European markets, and also on how I could use them for an organised marketing and branding to introduce our scarves to a number of fashion retail chains.
Maryanne, one of the investors and coach, was kind enough to provide a one-on-one mentoring to help me identify the US luxury chains more suitable for my ethical fashion scarves. She also offered to connect me to a Germany-based chain, which showcases such exclusively handmade products. Too many good things in too little a time! Yet to absorb all that happened.
On one occasion I discussed this with Rahul, as to how badly I needed to look at things from a purely commercial angle, despite being a Social enterprise! And he said, “ Make yourself a commercial success, and impact will automatically show!” Exactly the strategy needed in MITHILAsmita’s case, when every art product boasts of a human face behind it!
My interview with Zee America, Change Creator and a Radio show hosted for women innovators by Dori Decarlo were some of the unexpected marketing support that came pouring in for our upcoming international brand, ArtnHer.
A later session in NYC on video creation by Kean Wong, one of the key organizers of Survive and Thrive 2017, was very insightful. It helped me identify some of the key points to consider during our upcoming crowdfunding campaign video creation for ArtnHer .
I could visualize the art and art merchandise by the master women artists of Madhubani going places in near future.
While we did some serious business during the day, our nights were maddening and colorful with dance parties, informal discussions and more.
On the final day of our camp, an announcement was made regarding five Indian ventures being funded by a group of US investors. A whopping 33% percent of the crew who came from India were to get investments! This was the moment when I got to know the vision of the man behind the great Indian start-up dream, a mission-driven investor — Rahul Narvekar, truly!
Hope and Pride
India Network is making sincere efforts to turn the tide for all those Indian start-ups that have the potential to expand into international markets but are stuck due to multiple reasons — mentoring, positioning, funding, scaling up. By creating this supportive ecosystem, India Network is making it possible for these competent entrepreneurs and their start-ups to thrive, and not just survive.