Big Ideas: “I face many challenges, from resources to allocating funds — but my most important challenge is to be taken seriously as a solo woman founder.”
Neha Upadhyay is the CEO and founder of Guna Organics, a social enterprise which provides ethically-sourced organic food products from exclusively female rural Indian farmers. Despite winning numerous awards and important strategic partnerships, Neha maintains that her greatest challenge is being taken seriously as a solo woman founder.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story of how you decided to pursue this career path?
I am so proud to be a social entrepreneur based in New Delhi, India, and the founder of Guna Organics which provides ethically-sourced organic food products grown by rural female Indian farmers.
My path began when I graduated from my Master’s degree at King’s Business School and started working in the education sector in the UK. My focus was with children suffering from the likes of Juvenile diabetes, Autism and ADHD. Having observed their lifestyles, I was reluctant to treat them with western medication and so I sought training in organics and macrobiotics from Daylesford Organic Cooking School, Wholefood Harmony and Navdanya Bija Vidyapeeth — which all teach proven alternative healing practises.
I then returned to my home country of India to set up Guna Organics in 2014 with a vision to empower women farmers. By integrating organic farming, solar technology to manage harvesting and bringing electricity to the rural hilly terrains of Ladakh in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, we are delighted to have incorporated the wonderful principles of a macrobiotic product line as well as renewable energy.
Tell us about the importance of food to mental and physical health.
I believe that most physical and mental diseases find their root cause in our diet or are psychosomatic in nature. Traditional organic farming provides us with clean, safe food. And when organic produce is cooked using copper utensils and in earthenware using ancient macrobiotic techniques, the result is tasty, nutritious food that gives us sound physical and mental health.
How have you found the experience of being a female entrepreneur in India? Why did you want to develop your business there?
The experience has been both gratifying and exhausting at the same time. I have found that patriarchal mindsets are deep rooted in the cities of India, however in Ladakh where my farmers are based, I know I have their full support and that keeps me motivated.
I knew from the beginning of this venture that I wanted to do good work in my home country. I also wanted to develop my business here as India’s economy is strong in terms of agriculture, however I continue to wish to strengthen our overseas connections in terms of marketing and to keep prices fair.
How many farmers are involved with the project now?
About 650 farmers and we wish to expand to 8,400 farmers!
What challenges do you face?
I face many challenges, from resources to allocating funds — but my most important challenge is to be taken seriously as a solo woman founder.
You are truly committed to the environment, what is the importance of sustainability?
I believe that all new businesses should have sustainability and social impact integrated into their models. When new businesses adopt good practices of sustainability from the outset, it has a knock-on effect on other companies as they are positively influenced to pursue the same route. I believe that ethical business practices have long-term positive effects on the environment, and companies that are seen to be doing good are much better perceived. Studies have even proven it leads to better employee engagement too.
Do you think solar energy could be the future of food?
Yes! Cooking with solar energy already reduces greenhouse gas emissions in the hilly regions that we operate in. Using solar energy after harvesting — in cleaning, sorting and packing, for example — is also extremely beneficial as it prolongs the shelf life of fresh fruits like apricots and peaches from two days to two years!
Tell us about your proudest moments.
The first thing that comes to mind is the happiness on my farmers’ faces in Ladakh when they received solar dryers and cookers. The second thing that comes to mind is that I’ve recently been selected as a Yale World fellow by Yale University and will be spending about four months in the USA on their signature global leadership development initiative.
I actually have a lot to be proud of and I’d like to share 10 of these moments with you –
1. Winning the IIM-CIP SMART FIFTY competition — this meant recognition as one of the top 50 solutions to transform India from the Department of Science and Technology of the Indian Government and a grant too
2. Being presented the ‘Social Impact Award in India 2017’ by the British Council
3. Winning the Entrepreneur Excellence Award by the Department of Science and Technology, Indian Institute of Technology and WEE foundation for contribution to social and female entrepreneurship
4. Winning ‘Exceptional Leaders of Excellence 2017’ by Women Economic Forum and All Ladies league
5. Regularly participating in the Women of India Organic Festival, organised in New Delhi by the Ministry of Women and Child Development
6. Being awarded a full scholarship by the Government of Sweden for the Swedish Institute of Management Programme 2017 for a course in responsible leadership for ethical businesses
7. Winning a partnership deal with the Estonian government and UNCTAD’s E-residency enrolment program which allows us to sell in the EU, to Scandinavian countries, and the Americas
8. Partnering with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for support
9. Featuring in amazing media publications such as Economic Times, Time Out, India Today and CNBC Young Turks — plus this one!
10. Finally, impacting 650 farmers and many more to come
What hopes do you have for the future?
I wish to build on my ecological work, financial stability and building a robust team. But above all, I envisage an inclusive, equitable, and healthy society where men and women support each other in every aspect of life and enjoy their right to realise their full potential.
Thanks very much!