Meet the Innovator: Taara Projects
Taara Projects is a member of the Social Innovation Lab’s 2020–21 Cohort. For this interview, we spoke with Shanthi Ramakrishna, Founder & CEO. Other team members participating in the SIL Accelerator include: Michelle Tu (Director, PR & Marketing), Saisri Gussenhoven (Grant Writing & Finance), Keerti Soundappan (Communications & Outreach), Fatima Elzamzami (Marketing & Social Media), and Castalia Vidaurri (Website Development).
SIL: Tell us about Taara Projects. What are you working on?
Shanthi: Taara Projects is a fashion social enterprise. Driven by the values of empowerment, eco-consciousness, and transparency, we are trying to play a small role in alleviating poverty and the reversal of the environmental damage perpetuated by the fashion industry.
We are currently getting ready for our first product launch of a panel collection made by artisans at risk for poverty and made of 100% upcycled fabric.
SIL: Why did you decide to start this? Where did the idea come from?
Shanthi: I decided to start Taara Projects for two reasons.
First, I wanted a pair of pants made for myself. On my annual trip to India in 2018, I sketched a simple pant design, handed it to a tailor, and he tailored the creation into being. When looking for fabric at a local artisan’s market, I happened to select an organic cotton material sourced from Charaka, a co-op that trains women in weaving and dying practices to then use such skills to find employment or start their own business. Ultimately, the pants turned out so well that I had Mr. Ashwat, the tailor, make around 30 more to give them to friends and family back home. The business we gave Mr. Ashwat helped him sustain his tailoring shop and support his family.
The second, perhaps more notable, reason I started Taara is tied to the stories of Mr. Ashwat and the women of Charaka and the realization of the impact that employment and job opportunity at a fair, living wage can have on artisans’ well-beings and futures. Taara Projects seeks to create sources of employment for artisans who would otherwise be at risk for poverty or in jobs that do not allow them to apply their specialized crafts and skillsets as weavers, tailors, embroiderers, etc. Thus, the origins of Taara Projects lie in the stories of tailors, weavers and artisans in general, who, due to systemic injustices, are often unable to sustain themselves through their work and skillsets.
SIL: What would you consider success for Taara Projects? How will the world be different when you are successful?
Shanthi: A success for Taara Projects is the empowerment of even one artisan in a meaningful and lasting way. Suppose we can help one artisan lift themself out of poverty through merely giving them economic opportunity and allowing them to be employed within the profession that matches their preexisting skillsets/passions. In that case, we consider our venture to have made the world a little bit better — all through giving an individual artisan the opportunity to utilize their talents to in turn uplift themselves financially. The greater sense of agency and security that the artisans have as a result of stable and fair employment disrupts the odds of them falling (back) into poverty and economic insecurity.
SIL: What have you accomplished so far?
Shanthi: Taara Projects’ team was formed through JHU’s chapter of Enactus in the spring of 2020, and since then, it has since grown to be run by seven young women who are also full-time students at Johns Hopkins University. We have also established a partnership in Chennai, India — Zy-lk — which is in charge of producing our pants ethically and sustainably. We have secured non-dilutive grant funding, participated in accelerator programs at FastForward U and Social Innovation Lab, connected with numerous founders and influencers in the sustainable fashion space, and developed product prototypes that served as the basis for the final iteration of pants currently under production for sale in April. Accomplishing all of this virtually during the pandemic and managing the operations and logistics of a supply chain abroad is also something our team is proud of.
SIL: How can people get involved in supporting you in your venture?
Shanthi: Buy a pair of Taara pants today! These pants are part of our very first product drop, and we would be so excited for you to get a pair. Our pants can be purchased on our website, www.taaraprojects.com. You can also browse our website to learn more about our venture.
Connect with us on social media (Instagram: @taaraprojects)! We try to put out content that is informative, relatable and engaging, so supporting us on our Instagram means a lot, especially as we navigate the process of growing our network and expanding our following.
Finally, do not hesitate to reach out to our team via email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or want to get to know our brand more, whether it’s because you’re curious or because you want to explore opportunities for collaboration. We appreciate any and all constructive guidance and feedback on our products and business model.
SIL: What have been some of the biggest challenges in scaling your venture during the pandemic?
Shanthi: Taara’s initial team was formed just as the pandemic started; thus, one of the biggest challenges has been establishing a team dynamic and flow, as all our work, communications and meetings are conducted virtually. However, through transparent and open discussion, we’ve risen to the challenge and have gotten into our groove as a team!
Another big challenge, made more difficult by the pandemic, is managing the operations and logistics of the production element of our supply chain, which is based in India. Our partner, Zy-lk, is handling the production of our pants. Thus, not being able to travel to India to physically see this production taking place and meeting the team behind it in person has taught us the importance of trust, patience, and adaptability.
SIL: What do you like most about the Baltimore entrepreneurial community? What would you like to see more of?
Shanthi: From what I’ve gathered, Baltimore’s entrepreneurial community is tight-knit and collaborative. Although it’s home to extremely driven and competitive ventures, its members seem to always have the bigger picture in mind — the betterment of society at large. This sense of collective action and purpose is reflected even within the SIL cohort, where teams are constantly offering their support, resources, and advice to each other in the hopes that everyone can grow alongside one another. In sum, in the Baltimore entrepreneurial community, I feel a sense of inclusivity and upliftment; ventures see the immense value in lifting each other up and working together, rather than trying to grow and operate in isolation.
Baltimore’s entrepreneurial landscape is already very diverse, and it continues to expand. Thus, I would like to see more programs like SIL in the community — programs which are dedicated to growing and refining ventures that already exist and that otherwise may not have the resources necessary to move to the next stages of growth. With more comprehensive and effective accelerator programs throughout the city, existing ventures in the entrepreneurial ecosystem have greater chances at accessing the funding, mentorship, and guidance necessary for sustainably scaling their venture, and ones just entering the ecosystem have the opportunity to do the same.
SIL: What advice do you have for would-be social entrepreneurs thinking about starting a venture?
Shanthi: If your idea and solution have meaningful value, if there is a real need for your product or service, and you are genuine and passionate about the problem you’re addressing, just go for it. Putting yourself out there is daunting, but it’s usually better than taking no action at all. Oftentimes, sending that first email, launching that first page, or recruiting that first team member is the crucial initial step you need to take in order to remind yourself of your project’s potential and the fact that your idea could be made real with persistence and a bit of boldness.
The hardest part is always getting started.
SIL: Why did you apply to SIL? What attracted you to SIL?
We applied to SIL because of what it stands for — supporting mission-driven and disruptive ventures so that they can understand and actualize their full potential. SIL made clear that although they were committed to helping us achieve success and growth, they were also committed to having the teams put in the work necessary to make such growth possible. Thus, SIL’s program offered our team with an environment and a structure that would motivate us to make tangible progress and do so with purpose, direction, and vision.
Finally, SIL’s accelerator program attracts teams that are genuine and authentic in their passion for what they do. Thus, having the opportunity to not only learn from experts affiliated with SIL, but to also learn from individuals crafting their own social ventures in Baltimore was an opportunity Taara Projects could not forgo.