By Krithika NelsonIt’s not every day that you meet someone that genuinely leaves an impression behind, inspires you and makes you feel proud, though you probably know the person for just about few minutes!
It was in one of the pre-launch days of Shopo that I came across Carmina Fernandes. I believe it was at one of these craft exhibitions that I saw her first! She was just sitting in her stall, watching, a kind of knowing smile on her face. The smile definitely stuck on my head but really, I had no idea, how big an impact she was going to leave on me, a few months later. I am going to digress a little bit here. Many a times, I have been a part of a conversation where someone told me “It is hard to see women running startups these days” and I have always disagreed! The word “startup” need not necessarily mean a “Tech Startup” right? I see a lot of women running extremely successful retail lines, building NGOs that are impacting a few lakh people, leaving their jobs to design a line of tote bags to even offices and homes, and to me, these are very much startups too! Same challenges and same learning curves! Now, why did I start with this? Oh yes! Carmina Fernandes!
Now, Carmina is an NID Alumnus who has worked for over 30 years in sustaining craft, creating and implementing successful craft-based livelihoods for various artisan networks in India and abroad, before launching her new label – Artesania in May 2010. Now, it’s an unwrit rule that you never discuss a woman’s age. So I am going to leave you do your own calculations on that!
Artesania is an NGO behind a lifestyle brand that is slowly, but steadily, re-introducing handicrafts in a trendy avatar and working together with our artisans to creating functional, sustainable, exclusive, and highly-fashionable products. From bags to home décor, to now textile, these guys do work wonders, and for a very affordable price! Oh Yes! We do have them on shopo!
So, over one of our conversations, I asked her out of curiosity,
“Carmen, you stepped out and kind of started up, almost 30 years back! In a more conservative time when women entrepreneurs were probably less than a handful! You must have had some reactions from people around eh? “
The answer she gave me was definitely not what I had expected!
“Starting up 30 years ago, I’d say was easier!” She said with her trademark smile! “The potential for craft and artisans that has been unleashed today was only being tapped into at the time. There was very little technology and everyone worked with their hands - in the industry or at home. So, even a lay person, far removed from the industry understood the worth of the hands behind a craft.”
Now, it kind of made sense! Just close your eyes and try to rewind back to the time Carmen should have started! (I have to depend on what I have seen on films and heard or read on books here, but still!) Can you imagine a day at work without laptops and mobile phones? Stripping everything down to the very bare basics. Is that just pure simple or more complicated than it sounds?Carmen went on “Starting-up today in a ‘fast-food, mass produced’ generation is far more challenging. When I first discussed the idea of Artesania - one of the first doubts thrown at me were “Does the market have the patience for craft and if it does, is the value for craft still existent?” Since everything’s out there today; craft and design are all over the place – in the malls, the streets, at fashion weeks and now, the internet, how does one compete with all this wonderful ‘young’ energy? People react with much more shock and awe today than they would have 30 years ago. Because, technically, I should be retiring, right?” The same smile again!
But did she ever feel it was probably a little too late to startup?
“I was confident of a good product and with the backing of a brilliant team, after some slogging, we’re here and people love us. Indian design and craft appreciation is at a wonderful high right now, the opportunities are immense, it would be a shame to miss out on all this energy and watch from the wings.”
But did all the 30 years of experience make things easy for Carmina to get Artesania up and about?
“Well, Our sole objective is that our artisans get consistent, sustainable incomes without compromising on their craft. In an age where technology is dominant, this can be very challenging. There are still thousands of artisans whose work is yet to be explored, they are not attached to any non-profit organizations. They are ignorant about government schemes and policies, they often underestimate their craft and take to labour – We deal with everything from issues ranging from self-esteem, disbelief in the power of their craft to quality control and communication. The first few years are the toughest – not only is the start-up a baby, the artisans, too, need as much guidance as possible.”
Daniella, who is a part of Carmina’s team, had shared something on similar lines to me earlier. Our craftsmen have worked on the same designs and patterns for almost a few centuries now! When you go and ask them to work on things differently, the first reaction you get out of them is resistance! After all, why would they believe you know their craft better than they do?
Try going and explaining to your grandmother how to make a better Sambar. Do you really expect her to even take you seriously? Even if you did have a very valid point? Same case! It should have been frustrating for sure. Imagine having to face a few 100 people who will refuse to listen to you, though you are actually trying to make their lives better! It must have taken a zillion struggles before Artesania could get to what it is today!
That makes me compare a little. We face very similar struggles every day in early stage startups. Many a times, people don’t believe that you can do what you wish or promise to do. People you want to hire think you are a kid. Vendors don’t take you seriously and don’t respond in time. Things go wrong, and they blame it all on you! In many cases, the founders go bankrupt and bills start piling up! Sometimes there is so much chaos you actually consider giving it all up to go back to a day job!
Did Carmina ever want to give up?
The smile came back again when I asked her that. “If you don’t have love and passion for what you do, you cannot sustain yourself in a world that is zipping past you in a blink. I just happen to love what I do!”
I rest my case!