How Ankit Jha founded eMithilaHaat to preserve endangered Madhubani paintings and promote local artisans
Ankit Jha is from Darbhanga, an important district in the famed Mithilanchal of the ‘Ramayana’. But he noticed that the local Madhubhani style of paintings was neglected and endangered, and this moved him to giving up his regular job and starting an e-commerce store, eMithilaHaat. Ankit joins a range of passionate ‘artrepreneurs’ in India (see my earlier article) and shares his vision and journey in this exclusive interview with YourStory – along with tips and recommendations for aspiring entrepreneurs.
YourStory: What was the pain point you wanted to resolve?
AJ: I hail from Darbhanga, an important district in the famed Mithilanchal. And Madhubani is my maternal place which covers another important part of Mithilanchal. Mithilanchal is a place described in the ‘Ramayana’; it was King Janak’s kingdom. These paintings originated from Mithilanchal and have their roots way back to the time of the marriage of Lord Rama and Goddess Seeta. We have done a whole video on this.
One day, I was talking to my cousin when I got to know of the pitiable situation of my aunt Sulekha (name changed) who used to do this painting with so much love. We used to admire her paintings when we were there during our summer breaks. And this sad situation was being faced by almost every artisan there. Despite the fact this art has won awards like four Padmashrees, Guru Shreshtha Shilpa, Bihar Ratna and others, the government is doing little about this. This got me thinking: if these paintings are so valuable then why not provide the artisans a channel where we can promote and sell their work? And hence eMithilaHaat was born.
YourStory: How did you go about addressing the opportunity?
AJ: My father and I started visiting all the villages where these artisans lived. We listened to their problems and assured them a solution by providing them a platform where their products can be promoted and sold.
Our motto was not to hurt their sentiments by taking advantage of their situation. We bought their paintings at a higher price than what they used to sell, and we assured them we would be sharing a part of our profit every six months.
YourStory: How did you go about launching the company?
AJ: I chose to register the firm at Darbhanga as we have a house there, and a lot of people support us. Darbhanga is a part of Mithilanchal. So it made sense to start from the place where this art originated from.
E (electronic or online) + Mithila (Mithilanchal is also known as Mithila) + Haat (Sanskrit and Maithili of market) = eMithilaHaat!
YourStory: How did the rest of the founding team get formed?
AJ: Meeting the co-founders was quite dramatic. Gurmeet Singh Ahuja and I worked with the same company. I was so excited about my business plan that I put in my resignation papers. This surprised Gurmeet who was working as Vice President-Strategy and Delivery and President- Human Resource. He asked me if I had any other better offer in hand. I said no. Then what makes you so excited to resign your secure job, asked Gurmeet.
I told him I had a business plan and I wanted to take a chance with it. This was a second bouncer to him. He was curious to know about my business plan. I told him everything since he is a very noble person and very kind at heart. Now it was my turn to be amazed. He offered his partnership and investments too! I was really surprised. This was really good because no one invests until they see growth. So I was pretty sure that I was on the right track. This is how I met my first Co-founder in Gurmeet.
The second supporter was my father (Shree Jitendra Kishore Jha) who was furious at me for resigning the job and doing something he was totally unaware of. We had a long discussion over the phone. I tried to make him understand the e-commerce model of business. He got more furious at this and asked me to come home the very next day. My father is an open minded person and normally he is open for experiments. I showed him a few of the e-commerce sites and how they work. He felt comfortable and extended his hand of help as my companion in travelling to places and meeting with artisans and people in Mithilanchal. He is a resourceful man. He also invested in our company and assured me that he will be always there even if nobody believes in me!
Through all these times my younger sister Ankita and youngest sister Anku were very supportive. I count them as the core members of the company. Ankita and I have studied together since our LKG. And we complement each other. I was very bad at chemistry which she used to teach me. She was not that good at physics and I would help her with that. She is doing the same when I am going through these important entrepreneurial tests of my life.
Thus our team now is as below:
Gurmeet Singh Ahuja: Working with Power One Data, Bangalore as Vice President- Business Development. He has more than 25 years of industry experience.
Shree Jitendra Kishore Jha: He is my father. He is currently working as a teacher in the government high school, Siwan. He has more than 25 years of teaching experience and he is very good at motivating children.
Ankita Jha: She is working with Amazon India with their core testing group for Kindle and other apps.
Anku Jha: She is in her final semester of B.E in computer science at CMRIT, Bangalore
YourStory: What is your core offering? How has this evolved since founding?
AJ: We offer Mithila Painitngs on handmade paper as well as on ‘tasar’ silk which can be used as wall hangings.
We have currently done a summer camp at Yashhoda Foundation (a non profit organisation) where more than 25 underprivileged children were given training in Mithila painting. You can find the photos of the event here. And we are planning to soon add apparel and other home decors with these paintings.
YourStory: Who is your target audience, and how are you reaching out to them?
AJ: Our target audience is people with keen interest and love for art. Very soon we will be shipping it outside India too.
We are reaching out to our target audience through social media and personal contacts as well, and we are lucky that people are spreading loving words about us and we are getting decent leads this way.
YourStory: What impact are you having? How do you plan to scale?
AJ: We have made a lot of impact in the lives of the artisans. They are now more confident and feel more proud in painting once again. We have plans of scaling by adding other arts too which are facing similar challenges or are endangered.
YourStory: What is your business model as a social enterprise?
AJ: Though we are a for-profit organizsation, we have our mission very clear that we have to help these artisans in preserving and promoting these endangered art forms.
Our partners are very much supportive in our mission. In fact, it was Gurmeet’s idea to share our profit with artisans every six months so that it encourages them.
YourStory: Who else is in this space, and how do you differentiate from them?
AJ: There are a few more players who are selling this, such as Etsy, Fineart America, Novica. But we feel very sorry to find a lot of imitators in this space. Our artists do not use any kind of scale or compass to make straight lines and circles. This is one of the most important features of this art which differentiates us from others. Colours used are natural colours which are extracted from plant leaves, roots, fruits and so on. We bring the paintings literally from the root of the culture.
YourStory: How have you been funded? Are you profitable already?
AJ: Initial investments came from my father, Gurmeet and some of my savings.
We are not yet profitable. But we are here to do business. So we have a projection of at least three years. It is just a beginning. We have already started sales and we are pretty happy about that. Though we have not got any media coverage so far, like minded people are already joining and appreciating the work.
YourStory: If you could go back in time, what would you do differently the second time round?
A: If I could back in time, I would have first found an equally crazy guy like me to work with me and multiply my efforts! I am still looking for someone who can work with me selflessly.
YourStory: What is your advice/recommendations to other entrepreneurs?
AJ: As Steve Jobs said, ‘Life is too short. Don’t waste it living someone else’s dream’. Find your love, the purpose of your life. And then go for it. Don’t wait for a favourable time. Time is never favourable. I would like to recommend my friends to watch Steve Jobs' speech at Stanford University. It’s so inspiring. I am a huge fan of Steve Jobs and these are his insights.
Last but not the least, love and respect your parents. They are the real gods and divine figures – Rama, Jesus, Allah, and the Sikh Gurus. Be humans. Love each other and break the barriers of the caste system. We youngsters are great at breaking rules. I am sure all of us have bunked a lot of lectures. So let’s bunk all these crappy rules of society. Let’s make our world filled with love and harmony and a better place to live in.