Arushi Aggarwal refused a cushy job abroad to help tribal and rural women find employment
Arushi Aggarwal like most Indians grew up seeing her grandmother hand-make beautiful items for daily use at home. And over time her affinity for these knick-knacks soared. Handmade crochet coverlets covering the hot steel cups of milk, lovingly knitted woollens for the winters — the simplicity and usefulness of these items fascinated her.
Although a science student, Arushi disliked the idea of studying engineering or medicine. She wanted to study a course which merged the faculties of science, art, craft, history, and anthropology. It was a chance meeting with a cousin who was doing her design course, that showed Arushi the way. “Design as a field allows you to work at the intersection of many different streams. It is a way of thinking aimed at making things that are better or easier,” says she, recollecting her college days. Arushi completed her Masters in product and services design management from the International School of Design, Pune, in 2012.
She received a job offer from a Danish company with whom she had interned while at college. When she was awaiting her work visa a Satara-based vocational training institute for tribal and rural women approached her. They wanted her to improve the design and overall appeal of their handmade products since they were unable to muster sufficient sales. “I started by conducting a workshop on the importance of finishing, design, and visual appeal in making handcrafted products,” says talking about her her experience at the institute.
She soon realised that the tribal women’s products were trying to compete with machine-made bags mass-produced at places like the Crawford market in Mumbai. She figured out that to earn a sustainable income, the institute needed to stop competing on price, and create something of value and uniqueness. Around this time Arushi had some godhadis (traditional quilts) made and noticed a good fit. That’s when the idea for The Initiative was born.
Arushi founded The Initiative in May 2013. This social venture was a passionate amalgamation of her love for handmade products, commitment to user experience, and desire to provide a sustainable livelihood for women through traditional crafts. “The idea is to give them regular work so that they get a regular income”, says Arushi.
Arushi is the chief designer and Founder of The Initiative. Apart from her, the management team includes Aakash Dewan and Larika Mallier. While Larika volunteers her time to handle social media and marketing communications, Aakash being a designer himself helps with product research and development.
The Initiative team offers three distinct categories of products: godhadis, patchwork, and crochet. Within each of these categories, they have a set of two or three standard products that can be ordered in multiple variations or customized. One of their major clients is a Netherlands based e-commerce portal www.thefairladies.com. They make yoga bags for them in the style of hand-stitched godhadis. In India, The Initiative’s products are available at The Contemporary Arts & Crafts at Fort, Mumbai.
Women form the backbone of her venture and she has spent the majority of her initial time fine- tuning their skills and establishing a hassle-free workflow process with them. Festivals and family obligations often prevented the women from committing time and Arushi had to continuously motivate them by showing them the value of their work. Recruiting women for her venture has been one of her biggest
challenges.Today after a-year-and-a-half of production, Arushi has steadily built a team of 18 women across three different locations in Mumbai. Arushi assigns work to each of the workers based on the time they can dedicate each day.
Arushi’s vision is to offer value to her customers by designing good quality, functional, and aesthetic, handcrafted products; while at the same time being able to improve the lives of the people who make them. Plans of expanding the product menu are in the works but without losing sight of the core product philosophy of combining the ingenuity of traditional crafts with a modern design.
Arushi’s immediate goal is to increase the size of her team. She expects to have at least 40 women working with her by June 2015. And as with any startup in its growth phase, The Initiative is looking to attract talented people to manage its operations.
With intentions of social change at heart and principles of sound design in mind, The Initiative seems poised for a bright future.
(all image credits-Rohan Potdar)