This woman entrepreneur started her handicrafts export business from her garage with just Rs 27,000

Surbhi Agarwal quit her family business and started The Art Exotica from her garage to help artisans in Rajasthan tap into global markets.
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Surbhi Agarwal was working 22 hours a day in the administration department of her father’s speciality hospital till 2019 in Jodhpur, and could not take the sight of blood anymore. However, her inclination towards art and upliftment of underprivileged women led her to withdraw from the healthcare sector.

She quit her family business, and in 2016, started The Art Exotica — a manufacturing and exporting startup of Indian handicrafts and textiles. The startup works with rural artisans in Rajasthan to create home furnishings and home decor for the foreign market. 

Surbhi Agarwal, founder of The Art Exotica

Helping one million women

Surbhi had worked extensively in western Rajasthan while organising rural medical camps for the hospital. On these visits, she met several artisans, especially women, who relayed their experiences of exploitation at the hands of exporters. They told her about their struggles to get fair wages and how exporters would take away two-third of profits from the sale of their handicrafts. 

The women wanted someone like Surbhi to help them reach their work to the international markets. With her prior experiences in brand and product management, and investment analyst, Surbhi started The Art Exotica in November 2016 from her garage in Jodhpur.

"I took up this responsibility to educate, enrich, and emancipate these rural women artisans from their financial struggle,” Surbhi tells HerStory. 

The Art Exotica creates sustainable, eco-friendly products, recycled, organic, and ethical products, a pivot Surbhi helped artisans make to increase traction and saleability. She says that sustainability also means revival and preservation of traditional art forms that are on the verge of extinction. 

Surbhi helped popularise and monetise a terracotta-like art form that was practised in only a couple of villages in Rajasthan. She helped one of the artisans to exhibit his artwork at the Santa Fe Art Gallery in New Mexico. She has helped several other artisans to help showcase and promote their traditional art forms.

Three years into the business, Surbhi regularly works with artisans, mostly women, in western Rajasthan, and in Bhuj, Gujarat, and is soon looking forward to working artisans going to start working with artisans in North Eastern states as well. 

“My mission is to uplift more than one million women till my last breath,” Surbhi says. 

Undeterred by challenges

Surbhi began the startup with her savings of Rs 27,000 from her garage. Today, she owns a warehouse and exports products to countries like Germany, France, The Netherlands, Sweden and Finland, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. 

Using little capital investment, and after ploughing the revenue back into the startup, she has clocked a revenue of Rs 63 lakh so far. 

The entrepreneurship journey has come with a fair share of challenges. Surbhi says liaising with government departments is tough. Her startup is registered under the MSME Udyog Aadhar Card, which allows benefits like availing travel for two international fairs for the startup in a calendar year. However, she says it is difficult to get official benefits, and there’s a lot of running around to do for permissions. 

She also adds that schemes like Stand-Up India look good on paper, but it is very difficult to get loans.  

However, Surbhi is undeterred by these challenges, and says that she is patiently persevering towards her goal. She has also pledged not to get married and devote herself to the cause of upliftment of underprivileged women in the country. 

“If you have a purpose, a vision before you then you can be married to your purpose and vision,” she adds. 

The ‘Alibaba’ for home decor and furnishings

The Art Exotica was involved in only B2B exports to overseas markets, but due to the change in circumstances following the spread of coronavirus, Surbhi is now looking to start B2B sales domestically. 

The startup was available on various B2B platforms like IndiaMart, Exporters India, Trade India, Connect to India, etc. to connect with importers abroad. 

However, Surbhi noticed the absence of a platform for her home decor and furnishings products such as beaded table mats, coasters, table runners, rugs made out of old silk sarees, bedsheets, old denim and jeans bags, and jute and bamboo baskets. She decided to bridge the gap and will launch a B2B platform to connect exporters and importers, which she says, will function like Alibaba and house all products that fall under home decor, furnishings and furniture. 

The platform will also make use of tech like artificial intelligence (AI) for chatbots, and augmented reality (AR) to help give the real feel of products. The launch of the platform is expected in three months.

The idea for the platform is one of the reasons for startup being selected by the German government for its Her&Now cohort. Surbhi was also selected as one of the top 25 entrepreneurs by TiE women in 2019 in collaboration with the US embassy.

With a decrease in disposable income and people only buying essentials, Surbhi has created a new catalogue that includes only need-based and utility-based products to drive revenue during this difficult time. 

Apart from supporting her employees and artisans with assistance for food, children’s education and other aspects, she also helped provide employment to local tailors in Jodhpur to make handmade masks, gloves using recycled cloth. 

In the future, Surbhi hopes to expand her customer base to untouched continents like Latin America and participate in a lot more virtual fairs.

Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan

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