This woman entrepreneur’s vegan and handicrafts-focused accessories brand has raked in Rs 5 Cr revenue
Disha Singh is the founder of Mumbai-based B2C startup Zouk, a vegan brand for bags, wallets and accessories. She began the company in 2016 by investing Rs 20 lakh of her savings and has raked in Rs 5 crore revenue, turning the startup profitable in a short time.
The startup stands out by fusing Indian craftsmanship with modern functionality with its products. It all began when Disha was on a trip to Kutch while pursuing her MBA degree from Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Surrounded by bountiful local handicraft, she realised that though her friends loved the designs and the craftsmanship, they did not buy them as the products lacked functionality.
“This really hit me since India has such a rich heritage and craftsmanship and still we had very few genuine Indian brands that made products with modern functionality. That’s when I decided to start Zouk with a mission of bringing to customers stylish and functional products with an essence of India,” Disha tells HerStory.
Disha had decided to start up while she was in her second year at IIM-A. However, after graduating in 2015, she did two brief internships and later joined medtech startup Practo to gain experience in the workings of a startup, before embarking on her entrepreneurial journey.
In 2016, she started working on the idea of creating bags with Indian handicrafts and fabrics and launched her first product at the end of 2017. Before moving to online sales, Disha sold the products at 50+ exhibitions across the country.
However, starting up came with its set of challenges. It was difficult for Disha to convince her family that she wanted to leave her stable job and start up, that too in the manufacturing and retail space. She received support from her husband, who was also her IIM-A batchmate, and from IIM-A Professor Sunil Handa. She was able to convince her family that entrepreneurship was her calling.
Another challenge that impeded Disha was the hiring of artisans. She recalls that she faced a lot of resistance when she had to recruit the first set of artisans from Dharavi.
“People had little trust in a young woman to set up a manufacturing facility. I used to go every day to search for our first few hires in Dharavi. It took me over a month to convince them to work with me,” she says.
She says that being a woman entrepreneur has helped her because most of her customers are like her too. So she reflects on her own needs and problems to create products that offer functionality.
Vocal for local
The two main selling points for Zouk are Indian designs and modern functionality. With Zouk, Disha wanted to address the problem of functionality that came with many Indian brands working in the space.
“If you look around, most bags are similar in look and feel – either they are the dull blacks and greys, or come in solid bright colours. They look western and are a cheap replica of foreign brands. Overall, the market does not have options for bags and wallets that are different and yet highly functional,” says Disha.
“I felt there was a need for a brand to stand for its Indian originality,” she adds.
All of her products, says Disha, have an essence of India with Indian motifs, prints, and fabrics, and are built to serve today’s needs. She gives the example of Zouk’s office bags for women which come in Ikat, Jute, and Khadi fabric, and can comfortably hold a laptop, tiffin and more.
Banking on Indian resources, the raw materials are also sourced from different parts of India like Gujarat and northern states. All the products are handmade by 24 artisans from Dharavi at its manufacturing facility in Mumbai.
Disha says the idea to use only cruelty-free leather for Zouk was prompted by a video of how animal-based leather was made. “That was horrific,” she says.
Zouk is also a PETA-approved vegan brand.
“Vegan is a relatively new concept in India but it is catching up. We have increasingly seen our customers flaunting our products, not only for the look and feel but also for being vegan and thus, making them a responsible shopper,” says Disha.
The brand has 13 different categories across bags, wallets and accessories including laptop bags, women’s office bags, backpacks, handbags, wallets, and eyewear cases. The products can be purchased on Zouk’s website. Zouk is also part of Amazon’s Launchpad brands.
The effects of the pandemic
Given that Zouk is an online-only business, Disha says that they have been less affected by the coronavirus pandemic. However, the lockdown and the spread of the virus has led them to pause production and all paid marketing campaigns, which have had a deep impact on overall sales numbers.
The lockdown gave Disha the time to step away from the daily routine and think more strategically. She connected with many of her customers to get ideas and feedback. She also upgraded Zouk’s website and has improved processes, which she feels will reap benefits in the coming months.
“Our categories were traditionally offline and now the purchase will shift faster to online, which is good for us. We are seeing better conversion rates on our websites already and I think that will continue for a few quarters,” she says.
She believes that the post-COVID-19 world will present new opportunities, both in terms of distribution and categories, and she is in constant lookout for such avenues.
As for her future ambitions, Disha hopes to take Zouk’s Indianness global and create an iconic global fashion brand from India. She plans to build a strong brand, expand her distribution and add more categories to achieve her goal.
Edited by Kanishk Singh