Apparel brand bridges rural-urban divide

Gargi Banerjee

It's a retail brand that defines many urban homes in India and overseas. It boasts motifs drawn from traditional Indian handicrafts juxtaposed with the modern context. And it is creating sustainable livelihoods for thousands of craftspersons across the country.

Yet, after successfully bridging raw rural talent with urban chic for almost two decades, Neelam Chibber, Managing Director of Industree Crafts, owner of the popular Mother Earth brand, says her journey has only just begun!

That's because Neelam, who heads the Rs 20-crore enterprise and provides livelihoods to 3,000 people, says she has engaged in constant soul-searching to make sure she is always inching closer to her goal.

Neelam is definitely not your run-of-the-mill entrepreneur, intent only on brand building and bottom lines. Her true calling is to bridge the gap between talented yet marginalised rural artisans and urban India.

The Rural Artisan Community

Growing up in Bengal and Andhra Pradesh during the unrest of the '60s and '70s, a young Neelam saw abject poverty all around and felt blessed with a happy home and good health. Having a couple of relatives who were social workers further sensitised her to those who were less fortunate and she decided she had to give back for the blessings she has received.

"Back then, I was fascinated with everything, from engineering, to the arts and sciences. Yet I did not want a straight-jacketed career." Neelam finally decided to pursue a degree at the National Institute of Design and her work with large industrial houses in the mid '80s was an eye-opener. "The more I fathomed the concept of owning labour in a manufacturing set-up, the more I was convinced this was not the right way to do things."

Neelam's determination to do something for the rural artisan community was no cliche. It began to take shape when she travelled to a remote village in Bastar to work with an artisan who practised the dhokra craft (traditional, metal casting). Not only did she have to cycle across rivers, she also had to carry her own meals as the artisan barely had enough food for his family. Yet, here was this master craftsman, whose amazing skill was minting money for people in the cities! The experience left a deep impact on her.

Joining Hands with Like-minded people

After spending a decade in the corporate world, Neelam did extensive documentation work on the artisan community for the Ministry of Handicrafts. Her work gave her an opportunity to meet like-minded people, among them Poonam Bir Kasturi and Gita Ram. The three women teamed up to create a brand christened Industree in 1994, with seed capital of Rs 60,000, (Rs 20,000 each) and a loan of Rs 12 lakh from Ram, who hailed from the TVS family.
Their initial efforts focused on creating products that they sold through their store in Bangalore and also exported. Industree provided a steady stream of work for artisans mainly across South India and it took six long years before the venture started making a profit.

Future Group Shows Interest

The real breakthrough came in 2009, when Future Ventures noticed the true potential of the company and invested Rs 6 crore in it. Kishore Biyani, chairman of the Future Group, had extensive discussions with Neelam and they came up with the now-famous brand Mother Earth. "Mr Biyani believed in our vision. To sustain livelihoods for the artisans, a strong retail brand was a must," says Neelam.

By now, Industree had adopted a hybrid model, having branched out into Industree Foundation, a not-for-profit organistion, and Industree Crafts, the for-profit arm that manufactures and sells products under the Mother Earth brand. "Future Investments has been reinvesting in our brand ever since. This has been followed by investments from Washington-based Grassroots Business Fund," reveals Neelam.

With this infusion of funds, Mother Earth has broadened its product profile from handicrafts to fashion, food, home decor and even furniture. And to truly deliver on her promise to generate livelihoods for artisans, Neelam has made her employees and craftsmen part-owners of the company. Each artisan can buy shares of the company at par and thus feel accountable for the progress of the venture.

To further its goal, Industree is converging backwards to create a complete solution for equitable distribution of returns from consumer to producer.

A Strong Domestic Brand

The nearly two-decade journey has seen Neelam engage with various government authorities on one hand and the artisan community on the other. "Whenever there has been resistance from our artisans, we have taken a step back and reassessed what we have done wrong," says Neelam.

There is definitely a sense of satisfaction, for what began with a single producer hub in Bangalore and exports to a handful of countries, has turned into a strong domestic brand, four producer hubs spread across south India and exports to 100 countries.

After Industree opened its first store in Bangalore in 2009, the company has since opened five more across the country. In addition, it has three franchises in Bangalore and a shop-in-shop presence in 60 counters.

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