International Women's Day 2017: There's no place for ego in a social enterprise, says Craftizen's Mayura Balasubramanian
Craftizen was a logical culmination for a passion for arts and crafts that permeated every aspect of my life.
She had the same dreams as most young bright girls -- to do well in her studies and take up a job when she completed her studies. But coming from a 'nomadic' family and constant hopping across the country helped give shape to the generalised dream of a job that Mayura Balasubramanian, 36, had. Balasubramanian now heads her own social enterprise - Craftizen Foundation that was started three years ago which has broken even, and was also taken up as a case study by Harvard. Craftizen Foundation, a social enterprise launched in 2013, works towards ensuring sustainable livelihoods for Indian craftspersons. Craftizen focuses on capacity building of craft groups in the areas of design, quality, production and marketing, through structured, market-driven interventions, says Balasubramanian.
The family moved across the country 'for no reason' but for the love of moving around, recalls Balasubramanian in a laugher-laced tone. She says that enriched her about the country and helped in making choices about her career and life after. At one point in their lives, the family was rooted for a considerable time in Ahmedabad. It was where Balasubramanian did her undergraduate studies. "I was exposed to the development sector through AISEC-- an international non-governmental not-for-profit organization that provides young people with leadership development and cross-cultural global internship and volunteer exchange experiences across the globe, with a focus to empower young people so they can make a positive impact on society. I was happy to be able to expand my horizons still further and understand a sector that I had not considered at all," she reminisces.
Her work with crafts sector includes working on the innovative Endogenous Tourism Project with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry of Tourism (GoI), which was a national pilot for craft and culture-based rural tourism as a means of developing sustainable livelihoods and implemented in 36 villages across 20 states. Mayura decided to pursue an MBA at Indian School of Business (ISB), as she realised the degree would help in her startup, if she wanted to set up one in the future.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Where does your passion and motivation for social work come from?
I was first exposed to the development sector in AIESEC, subsequently at UNDP and then at ISB. Founding Craftizen is a culmination of a lifelong passion for crafts and performing arts that permeated every aspect of my life. But it took me a while to take the plunge into entrepreneurship because I wanted to ensure there was social impact at the core of what my organization worked on. To me the difference between an entrepreneur and a “social” entrepreneur is that when faced with a choice of economic growth and social impact, social entrepreneurs will choose the latter, and so did I. There are already several organizations working in crafts, but there aren’t many enabling greater collaboration amongst diverse stakeholders. Once I realised this gap existed, and more importantly there were concrete ways to bring about these connections, I took the leap of faith. I want Craftizen to contribute to crafts across the value chain and ensure artisans get a fair share of returns, commensurate with their skill, time and effort. I also want to facilitate a better appreciation for crafts, especially in the younger generation so we have a growing consumer base for our rich crafts heritage.
What made you select social entrepreneurship?
My entire life has been building up to a deeper involvement with the crafts sector. I have spent summer vacations as a child doing art and cultural activities and also been associated with the Jatin Das Centre for Arts. Later, I was involved with the innovative ‘Endogenous tourism project’ with UNDP and Ministry of Tourism which was a craft and culture based pilot across 20 states. In the four years I was at ISB I have organized an annual craft mela to coincide with a global event and enabled consulting projects for the social sector. I have been deeply influenced by the work in the development sector and in the craft and cultural heritage of the country that I decorated my home to look like a mini crafts museum! Craftizen was a logical culmination of a passion for arts and crafts that permeated every aspect of my life. I want to contribute to crafts across the entire value chain and ensure artisans get a fair share of returns, commensurate with their skills, time and effort. I also want to facilitate a better understanding and appreciation for crafts, especially in the younger generation so we have a more evolved consumer base for our rich crafts heritage.
I have always believed in the power of ‘handmade in India’ and our vision at Craftizen is for citizens of India to take pride in our indigenous crafts and cultural heritage. This includes respecting a handcrafted product and it’s maker for the time and effort that has gone into creating the unique piece and not treat it as inferior to a machine manufactured good. It is important to understand that even with the same design, handcrafted goods are like snowflakes - no two products can be exactly the same! At Craftizen, we discourage the tendency to bargain for crafts which belittles the craftsperson and their craftsmanship. We want customers to appreciate the longevity of indigenous products rather than blindly adopting the ‘use and throw’ concept, which has become an intrinsic part of urban lifestyle. One must choose to buy handmade, local, natural instead of mill-made, plastic, chemical dyed, especially when suitable alternatives exist, and even be willing to go an extra mile to do so. We feel that each one of us must actively seek to re-use, recycle and up-cycle products especially those that are environmentally un-friendly. People must take a proactive interest in their surroundings – homes, offices, civic spaces and look for ways to promote and implement the ideology of ‘handmade in India’.
How has the journey been so far?
Looking back, the journey of setting up and building Craftizen has been an intense process of learning, unlearning, and a discovery that there is no place for an ego. As an entrepreneur you have to learn the reality and challenges at the grassroots, be involved in every task however big or small but most importantly you have to be flexible and quick to modify your business model. You have to be agile and try multiple things at once. You have to have the courage to start again, over and over. And then just like a tough jigsaw puzzle that makes no sense as long as you keep building the corners, it’s that patience and foundation that helps you eventually see the complete picture. So it is with Craftizen. We are in a good place today, doing the work we want to do and making the impact we set out to make.
When plans that you thought were audacious start materialising, it makes every struggle worthwhile. From being a pioneer in offering CSR programs in skill development and livelihoods specific to the handicrafts sector, to creating a customised curriculum for artisans and beneficiaries skilled in crafts as part of our "Finishing School", I have dreamt big and thought of initiatives for which there were no direct parallels in this space. But taking this leap of faith has been the most fulfilling decision I have ever made. I want to keep improving, keep growing and above all, continue to ensure that craft-based skills continue to stay relevant not just today, but for the younger generation of artisans as well.
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