Kashmir-16 (1)

This Startup Raised $5 Million To Buy From Artisans, Not Factories

Building an efficient supply chain in rural India is tricky — to say the least.

Social enterprises often want to have ethical sourcing, and help the folks who make their products earn a better living, work in kinder conditions, and have access to healthcare and education. It’s at the core of the Fair Trade ideology. But ensuring that happens is easier said than done, especially when you’re dealing with the pothole-ridden roads of India and a calendar that’s chock-a-block with festivals and religious holidays (meaning offices closed, artisans communities on break).

Navroze Mehta has that vision. And he raised $5 million to make it happen.

Along with his daughter Sonali Mehta Rao, Mehta launched Mela Artisans, a US-based company that sells handmade products by artisans in India. The idea stemmed from their travels as a family.

Mehta is a global soul: born in England, raised in Bombay, worked in Europe, and for the last 30+ years, has been based in the US.  But he routinely takes his family back to India for vacations; on these trips, he started buying local handmade products from artisans.

The reality is, though, that while Mehta and his family may have been admirers of these products, handicrafts is a struggling industry in India. In a fast-paced world, demanding quick turnarounds, large volumes, and low costs, artisans — be it in the bone, wood, or textile industries — have really struggled to keep up.

Kashmir-16 (1)

Some of the biggest hurdles facing the handicraft sector include competition from machine-made products in China, shortage of skilled labor, and changing customer preferences.

That’s what spawned the father-daughter duo to start a company together, one that would help artisans, who are often paid less than $5 a day, find new markets for their wares.

Technology, Mehta says, makes the job of connecting the dots easier.

Read the full story at Forbes.com.


Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 9.29.43 AM

It’s Not All About Sales: These Companies Are Redefining Black Friday

Black Friday may just be transforming from a day of gluttony to a day of minimalism.  Quite apt given that it falls right after Thanksgiving.

REI made a lot of noise, unintentionally, this holiday season by “opting out” of the Black Friday madness and keeping its doors closed (while paying its employees for not working).  That’s 143 stores and 12,000 employees, along with its distribution centers, which will remain closed; even online orders will not be processed that day.  Its social media campaign #OptOutside has garnered love from customers, like-minded businesses, and even the government.  

Photo Courtesy of Subject.

Photo Courtesy of Subject.

In fact, this Friday, thanks to REI, many parks around the country will be free to visit. Though, that is, if you can get a free pass.  When Save the Redwoods, a CA-based non-profit, made the announcement that several of the state’s parks would be free, they received an overwhelming responses.  All the free passes through their site are now gone.  But, the idea is to get out — and out of a mall or mega retailer, preferably.

Santa Cruz-based Giro, a cycling brand, is passing on Black Friday.  Its online store will be closed all Friday.  Around the country, several other brands and shops — many in the outdoor industry– have followed suit.  In fact, REI has put up a full list of organizations and companies that are adopting its message.

Photo Courtesy of Subject.

Photo Courtesy of Subject.

But REI has got another, much larger brand saying no to Black Friday.  Across the Atlantic, ASDA, a massive retail chain in the UK, introduced Black Friday to its British consumers two years ago.  This year, the CEO Andy Clarke said they are no longer going to partake in this American tradition.

Clarke told the BBC that the company has decided to offer its holiday sales throughout the season because last year’s customer feedback was negative.  Clarke noted that customers “don’t want to be held hostage to a day or two of sales.”

Many shops, including brands that argue against consumption, will be open, nonetheless.  Patagonia being the most famous among the lot; ever since the company bought out a full-page ad in the New York Times telling customers not to buy on Black Friday, they’ve become a poster child for sustainability.  

Cuyana, a younger, SF-based brand, is following in similar footsteps.  The company, which has three retail stores, has a sign outside its San Francisco shop that says, “Fewer, Better Things.”  It specializes in women’s wear and accessories; and instead of the volumes of fast fashion, they’ve started The Lean Closet Movement, which rides off of their tagline — less is more.  

Photo Courtesy of Subject.

Photo Courtesy of Subject.

Shilpa Shah, co-founder of Cuyana, says, they “saw a hunger from consumers to simplify.”  

Read the full story at Forbes.com.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 7.33.17 PM

How To Work Smarter, Not Longer, And Relish The Slow Life

Less is more — it works in fashion, cooking, and at the workplace?  Indeed, says Bill Powers, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute who decided to chop his work-week by more than half and opted for a small New York City apartment with minimal wares to test out the “slow life.”

After spending more than a decade, bopping about the world, and working on improving the quality of life in developing countries, Powers realized he could improve his own as well.  To do so, he embarked on a year-long experiment: could he live a simpler, slower life in New York City, a 24/7 metropolis that favors speed and money?  He catalogues his journey in his latest book, New Slow City.

This month, Sweden announced that the country would experiment with 6-hour work days.   Critics say it’s not possible in the US where our workforce is tied to the clock and a standard 40-hour week.

Powers offers an alternative perspective.  It is possible to cut down, even if you’re tied to a cubicle job, he says.  And even if you’re in the fast-paced cities of the world.

Esha Chhabra: Can you please break down the 20 hour work week?  What does it look like?

Bill Powers: Personally, I slashed my working hours from over 50 a week to 20—just Tuesdays and Wednesdays— with a five-day weekend. My time was split between freelance consulting, writing and speaking gigs. 

Two ideas helped make the new arrangement work.  One, “Parkinson’s Law:” that work expands to fill the time available, and second, the “80/20 Principle” whereby we achieve 80% of productivity in 20% of our time. In any particular month, I might look at all the potential work streams that I could pursue, and distill out that week’s most strategic two or three in terms of income-to-time-invested and my current level of enthusiasm.

Read the full interview at Forbes.com.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 7.28.35 PM

Technology Alone Is Not The Answer In Healthcare

“A technology only solution isn’t going to get us anywhere,” says Shelly Saxena.

He’s referring to the growing number of social enterprises and development initiatives that use mobile phones and telemedicine to deliver healthcare in India. 

“Whether you’re poor, middle class, or wealthy, you want to see a doctor, and you would prefer to see that doctor in person,” he says.

That’s why Saxena developed Sevamob, a hybrid solution to solve India’s healthcare woes– a mobile clinic that arrives on wheels, stays camped out for the duration of the checkups, provides the patient with test results and even basic treatments, and then leaves.

Saxena who worked at IBM and is well-versed in technology became passionate about healthcare when his mother who lives in Lucknow, India was misdiagnosed and her treatment, subsequently, was delayed.  The fact that she couldn’t get timely, and accurate care, frustrated him.

Saxena, who has been living in the US since 1998, had been traveling back and forth between India and Atlanta.  He was quite familiar with the challenges in getting decent healthcare outside of India’s major cities: lack of doctor and tech-savvy clinics who valued data, and inadequate medical equipment.  But how to solve this?  Telemedicine alone, SMS campaigns and mobile health wasn’t going to cut it.

Saxena says he could have just set up a tech-based health enterprise.  “But who would I sell the technology to?”

Read the full story on Forbes.com.

Apple Forays Into Payments: Could The US Finally Have Easy Peer-To-Peer Payments?

We might finally be able to do what folks in Kenya and India have been doing for years now: send money to each other without hefty fees or writing a check.

This week, Apple hinted at a new payment system that would allow peer-to-peer transfer.  This could be a game changer for payments in America, and far more innovative than Apple Pay.

While mobile money seems to be the future of ‘fintech’ and brick-and-mortar banks are quickly becoming relics (Bank of America announced this year that it will be shutting down more branches in 2016), is the finance sector finally becoming more democratic, inventive, and inclusive, perhaps even poised for radical change?

It depends on where in the world you’re sitting.  

The US might want to take a lesson or two from emerging markets like India and Africa when it comes to defining a bank, and whizzing cash back and forth.  We’re not as cutting-edge as we think we might be.   Apple’s foray into peer-to-peer payments could finally change that– or perhaps we’re just late to the party.

Apple Pay, the latest and most talked about mobile wallet, is built on a technology that’s existed since the 90s: Near-Field Communications, or NFC. By tapping the NFC chip on a receiver, you’re able transfer your credit card data from your phone to the vendor. Is it a radical idea?  Not really, given that your money is still tied to a credit card.

For 26 million Americans, who don’t have a credit card, it’s still out of reach.  Add to that all the millions of people who don’t have an iPhone 6.  Go beyond the US where Apple phones are not as dominant and Apple Pay suddenly loses weight.

Yet, in places like Kenya and India, people have been transferring money from one person to another for nearly a decade now.  These quick, inexpensive peer-to-peer transfers from your cell phone have yet to become the rage in the US.

Continue reading on Forbes.com.

Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 5.28.02 PM

Drones for Good

Projects From Around the World on How Drones Can Help Us

While drones may be a contentious topic, some companies and non-profit organizations are already deploying them for life-saving missions. Here is a roundup of some fascinating new applications of drones that go beyond war, spying, and Amazon deliveries.

In the forests and jungles of the world, as conservationists 

Lian Pin Koh, a drone ecologist, is part of a new breed of conservationists who believes that drones can help him and his colleagues cover more land, and acquire better images of wildlife in their habitat — without having to slog through jungles and forests.  His organization, ConservationDrones.org, has run projects in Indonesia to monitor orangutan populations; in Nepal, to track one-horned rhinos; and throughout the world (in Tanzania, Belize, Cambodia, the US, Scotland, Madagascar, and more).

In Iran, as a lifeguard

RTS, a Tehran-based lab, has developed a waterproof drone for search and rescue operations on the Caspian Sea. Usable during the day and at night (with thermal cameras), the drone can reach a drowning victim in a third of the time it takes a lifeguard to swim out to him/her. The company recently relocated to London and has been accepting pre-orders.

See the full list at Forbes.com.

Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 4.56.24 PM

Coffee Power


Bio-bean, a London-based enterprise, takes coffee grinds and turns them into fuel.

Arthur Kay trained in architecture at University College London.  While developing a blueprint for a coffee roaster he saw the potential in turning the business’ waste into energy.

Given London produces 200,000 tons of coffee grinds each year, Kay had no shortage of waste to tap into to produce an alternative fuel.  Bio-bean takes those coffee grinds to a facility in North London where they’re pressed through a machine for their oil.  That oil can then be turned into pellets for heating buildings or kept as a liquid for powering buses.

This idea earned Kay the Mayor’s Low Carbon Prize and funding to start a business based on the biofuel.  Boris Johnson commended Kay for his ingenuity with a cheeky remark:  ”This kind of innovation is brilliant to see- we are 100% behind bio-bean, which is full of beans.”

Kay partnered with fellow architect from UCL, Benjamin Harriman to launch bio-bean as a full-fledged enterprise in 2012.   The company now uses its biofuel to run its own fleet of trucks, eliminating its carbon footprint as it circles the city to collect waste.

Read the rest at Forbes.com.