At every twist and turn of the Gold is a Neutral startup journey I've been blessed to meet and work alongside some incredible women - it wouldn't be overly dramatic to say this brand simply wouldn't exist without them. In honour of International Women's Day, I asked some very special women who've played a key role behind the scenes to share their own female heroes, and to toot the trumpet of a woman-owned business or brand that inspires them.
Lydia and I were colleagues for several years at the fair trade production unit that now stitches my bags, and during this time she became a true friend and confidante. Though we are the same age, Lydia got married and had children much younger than I did, and quite frankly has been a 'grown up' a lot longer than I have; the perspective and wisdom she brings to my life is something to treasure.
Lydia now teaches tailoring classes for unskilled women in Bangalore, and has set up her own tailoring business with a view to employing these ladies. She is a serial entrepreneur, excellent mother and her peanut chutney is worth travelling miles for.
I would like to celebrate Daya Durai. Daya Aunty founded the social enterprise East-West Education which produced multicultural clothing for dolls in order for children to understand and appreciate each other's customs and traditions. The clothes were made by young women here in Bangalore who were first given excellent training in tailoring.
Daya Aunty helped me return to classes to complete my education and sponsored my studies. Now most recently she has helped me set up my new business and encouraged me so much. Daya is a woman of great strength and courage to me; a creative, helpful-natured woman. She is a gem among the gold.
Tash and I met in Thailand in 2004 and became close friends as quickly as my trusty Nokia 3310 was nicked from my handbag (ie. within a day). She is brave, she is compassionate and she is downright fabulous. These days Tash does awesome PR work in London, manages an NGO she set up to care for orphaned kids on the Thai-Myanmar border, and may be recognisable as the face of this very brand: supermodel and super friend.
My hero is my mum – she is a warrior in every aspect of life! She raised four of us, day in day out while caring for her ill brother and suffering mother. We never even knew until we were teenagers what she had to endure. She has been a surrogate mother to hundreds of people, she has taken in those in their time of need and she has fed more mouths than she could ever afford. She is selfless, caring, inspirational and totally and utterly my hero!
As for a woman-owned business I love, I admire what Safia Minney has created with People Tree. She is a true female entrepreneur who has made serious waves in the fashion industry.
Neha is the creative soul behind Matsya Crafts, set up to build a bridge between rural artisans & urban customers to revive ancient arts and crafts in India. It was Neha who introduced me to the textile heaven of Kutch, which became the inspiration for the White Desert Collection. She was a fabulous travel companion and extremely generous with her time, her contacts and her encouragement ever since.
Neha is a learner, a listener, a gentle teacher and one of the most peaceful people I've been fortunate to meet. If you are keen to explore the handicrafts of India I highly recommend asking Neha to guide you!
I have many female heroes but I will choose Usha Prajapati. Originally from a small town in Bihar and unable to speak English, she managed to get herself a place at NID (National Institute of Design) in Ahmedabad. While studying at NID she learned English and was awarded a Ford Fellowship which took her to the USA where her skills were further sharpened not only in design but in understanding the market. She returned to India and started her own enterprise, Samoolam.
Designers graduating from reputed institutes usually opt for corporate jobs which is good, but at the Design Institute they take an oath to serve at the grassroots at the time of their admission, which Usha has accomplished through Samoolam.
What inspires me is her confidence and ability to convince the jury at NID at the time of her interview, in which she spoke Hindi; her ability to empower women with her design and marketing skills; her work at the grassroots level.
Her model is an inspiration to young students seeking admissions in design colleges or start ups, who are clueless what they are getting into. In today's internet world, technology is important but there is lot of grassroots work one has to be prepared to do: travel in rural areas, work with marginalised women, understanding socio-economic conditions of communities and artisans' work and therefore all design and marketing, business strategies are very important to revolve around them.
Usha today is the most successful women entrepreneur in the design and craft industry, engaging many rural women and giving them a sense of pride, empowering them to achieve things they could have never done without her. Usha lives a balanced family life with her partner and husband Sanjay Varia who has been a great support to her at all times. It's also great to see how men are changing with times and accepting women entrepreneurs to bring the change in the society they wish too. So you can see how everyone with her is beautifully tied up and running the show smoothly.
As for other women-owned business that I admire? I think that any businesses are good, even a lady selling vegetables or a vendor selling her goods on the local trains of Mumbai is as good as Usha and Samoolam. There is so much to learn from these women and how they carve their path in the patriarchal society we live with. They are often beaten, abused and with zero support they continue to do their business with a smile on their face.
Divya is a kindred spirit, a fellow textile junkie and Kutch dreamer. She oversaw the production of my first collection in Bangalore and her eye for detail and quick communications made the long-distance process so much easier. I incorporated several of Divya's design suggestions into the final products and they are all the more beautiful for it!
My mother is my inspiration. She is the one who always encouraged me to follow my passion, who was an example to follow when it came to the concept of 'never stop learning' and 'it's never too late'. She also embedded the importance of family and nurturing in us which builds the foundation of all relationships in life.
Anushka and I first worked together at No Nasties, India's first 100% Fairtrade and organic clothing company (and all-round awesome people - check them out!). I got to wax lyrical about Anushka in a No Nasties post and I'm so happy we've continued to work together - in between exploring Mumbai's best cafes and dreaming of cool grey London days when it all gets a bit too hot.
Anushka designed the Gold is a Neutral logo, and really helped me align my thoughts for the brand in those early days when it can be so hard to articulate a vision. She is a published poet, a graphic designer, a photographer, a storyteller and a loyal friend.
My female hero is Nayyirah Waheed. Nayyirah is an African American poet, the author of the book titled Salt. She writes about love, identity, feminism, race, and self empowerment. Her poetry is simple, pure and absolutely beautiful. I admire the effortlessness in her words, the grace with which they flow and how soft yet strong they are. She embodies her race and takes immense pride in her people, seamlessly empowering women of colour.
Nayyirah has a strong presence on Instagram, only in the way of her work speaking, and herself being identified through it, a big point of difference when compared to contemporary poets of our time. She has made her mark with her work, not with imagery of herself or her personal life. She leads the poetry movement that has been making ripples in today's fast moving world of digital data, filling it with powerful messages of self love, feminism and strength. I admire her silently strong existence, and hope to bring to the world powerful poetry that inspires, heals, fulfils and encourages this art of expression.
The woman-owned business I most admire is Good Earth, by Anita Lal. Good Earth embodies the rich cultural heritage of my country effortlessly. Classic meets contemporary, with history woven into the brand's fabric. I love the use of traditional textiles in their prints, and how beautifully crafted everything is. The story traces back twenty years and exemplifies powerful Indian design aesthetic, embodying the spirit of a strong Indian woman who turned her dreams into one of the most beautiful brands in our country.
Utami is the Head of Sales & Marketing at Ananas Anam, who develop and produce the awesome Piñatex leather alternative that we proudly use on our bags! She has always been super helpful and encouraging to me and truly believes the sustainability movement is best advanced with community, real human conversations and education.
My mother has always been my absolute icon. As a single mother, she worked hard after her divorce and started from scratch. She wasn't scared, and built her own company - a global travel agency - while raising us, loving us and giving us the best education. When I look at her I am always reminded never to give up on things even when we get knocked down. Don't be afraid to start all over again. Starting from scratch is so much better than not starting at all!
Dr Carmen Hijosa, the founder of Ananas Anam and developer of Piñatex, reminds me of my mother. She started a PhD at age 55 - working on something new and doing what she believes in. I admire women who are fighters. Believe in yourself! If you carry that aura of confidence and self-belief other people will recognise it and have faith in you too!
I love this snapshot of the courageous and inspiring women all around us. As for me? How could I not join those celebrating their mums - mine is brave, kind, funny and patient; she has always encouraged me to find my own path in life, and has spent the last year supporting me as I learn how to be a mother myself - a sacred and special time that has brought us even closer. Outside of the fam I have a lot of love for the Walk Sew Good ladies who are doing truly innovative things in the name of ethical fashion! They have so many stories to tell and are both funny and poignant.
A woman-owned business I have admired since their crowdfunding days is Sotela, who make thoughtful, elegant clothing designed 'for women, by women'. I love the body-positive ethos of the brand and founder Hanna's openness along her business journey. More local to our current home in Bangkok, I'm also a fan of the recently-launched Boo Boo Bamboo Straws, generating income for elderly people in a village on the Burmese border and providing a sustainable alternative to the relentless wave of single-use plastic in Thailand. We use our straws all the time!
Let's hear it for the ladies! Who are the heroes in your life?