Betting on causes
Driven by conviction, these social entrepreneurs have ignored a sluggish economy and taken a leap of faith, says Aarefa Johari.
WHAT: Natural Mantra is a retail e-commerce company that sells chemical-free and organic food, home and personal care products. The online store offers more than 2,000 products, sourced from 65 brands that Natural Mantra has vetted and selected for being genuinely chemical-free. The company also educates consumers about the benefits of making informed choices and switching to natural and organic products. Natural Mantra also indirectly benefits a range of social causes. One of the brands it endorses, for instance, is Ecofemme, a company that sells chemical-free sanitary pads and uses the proceeds to provide those pads for free to rural women.
Natural Mantra began with just 11 orders in the first month. It now gets orders in double digits every day, from customers across Indian cities.
WHO: A 34-year-old computer engineer, Nishant Nayak grew up in Mumbai, went to the US for his Master’s degree and has since then moved between the two countries, working in software engineering and e-commerce. In April 2011, he moved back to Mumbai with his wife, Tina Datta, a sales, branding and social media professional. For six months, he handled a managerial position at a prominent Indian e-commerce firm, but left it to launch Natural Mantra with Tina.
WHEN: The firm was founded in December 2011.
HOW: When he quit his job for Natural Mantra, Nayak was at the height of his career, enjoying a “multi-lakh salary” and the luxuries of a car and driver. Since then, the family has had to sacrifice vacations, movies, fine dining and even their two-bedroom Kandivli (East) home. This flat is now the Natural Mantra office, crowded with cartons of chemical-free food, toys and personal care products waiting to be packed and delivered. The Nayaks now live in another rented flat down the road. “At times I wonder why I gave up my comforts to work longer hours and not get paid in my own company,” says Nayak. “But Natural Mantra is growing, and it is good to know that we are giving people a chance to use healthier products.”
WHY: As an infant, Nayak’s daughter, now five, developed eczema, and in the US, the couple easily found a non-toxic lotion for her skin. “When we returned to India, it was hard for us to find chemical-free products,” says Nayak. Over the years, with more research, the couple realised that there was not only a high demand among urban consumers for natural goods but also a large number of small companies involved in manufacturing such goods. “Those brands were not well-known because there was no single platform to market their products,” says Nayak, who decided to fill in that gap through Natural Mantra.
‘I have a triple bottomline of people, planet, profits’
WHAT: No Nasties is a clothing company that sells T-shirts made from organic cotton, manufactured by farmers and factories that practice fair trade. The company buys its cotton from Chetna Organic Farmers Association, a co-operative of more than 15,000 farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha who use only natural fertilisers and pesticides to grow cotton.
Designed by freelancers associated with No Nasties, the T-shirts are manufactured at Rajlakshmi Cotton Mills, a textile company that also follows organic and fair trade practices. Both Chetna and Rajlakshmi get a share in No Nasties’ profits.
Operating from a small office in Juhu and a co-working space in Bandra, the four-member No Nasties team markets its products on its website, www.nonasties.in, to customers across the country.
WHO: Mumbai-born Apurva Kothari, 37, a software engineer, moved to the US for his Master’s degree, and lived there for 12 years. Two years ago, he quit a well-paying job with a travel website, returned to Mumbai and used his savings to co-found No Nasties with his friend Diti Kotecha, a graphic designer who has since left the company.
WHEN: Registered in April 2011, the firm began functioning in January 2012.
HOW: For the first few months, Kothari had to work from home and from cafés. The work involved generating a demand for T-shirts that are more expensive than most synthetic ones available in the mainstream market. “Initially, the T-shirts cost Rs 1,199, but we had to bring it down to Rs 799, and Rs 499 when on sale, because we realised we would not be able to create a consumer movement by remaining niche,” says Kothari, who has recovered the money he invested but has not made any profit yet.
The company has sold more than 6,000 T-shirts since April 2011, although the turnover fluctuates every month. Kothari is seeking to expand, and hopes to partner with another fair trade textile factory in south India. “If we don’t make good returns in another six months, we will have to either look for crowd funding, angel investors, or worse, not do this full-time,” says Kothari. “We have been optimistic so far, but we know we have limited time.”
WHY: In 2006, Kothari read a newspaper article about increasing farmer suicides in India’s cotton belt. Disturbed, he began to find out more. Most farmers who commit suicide, he discovered, use genetically modified cotton seeds and synthetic fertilisers that damage the land; they also have to pay off high interest loans, while not getting a fair share of the returns.
Kothari realised that getting into the social sector would help him impact the lives of such farmers. Most of the cloth made from organic cotton, he says, is exported. No Nasties aims to create an Indian market for organic clothing. “We began with T-shirts because they appeal to a large market, but we hope to develop a larger brand of clothing,” he says.
Helping brands stand out by giving
WHAT: A consultancy venture, TracksGiving aims to help businesses solve their marketing-related problems through models that involve donating for charity. It launched these ‘cause marketing’ services with five e-commerce companies, in the form of pilot projects that are now nearly complete. For instance, to help UnWrapIndia.com, a small handicrafts company, stand out among other brands, TracksGiving created a campaign in which the company donated one per cent of every purchase to a Rajasthan-based non-profit organisation that provides support to rural craftsmen. Consumers were asked to pay an additional one per cent for the cause, and 65% of the time, they were willing to do so for the sake of charity.
TracksGiving has now created a software product called the electronic donation box, which will match different companies with credible charities, match the company’s problem to an appropriate solution, select a creative cause marketing campaign from a pool of possible solutions and eventually help consumers track their donations right down to the beneficiaries.
WHO: A software engineer from Mumbai, Ritvvij Parrikh, 27, worked as a consultant for a telecom company for five years, in Pune, Israel and USA. In 2011, he returned to Mumbai, worked for five months with a social enterprise that helps donors find charities, and quit in September to launch TracksGiving.
WHEN: Founded in October 2011
HOW: Quitting a well-paying job was a huge financial step down that has made Parrikh turn to a simpler lifestyle. As his firm’s sole employee, he works out of Bombay Connect, a co-working space in Bandra. In November 2011, he found support from UnLtd India, an organisation that helps social start-ups.
“The economy is tough now, and with everything expensive, I have had trouble getting clients and hiring employees,” says Parrikh. “But we have attracted good volunteers and mentors as well as support from an IT company.”
WHY: In 2008, Parrikh launched a part-time start-up with his friends to develop a volunteer management software for NGOs. The venture, though unsuccessful, convinced Parrikh that his real passion lay in the social sector.
“Initially, TracksGiving was meant only for tracking donations, but I soon realised that the need is even more basic. Most businesses do not even have effective giving programs,” says Parrikh.