With an unfazed passion towards everything organic, handmade and eco-friendly and in efforts to build more earth conscious communities, Hema Balakrishnan is helping terracotta artisans in making a sustainable livelihood. Hema is a social entrepreneur and founder of Color D Earth, an eco-social enterprise. This skill story captures her journey towards making the Earth a fashion statement and firmly believing that the future is handmade! Read on to know more about how she has been training the artisans and collaborating with them to help them make an economically viable business.
Q: How did you build Color D Earth into an eco-socio enterprise, could you please share how your model has evolved?
A: My journey with clay started in 2003 in Bengaluru, when I attended a fun course in pottery with my kids who were then toddlers. I was so fascinated with the medium that I specialised in terracotta jewellery. I realised this is what I wanted to do, so I trained 2 women to work with me from home. We received a lot of appreciation for it, so I approached handmade stores to sell for us. That went well for a while till I realised that the credit model was not a sustainable one. I had meanwhile moved to Mumbai and was struggling financially too. I had also started collaborating with few groups by then who were also in the craft and struggling to make ends meet. I was looking for a sustainable solution to making this profitable for all of us.
I got selected to attend the prestigious 10000 Women program for Women Entrepreneurs. This is where I actually delved deeper into finding a solution and made a business plan for the first time in 6 years. At the end of the program I had somehow still not found my answer. I decided to research what handcrafted enterprises across the world had done and came across the model of social enterprise (SE) for the first time. I realised that I was indeed working on the principles of SE, i.e., being a for profit enterprise trying to solve a social cause, which in our case was – sustainable livelihoods!
There was no looking back after that, the name Color D Earth was coined for the collective of our groups after brainstorming with few closest friends and mentors. I moved back to Hyderabad in 2010 and started displaying our work and telling our story to our customers at a prominent mall on weekends. We received a lot of appreciation and were finally making profits.
Q: How do you identify and collaborate with artisans across the country? And how many skilled artisans or terracotta artisan communities are collaborating with you currently?
A: During the course of my work, we used to participate in craft melas, where I came across an artisan group that made exquisite terracotta jewellery. This discovery continued. Each time I had the choice to either compete or collaborate. Here were women less educated and with much less resources, they were struggling to make ends meet. It was then that I had my first aha moment when I decided to collaborate with them and grow the craft for the benefit of all of us. We work with 14 groups of artisans from 6 different states. These groups typically are led by women except two of them.
3. What have been the challenges in empowering artisans with a sustainable livelihood through social entrepreneurship model?
A: As we all know, pottery has been a seasonal livelihood for a long time. Hence, many of them started evolving their work by making art forms with clay that would sell year long. Having said that, our artisans being women predominantly have faced several challenges that a women workforce typically face – marriage, or children, family issues and even health at times. It’s been quite a journey of learning what works best, that is to use fair trade principles. This ensures that we do no credit with them and ensure that they have a good place to work and earn a steady livelihood. Many of our women are primary bread winners for their families, and this has changed their families’ and community’s perspective of them as well.
Q. Do you also train the artisans who collaborate with you? If yes, could you elaborate on it – the issues and challenges, identifying artisans (men and women)?
A: I have always worked with groups who have already trained in the craft or are indigenous. And then I helped them to refine their work to ensure that each piece is unique to their style but also ensure that quality is never compromised. I found some at craft melas and also searched the internet actively back then. Some of them found their way to me because they go to learn about our collaboration model.
Q: How do you ensure that the jewellery designs that you make are in sync with the market requirements?
A: I try to do that by being very intuitive, observant and also keenly appreciative of our traditional motifs and designs, we have evolved a unique earthy style that women love to be proud to adorn to the most special of occasions. Our color combinations and design aesthetics are contemporary yet rustic, we create wearable art that caters across age groups of women who are looking to express their individuality.
Q: What are some of the marketing challenges that you face or have faced while promoting terracotta jewellery?
A: We currently retail the craft of our artisans through our Studio in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad and our online store. To be in a prominent location such as a mall or even exhibitions and melas is not often financially feasible for us. So, we rely on word of mouth and social media for our promotions.
Being on top of the social media and SEO game requires a dedicated specialised tech team and that’s not easily affordable by social enterprises. And this has prevented and delayed us from receiving the kind of visibility that we need in the competitive crafts world.
Q: Could you tell us more about your social e-commerce store and how you handle your online presence?
A: In 2012, I became aware of the need to cater to the demand of customers outside of Hyderabad, and NRI’s who were constantly asking us for our latest collections. I always thought I was quite technologically challenged to be able to run an e-commerce store. A customer turned friend assured me that it was not as tough as I imagined it to be, so I decided to take the leap. It took about 4 months of dedicated work with a web development and 2 interns to finally get the first social e-commerce portal that only retails terracotta jewellery of artisans from across states to its launch in 2013. I feel, a lot of women entrepreneurs out there should take this leap, if we are to stay ahead. We also took a conscious decision to not go through major e-commerce portals because we would be diluting our story which definitely deserves to be told well.
Q: How are you connecting the clusters in terracotta through crafts? And how did your store Conscious Storey evolve?
A: About 3 years ago, after a lot of self-introspection, it came to me that collaboration has always been my passion, so why not take this from just one form of crafts to other handmade collectives as well. I had regularly been doing festive events with one of my favourite weavers collective Abhihaara and few other crafts. So, I decided to take our friendship and work to the next level and the name came to me easily – The Conscious Storey! I was also blessed to find my soulmate and life partner Murali at this time who also became my angel investor and in December 2018, we set up the Conscious Storey – A Handmade Collective that brings together potters and terracotta jewellery artisans of Color D Earth, weavers of Abhihaara and conscious wellness collectives like Earthy Sapo, The Period Hub, Dhaari and Phool. We also invite speakers, and conduct workshops and a music initiative called Terrang to make ours a cultural space that’s much more than just retail and more about the stories we tell of our work and the people behind it who are truly our inspiration.