Insaan connects philanthropists with those in need across the Indian Ocean region. Our mission is to engage in high-impact philanthropy that changes the lives of many, for better, for good.
“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” Albert Einstein
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” Rabindranath Tagore
Insaan works with philanthropists who want their giving to be more impactful. We do this by investing in innovative social enterprises that create opportunities for the poor through education and entrepreneurship. We focus on the broader Indian Ocean region.
We re-invest all revenues from our investments in new ventures.
We connect those who want a better world with those in need and measure that lives are indeed being changed, for the better, and for good.
Insaan was founded with support from the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Fund. We work with families, individuals, Zakat givers, and corporate and institutional donors.
We work through our networks to find ventures involved in education and entrepreneurship. We get to know the organizations and people within them.
We meet the end-users or beneficiaries in the field. We engage them, listen, ask questions, and try to understand their vision of a better life – in their own words.
We disburse funds through equity or grant and continue to work closely with ventures over the life of the funding. We help ventures grow so they can better serve the poor.
Our work derives from our values, and not the reverse. Insaan is an intellectual and ethical engagement that represents our team’s long-standing dedication to changing the lives of the poor.
We have years of experience in the field, working with the poor and living among them in cities and villages across the developing world.
We apply our diverse personal and academic backgrounds, from economics to philosophy, human development to statistics to approach the problems of poverty with critical thinking and ingenuity.
From our virtual office to our commitment to attracting outstanding and committed professionals to build knowledge, we strive to be a model of cost-effectiveness.
We are open to market solutions and extra-market approaches because reality is complex for the poor. We don’t over-simplify solutions to poverty.
We are a team of experienced individuals with a passion for supporting social entrepreneurs to create change for the poor. Find out more about us.
We are human development professionals with years of field experience across the globe. We have worked for the United Nations, World Bank, NGOs, and consultancies. We share the same values and have shaped Insaan from the start.
Insaan is governed by a Board of Directors who are appointed to serve on a voluntary basis. The board contributes to funding operating expenses.
We are proud to work with remarkable advisors we call knowledge builders, who provide specialist expertise across a plurality of sectors on a pro bono basis.
We partner with recognized companies for legal, communications, data storage and other services. The majority provides their services pro bono, reducing our operational costs.
Insaan focuses on the broader Indian Ocean region, where some of the world’s poorest live, and some of the world’s most exciting solutions to global poverty are emerging – as you read this.
The ventures we fund provide innovative, sustainable and high impact solutions to the problems of the poor. We implement a rigorous selection process, ourselves, which involves regular field work.
The Akanksha Foundation is a non-profit organization in India that provides high-quality education to disadvantaged children, enabling them to maximize their potential and transform their lives.
In India today, 96% of children are enrolled in primary school. But only 52% of students reach grade 5 and only 10% complete grade 10. The high school drop out is due, in part, to low education outcomes in government schools.
Insaan supports Akanksha’s School Project.
The School Project aims to create a model for high-performing schools that redefines what is possible for disadvantaged children and has the potential to drive wider systemic reform, in partnership with the government.
The School Project rests on six pillars:
Akanksha currently reaches 3,300 children.
With 15 schools in Mumbai and Pune, the School Project continues to grow and thrive in partnership with local municipalities, along with supporters like Insaan.
CanKids is a charitable organization dedicated to ‘Change for Childhood Cancer in India’. Set up in 2004, CanKids is the only organization in India that provides comprehensive support services to children with cancer and their families.
In 2012, CanKids launched CanShala, a special school for children with cancer in Mumbai. This exciting adaptation of the ‘School in the Hospital’ concept, a first in India, provides free and adapted school education for cancer-affected children.
CanShala not only helps patients keep up so they can return to school at the end of their treatment, but also gives them a great emotional boost. Learning with their peers in the classroom provides children a sense of normality. School helps kids’ self-esteem and bolsters their ability to endure cancer treatment.
CanShala is a public-private partnership between the local government and CanKids. The school is an integral part of the Jagannath Bhatankar Municipal School Parel, Mumbai.
One out of four children in India drop out of school before completing grade five. They don’t leave because of a scarcity of schools, but because of poor instruction. Nearly half of children in grade five cannot read a paragraph in their own language.
30% cannot solve simple subtraction problems.
Gyan Shala provides high quality school education to 30,000 children from poor families at a quarter of the cost of government schools. It designs highly structured curricula delivered by junior teachers with extensive in-house training. And it brings school to the children by renting classrooms in the areas where they live. This eliminates the transport-commute challenge, removing an obstacle to school attendance.
Children in Gyan Shala schools score almost 100% higher in language and math compared to their peers in public schools.
In addition, Gyan Shala has enabled communities to overcome traditional resistance and bias against girls’ education. At Gyan Shala, there is parity between boys and girls in the enrolment and educational attainments.
With Insaan’s support, Gyan Shala is able to give high quality, low-cost, education to tens of thousands of poor children so they can change their lives for good.
In India, nine of ten children are enrolled in primary school. However, less than one of two children who complete primary school continue to or graduate from high school. The problem is particularly acute in urban slums. This is due to a combination of problems, including: poor instruction, cost, distance from the school, and home environment (sexism, caste prejudices).
In 2011, Gyan Shala launched a high school program to provide low-cost, quality secondary education to slum children in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, thereby complementing its exiting elementary and middle school programs.
Gyan Shala currently enables 218 slum children to go to high school (most of whom likely would not otherwise), and give them a chance to realize their full potential, and change their lives for the better.
Insaan helps Gyan Shala to develop a sustainable model of growth for its high school program to serve more children, in Ahmedabad and beyond.
Mela Artisans is a luxury lifestyle brand that celebrates local artisanal skills and fosters entrepreneurship and social revival in poor communities in India.
Inspired by the fair trade and micro finance movements, Mela provides simple, yet creative, solutions to the lack of access to markets and capital.
By merging heritage craftsmanship with contemporary design, it has opened international distribution channels in the luxury space in the United States and Canada for handicrafts that would otherwise not be ‘exportable’.Mela also provides artisans free access to capital through a loan program using crowd-lending on Mela’s website, thereby forging a direct connection between the consumer and the producer.
This business model is unique.
The result is exquisite collections from villages in India that help support families and communities now accessible at your doorsteps, online, and in shops such as Neiman Marcus, Bergdof Goodman, Bloomingdales, HoltRenfrew in Canada, and many others.
Twenty percent of profits are invested in community improvement initiatives, including education, health care, and social service, consistent with the philosophy of fair trade.
Mela works with some 10,000 artisans across India through local NGOs and cooperatives.
Insaan is proud to support Mela to create sustainable livelihoods for India’s artisans and contribute to the survival of Indian crafts.
Artisans in sub-Saharan Africa make stunning cultural goods but they struggle to rely on the production of crafts to make or supplement meager incomes.
There is demand. The problem is access to markets.
Soko creates tools for trade.
Soko is an e-commerce platform that connects artisans to consumers across the globe with a simple mobile phone. Global consumers can then buy directly from the artisans on Soko’s e-commerce website in a peer-to-peerexchange.
This new marketplace revolutionizes the way goods and money are exchanged. The products are ethically produced and traded fairly. With Soko, artisans, in particular women, are empowered to participate in the globalmarketplace and become a driver of economic development and social change in their community.
Insaan supports Soko to create sustainable incomes for thousands of artisans. And lift them out of poverty.
We build our metrics from the ground up based on the narratives of people who are changing their own lives. We document the stories of people to measure how their lives are being changed and provide insights “from the field” to build up our knowledge.
April 16, 2014
By Mela Artisans
The Moradabad district in Northern India has long been known for its history of horn and bone handicrafts. Within this district lies Serai Tareen, a small town where every street and alleyway is lined with tiny workshops dedicated to transforming waste horn and bone (byproducts of the Indian meat industry) into functional and decorative items.
Life is not easy here. Most of the inhabitants live in poverty with limited access to electricity and other basic services, making frigid temperatures in the wintertime even more unbearable.
Mela Artisans is working with several groups throughout the region through its partner Asha Handicraft to ensure steady demand and international distribution for the traditional crafts from this area, thereby boosting the local economy and transforming lives through sustainable job creation.
In this interview with Mela Artisans, master craftsman Mohammad Muzim of Ayaz Handicraft tells us about his career in the horn and bone industry.
”My name is Mohammad Muzim, and I have been working with horn and bone for more than 20 years now. My father never taught me this craft. I took the initiative to learn myself and am completely self-taught. When I was younger I began going around the town, to different artisan units, watching them work. I saw how they would make jewelry pieces, boxes, and photo frames.
Eventually I tried doing it myself and after about a year of watching and learning in this manner, I had picked up the craft well enough to begin working as an artisan for one of the local groups. I worked there for 10 years, and then finally had the confidence and savings to start my own small artisan unit. I worked very hard to grow that unit for 5 years, and then I handed that over to my younger brother.
I found out about Ayaz Handicrafts and joined them 5 years ago. After so many years of working as a craftsman, I am now a supervisor, training and monitoring other artisans. I take care of raw material purchases and manage production for the group. Sometimes I do handwork as well but there is so much else to do that I usually don’t have time. After years of working for someone else, I prefer to now be a supervisor. I also feel secure working for Ayaz. He takes very good care of all of us and even helps me out with personal loans if I need it to support my family.
I am married with 5 children: 2 sons and 3 daughters. The three eldest are all in school and two of them are too young yet to start school. I am proud to have a secure job that will allow me to send all of my children – sons and daughters – to school until the 12th standard.* After that, I hope that they will go on with their education and to be able to do whatever they want in life.”
* Last year of secondary education.
January 28, 2013
By Mela Artisans
Mela Artisans works with Panchachuli Women Weavers, a cooperative in the Himalayan foothills of north India, which makes exquisite handcrafted cashmere and lamb’s wool accessories for exclusive retailers around the world.
Artisan weaver Parvati Ghosh tells us about her life and her involvement with Panchachuli.
“My name is Parvati Ghosh. I am 54 years old and a weaver at Panchachuli Cooperative. I started working here about 15 years ago. Munni Didi [the cooperative’s manager] came to my village and talked to some of us women about attending the weaving classes she was starting.
Those weaving classes changed my life.
I was married at the age of 15, and I had my first child at 19. Now I have 5 children – 2 sons and 3 daughters. My daughters are all married and live in their husbands’ villages. My two sons do manual labor. My husband is 60 years old and is unemployed because he is sick. So you see why my income from the cooperative is so important.
Since I started working at Panchachuli, I have been able to give my children a better life than I had. There was no school in my village to teach me beyond grade 5, so I stopped studying after that. Since I started working here, I have been able to send my children to school in the nearby village and buy them good clothes. Today, I run the household with the money my sons and I make. We have some land which we cultivate that brings a little additional income. And I have been able to save some money also.
But it’s not only the income that is important to me.
I like working at Panchachuli a lot. It takes less than two days to make friends here! I feel restless and bored on the days that I’m not at work. I have never been outside of Almora. I have heard of Mumbai and Delhi and would like to travel there one day. Why not? My experience with Panchachuli has taught me that anything is possible.”
By Annabel Azim.
“They call me King David,” he said, extending his hand with a large smile.
David is the co-owner of the Kafamily Crafts House of Design on Soko’s e-commerce platform. David joined Soko’s network of online artisans one year ago, in the summer of 2012.
“I’ve been in the craft industry for 20 years. I started making jewelry three years ago,” David explains, as I look at his products: plate necklaces, tube necklaces. Vibrant blues. And yellows. Each product is one of a kind and handmade. Amazingly beautiful.
I try one necklace. And… yes… another one.
“I feel proud of the work I’ve done when I see people wearing my products,” David says. “And at the same time, I love to support people in my rural area through the same products.”
David is an artist. And social entrepreneur too.
David lives in Embakasi, a poor suburban area on the outskirts of Nairobi. “I am working with young mothers. They are a vulnerable group, because initially, young mothers with children could not get work. At the jewelry, they earn a living. And they are able to put their children to school.”
David recently took a micro-loan via Soko, in partnership with Kiva, to grow his business. “Soko will take us to the next level of fashion design and jewelry,” he says confidently.
By Annabel Azim.
I met Falguni in Bombay Hotel, a Muslim shantytown on the fringes of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on a hot afternoon. She walked along the dust-swept lanes, making her way through the shouting vendors, scurrying children and goats, seven-month pregnant.
Falguni is an English curriculum designer for the elementary school program. Twice a week, she leaves the office and visits Gyan Shala classes across Ahmedabad. She observes. She converses with the teachers. She talks to the students to collect feedback.
“We are teaching English in grade one for the first time this year,” Falguni said. “It’s working better than we thought. The children are very eager.” Falguni chuckles: “They learn much faster than the teachers.”
I met Falguni again in the Gyan Shala office the next day. She showed me the educational resources Gyan Shala has developed for English. “I do research,” she explained. “I look for best practices. Then, I develop materials that are adapted to our local contexts.”
Every other Saturday, Falguni trains teachers on the course of study for the next two weeks. “I explain the key concepts. And we go over the textbook and the worksheets. But first,” she said, “we do a debriefing of the lessons from the last two weeks. The teachers tell me what worked, and what didn’t work so well. Then I go back, and make improvements.”
Gyan Shala is preoccupied with the impact of teaching: that is, whether they are indeed delivering high quality education to the poor. “We measure student learning at mid-term and at the end of the school year,” explained team leader for the middle school program, Khyati. “We analyze the results. Question by question. And we ask ourselves: What can we do so our students do better?”
Gyan Shala students rank 65% to 120% better than public school students across grades and across subject matters.
In fact, Gyan Shala stopped evaluating itself against public schools. Instead, it evaluates itself against private schools – not to prove anything, but to be aspirational, and learn constantly on how they can deliver higher quality education, at par with best practice in “elite” schools.
By Farahnaz Karim.
As I enter the grade 1 class, I see children, mostly of six or seven years of age working on their math exercises. I am struck by the sense of peace and focus. I am on my iPad trying to capture these shots. They are just focusing on their own work. Undisturbed by my presence. Counting away. So I do not interrupt their flow. I already have enough data on Grade 1 students from earlier discussions. Shanti* had explained: “I walk to school, it is nearby. My father is a rickshaw driver and my mother is at home.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I had asked in my broken Gujarati, and she replied: “a teacher”. Amitabh next to her said “engineer!” and another girl said “police woman!”. We all had a laugh, imagining her as a police woman, enforcing the law. “Why do you like your school?” I continued. Asha replied: “I like my teacher.” Just like children anywhere.
* Names have been changed.
Read articles featuring Insaan and the ventures we support.
The Man Who Wanted To Beat Bangladesh
By Revati Laul. Published in Tehelka.com. August 24, 2013.
Tucked into a tiny alley in Ahmedabad’s Someshwar slum is the house of Sagar Babu Moria. The one-room hut in the ‘kabbadiwallahs’ colony is flanked on one side by a towering 4-foot-high goat called Tatu and on the other side by a pile of wood and a sewing machine. Behind this façade, a class is in progress. Seated on colourful wooden benches, 15 children are adding 36 plus 5 in their math class. In this seemingly bizarre environment where kids and goats compete for space, an interesting idea has been taking shape. That it is possible to get children to learn just about anywhere, with very little on hand, provided you have the right tools.
Moria pats his goat on her head as he looks on proudly at the classroom that runs from his house. For this, he gets a monthly rent of Rs 1,650. But that’s not why he rents out his house to Gyanshala, a Gujarat-based NGO. Without articulating exactly why he endorses this back-to-basics system, he does convey that it works. His daughter is in Class VIII in another classroom in the same alley that also functions from within a house. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up and loves her science class the best.
To see what’s really going on in Gujarat’s bylanes, however, requires a shift in space and time, to Bangladesh, 1994. Where this story first began. Pankaj Jain, an alumnus of the prestigious IIM, was a successful microfinance expert who had worked with the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation — the parent company of Amul, who went on a study trip to Bangladesh. To his amazement, he found that in 1994, the country was far ahead of India in the education of girls. How was it that a country so far behind India in most other development and economic indices had managed what India had not, he asked himself. And spent the next decade trying to come up with answers. He eventually chucked his microfinance career, his teaching at IRMA- the institute associated with Amul and at MIT, to create his solution to the problem, by setting up Gyanshala.
India’s education system was broken. At its most basic level, schools failed to deliver. The main reason, says Jain, was that those who had tried to fix the system weren’t looking at the heart of the matter. “I found that NGOs were not interested in addressing the problem of scale,” he says. “Everyone wanted to put up a showpiece. It worked very well when the size was 30-100. It did not work when the size was one lakh teachers.”
An idea took shape that had a countrywide ambition and scale. Unlike other models, its raison d’etre was scale. It had to be a system that doesn’t lean on individual teachers to turn things around because there simply aren’t enough of them. So, Gyanshala focusses on children and learning, instead of teaching. It’s designed to cater to an imperfect world where resources are scarce.
In this imperfect world, the focus is on the tools for learning and on making those more or less foolproof. Kids in Class I are not just made to learn how to count the numbers by rote. Nearly six months are spent on teaching kids what it means to move from one number to the next. You add a digit to one and get two, you add one more and reach three… you take away one and go back to two. Numbers are properties. There is a method to the madness that is taught even to the six-year-olds.
The science class is about observing and reporting. The lesson in progress was about a tree in the courtyard outside. What parts are visible and what remain hidden from view? Can the class list them?
In Class VI, Mansi, 12, informs us that she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. And to prove that she knew what she was talking about, she also rattles off what the heart does — it pumps blood at 72 times a minute into the body, she says.
The new age of giving
By Farahnaz Karim. Published in Philanthopy Age. September 10, 2013.
Farahnaz Karim has spent her career connecting philanthropists with impactful social enterprises. She tells us how philanthropy is not something one does, but something one is.
In May 2005 the celebrated writer and philosopher David Foster Wallace gave a seminal commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College in Ohio, US. His address carried a simple message: “The really important kind of freedom involves… being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day”.
Wallace’s words call for philanthropy as an answer to the existential challenges of human life. They speak to philanthropy or the love of humanity in the broadest sense, not of charity or investment or some legal variant of the above. Wallace argues that being aware of and caring for another human being gives us purpose, fulfilment and may in fact be one of the few things that elevates us beyond the worshipping of the self. Wallace was speaking to the youth, what many call the next generation of philanthropists.
So who are these next-generation philanthropists, and what matters to them? In my view, Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millenials are distinct from previous generations of givers. Their worldview sets them apart and in turn influences their approach to philanthropy. The first difference is that philanthropy is no longer something you engage in when you have amassed significant wealth, but is something you engage in early on, no matter what your income level.
The second shift is that philanthropy is not something one does, but something one is. In other words, next-generation philanthropists do not live their lives (or at least the majority of them) in dichotomous ways. Sharing wealth and caring for others is not an activity or a hobby or an event they attend. For them, philanthropy is a way of life, a conscious choice.
Finally, whereas in the past philanthropists may have come from specific wealth-creating industries, mainly industrial conglomerates, next-generation philanthropists work across the hi-tech and financial industries, arts and media, combining a plurality of skills and knowledge bases, both rational and creative. Together, they are transforming the landscape of philanthropy in several notable ways.
In a report published in July 2010, the Monitor Institute highlighted that “acting bigger” is of importance to next-generation philanthropists. Rather than creating their own foundations or their own programmes, next-generation philanthropists are happy to pool resources together, leveraging each other’s resources and understanding that making a bigger impact makes more sense than supporting fragmented, smaller, short-term initiatives. And by resources they mean more than just money, but the three Ts; treasure, talent and time.
The next-generation philanthropists are also wise to the challenge of allocating capital effectively. Over the years many have argued that doing good cannot be reconciled with making money; others contend that making money may be the best way to ensure social change, driving entrepreneurial ventures in both developed and developing markets. Next-generation philanthropists tend to think differently, beyond these ideological lines. They know that engaging in charity or donating to relief organisations is needed, but in parallel they back innovative social enterprises. Diversification and value creation are achieved through the use of different tools: support for charity, microfinance, social enterprises and impact investing.
Herein lies the challenge: what is a social return? Measuring success in business is fairly straightforward, but in philanthropy the metrics are harder to ascertain. There is an ongoing debate between those calling for more uniformity in metrics, and those who insist that human change is too idiosyncratic to the culture in which it occurs, to be measured across countries.
According to Forbes’ Next Generation Philanthropy report, 46 per cent of donors use IRIS indices to assess philanthropic impact, and another 37 per cent use the Global Impact Investing Ratings System. These systems, however uniform, are heavily weighted towards outputs and outcomes rather than impact on people’s lives. In education, for instance, they emphasise enrolment over test scores, and test scores over changes in life goals and meaningful employment. While useful, they do not capture the whole picture.
The field is also divided, to some extent, between the economists and social scientists that would prefer statistical evidence, and the students of mixed methods and humanities, who insist that such a narrow definition of progress will inevitably limit our ability to innovate.
Ultimately, the key is the ability to measure human change and that is not something that can be easily accounted for using a single method or index. Human change is cumulative and incremental and occurs over generations. Systems thinking, which considers individuals in terms of their relationship to the whole, and considers iterative rather than linear learning, perhaps offers a better framework. This means listening to people, asking them what change means to them in the context of their culture, their ambitions and values, and using that to develop and interpret the statistics we generate. It means talking to people and not about them, working with them and not for them. It means using stories and statistics, but always making sure to be people-centred.
In May of this year, a nine-minute video featuring excerpts from Wallace’s commencement speech went viral, attracting more than 4 million views on YouTube in just two weeks. I hope, and believe, that this overwhelming response to Wallace’s message is indicative of a growing consciousness that we can indeed choose to decide what we value, how we act and react, and demonstrate a greater level of empathy and care for others, every day.
About the writer
Farahnaz Karim is the founder and CEO of Insaan Group. She has worked for the UN and the World Bank, as well as a wide range of non-profit organisations.
Kenya’s new artisans
Published in Philanthropy Age. December 9, 2013.
A social enterprise in Kenya is helping budding entrepreneurs sell handcrafted jewellery to global consumers at the click of a camera phone.
Veronicah’s latest bracelet is made of three types of beads: brass, and small, round brown and black beads lovingly cut, sanded and polished from cow horn. It takes an entire day to craft a piece of jewellery such as this.
From Kibera in Kenya, one of Africa’s largest slums, Veronicah runs her own small workshop with two full-time staff. Her transformation from artisanal hobbyist to employer has been quick. Just 18 months ago, Veronicah made jewellery for fun while she was out of work.
“I didn’t sell much, maybe five pieces a week,” she says. “In a good month, I would make about 20 sales. Now I get orders between 50 to 200 pieces through Soko.”
From the outskirts of Nairobi, Veronicah’s products can end up on the arms of fashion-forward hipsters in New York via Soko, a social enterprise using mobile phone technology to connect Kenyan artisans directly to global customers. Soko focuses on products made of materials particular to Kenya, such as brass, Masai beadwork, cow horn, and cow and camel bone.
The mobile platform has 250 registered artisans who take photos of their products on their phone, upload them to Soko’s online shop via SMS, and receive payment on their mobiles through the Kenyan-based mobile money system, M-Pesa.
“M-Pesa is much better than banking. You receive the money and can withdraw it immediately to go and buy the materials for the products,” says Veronicah.
One of Soko’s founders Ella Peinovich, an engineering graduate from the US, was working in Nairobi’s slums on an architecture programme. “I loved going to the market and talking to the artisans about their work. I ended up buying suitcases of jewellery and selling them in my mother’s gallery back home,” she says. “The goods were globally competitive. That was where the idea came from: seeing the need for artisans to reach a larger, more global consumer market.”
Starting as a simple web portal, Soko has grown to develop a payment system transferring credit card payments to mobile money networks, and a logistics model that allows product tracking. Launched in 2012 with $180,000 raised through grants and university competitions, it has just raised $700,000 from angel investors including the Insaan Group, a philanthropic organisation based in Dubai.
Soko plans to expand outside Kenya to Tanzania, Ghana and Rwanda early next year and a pilot project is underway in Mexico. They have already completed a pilot in India. “We intend to be a global platform. It’s just a matter of having the ground staff and scaling it in that region,” says Peinovich.
Six shops in the US have signed up for wholesale since October. “Of the 14 items purchased initially, we have sold seven; a great statistic for one month,” says Swato Argade, owner of Brooklyn boutique Bhoomki in New York.
Soko has just opened up sales to Europe and Australia in addition to North America.
Veronicah used to sell her products at a friend’s market near the railway. “Most of the artisans are making good products. But they have to sell them at the local Masai market. They spend 500 Kenyan shillings on materials and they end up selling it for just 200 shillings because they sit waiting all day for a buyer – a throwaway price,” she says.
By using everyday technology in different ways, customers can enjoy individually crafted jewellery that means the world to its makers.
Boca Raton-based Mela Artisans empowers master craftsmen in India
By Nancy Dahlberg. Published in the Miami Herald. June 15, 2014
Mela Artisans is social entrepreneurial to its core.
Seeing firsthand that master artisans in India were losing their livelihoods because they lacked a global market for their products, Navroze Mehta and his daughter Sonali Mehta-Rao created Mela Artisans in 2010. For the first couple of years, the Boca Raton-based social entrepreneurial for-profit company, then called MyMela, ran a website that brought the handicrafts to customers worldwide while helping the artisans earn their livings.
Business grew steadily, and hundreds of artisans in remote villages were getting orders. But the small team knew that the more the company was able to sell, the more artisans it could help. And all that starts with building a brand that would be in high demand.
Today, Mela Artisans is well on the way to doing that. The company’s home and jewelry collections, all handmade in India, are in stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s around the United States as well as in high-end department stores in Canada and the United Kingdom. The collections are also sold on MelaArtisans.com and include intricately designed jewelry in a mix of metals; bone-inlay home accessories such as trays, photo frames and jewelry boxes; and hand-embroidered pillows.
“It’s a luxury lifestyle brand that blends traditional handcrafting techniques with contemporary design,” said Mehta, Mela Artisans’ CEO, who was raised in India. “We work closely with artisans who create high-quality products, promoting social uplift in their communities. That is what we are all about.”
Sales tripled last year, and the company is on track to exceed that this year, said Mehta, who has previously founded a half-dozen companies, mainly in healthcare. In March, Mela Artisans closed on $3 million in venture capital funding to help it grow.
Although the company has always been powered by passion, the pathway has not always been easy. About a year ago, Mela began a rebranding journey that started with hiring a specialist in the field with deep roots in India — Dipali Patwa, who had recently been working with the Martha Stewart brand, as well as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.
“Bringing her on board was transformational. … The fundamentals were in place, but her vision crafting collections enabled us to make significant progress with higher-end retailers,” said Daniel Echavarria, a founding board member and Miami angel investor who said he has admired Mehta’s leadership and has supported Mela since it was a “business plan of a few pages.”
The team relaunched the company last fall.
“We rebranded the company, the logo, everything,” said Patwa, who is based in Mela’s New York City office. “I felt very strongly that if we were to position ourselves in this marketplace, it was very necessary to position ourselves as a brand with a purpose, and that is what we were. We just hadn’t taken the time to convey that story properly.”
The collections changed dramatically, too. “The products had to work, the designs had to speak for themselves at retail. This is not a charity, it’s not a nonprofit, it’s a real business with a purpose,” she said. “Basically what it boiled down to was understanding the trends — the market trends, the fashion trends — looking at those holistically and incorporating those using our techniques and our style and developing a signature Mela style.”
Mariela Rovito, president of Eberjey, has been carrying bangles and cuffs from Mela’s new jewelry collection in her Miami Beach and South Miami Eberjey stores for a few weeks. “We found the collections modern and unique in the use of traditional handcrafting,” Rovito said. The story behind the brand also appealed to her, she said. “Part of the attraction of working with Mela was a desire to support a local company that is socially conscious and committed to fostering entrepreneurship in underserved communities around the world.”
Patwa said bone-inlay products, recycled from water buffalo bone waste, and hand-carved wood items are selling well in the home market, and horn and bone-inlay jewelry has been getting a strong response in its new jewelry line. Keeping it fresh means coming out with the unexpected.
“There is so much in textiles that come out of India that haven’t been even touched yet — there is so much still to be done,” said Patwa, who was born in India and moved to the United States 15 years ago.
Mela is offering a line of pillow covers next month produced by a women’s group in Kashmir that does “beautiful, cool embroidery,” she said. “That region is in a lot of conflict; they have such incredible talent but no platform. We are launching this line and see how it performs. If it does well, we can expand it into other categories.”
Mehta would not release revenue figures, but he said Mela Artisans sold 30,000 units in 2012, 100,000 in 2013 and is on track to sell 300,000 units this year. He said revenue grew 300 percent in 2013 and is projecting 400 percent growth this year.
Mela Artisans is now a team of 20, spread between Boca Raton, the company headquarters where operations and logistics take place; New York, its creative base; and Mumbai, India, where Mehta-Rao is now based.
In addition to managing the India office and working closely with all the artisan groups, Mehta-Rao also is in charge of Mela’s programs for improving working conditions. For example, health programs are a big need in the villages. “We are working with a social enterprise called VisionSpring to bring affordable eyeglasses and free eye exams to our artisans,” said Mehta-Rao, who worked for several social enterprises in the United States, India and Ghana before co-founding Mela, which means “festival” in Hindi.
“We are also working with the unbanked to help get them accepted into the banking sector; it’s a long-term project,” she said, adding that all the artisans get advances to cover production expenses.
One percent of revenues funds these community-based social programs, Mehta added.
The co-founders agree that timing was on the side of Mela and its social mission. Simply stated, social entrepreneurs work to solve society’s most pressing social problems through innovative solutions — and interest in the movement is surging.
“There’s no question that there is more and more awareness. Consumers want to buy products where they know where they are made — they don’t want to buy from a sweatshop,” Mehta said.
Nowadays, many brands have added on a social element to their business, such as buy one and we’ll donate one, Mehta-Rao said in a phone interview from Mumbai. “But for us, our impact is the core of our business, so the more sales we get, because of the fact we are working with artisans, the more business the artisans get. It’s integrated it into our operations. The U.S. sales team knows exactly what is happening in India.”
Since 2012, Mela has placed orders with more than 50 artisan groups across 10 states in India. Collectively, these groups employ 4,500 full-time artisans, of which 77 percent are women, and more than 6,000 part-time artisans, the company said.
It’s that kind of traction that attracted Aavishkaar, a leading social impact venture fund in India, to invest $3 million to help Mela expand its collections, grow its distribution channels and reach out to a wider range of artisan societies in India. Before the infusion of venture funding in March, Mela received about $1.3 million from angel investors.
Social impact investing is growing but remains a niche market. According to recent World Economic Forum figures, less than $40 billion of capital has been committed cumulatively to “impact investments” out of the tens of trillions in global capital.
“Mela was a compelling investment with its rare combination of established industry relationships with international retailers, significant backward linkages with artisan groups and excellent design capabilities culminating in an extremely competitive product,” said Noshir Colah, partner at Aavishkaar, whose due diligence included visits to the artisan villages as well as to Mela’s New York and Boca offices.
“Moreover, Mela’s eagerness to work directly with artisans and help them produce products of significantly superior quality has enabled artisan groups to upgrade their skills and earn more stable livelihoods, thus making the craft sustainable for them,” Colah said.
Echavarria, who first met Mehta through Young Presidents Organization and their work with the social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka, believes that down the road the Mela model could be replicated to help artisans in other parts of the world.
A more immediate goal, Mehta says, is expansion.
“What’s next for the company is continued growth in our large retail channel … Specialty stores and boutiques nationwide are also an important focus. International expansion is definitely on our list. In addition to Latin America, the U.K. and the rest of Europe has tremendous potential along with the Middle East,” Mehta said. “We are also constantly looking to create a great buying experience for our customers online.
“Our driving force is to create a global company that can have dramatic impact on the lives of artisans by empowering them.”
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What does “Insaan” mean?
Insaan means “human” in Arabic, Hindi, Persian and Urdu. Our name reflects our commitment to people, who are at the center of all we do. We connect people to spur change.
What does Insaan do?
Insaan’s mission is to make philanthropy more effective and high impact. We do this by investing in social enterprises that create opportunities for the poor through education and entrepreneurship.
We envision a more equitable world where the poor and the marginalized are given a chance to lift themselves out of poverty and realize their full potential.
What issues does Insaan focus on?
We focus on education and entrepreneurship. These two areas are leverage points to lift people out of poverty, and are most in need of long-term financing. We are concerned with long-term impact and therefore do not choose to direct limited resources on short-term engagement or involvement in sectors that are already over-crowded with aid or impact investing actors.
Where does Insaan work?
Insaan focuses on the broader Indian Ocean region (East Africa, South Asia and the Middle East), where some of the world’s poorest live, and some of the most exciting solutions to global poverty are emerging.
Where is Insaan based?
We are a global team located in South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and North America. We operate entirely in the cloud. No buildings means no money, no time, and no effort are spent maintaining expensive spaces. We meet regularly in the field.
How does Insaan decide what ventures to support?
Insaan implements a rigorous selection process based on the field experience of its team.
We actively seek those at the forefront of social innovation, building on strong local networks. We carry out an in-depth analysis of each potential partner, with a field visit. Only after a thorough due diligence do we make a decision to fund.
Our investment criteria are four-fold: we look at the people, their idea, their impact potential and financial sustainability.
What support does Insaan provide?
We help social enterprises by providing them the capital, skills and advisory support they need to grow, so that they can better serve the poor. We work closely with ventures over the life of funding, and track performance to ensure we achieve impact.
With our support, ventures are able to develop tangible, sustainable, and scalable solutions for the poor. We are then able to exit and fund new ventures. 100% of profits from our social investments are re-invested in new ventures.
How is Insaan funded?
Insaan is registered as a 501(c)(3) public charity in the United States as well as a foundation in the European Union, in the Netherlands.
We work with families, individual philanthropists, foundations, corporations, and Zakat givers. Insaan was initially created with the support of the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Fund. Donations are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.
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Where does my money go?
100% of private donations go directly to the ventures we support. Insaan’s generous and forward-thinking board of directors and institutional partners cover our operating costs – so you don’t have to.
Like all 501(c)(3) organizations, specific information about our finances is publicly available on our Form 990, our annual tax filing with the Internal Revenue Service. EIN/Tax ID number: 74-3182378.
Does Insaan make money?
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Insaan occasionally works with funders to customize their giving or philanthropic portfolio. Please contact chief executive officer Farahnaz Karim if you would like to donate for a specific cause or venture: email@example.com.
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