#24 – Bridging the Gap
with Matr Boomie Co-Founder & CEO, Manish Gupta
Manish Gupta is the co-founder and CEO of Matr Boomie, a fair trade company that empowers artisans in rural India to create and sell handcrafted products to international retailers.
With a background in engineering, Manish relied on the design expertise of his wife and business partner, Ruchi, to develop their mission of creating sustainable employment for marginalized communities — and Matr Boomie has done just that. Matr Boomie bridges the gap between the purchasing desires of western consumers and the handmade products of over 20,000 talented artisans in rural India. Their company continues to grow and serve as a leader in the world of fair trade and ethical production.
In this episode, Manish provides invaluable insight into the positive impact responsible trading can have on struggling communities and the benefits of working closely with the community Matr Boomie supports. He also shares some simple tips for how consumers can join the movement by making more conscious purchases, and how consumers can influence businesses to engage in the fair trade market themselves.
Matr Boomie strives to better the lives of their artisan partners. They provide access to skills training, literacy classes, and proper healthcare to the artisan community.
A few key takeaways from our chat:
The ability of responsible, fair trade to empower struggling communities who have not found the opportunity to use their art to sustain their families and their community
Ethically sourced and produced products, like Matr Boomie’s, can be high quality while as well competitively priced
How Matr Boomie is able to identify the challenges of their artisan partners and develop the relationships necessary to provide meaningful support
What actions consumers can take to make sure the products they buy are truly fair trade products
Links from the Episode:
00:07 (Cory) — Hey y’all. It’s Cory here with the Grow Ensemble podcast and on today’s episode I speak with Manish Gupta, founder and CEO of Matr Boomie. Manish founded this company in 2006 with the mission of revitalizing and supporting impoverished artisan communities in India. Since their founding, they’ve been able to empower over 20,000 artisans in 40 partner communities throughout India. More than 1500 retailers in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia sell their unique, handcrafted and fair trade products. These are really notable brands like Ben and Jerry’s, Disney Home Goods, National Geographic, and Whole Foods amongst many others. Manish is a very mission-focused social entrepreneur and in our conversation we talk about this journey of making Matr Boomie this sustainable and deeply impactful product based business that it is today. He shares with us his evolving thoughts on fair trade as well as some practical advice for consumers to make more conscious purchases in their day to day.
01:16 (Cory) — He briefs us on multiple stories on how him and his team have personally touched some of these artisan communities, these villages that they’ve partnered with throughout India. It’s a wonderful conversation. Manish is very thoughtful, very insightful, and if you’re interested in getting a look inside at a sustainable and socially impactful product based business, you know I highly encourage you to tune in here.
Of course, before we dive in, I do have to ask if you liked the Grow Ensemble podcast, please leave us a review on iTunes. We’re going to try something new out. If you leave us a review, we’ll go ahead and give me a shout on one of the, the next podcast that we released. So head onto the iTunes or whatever is that you get your podcasts and leave us a review if you haven’t. So, without further ado, here’s Manish Gupta.
02:15 (Manish) — This Earth is one big motherland to all of us and that people across boundaries, across different beliefs, are all one. And we want to create a world where everyone feels that connection. We share passions. We love each other and we are one big family.
02:39 (Cory) — And so was it with that inspiration that you feel like you started the company or something else?
02:48 (Manish) — So I have my education as an engineers. And my dream was actually to start a chemical industry and that’s long, long time back. And I went to school in Michigan, Anarbor to do my operations management, and I was working with Dell computers when I came across the idea of artisan-made products and it seemed like a strong business model at that point. And I always wanted to start an enterprise of my own. So I thought it would be a good business idea. And then I started traveling in India to find different artisans to make these products.
03:30 (Manish) — And I remember visiting-our first artisan community was a small village and we were meeting some artisans who were weaving fabric on a loom and they were making this amazingly beautiful fabric. And when I asked him how is he doing, he said, he’s not doing rather he said, this is an art form that has been done in his family for generations. This is all he knows. And he’s saying now I cannot make a living from this art form. And he was a national award winner, but he said, nobody now cares about handmade products. And the young people don’t want to take up these art forms. And because there is nothing else to do in their village, they’re moving to cities, finding odd jobs, ending up in slums. And I just saw that a beautiful sustainable life in that village was going away and it was resulting in organization issues.
So to me the social aspect of artisans and their concerns came to life. So with my inspiration to start my own enterprise and seeing how the artisans are struggling, I thought I’ll give it a shot. So that is when I started the company, it was about 12 years ago. And for me, you know, I have seen firsthand how powerful trade is and you know, anything that we want is available to us. And that’s quite amazing. You know, things from around the world are at our fingertips and you know, that’s an amazing system where at the same time I’ve seen how if trade is not done responsibly, it can exploit communities. We’ve all heard examples of challenges in Bangladesh and small communities where there is so much chemical effluent, which is ruining their rivers and farming. So we all know how trade, if it’s responsible, can exploit communities. But I also believe that if trade is done responsibly, it can empower communities.
05:43 (Manish) — It truly has the potential to eradicate poverty in the world. And that’s what I want to do is use trade as a tool for positive change. And I want to see a world where artisans and producers across the world have the ability to participate in trade, for them to have the opportunity to use this powerful system to bring their products and merchandise to the market and gain a sustainable living and lead a life of dignity. So that’s what we do. We partner with artisan communities in India. We have a design team here in Austin, Texas, B, understand art forms and artisan capabilities of our partners in India. And we designed products that we think can be made using the traditional art forms, which people here in the U.S. would love to buy.
And then we have our own team in India that creates these products for us. And then we have our artisans produce this, produce these products that we then import and distribute.
06:53 (Manish) — So we work with over 2,000 stores across the U.S. So everything that we do is handmade. Everything you do is fair trade. We do a lot of work in terms of sharing how these products are made, which are the communities that are behind these products and how does it make an impact on the communities. We are part of the Fair Trade Federation and we go quite deep in the impact that we create. One of the things I had decided early on is we will partner with artisans who are struggling. And when we started finding those artisan communities, we realized that the reason why they’re struggling is because they have a lot of challenges.
07:42 (Manish) — Sometimes we work with them and artisans who make these amazing textiles but they don’t know how to stitch a bag. They don’t have access to quality zippers and other materials that you need to make a final product. So when we start to work with communities that are more marginalized, we are required to provide them a lot of support. And so for that reason we have our own team in India. We have a staff of twelve people in India and our team is always traveling, finding artisan communities and going deep and understanding what their challenges are and helping them overcome it. We build fairly long term relationships with these partner artisans and our focus is to work with women artisans. So we, a majority of our artisans are women. Majority of our artisans are minorities. And most of our artisans are based in rural India where there is severe lack of opportunities.
A number of women that we work with have never made a living of their own in their life. And India is a male dominant society, which creates a lot of social issues. In India, there’s a lot of poverty and what we have seen is that if you don’t make a living, you don’t have a voice. So a big part of the challenges we see in terms of women empowerment, we realized that the best way to empower women is to create opportunities for them to make a living. Once they make a living of their own, they decide where that money is used and they get a voice. And we’ve seen that with so many of our women artisans that we work with. And recently I was in India, a couple of weeks back, and visited a number of our artisan groups and so many women artisans, I asked them, what has changed since you’ve started to make a living?
09:58 (Manish) — And so many of them were so proud about them becoming independent and saying, you know, the biggest difference is I don’t have to ask my husband for money. The biggest difference is I can send my daughter to school now. The biggest difference is I know my rights and I am independent. And those are things which, for westerners is given. But for women in rural India, it’s a big deal. And so that’s what I want to do with this business is to use trade as a way to empower people who are struggling. So stories like this exhibit or show, what we are trying to do.
10:44 (Cory) — Sure. And, and so, you know, you’ve been able to, I guess, you know, put together such an impact now. You know, you said you started that some 12-ish years ago. I think 2006, right? What do you feel like are some of the things that have led to you being able to make this impact? You mentioned a full team in India working with these local communities. You’ve worked with thousands of companies across the U.S. and North America. What do you feel like has contributed to this success and sustainability and the expansion in this impact that y’all are able to make?
11:21 (Manish) — One is I think our commitment to our mission. What do you do is not easy. We are trying to cater to the best in market, but we are working with artisans in rural India who has a very different concept of product and colors and styling. So being committed to our mission, we are able to go deep and work hard on bridging this gap. Very few companies are able to make well-designed products that are also ethically sourced. So our ability to make that happen I think definitely makes us successful. Also I would say our ability to share the story of impact. We are very conscious at every point we share with our audience, our partners on how our work is making an impact. We have lots of videos on our website. We even publish a sustainability impact report every few years, which quantify the impact that we’re making.
So I think being very conscious of what you’re trying to do, staying committed and sharing the impact does make quite a bit of difference. And even like from a product design standpoint, we even focus on what materials we use in our product. We have a list of products that are, you know, when those products are produced that you then use nonrenewable materials are they use too much resources to even produce. We only use natural or upcycled materials. And our customers love that. They’d have more and more people who are wanting to buy ethical products, but they don’t want to compromise on the product design. And I think we, our sweet spot is making beautiful, amazing functional products that are ethically made.
13:21 (Cory) — And so how do you feel like you’ve come about that sweet spot? I mean did it happen right out of the gate or were there particular tipping points, I guess.
13:31 (Manish) — Lots of learning. You know, when I started the company- I’m not a shopper personally, like I have two pair of jeans and that’s about it. So when I started the company, the first product collection that I started with were women’s accessories, scarves and bags because I could find a lot of textile artisans and I didn’t know that women wear different colored in fall and spring. I had no idea. I mean that’s how you know, away from design world I was. So, you know, our first collection was primary colors because that’s what I knew and I was like, why would we need more colors than red, blue, and black? So we have come a very long way in developing a product line. So you know, ethical production was always our foundation, but over a period of time we have continuously invested in product design.
14:27 (Manish) — Ruchi my wife, also my business partner, is a fashion designer by education. So soon enough- that helps. And we got married soon after I started the company. So there’s a joke that I couldn’t afford a designer, so I married one, you know. She came in and took over the artistic aspect of our company. And for a company our size from the very beginning, we have invested a lot in product design and it’s a very hard aspect for us because we are, you know, the two worlds we are trying to bridge is very hard. So we’ve had a lot of learning. But as I said, we’ve had amazing partners who have always supported us in each step to allow us to continue working on a core design. And to be honest, it’s still a work in progress. I think it’s just then a lot of amazing people out there who, who understand our mission and have supported us to, to make the mistakes that, you know, every small company makes in growing. So we’ve just learned from my mistake, continue to do better, And staying deep in our commitment.
15:35 (Cory) — And you know, you mentioned a few things there that are particularly interesting. I’ve read through some of your thoughts that attached to y’alls blog about, I think these were over the course of the last few years or so on, on your own understanding of fair trade, what it meant to you, not only, you know, how difficult it can be to actually achieve that level of standard. So I’m kind of curious if you wouldn’t mind sharing a little bit, you know, as you made brief mention of that, that y’all aren’t perfect and it’s been a progression. What has been, I guess some of your developing understanding of what it means to run a company under this standard and how has that changed for you all over the course of time?
16:14 (Manish) — Yeah, of course. So you know, when I started the company our focus was too, you know, be a fair trade company. I focus was to build partnership with artisan communities. So twelve years ago if somebody would have asked me what was our company about, I would have said were fair trade company and we work with artisans in India. That was what we started with and the product came second. But I’ve learned over, you know so many years that we are ultimately a product company. So we are making amazing lifestyle products which are on fair trade. And there was a time when we were any artisan group we would find we would try to make products with them and a lot of times we would realize later that not everything is marketable in the country and we cannot try to support every artisan group that we come across because that would make us unsustainable. We were spending a lot of design time and resources and we later realized that we have to be smart about the process and there are some artisan communities who we can develop opportunities with and for some artisan partners we’re just not ready to do that.
And I think it was tough for, for us to realize, but what I learned was that for us to be able to support our partners, we have to be a sustainable company ourselves. We have to build ourselves as a strong brand. So sometimes it becomes a catch-22 is in terms of do we as a small company, we have to understand what makes us sustainable and stay true to that and only then we’re able to stay true to our mission. In terms of artisan groups, what we have also learned is that when we find artisan communities who are truly marginalized, when we need some- I remember meeting one artisan community in particular, they make amazing block print fabric and when we met him, they didn’t have much business at all.
18:32 (Manish) — The leader of the community, he literally had lost hope that this art can be marketable anymore. He was drinking a lot and we love the product, we loved what they were doing and we started working with them and I went back to India after a year and I went back to meet him and I could not recognize him. Like physically, I could not recognize him. He looked much younger. He looked so happy. It was a transformation. And what I realized was that when they were struggling, he had lost all hope and working with us over the years, he started to realize that if Matr Boomie can sell their products, they can sell their own products. There is value in what they’re doing. And that is a spark that is needed for them to get self confidence in their capability in that art form is all honestly they need.
So what I learned was that our impact is not only in giving them direct business, but making them realize the value of their art form. And after that, you know, they really can grow their own business. So it’s, it’s a big social change.
CORY 19:59 — [It is amazing to be able to make such a multidimensional impact. -Question about other aspects of the artisans’ circumstances that have given insight in their defining fair trade or ethically sourced products]
19:59 (Manish) — We have learned a lot about child labor. It’s a big deal when it comes to ethical production. And initially I used to think that, you know, what kind of parents are sending their children to work. I used to get angry at people who would do that and I felt they were greedy and they weren’t sending their children to school to make extra income. Working with the artisan groups, I visited one artisan and he had his son who was maybe 13 or 14 at that time and he was helping him in the workshop and I saw that I got upset at him and I was like, you know, why is your son not in school?
And he said, you know, I have three sons and in my village the school only goes up to eighth grade, which my son has completed. So for now for him to complete his education, he has to go to a town far from him. And he said, I don’t make enough money to send my all three sons to school. But he said, if my eldest sons joined me in my work, I might be able to send my next two sons. And that really touched me. This artisan was making amazing products. He was working hard, but it was still not enough for him to sustain his family. And to me, I realized at that point that it is just not about fair wages, but it’s also about productivity. So we started reviewing his process on what can we do for him to make more product in the same amount of hours so he can make a better living.
21:41 (Manish) — So what I’ve realized is that in every community that we worked with, there are a lot of challenges, which is very hard for us to understand from a distance. And it’s only when we go deeper, we realize the issues and then we can work on fixing it. So I think one thing that you know has been important for us is staying in India. We don’t source from other countries because we can’t go deep. The kind of work we do with every artisan community is because I am from India and understand the culture and we can build strong partnerships and go deep. And for example, this artisan, we ended up upgrading their tools for them to be able to create more products in the same amount of work. So now they can produce about 30% more with less fuel. And it’s a much safer process.
And then the other thing that I’ve realized is that when we as a westerner, when we think about process improvement, we think it’s a matter of money. You know, we know a solution, we figured out how much resource we need, we find the resource and we think it should be done. But in developing countries, it doesn’t work like that. In developing countries, any change is a change in a mindset. When we approach artisans and we share with them, hey, we think you know, your process can be improved for you to use less fuel and make more product in the same time and we’ll sponsor that. How does it sound? Their first reaction is we don’t want it. Why would you do it? That has to be a catch. And it is surprising. You are trying to do something to support the community, but they don’t want it because the most important thing to bring a social change is to first build a level of trust and get the community to buy off on the change before we make the change.
23:53 (Manish) — So in my understanding, the resource or the money required to bring the change is much easier than to effectively bring change in these communities. So I think our mission goes deep. It takes patience and perseverance to bring the change, but when we do is quite amazing. And with, with one of the communities when we came up with an idea, every artisan said no, they don’t want they like it works for us. We don’t want to change it because we don’t know if our product quality will get impacted with the changes. And after a lot of, you know, persistence one artisan said, okay, I’ll try it. And we, we improved the process, we changed the equipment for him. And when everybody else saw the improvement, that first Artism got, everybody started demanding it. Like we need it, and we need it. And you know, it just makes it worthwhile.
So, you know what I mean, the smiles that we see, the impact that we see. And you know, three weeks back when I was in India, I went to the same artisan group who was struggling to, you know, send his children to school. And I asked him now and he said, my younger two sons are going to school. So there’s a happy story. It takes effort. And I think, you know, our products are amazing and I think when people hear, about our product. It brings joy to them while using the product and knowingly or unknowingly they’re making good things happen to people around the, around the world.
25:25 (Cory) — And so is that, you know, you mentioned that kind of a little case scenario of you’re working with, with one artisan, the rest of the community sees their success, you know, and they they, you know, demand the same support. Has that been y’all’s way to build that trust within those communities?
25:43 (Manish) — You know, I can share it on the story where we came up with a product idea. It was a simple product made using saris. Saris are these large textiles that women in India wear. So there’s a lot of discarded saris available. So we thought, you know, there are a lot of slums in India and a lot of women in these slums who don’t have any opportunity of employment. So we thought we’d train these women, teach them how to make products using these saris. So we approach a group of women. We asked them to come to our coordination center so we can give them the training, give them the material for them to start making the products. They all said it’s a bad idea and next to no one showed up, not even a single women. We were like, what’s wrong?
And you know, that happened a couple of times and then we later, you know, realized that one, they don’t trust us. Second, they don’t trust themselves. They’ve never made a product. They don’t think that they can make product good enough for someone to pay for it. And second and third, they are just not confident enough to even venture out of their homes by themselves to come to a training center. So there were a lot of challenges. And what we ended up doing was we started conducting design workshop in their homes. So we went to where they were, we took the materials, we took the tools, started training them. And usually after three, four months of training and practice, they’re able to make a product that we can sell. And sure enough, once we start to give them a lot of business, the word starts to spread. And then women do on their own, start showing up, do our coordination center, and then they would demand work. And we got to a point where we like, we cannot employ everybody who comes here because, and they would get upset because my sister has it. So I don’t, I get get that work. So yes, it takes time. It’s a social change, but sure enough if we stay at it, we make a difference.
27:51 (Cory) — And so how much time are you personally spending between Austin in India?
27:56 (Manish) — So I do, I spend most of my time here in Austin. I’m involved quite a bit in our partnership development, sales and marketing. I spend usually about eight weeks in India each year. But because we have a very strong and amazing team in India, I don’t need to personally be there as much.
28:16 (Cory) — And so you mentioned earlier, you know, the particular point where you really kind of had to come to terms with the fact that you know, y’all were a product company, you know, you needed to prioritize this sustainability of your own business. You know, how did that start to take shape? You know, how did you start seriously taking a look at your brand, you know, involving it into more so of what it is now to make the business sustainable in such a way to continue to expand this impact.
28:45 (Manish) — So I think initially our goal was just to find products that we could so will be able to support more artisan communities. We started to realize that collection was all over the place. Different styles, different product categories, different pricing. So one product would work for one kind of customer and the other product would work for another kind of customers. So we were trying to do something for everyone. And it’s just was so as a brand we were suffering. We were not, you know, we needed to be master of something. So we started to analyze what our core capabilities are in terms of making a product. Who can we serve the best and what is that spot where we can create a product that works really well for one set of customers while making sure we are able to keep a lot of artisan partners together.
And so we had to literally map out who our customer base is going to be and based on that what our product collections and categories and styles are going to be and then roll that into our product claims. And to be honest, that work is still ongoing, but we are seeing some amazing success. We are on a very high growth and I think we are just starting to scratch the surface. I feel like, you know, most people here who are looking for products on to buy something which is responsibly made. Nobody-if you ask people if they want to buy products made out of child labor, almost everybody will say no, but most people don’t know what they’re buying, what they’re supporting. And most people want to buy a product at they like. And I think that’s what we are doing is great products, making sure that people who pick up these products knows the impact that they would make if they choose to purchase that product.
30:49 (Cory) — And so do you believe that that’s the gap a bit, you know, between more of these fair trade practices being, I guess that scale or the norm is perhaps the consumers’ lack of awareness. Exactly. You know, to the extent of the supply chain of, you know, these different companies or do you think it’s mostly just people purchasing, like you said, you know, something that they like something that appeals to them.
31:13 (Manish) — So I think both of them are a challenge. So a lot of times I see beautiful products being made conventionally and I see most sustainable products either being too expensive or not being, not producing a way that a lot of mainstream people would like. So I see that that ends up being a choice: whether you buy something which looks great or something that is made responsibly. And we are trying to combine those two together. And a big issue as you pointed out is most people have no way to understand what they’re buying, how responsibly is made. There is so much, you know, confusion, or fair washing, as we sometimes call it. There are so many mixed messages was there is almost no information when you’re buying a product so you have no way whether the practices are good or bad. And even if there is information about something being handmade, something being eco friendly, you really have no way to understand if their message of ECO friendly is really helpful to the environment or not because there’s nothing behind it. And most consumers don’t have the time or the ability to go deep and do research to figure out if the material being used is any better than the alternates.
So I think I always, you know, my advice to people is if you really care about using your conscience to make an impact, ask for information, if you go to your favorite coffee shop and ask them, is there coffee fair trade. Go to your favorite clothing store and ask them are these clothes made responsibly? And just by asking, they will make a difference. The store owner, once he or she knows that people are aware, people are asking then he or she will start asking their supplier or manufacturer what are your practices? And there have been studies where, you know, there was a class and I think, you know, five students in that class decided to go in five different days is to one coffee shop and and inquire is that coffee was fair trade or not. And just by five people asking about it the next month that’s cafe was selling fair trade coffee.
You know, the beauty of a lot of trade is, you know, we get what the customers and people ask for. So if we ask for sustainability, if we want our products to be responsible, all we have to do is ask and we can make it happen and it doesn’t have to be expensive. You know, we are very smart. It won’t be, you know, the cheapest product, but it will be a reasonably priced product, which is fair for us and fair for the communities and the people who make it.
34:18 (Cory) — Yeah. I imagine that that could be surprising for some people to see. I think there is just an assumption that it’s going to be radically more expensive for the thing that’s organic, you know, or or fair trade or whatever. It may be more sustainable. So perhaps that’s, that’s an important thing to remember that maybe it’s not, not really as expensive or a terrifying price tag as we might imagine.
But Manish thank you so much for your time. Know, before we wrap up here, I’m very curious. You know, what’s exciting for you? What are y’all looking forward to for the rest of 2019 as you talk so extensively about the deep impact y’all are already making and the wonderful products you’re producing. What’s on the agenda here for the remainder of 2019?
35:02 (Manish) — So lots of exciting opportunities are coming our way. We are continuing to build new partnerships. We are actually be partnering with a lot of natural food stores to bring our product line. We are partnering with more and more mainstream companies to bring our products. We are also focusing a lot on our story sharing. We have a very active Instagram and Facebook message board, so I invite you guys to come and engage with us there. We also recently launched our direct to consumer collection on matrboomie.com. So just like the love we are seeing from our audience and our community and seeing how excited people are when the discover our brand. It’s quite amazing. So I think we are very excited with the impact that we’re making, the growth we’re seeing in our business and just the love we are getting and how people feel when they are a part of this family.
36:04 (Cory) — We’ll be sure to link up to all the things that you just mentioned so folks can keep up with you and Matr Boomie and in what you guys are continuing to do in the remainder of this year. So thanks again Manish. Really appreciate you taking the time.
36:19 (Manish) — Thank you. I really appreciate you, Cory for sharing stories of entrepreneurs and the work they’re doing. That is I think one of the, because needs for companies like us to, for people to be aware so that they can support our values.
36:31 (Cory) — It is the least that I can do without a doubt. So thanks again.
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