Mela Artisans: Let the Festival Begin

Interview with Mela Artisns Co-Founder Sonali Mehta-Rao

Sonali Mehta-Rao,
Co-Founder and President of Mela Artisans,
holds years of experience in social entrepreneurship,
microfinance, and business development.

We recently sat down with Sonali
(by our laptop computers on two opposite
sides of the planet) to get more stories
behind the success of the company and
the way it touches the lives of artisans.

Sonali Mehta-Rao, Mela Artisans

MINZUU: There are many
organizations working with artisans
around the world and trying to sell
their handcrafted products in the
international market. Mela Artisans
is undoubtedly one of the most
successful ones. Could you tell
us the top three key factors
for this success?

Sonali Mehta-Rao: I agree with you that there are many
organizations in this sector, and I think a large number of
them are doing very meaningful and good work globally.
We are happy to see a platform like Minzuu emerging to
bring us all together.

As far as our initial success, I would say that the number one factor
is leading sales by uniquely designed, high-quality products.
While the story behind every product is very important to us
and to many of our customers, in order to create commercially
viable demand and truly empower our artisans with sustainable
orders, the product itself needs to be unique, on-trend, and saleable.

Going along with this, another important factor is never to treat our
business like a charity, and never to encourage our customers to make
‘charity-purchases’. We feel that these purchases actually do more harm
than good.

A third key factor is that we have a very strong and experienced team,
with decades of deep experience in the retail sector – from sourcing
to sales and marketing. Bringing on a professional, experienced team
was a big turning point for our company.

In one of our earlier conversations,
you mentioned that many people
think what artisans need is to be
able to charge higher prices for
their products, but the reality is
that artisans need orders that come
consistently and in large volumes,
because that’s what creates jobs.
While this is very true, doesn't it
sound a little like what Walmart
has been doing - placing big
orders but paying low wages?

We feel strongly that fair wages are important,
but we also feel that consistent and large-volume
orders are equally important. Without regular orders,
high prices are meaningless to the artisans.

And there is hardly any comparison between Walmart
and Mela. Whereas Walmart works with factories in China,
Mela actively seeks out underserved communities that
are producing generation-old traditional crafts. We seek
to work directly with those communities, providing them
valuable market and design insights, capacity building
support, and consistent orders, all of which they have
had no access to in the past.

For centuries, artisans in India have
been using bones and horns to create
decoration items, yet working in the dust
from bone carving significantly increases
the risk of tuberculosis for them. Have you
taken any measures to protect the health
of the bone craftsmen working with Mela?

Yes. We work with NGO partners and implement
programs such as distributing free, disposable masks
to our artisans. Furthermore, we are now working on
a more sustainable solution of supporting our groups in
re-designing their workshops – for example, installing
ducts that remove the dust from the air in the workshop
to provide better ventilation. We will be piloting and
expanding this program in 2015.

While all of your products are handcrafted
using traditional skills, some of them have
very modern, contemporary styles. On the
one hand, you hope to showcase the beautiful
work of Indian artisans, because their work
reflects their culture and identity. On the other
hand, you need to think about the Western
market and the taste of customers. How do
you manage to balance these two aspects?

This is an important point. We have experimented early on
with introducing very traditional products to the US market
and they simply do not sell. It is a very niche type of market
for that kind of product. We realized that we needed to be
able to incorporate market trends in order to remain relevant
and to establish ourselves as a brand. When it comes to
design and showcasing traditional arts, the number one
rule is that we always work with the artisans to create
designs that use traditional materials such as mango wood,
raw silk, horn and bone, and at the same time incorporate
traditional techniques – for example, embroidery, hand-loom
weaving, and carving. Other things, like color, shape, pattern
and size, can be altered in order to create designs that are
both on trend and unique.