IVLP alumna Hema Balakrishnan’s eco-socio enterprise strives to empower terracotta artisans in India.
Hema Balakrishnan discovered the joy of working with terracotta by chance. In 2003, in a clay modeling class with her children, Balakrishnan felt she had “unfinished business” with the materials in her hand. Today, she is the owner and founder of Color D Earth, an eco-socio enterprise that strives to empower terracotta artisans in India.
“Entrepreneurship is a very empowering concept,” says Balakrishnan. “I don’t run an NGO [nongovernmental organization], but a social enterprise that believes in generating profits to support all stakeholders. We don’t need to knock on doors for someone to fund us. When we work with materials like terracotta, the NGO model isn’t a feasible one.”
For and by women
In 2009, Balakrishnan was part of the Goldman Sachs-funded 10,000 Women initiative, an entrepreneurship program of the U.S. State Department. She is also an alumna of the 2012 International Visitor Leadership Program, the U.S. State Department’s exchange program for professionals, on women and entrepreneurship. In 2014, Balakrishnan set up a three-month mentorship program for 10 women entrepreneurs, in collaboration with two fellow exchange program alumni and the U.S. Consulate General in Hyderabad.
“I realized that there were a lot of options in the market for handcrafted jewelry, but no standard for the finished product,” she says. “Terracotta jewelry dates back to the Indus Valley civilization, long before metals like gold became the norm. The terracotta jewelry our artisans handcrafted had to stand the test of time.”
Starting out by showcasing her work in different boutiques over a period of three to four years taught Balakrishnan a few important lessons. “Most retailers in this area work on the consignment model,” she explains. “You give your work to stores and you get paid for what is sold and take back or exchange what is not sold. There is no monetary commitment from the stores, so they have little motivation to sell your work.”
Structuring the business
Balakrishnan started looking for ways to overcome this challenge when she got selected for the 10,000 Women program. “I didn’t think I would be able to make it,” she says.
The program, tailor-made for women entrepreneurs and facilitated in India by the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, encouraged Balakrishnan to make her first business plan and articulate her goals. “It gave my work structure and was a huge confidence booster. Networking with 29 other women from diverse businesses was a huge learning experience too,” she says. Until then, her work was being retailed from home, appreciated by friends and family.
“I am the first entrepreneur in my family and this was like a prayer answered,” says Balakrishnan, adding her children were her strongest supporters and promised to do their best to help her. “They still are my rocks,” she says. “We do the craziest things together!”
Balakrishnan opened her first store in Mumbai. “It was just 50 square feet,” she says. Later in 2009, she brainstormed with her mentor and friends and came up with the name Color D Earth. In 2010, she moved back to her hometown, Hyderabad, with her kids.
Today, Color D Earth works with 12 groups of terracotta artisans from six states. “I met these artisans either at fairs or tracked them down from very remote areas,” she says. “Terracotta-related work was always looked at as a seasonal occupation; for example, making diyas during Diwali. But, jewelry can be made year round.”
Color D Earth showcases predominantly handcrafted terracotta jewelry and operates on the fair trade model. It is also India’s first social e-commerce store that sells only terracotta products.
Balakrishnan attributes a lot of her business and entrepreneurship ideas to the International Visitor Leadership Program. “This was an opportunity to learn from successful women entrepreneurs in a country that is very advanced,” she says. “Besides the best practices we shared, I understood the importance of giving back to the community.”
Balakrishnan is inspired by businesswomen who can create a niche for themselves and take charge of their work. “A lot needs to be done for entrepreneurship, in general, and women entrepreneurs in particular, in our country,” she says. “It’s important to convince women that they can follow their passion and take charge of their lives.”
Paromita Pain is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.