Asha Vettoor is the founder of Swara Voice for Women an ethically made sustainable fashion brand based in India. Asha was working in rural Rajasthan as part of the Gandhi Fellowship and became very invested in the community there and particularly with the women whose potential she saw going to waste. In 2018 she started SwaraVOW a sustainable fashion brand utilising the tailoring skills of women in these rural communities. Swara began as a project marketed initially on Instagram and has grown well from there. Since its inception in 2018 SwaraVOW has been working with these rural women and artisans experimenting with different models of how to employ women in these communities in a way that they can be compensated ethically, tell their stories, and attain a skill level where the garments can compete in market against other established fashion brands while being at an affordable price point. Asha has worked to put in place agreement with non-profits which enables the payments to be made directly to the artisans and tailors. This enables Swara to track direct impact on stakeholders as the company scales. Asha is currently completing an MBA at the Saïd Business school. SwaraVOW is currently at the growth stage and Asha hopes to bring the brand to the UK, there’s clearly a growing market here for ethically made garments, summer dresses made from handprinted fabric, for example.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
Some years ago, I took part in a Fellowship Programme called the Gandhi Fellowship where I worked with government schools in the tribal belt of Rajasthan. Within this I was part of the Principled Leadership programme, where my job was to improve the quality of education for the 1500 students I was put in charge of, across 4 government schools. I worked in this role for two years and in that time became really invested in the community and particularly with the women of that community. I realised their skills and talents were going to waste. The primary reason this was happening was because though there were some jobs in rural environment these were not suited to women especially due to their domestic responsibilities. Many women in this area were completely responsible for running their households as often the men would migrate to nearby cities to find jobs and the women were left at home. I realised there needed to be an intervention, a change in the types of jobs we have as a country, in rural areas. There needed to be the types of jobs made available that would be suitable for these women i.e., ones that were flexible, close to home or where transport was provided.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
To me, Entrepreneurship is the activity of creating something from scratch. I believe that the best kind of entrepreneurship goes beyond just taking up financial risks in the hope of profit. As cliché as it sounds, it starts with identifying a real problem and a sustainable solution to solve the problem. And in solving it, creating a model to ensure financial returns so that the activity can be repeated. Though there’s no way to ensure financial returns while solving some problems, most solutions can have a for-profit model. An entrepreneur is able to mobile stakeholders and resources to do all of them – problem identification, solution creation, implementation of the solution while creating financial returns, etc. Above all, entrepreneurship is a journey that involves iterations, it’s never going to be as you plan but it’s going to be more exciting, more heart-breaking, and just more of everything you’re able to read about it. It’s the most overwhelming task I’ve taken up so far.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
One of the first ideas I was interested in to help this community of women was to organise rural home stays. In 2018 when I started SwaraVOW, domestic tourism in India was booming, and even more it was clear that ‘experience’ tourism was booming and tourists were interested in experiences beyond the big cities. However, I quickly realised the high amount of capital and investment in terms of time and resources home stays would take. In addition, the area I was working in has such a rich culture and heritage that hasn’t really been exposed to the outside world and having that responsibility would also be very difficult and was not something I felt able to take on. Starting a clothing brand with women tailors in the region was initially a marketing idea to make Dungarpur visible to potential urban customers. There were lots of tailors in this area because the government has sponsored lots of skill development programmes, but once these are finished these skills were not being used. These women were making clothes for their household but not exploiting the income potential of their skills. At the same time in urban areas the demand for ethically made fashion was growing and for clothes which had a good story to tell which grew out of the fashion evolution movement which was really being picked up in India in 2018. So, I thought that maybe there would be a clientele in India who would appreciate ethically made, and importantly affordable garments. In my initial research we could make clothes ethically at a reasonable price point as well as engaging in social sustainability where the people in the supply chain, as much as we knew, were being compensated well for their work. So, I decided to set up a fashion brand to test the hypothesis that the market would appreciate accessible, sustainable, and ethically made garments.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
I would say that you need to have some level of delusion and be optimistic to the next level because at many points, especially when you are starting out and are asking how you will achieve your ideas there will be a lot of reasons not to do it and you have to have the optimism, the delusion, to find the reasons to persist. Many people will doubt you and there will be facts which tell you about people who have done the same thing in the past and failed, so you need to be able to push past that.
However, at the same time you need to balance this with a detachment from your idea to be able to listen to the facts and logic. You need to test your ideas out and must be willing to change. So, for example back in 2018 a big portion of our mission statement was educating the customer about the importance of asking where their clothes were coming from, being conscious of how their clothes were being made. Now I think, especially since the pandemic, most people are educated about these issues and asking these questions. So, we have pivoted back to our core principles of making sure these rural women’s voices are heard making sure their stories are told more than talking about education.
To be successful as an entrepreneur you need to believe (being delusional in that belief sometimes) that you can succeed where others have failed but be detached too so that when something is not working you are able to reform, improve and refine your ideas. The world is changing and the problem you are focusing on is too. Being dynamic is crucial to succeed in entrepreneurship.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I love the opportunity to be creative every day. It is nice to get to deal with very different problems each day and having to think outside of the box. Also, I love the sense of achievement from having made something out of nothing and seeing a problem as an opportunity.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
There are many people that inspire me and one of the things again which I love about being an entrepreneur is the constant change and where I find inspiration from many different places. But I would say my mum always; she is very optimistic and always reminding me to be humble and grateful.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
We are still a small company so there are lots of small successes and milestones along the way. I think one of the crucial moments where I realised this business was making a difference and was something I wanted to continue doing was in the first year. One of the tailors I was working with said to me she was sending her daughter for the coaching for entrance exams to medical school, this was a big deal because it’s not at all common; her reasoning was if I can do this, use my skills to make money and represent Swara in cities who is to say my daughter can’t be a doctor. Seeing that what I was doing was giving these women a sense of opportunity that the world was opening up to them was so fulfilling.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
One important lesson has been that my journey individually has a big impact on the business itself and I need to take care of myself and invest in my own development as an entrepreneur. I think a mistake I made in the beginning was I didn’t think too much about entrepreneurship. I was just doing what I was doing and didn’t think about how I was going to take care of myself on this journey. Initially this was ok but as we started growing and facing hurdles it all started getting very overwhelming for me; and when this happens the whole business slows down, you again slow down and question yourself and there is a kind of negative feedback loop.
I never thought about how to become a better entrepreneur and this self-reflection led me to apply for this MBA.
How have you funded your ideas?
It has been completely self-funded. Initially we started with £100, bought some cloth, worked with a couple of tailors to make our collection then put it on Instagram. We had an overwhelming response 100 orders in the first month and with that capital we were able to start creating stock. The profit margin initially also was very good as we only had to pay for the materials and labour and the rest were working on the business as a project, and from this point bootstrapped to expand.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Just google the available networks in your area. Create communities, and this will depend completely on what industry you are in, so for example I’m part of a lot of fashion networks.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Externally no I haven’t felt that I have directly, but internally I feel that I have been an obstacle to myself. So, as a company SwaraVOW has reached a point of saturation where to grow we need funding, but I feel as if I haven’t found the courage to ask for funding or have always felt that I wanted the company to grow organically. Now that I have come to Oxford and am doing a project on Funding, and Women I’ve learnt more about the external challenges; in the UK there is 1 person of VC funding for female entrepreneurs. So, there are both and I think for women especially the internal challenges, the self-doubt, is a big obstacle.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
Build up your female networks. My personal experience with other female entrepreneurs in fashion has been very positive. With sister brands at the same stage as SwaraVOW I’ve found women are very collaborative, willing to exchange information, alert each other to funding opportunities and so on so I would encourage female entrepreneurs to build a strong female network.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
I think Oxford is doing a good job encouraging female entrepreneurs. Everyone I have spoken to about SwaraVOW has been very welcoming. But, at the end of the day it all comes down to receiving funding. More women need to be making the decisions about where funding goes. I know the university has initiatives to fund entrepreneurs and I think it needs to be ensured that women are part of the process of capital allocation. Ideas should be judged without the bias of gender.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Just do it. Don’t second guess yourself; what men have in general is more confidence to jump in without doing too much risk analysis which is good sometimes as doing too much, being too realistic, as women often are puts us off. Just jump in, have confidence, and this links back to what I was saying about the importance of a delusional optimism.
Any last words of advice?
Invest time in your networks which can be so hard because you often feel like you have no time, but this is important.
And believe in yourself.