Irina is doing a DPhil in Geography and the Environment at Oxford, Green Templeton College. She is a Weidenfeld Hoffman Trust scholar, and co-founder of a social enterprise the Kindness Collective with Manas Nanda who was an MBA in Oxford on the same scholarship. The Kindness Collective aims to support female farmers in India’s poorest province, while also providing outstanding quality organic household detergents to UK customers. The project has now successfully launched in the UK, and looking to raise more funds for scaling up.
What is your background? Why are you doing this?
I did a marketing degree in Russia and worked in a wellness and beauty sector for a while, but I always had an interest in the environment. I then built an education for sustainable development NGO, and that led me to do a Masters in Environmental Governance in Oxford. I progressed to do a DPhil and as a part of my scholarship, where we all have to do a pro-bono projects, I got inspired by this idea to build a sustainable brand. The Kindness Collective works with women farmers in the province where 7 million people live below poverty line. They produce a product that is completely natural and has a potential to stop river pollution and bring sustainable lifestyle to every household. In two years we have built such a cool team of people and made so much progress that it keeps me inspired every day!
There is a wonderful Indian expression jugaad. It means getting done as much as possible with as little resources. I think that defines it for me. We just try to keep going on as little resources we have.
I always loved starting new projects, making ideas happen, but I have always done it in a charity sector before. But then it just made sense to me that a good community-oriented business model can be more sustainable than a flow of charitable donations. I thought that a project like the Kindness Collective has a potential to not just lift people out of poverty, but to create sustainable farming models and preserve Indian forests – all the things I care about.
So what would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Adaptability, endurance, optimism.
I just love meeting people! Once I started going to conferences and events where I met exciting inspiring people, I understood that this is where I belong. I love being a part of a group of people that are trying to change the world, however cheesy this sounds.
What individual, company or organisation inspires you most? Why?
Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, as a pioneer of social enterprise as a business model. It is not so easy to be a woman in business today, but I can only imagine what challenges she had to overcome to build an empire like this.
What did you do when nobody believed you? How did you keep your team motivated at times when you, your self didn’t see the direction?
We have been working for over a year to get the formula and packing of our washing powder right. We put so much effort to have a website, a logo that we all liked, and I am not even talking about the years Manas spent in his local community working with the women coop suppliers. When we made our first sale though our website, and that same day this customer tweeted a picture of BubbleNut Wash and how he was excited to do his laundry, we felt so happy – like it has finally happened!
You need to take responsibility for the project. If you don’t do it, nobody will.
What challenges do you face as a social entrepreneur, as opposed to a “traditional” entrepreneur?
It is always a struggle to reconcile short-term impact with long-term one, and especially in business. We don’t want just to be a washing powder company, but we want to be an organisation that enables sustainable farming practices, preserves forests and ultimately fights climate change and water pollution. I find it very hard to sell all these values in one pack, especially when we talk about such a traditionally uninspiring product as a laundry detergent.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
We have got a lot of support from the Oxford Hub, so being in Oxford, being a part of the University and getting bright students to join our team is fantastic. Of course nothing would have happened if we haven’t all met in Oxford. On the other side, when we will grow and will be in need of an industrial facility, we will need to look elsewhere. Besides looking at the housing prices in Oxford, I am not sure if I will be able to afford to stay here when I will not be a student anymore.
Oxford Hub and Said Business School Launchpad.
If everyone you know said this is not going to work, you are on to something big and you must try it!