Soul Economy thoroughly enjoyed meeting with Jodie from Bholu recently. After living in India for a number of years, Jodie started Bholu – a fair trade and climate neutral company that combines contemporary western designs with traditional embroidery techniques by Gujarati women artisans to create a beautiful homewares and children’s range. In addition, part of the proceeds from Bholu projects go back to the community. Her passion and achievements are truly inspirational. To find out more, please read on…..
1. What gave you the idea to start the business?
Bholu was born after I had been living in India for a couple of years. I had gone to India on a scholarship to work as a set and costume designer for a traditional Indian dance company. I had been working there and had fell in love with the country and its people. After the devastating Jan 2001 earthquake which flattened most of Gujarat, I went to assist as an aid for a traditional village situated in the desert region of Kutchchh, in Western Gujarat, India, near the border of Pakistan. I worked with a NGO based at the Mahatma Ghandi Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and my job was to help build huts and traditionally decorate them.
I experienced amazing hospitality by these incredibly rural and poor traditional people. I became particularly close with the women, whose beautiful traditional embroidery is only really used for their own clothing. They are amazing women, they have bangles up to their armpits and do their embroidery with a child strapped to their back in low light. Their skill and art amazed me, and I thought immediately, I have to do something with this.
A few years later, I went back with my designs and gave the samples to different village women to see what would happen. I achieved some amazing results which excited me and started the possibility for production.
The women laughed at the lack of sophistication of my designs and thought that their “Bholu” could do better! Bholu meaning a small child, often a term of endearment to a grandchild.
The name stuck and Bholu was born!
2. What was the plan for the business?
Bholu was never started as a money making venture. It was a way to collaborate my love of India and its people, my designs and a mighty fine challenge!
As it started to take off, I realised I had I something much greater than I had expected on my hands. I have very firm morals behind the business and keeping the traditional craft alive – the idea of fusing contemporary design but having it rendered by a traditional hand. The philosophy behind Bholu is very much about supporting the women and their craft with fair trade and the work allowing them to have financial support and independence.
We also have been running projects with slum children and encouraging them to draw and have fun rather than working. I feel it is very important to remember the humanitarian reasons of why I first started this business and not become too consumed with the “business” side of things and to let that happen organically.
3. How long has the business been running? Is it going as you expected?
We have been in stores for nearly 2 years, but the idea has been an embryo of an idea since 2001.
Bholu is growing at a rate I never expected. I started this as a small side project to my film design career and it has taken over. I still balance work in the film industry, but it is getting harder.
My partner and I sometimes refer to Bholu like a gorgeous but badly behaved child. We seem to be forever running after it and trying to rein everything in. We seem to get over one challenge then another opportunity hits us in the face. The product and the story sells itself, and I am pleasantly surprised by how many people are as interested and passionate about it also.
4. What were you doing before you started the business?
My background is as a set and costume designer for Film, TV, Theatre and Opera (www.jodiefried.com). I graduated from NIDA in 1998 and have been working in the industry since then. This is what in fact took me to India, as I went on a cultural residency to work with a dance company there. This is when I discovered my love and passion for the country and its people. I still work in the industry, my last 2 films were “Romulus My Father” and “Candy”.
5. What do you enjoy most about the business?
I especially enjoy meeting the people that love our products and story. It’s wonderful discovering the connections with like-minded people that are drawn to Bholu and its philosophy.
Going back to India and seeing the faces of the women and children who make this all happen is incredibly fulfilling. My most cherished part is going back to India and handing over the money we raise from Bholu projects. It is so little to us, but means the world to them. For instance, in one recent project, we raised $3000. This is going to a school in a slum community. It will go towards the food that the children get when they go to school. It is a way of educating children, by offering a meal per child per schooling session. This encourages families to send their kids to school instead of work. This money we handed over will feed 200 children one meal a day for a year. It is such a blessing to be able to make a difference and see it go straight to the source of need.
As part of the design process, discovering new techniques and new fabrics and being inspired by the colours and the madness of India. It is most definitely the most frustrating and incredibly difficult country to business with but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
6. What have been your greatest challenges? Your greatest successes?
Working in India is a huge challenge. I think our cocktail of India, 3rd world country, import, export, currency fluctuation and language barriers are huge challenges. Daily I feel like we have our greatest challenges! My greatest success has been actually getting this company up and running! I feel like building our first school in India has been a huge success and all the time I do think how wonderful it is that we have created a company which is sustaining women in work, which was our initial aim.
7. What is your core product? Do you have other products as well?
Our core product has always been the homewares but just this year the kids products have really taken off and have almost become 50% of our business. We have found there is a huge market for quality kids products and people have really responded to the story of our kids products coming from the kids workshops we do in the slum communities.
8. What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about people, new places, and being out of my element. I love new challenges and collaborations in different cultures, languages and bringing what I can to a project.
9. Who inspires you?
There are so many amazing people out there doing incredible things, it is hard to pin point only a few. Daily I meet and read about people who bring me inspiration in so many different ways. One of the most inspiring people I have met is an Indian man called Jayesh Patel (www.globalonenessproject.org/video/Jayesh-Patel/1). Jayeshbhai is the founder of the NGO Manav Sadhna in Ahmedababd, India at the Ghandi Ashram, which we support. I met him 8 years ago and I have forever been in awe of his incredible sense of compassion, selflessness and generosity. If I could have half of what he has in his little toe, I would be happy! My gorgeous partner Greig Fraser (www.greigfraser.com) who is a cinematographer, has been a great source of inspiration for me. He has taught me about being open and confident and to share as much knowledge as you can with the people around you. He is big on sharing his trade secrets and encouraging young, up and coming professionals in his industry. He has been a big cheerleader of mine to encourage me to jump and fly and follow my dreams and enjoy taking risks. I am often inspired by other young people who are doing what they can to help global change and awareness. I recently found this inspiring group of people who are the souls behind a project called “Globaloness Project”.
10. What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue their passion?
Follow your dream, listen to people, talk to people, hear their stories, experience as much as you can and then pass on your knowledge and support to someone else who might need it. Embrace new opportunities and the hurdles when things don’t go to plan, it might just be the lesson you needed. Make mistakes, as many as you can, as early as you can, but remember not to make them twice. A small mistake at the beginning might prevent a bigger one later down the track. You are as only as good as the people around you. Find a good network of people with skills you can draw on, in the early days this is very important.
My biggest advice is to find and identify mentors. They may be people you simply admire from afar, or they may be an active mentor who can meet and use as a sounding board and for some external advice. Listen and talk to as many people as you can, take it all on board and then follow your instinct. The rest will follow.
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