Living in a world with dwindling resources, it is quite ironic that we don’t think twice about discarding materials when they reach end of their life, and as a result, losing them forever instead of saving them for reuse !

Soumya, our next pathbreaker, runs dwij, her own enterprise, with the main focus on preventing unnecessary landfilling of waste cut out garments and post-consumer materials that could be put to better use. 

Soumya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about starting her own venture after realizing how important it is to think about the end of life of a material, and not just about the sustainability in manufacturing .

For students, taking in waste and transforming it into something useful to society is not just creatively satisfying but an opportunity to provide livelihood to marginalized communities and making the world a cleaner place !

Soumya, tell us about your background?

I grew up in a relatively smaller city, in the Marathawada region of Maharashtra. My father is Pediatrician and mother a house maker. During childhood, i used to participate in various kinds of extracurricular activities. I generally used to be interested in taking part in every event possible.  Often in childhood, I used to dream of larger things in life such as having an enterprise or a business of my own and be able to employ people. In addition, empathy and spirituality are something that I associate with very closely. This thought process was very instrumental in shaping up my personality and achieving what I am today. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I went ahead for my graduation in Mechanical Engineering from Pune University, and thereafter Post Graduation in Commercial Vehicles technology from Germany with a special focus on sustainability. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and rare career?

Sustainability is an area that is close to my heart. One of the experiences that kindled my interest in this area is my Post Graduation thesis, which was on analysis of Life Cycle Assessment of certain commercial vehicles. While working on this, I realized how important it is to think about the end of life of a material, and not just about the sustainability in manufacturing the same. In addition, while living in Germany, I used to come across many donation boxes for clothes, which enabled me to do ‘guilt free shopping’ and indulge in excessive purchase of low cost garments especially, that can be worn a few times and simply ‘donated.’ However, after coming back to India and after doing research on the reality of the textile industry, I came across eye opening facts on the harmful effects of excessive shopping and consumerism. This thought process and my natural inclination towards sustainability and spirituality, inspired me to start building an enterprise around these pillars. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

In continuation to the previous Question, the main trigger behind choosing this career was my thesis work in the field of Life Cycle Assessment, and my experiences in Germany. When I came back to India, I got my first job in Godrej & Boyce, in their Innovation Design center. It was also in the area of sustainability, and gave me an opportunity to work with various materials with a focus on end-of-life. I consider Life Cycle Assessment of materials to be very important since it is the phase when a material can be recovered or lost forever. Gradually, while doing more research on materials, I got interested to do something around upcycling of garments since the textile industry is considered the second most polluting industry. As such, while the field that I chose is not related to my area of studies, it was mainly due to my interest in sustainability that I ended up building this social enterprise. I also started to adopt a minimalist lifestyle.

How did you get your first break? 

My first employment after studies was when I returned to India, and I got an opportunity to work for Godrej & Boyce in their Innovation and Design Center. After having worked there for a brief period of time, I felt it was the right time to work on my own project and build by dream. That was when dwij started. 

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

The most important challenge for starting an enterprise in this field is not having prior knowledge about various aspects such as carrying out business, managerial skills, domain knowledge of textile industry etc. However, the love for doing something for the environment and giving something back to society made me pursue this dream despite the challenges. 

Secondly, I want to highlight that the market for sustainable products in India is not developed yet. Thus, it takes a lot of persuasion to make the consumer understand the need to purchase sustainable products that are not only environmentally friendly, but also from a business enterprise that is built on the basis of ethical practices and empathy. To address this, a majority of the bandwidth of dwij in the initial period of establishment was towards marketing, publicity and awareness campaigns.

Tell us about your venture

Currently I run my own enterprise – dwij, with a team of around 5 skilled workers and partner self-help groups. We have our workshop in Mumbai, where most of our manufacturing activity takes place. Our major motto is to make use of second hand jeans and waste cut outs generated from manufacturing of garments that would have otherwise been landfilled or incinerated. The products that we make are lifestyle accessories such as handbags, backpacks, shopping bags, slings etc. The main focus of the enterprise is to prevent unnecessary landfilling of garments and materials that could have otherwise been put to better use. 

Most of the skills required for the work was acquired on the go! The skills required range from people management, designing skills, marketing and networking skills, carrying out digital marketing, budgeting and basics of finance amongst others. 

On a typical day, I start with doing meditation and yoga. After finishing my household work, I head to my workshop. Most of the time is spent in brainstorming and monitoring the work of my employees, and constantly thinking about how things can be improved and which processes can be made better. I also carry out various networking activities through means of contact building, conferences, environmental forums, participation in exhibitions etc. While sustainability is the pillar of our enterprise, it is a core pillar of my own lifestyle too. Thus, I make use of public transport wherever possible. After a long day of exciting tasks, I unwind another round of meditation, and make sure that I get adequate sleep!

How does your work benefit society? 

The major impact of the enterprise is to prevent unnecessary landfilling of garments and materials that could have otherwise been put to better use. To quantify the impact made by dwij, we have upcycled around 3000 pairs of post-consumer jeans, around 1500m of postindustrial denim fabric and 1200m of post-industrial kurta fabric until now. This would have otherwise been discarded, thereby causing harmful effects to the environment. Secondly, we also employ self-help groups involving women working from home. They carry out various manufacturing processes for us, after obtaining prior training at our workshop. In this manner, we also give employment to women who are simultaneously able to manage their family responsibilities. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

As mentioned above, we engage women from self-help groups to carry out certain parts of our manufacturing process. One of the woman tailors was associated with us right since our inception. She was trained at dwij to give quality output as per our expectation and later allowed to work at home. She was able to develop such faith and comfort that she suggested that she would buy her own machinery at home with an assurance of adequate work from our side. We were extremely pleased with this initiative since owning machinery gives a sense of ownership to the work too, rather than us purchasing it for them.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Build and pursue your goals based on what you want to do, and not solely based on what is the most popular career choice. That is the best way of being happy at what you do and also to be good at what you do. In whatever you do, give some priority to see how you can make the world a better place.

Future Plans?

We intend to build the enterprise further by venturing into various other materials. Our goal is to be a pioneer in the area of upcycling and be a brand of first recall.