There are enormous advantages in integrating the agricultural and textile sectors in India through the development of highly sustainable fibers, which are not only circular but increase green cover as well !

Sureshkumar Venkatachalam, our next pathbreaker, Manager Raw Materials at PVH Corp, handles their Raw Material sourcing for Tommy Hilfiger, North America.

Suresh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his affinity for natural fibers such as those from Palm fruit which could be procured from farmers, for making apparel after extracting the fiber.

For students, India is a country blessed with abundant natural resources that are untapped. Hence, its a win-win situation for all if we could create an economy based on circularity.

Suresh, Your background?

I was born in a middle class Agricultural joint family (17 members with grandparents and 4 uncles and their family), in a place which is 1 kilometer away from a village called Viruppatchi in Dindigul district, Tamilnadu. My schooling was in Christian Matriculation Higher secondary school in a nearby town Oddanchatram which is 5km from Viruppatchi. 

Initially, I reached the village by walking, later by cycle and then by bike when my financial situation improved. I was average in studies, a Kabbadi player – participated in few zonal level matches representing school. I always loved farming and used to work in the field early in the morning before going to school. My daily routine was to milk the cow. 

Our summer vacation was dedicated to the jaggery making process which happens almost 3 months a year. The longest distance travelled by me (alone) during my school days was to Pollachi which is around 90 km from my hometown. My parents could not continue their studies beyond primary education due to their financial situation, but they never said no to me and my sister’s education.

What did you do for graduation / post graduation?

My schooling ended after 10th standard and I got into the Diploma Program in Textiles at PSG Tech Coimbatore which was quite a long distance from my home. Reason being – The textile industry was at its peak and there was a person in every family working in a Textile mill. It was my first time away from home. 

After my Diploma, I worked for almost 6 years without a break. After that, I did a part time BTech in Textiles from Anna University – Chennai (study + work to cover my personal needs). Though my intention was to get into NIFT Chennai, I ended up in Anna university and the best part was being able to take guest lectures at NIFT during my UG tenure. Later, I did an MBA in marketing through correspondence for value addition to my career.

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

There was no special push for me to get into this stream, as Textiles was at its peak and every house had a person working in the mill which was a prestige. But after getting into the course, I fell in love with textiles and became the best performer in college with a gold medal. I guess my family felt that I could do only a diploma and would not cope with engineering. But I had a good set of friends (adventurous and go-getters) in my diploma program who were instrumental in helping me build traction towards the industry and created an urge in me to learn more. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

My diploma was a 4 year sandwich program with 4 hours training in the mill in the morning and 4 hours theory in the evening. This gave me an undue advantage of connecting theory with practice. During my part time BTech, I was working in Silk Route, a Chennai based buying agency dealing with silk fabrics and upholsteries, in order to meet my basic requirements and carry on my evening studies, thanks to Cheryl Coelho Gonsalves and Muralidharan. This set the foundation for the rest of my career and life.

My first job after graduation was with Textile Sourcing and Services (TSS) – an apparel buying house in Bangalore.Thanks to Venu Nambiar and Michael Kattukaran, it was like a university in terms of gaining experience. The 4 years molded me to withstand any problems related to industry, with a lot of domestic travel and working on the floor with almost all the big Textile mills in India. I then made a career jump to an apparel buying agency – Lifung for a short span of time (6 months).

Next, a bigger role was waiting for me at Ralph Lauren’s India liaison office. I moved there for 4+ years to work on Raw Materials. We were an initial group of teams in India and had the opportunity to work from scratch. We also travelled to New York and did a mill week to unleash the potential of India in the authentic raw material segment. I would like to convey special thanks to Suresh Balram who was instrumental in molding me.

As my interest in Sustainable Textiles mounted, I moved to the C&A Sourcing India Liaison office for 5 years. C&A is a European mass retailer with a focus on Sustainability and Circularity, which opened my eyes to the other side of the world ( working closely with Cotton farm groups, certifying bodies as well as product labeling). I had an opportunity to take care of Raw Materials R&D for 1 year and then moved into the mainstream to drive companies towards structural change in terms of sustainability and circularity.

With the motto of taking up an international role, I took up an offer with the Epic Group in Hong Kong. After all paperwork was done and just before take off, covid lockdown happened and I was forced to be in India for 6 months. But the company gave me an option to move to the Bangladesh – Dhaka office and serve there for 13 months exploring the Raw Material segment in that geography. It was a memorable experience where I had the opportunity to implement a lot of processes and drive product sustainability, a special thanks to Dr.Vidhura Ralapanawe, Mr.Peeyush Thakur and the management team.

I am currently with PVH as Raw material manager, with my family in Bangalore and enjoying my career.

How did you get your first break?

I used to do presentations (inter-college level) on topics which are out of the box. In my last semester of undergraduation, I did a presentation on the “Ergonomics in Textile Industry” at IIHT (Indian Institute of Handloom Technology). There were a lot of students who liked the topic and hence I made many friends. While chatting during break time, a friend shared a contact of a company in Bangalore, and that’s how I landed my first job – Textile Sourcing and Services ( TSS in Bangalore).

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

Personal challenge – Having been born and brought up in a joint family with a lot of support, suddenly being exposed to a new environment and unknown topics was a challenge. But having a good set of friends helped me overcome all these challenges.

Industry Challenge – This is very subjective, I feel we cannot eliminate this challenge, but we can work closely with supply chain partners to have more transparency.

Where do you work now? 

I currently work at PVH, handing their Raw Material sourcing for Tommy Hilfiger, North America.

What problems do you solve?

I work on Raw Material sourcing, Pricing, Sustainability and product innovation under competition.

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

Good relationship with manufacturers, strong technical/educational background, and practical experience with hands-on work experience at the manufacturing level.

What’s a typical day like?

We don’t have a specific day, but a routine schedule involving calls in the evening with our counterpart in NYC.

What is it you love about this job? 

I love the fact that I work on seasonal developments where you can induce your ideas into reality, and you actually work one year ahead of a product being launched, and on raw materials which are the core for the industry.

How does your work benefit society? 

I work with mills for raw materials sourcing and induce a tint of sustainability through my work. Apart from my mainstream work, I work on new fiber innovation for the benefit of farmers and am totally inclined towards natural raw materials.

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

After C&A, I had plans to move to HK with my family. I did all my homework and prior to take off, due to the lockdown, we had no clue as to what was going to happen. I was jobless for 6 months for the first time in my life. I utilized the entire 6 months in building relationships with known / unknown people. I did a few webinars within my known circles, for some companies and shared my experience with college students.

I curated a standard – NICE – No Irrigation Cultivated Ethically standard for cotton farmers. Along with Vasudev, I joined hands with the Control Union to draft and bring it into reality. This standard focuses on benefitting farmers cultivating cotton under rain fed conditions. Thanks to Dr.Binay Kumar.

I also worked on the Palm fiber extraction process and elevating it into an apparel grade product. It is a new natural fiber with an end product in hand and which also holds a lot of medicinal properties. We also germinated the seeds post extraction for replanting for the next generation.

These 2 projects are close to my heart and memorable.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I can’t say this as an advice, but sharing my experiences – 

Learn everyday and don’t be stagnant, keep moving. Interact and engage with people, attend seminars, sessions not only to know the subject but to meet people.

Yes, money is important!, but it is not the only thing that is important.

Future Plans?

I am working intensively on Palm fruit fiber to integrate the Agriculture and Textile industry.

Currently the fruit has no commercial value, but only created value by procuring it from farmers under rainfed condition, extracting the fiber and making apparel. The seeds are not wasted as they are re-planted. By this means of making a highly sustainable fiber, which is circular, we take care of the next generation by increasing green cover with this input –  working on a principle called SPIRAL ECONOMY – elevating it to a circular economy.  

Will keep working.. and will be a Learner ..

I have made it a practice to plant a tree per employee on their Birthday – a living gift in their name.

Below is the screen shot proof for 136 trees with 11 employment and 2720 kgs of CO2 reduction per year.