Monthly Feature // February 2021
From wearing business suits to work every day, to working with artisans in the rural villages of India, Kirti began her journey with Okhai.
Ever since she was 13, Kirti grew up watching her mother, a fashion designer, create stunning apparel out of what once was yards of raw fabric "While other kids drew mountains, lakes, and a sun, I would draw fashion sketches. I used to make models and pick colour combinations" When given sketch pens, she would pick purple and pink, justifying that the dress would look really nice with that particular combination. Kirti has been fascinated by and focused on garments since a young age. However, "As life happens to all good Indian kids, I became a software engineer." she grew to learn technology and software along with her creative passions. Looking on the bright side of things, Kirti acknowledged how everything happens for the best "What it did to me was it made me use the other side of my brain as well,I was already creative, but now I could understand statistics, mathematics, algorithms, technology in general!" She went on to work in software for 4 years, and today she runs a fashion brand.
“I really learned how to run a business, from not going to a business school but really being homeschooled, by actually doing it.”
Knowing what you want, and working towards it.
"I think by the time I was 13 I was very clear that I was going to grow up and have a fashion company" While in boarding school, Kirti and her friend, Manorath made a business plan of their future company incorporating details to a professional extent; they had a complete collection of plans from marketing to branding. Come present day, Kirti is the head at Okhai.org with Manorath by her side leading Okhai's design team — they're living their childhood dream.
Kirti is an extremely hardworking professional, "I'm the person who works 13 hours a day when there are none. So it's all about finding the 25th hour for me" Working with the Tata group at the time, Kirti began her journey to finding her passion, Okhai, through a series of fortunate events. "I worked with Tata at the time, TCS (Tata Consultancy Services), and I realized that a friend of mine was applying to this leadership program that JRD Tata had started 50 years ago" A highly selective 6+ year program to groom leaders for the next Tata companies. The highly competitive program provides its participants with cross-industry, cross-function, and cross-geographical experiences that help them become a good business leader for tomorrow. Kirti was picked of 3000+ applicants and was a part of the 23 exceptional minds that attended the program that year. "It was such a huge deal for me, but I worked very hard for it. You can imagine I went crazy studying for it!" This incredible opportunity awarded Kirti with experiences that built a solid base for her to progress professionally. She went on to work with Tata Trust in Nainital, Tata Africa on a Steel Plant in South Africa, with Taj Hotels building their Strategy, Tata auto-components in Pune, and more; overall Kirti worked across finance, marketing, technology, and strategy - working on different operations and different kinds of functions.
"I was looking for my next role and it so happened that I stumbled upon Tata Chemicals, who manufacture Tata salt, and I remember working with the leadership there because I was in the strategy team" Kirti was evaluating different strategies for the future of the billion-dollar company, all while working with the MD and Strategy Head "and when you work with people who are so intelligent and qualified to do what they do, people who have grown tremendously in their careers, just by observing them you start to learn how to run a business". As a natural avid learner, simply by working with and alongside such passionate leaders, Kirti learned how to become one herself — all while still itching to find her next project, something that called to her. At that time, Okhai, the non-profit organization, was struggling. Kirti was brought in to determine its potential. Not one to back away from challenges, Kirti happily took on Okhai and made it into the leading brand for women by women it is today — and so began her destined journey with Okhai.
From wearing business suits to work every day, to working with artisans in the rural villages of India, Kirti began her journey with Okhai. Laxmiben, one of the leading artisans at Okhai back then, was working on a dress while Kirti's visit. "I asked her to come outside on the porch, and take a picture with me" confused about the request, Laxmiben asked Kirti "But, why do you want to take a picture with me?" to which Kirti replied "Because I want to show the world that you made this!" and that is when the message truly hit home for the artisans, realizing that Kirti truly wanted to give them a platform where their work, alongside them, can be recognized nationwide! It was also on this porch of a rural hut that Kirti realized this was the dream company she pictured as a 13-year-old. "That picture really summarized the business plan I had when I was little, it was what my 13-year-old self dreamed of!"
Okhai has grown to almost 10x up until 2020. To grow organically in such a short span of time is nothing but confirmation that you're creating value, impact, and delivering change. "In 2015 we were working with 350 women artisans, at the start of the pandemic we were 2300 artisans, and now this month we're 24,000 artisans!" A substantial, but well-deserved growth spurt that allows Okhai to keep pushing boundaries on the daily. How do they do it, you ask? Well, it's simple "We're just doing what we do, and we're probably doing the exact same thing every day, but just doing it well" is Kirti and Okhai's simple mantra to success. They make sure their products, despite being intricate and complicated, remain designer and true to craft while ensuring quality. Kirti gives us a glance into the process of making raw material to a finished Okhai product "They are first, hand block printed, then hand embroidered, then it's tailored, so the process is quite long - almost like a 6-month process to make 1 batch of a dress." The operationally heavy process has been decentralized across many villages. Kirti mentions how Okhai has made it a conscious decision to run operations like a business, rather than an NGO, and hence it has allowed them to remain in a good and healthy situation despite the hurdle that was 2020. Running itself as a brand brought a lot of seriousness into their products and operations. So much so that they were able to grow tremendously "In fact, we've grown by 55% in revenues this year!" she mentions.
“I wanted to really co-create with the artisans.”
Okhai works with 24k+ artisans from around the country, in collaboration with 8 full-time designers and 60+ empaneled Okhai designers under a program called 'design for good' all lead by Manorath, Okhai's lead designer. Upon discussing the relationship between the artisans and designers, Kirti says "It's a very important dynamic, the creator and the designer; they always have a very very close relationship. But if you see across history and mankind, the creator always feels that they have made the product, and the designer feels that they have made the product. It's really important that the ones that come together to create something so beautiful have to be very empathetic towards each other." Hence, Kirti explained, Okhai's designers travel to the villages and live with the artisans on site, to understand their daily life. Observing what problems the artisans will encounter, to what stitches will be impossible for the artisans to accomplish because they haven't done it in their homes — a dream for people working in craft, and craft designers.
Raising Okhai was a culmination of hard work, dedication, and commitment. "As an NGO, you have to take baby steps, because you're not a heavily funded startup that can spend millions of dollars on marketing. So what we had to do was to prove ourselves every month to make sure we could spend guilt-free the next month on marketing. Especially because you have such a huge responsibility that every single penny you make in sales, could go to the woman or could be spent on Facebook ads. So how do you take that call?" Kirti talks about one of the very real challenges an early-stage NGO has to deal with "How do you decide to spend that 100 Rs. on ads, to ensure that you can make 300 Rs. and then give the 100 Rs. back to the woman." Balancing the moral responsibility that you have as an NGO and in a social business is a very important thing, Kirti tells us. "You have to make sure your mission is right, you're not doing anything just for the sake of growth. You have to grow in a more cohesive, responsible, balanced manner." She summarizes.
Having the right team can do wonders for a brand. As of today, Okhai is a team of 60 people and it's great! It took a while for Kirti to assemble the right team for Okhai, but she's done it! "So many people will come along the way and a lot will not be able to align themselves, lots will be able to prove themselves to be very good and it has to also be that everyone can work at the same pace in an organization, especially in a fast-paced one." Agenda holds priority for those at Okhai, all of Okhai's employees are truly working for the cause. "It's very clear that we don't even follow a hierarchy, everyone's work is their boss! If they deliver to the responsibility that they have, then they feel accomplished - as opposed to a person being their boss" The clear and transparent method of running Okhai was one Kirti built from scratch. "It was a challenge to develop such a beautiful team, but it is a challenge that we have accomplished." In fact, they're about to enter yet another hiring spree for about 15-16 people soon. Head on over to Okhai.org and keep an eye out to join the wonderful team.
As any young organization, Okhai began by doing everything in the house (I'm sure we all can relate). "We didn't want to spend huge amounts of money on agencies, which was an advantage in a way because our communication was so honest and so direct with our customers. It wasn't through another channel, or someone else posting for you on Instagram!" Those were the modest initial days when Kirti herself was the photographer, model, editor, social media marketer, and more. "Now I can finally do a professional shoot and all that!" There really is light at the end of the tunnel. What once felt never-ending for Kirti is now a memorable trip dating back to Okhai's re-birth. To be honest, it gave us tones of hope too. Another common hurdle that Okhai constantly had to surpass was the misguided opinions of some that believed an "NGO" resulted in "Bad products", and for "cheap". "It should not be that 'Oh so if you're an NGO then why are you doing a photoshoot at the Taj?' or 'Oh your product should not be for 2000 Rs., it should be sasta". These were things that they were initially seeing, but over time people started realizing the importance of Okhai's mission, as well as its focus on quality products.
Kirti, now, is the hard-to-miss businesswoman that leads one of India's leading NGO's Okhai.org, featured among India's top 130 Women Transforming India, and is still writing her story. When asked what it meant to be a woman in business, she highlights yet another gap in today's industry "Sexism is not that common in our industry, but ageism is a more common thing in our country, or the world, actually." she says "You're either too young or too old. And I was very young when I started leading the company. It was something that suppliers and partners thought that 'This is your CEO?'" While her department heads were much older than her, Kirti had to lead them in a co-operative manner, because she realized that she needed their wisdom and they needed her innovation in order to work together to create a lasting impact. "I think I felt a lot of ageism and it was something I had to deal with. I always tried to look older than I am and tried to wear a sari to an event where I could be taken seriously because any woman in a sari is an important woman!" she laughs. Not one to let anything hold her back, Kirti confidently states "I've always been a woman who would give men a fair competition." and that is the confidence that helped Kirti become the wonder-woman she is today.
What's next for you?
"So, we're planning now that we're 24000 women we want to reach 1lac women and this year we are looking at building a lot of physical experiences. We've just launched our store in Kala Ghoda in Bombay, and we really plan to make that store the most beautiful and the most loved store in Bombay. It has to become the most famous store. People are also going to seek a lot of physical experiences as exposed to shopping online which we've done all of last year. That's something we're going to focus on, artisans are something we're going to focus on. A lot of the export opportunity is untapped by Okhai, we're B2C and we don't have a mass production facility for B2B but we do plan to get into that as well this year. I think these are the few things that we will really think about."
Takeaways for upcoming creatives?
"I think if I have to say something to designers, it's very very important because as a leader I struggle to work with designers because... the design mind is a very chaotic mind there is creativity in that chaos, right, and very few designers are able to become good professionals. If they are able to cross that line, and that line means productivity, that line means output, that line means understanding the customers, that line means letting go of effort bias, that it's beautiful because I made it, not because will someone buy it or not, and I think that is a huge huge thing that designers of today need to address before they are ready for the world. I think it becomes a huge problem because we work with so many designers and we only select the ones whom we want to work full time with who are very professional, very fast and all the other things I told you about. I think there is a certain reflection there that is required, otherwise, companies will not be able to have in-house design capabilities because it becomes difficult to manage the creativity."
A little more about Kirti
Name 3 other inspirational Indian creatives that you look up to Rahul Mishra, Gautam Sinha, Anita Dongre. A city that you’ve enjoyed traveling to? Amsterdam, it’s all of Europe in 1 place. What are you reading currently? Uncharitable. A major TV Show you recommend binging? The Queens Gambit
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With 🧡 Team WID.