I am proud to introduce you to Jhumkee Iyengar. We met when we were exhibiting on the same aisle at a trade show in New York, NYNow and made an instant connection with one another.
Jhumkee runs Ohrna, a social enterprise in rural India that uses design as a starting point to develop kits and training for rural women, so that they can make products out of sustainable materials which are sold for profit.
I loved the story behind her brand and she loved the products we make, even taking one of our aprons back home to India with her!
I thought you might like to find out more about Jhumkee's business.
There are some parallels between our businesses. We are both working in a rural community, providing employment for local people and creating sustainable products.
Listen In - On International Women's Day
Jhumkee and I are running an Instagram Live session on International Women’s Day (March 8th 2022) to talk through some of her experiences and the learnings from her business and to celebrate the work that she is doing at Ohrna. We are also stocking one of her product ranges, Hope Dolls, on our web site to help support her business.
These Hope Dolls represent the people and dressing styles of different regions of India and therefore are of varied sizes, attires and skin colors, just like us all!. They are made out of scrap material and byproducts of their manufacturing process that would otherwise have to be discarded.
Their eyes are inspired by goddess Durga, the land of Ohrna’s roots in Bengal.
And they come to you with wishes for good health and peace!
Jhumkee says they make great gifts, car or wall hangings or even Christmas ornaments.
We are stocking some Limited Edition Hope Dolls on our web site click here.
Profits made from the sale of each set of Hope Dolls will be used to train girls in handcrafts through the Sunder Rang project, just outside Chandelao, Rajasthani, India.
Jhumkee, tell us about your background
I grew up in the city of Pune, with a childhood I can only describe as utopian. My parents — a scientist father and a professor mother — inspired me to live a simple but wholesome life. They taught me the importance of learning and instilled in me the responsibility of passing it on. I have grown up counting my blessings and have always felt a very strong urge to give back.
I spent three and a half decades building a career in human-centred product design, including two postgraduate degrees, several years in the corporate world across India and America as well as my own consulting practice, helping companies and organisations incorporate design thinking.
Spurred on in part by my desire to give back, I have now spent nearly a decade passing on my knowledge and experience to future generations —teaching design courses at IIT Kanpur, at the Pittsburgh-based LUMA Institute and in the Indian government’s National Program for Technology Enhanced Learning.
What led you to starting your business?
Ohrna, which I founded in 2017 at age 57, is in many ways a combination of both my working life and teaching career – it’s the culmination of my life’s work.
I was inspired by my aunt, Sharmila Sen. An artist by profession, she provided free training and raw materials to local adivasi women. What started as a fun, fruitful activity for my aunt went on for 25 years to provide value to many customers and makers alike. Training rural women for free and providing materials to work from home are aspects of her model that I absorbed into Ohrna.
The idea for Ohrna came about after I helped my aunt organize exhibitions of her products in Pune and the US. One fine Sunday, I found myself playing with leftover jute scraps; I ended up making a phone pouch for my domestic help and myself.
This continued, with me using a lot of my free time to start other product explorations with jute as a base material and traditional Kantha embroidery on it, both of which are native to the Bengal region.
I wondered if I could translate the skills I had learnt in industrial design to design products that could be made by rural women within the constraints of their environments.
In India women in rural settings are constrained by a lack of opportunities and education as well as societal norms. They often have no means to leave in search of a better life. I realised that to work in this space and with these women, I would need to do so within their comfort zone.
I conducted workshops and used existing networks to connect with rural women who were interested in working from home. When I showed them some of the jute products I had come up with, they got very excited about learning them! I taught them everything from best practices of stitching to intricate embroidery, until they could create the products, I had envisioned, from start to finish.
I used the workshops themselves to test out each product kit, which contained every scrap of fabric and thread necessary to make each product. I refined and fine-tuned them, and then at night I would document it for the ‘Maker’s Manual’.
How has your work evolved over time?
I have learned that there is a big difference between making something myself and teaching others how to do it. Learning anything new requires time and effort from the student along with patience from the teacher, and that’s what I needed to bring to the table.
I had been keen to take our beautiful Indian crafts and materials to the Western market for a very long time. The US seemed like the perfect primary market to begin with. But as familiar as I was with the country from my time living in the US, building a presence on the other side of the world brought with it several challenges.
From setting up a new e-commerce store, to photographing the products, to shipping and storing them overseas — each aspect of the business was new to me.
A random and casual application to NY NOW resulted in Ohrna getting selected as a ‘Market Incubator’ for its social impact work. That selection, the only one from India that first year, put us on a platform in terms of learning, visibility, direction, and focus. It also got us some valuable recognition, with two of our products shortlisted for the “best new product” award in two of the three shows we have done so far.
What inspires and motivates you?
For millions of Indian women, particularly rural women, their lives and roles are defined for them from the moment they’re born — without regard for what their own desires or aspirations might be. Wife. Mother. Daughter-in-law. They are forced to drop out of school, get married, stay at home and not work for a living, even if they want to.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t yearn to learn, have goals they want to achieve or a desire to earn their own money. Financial independence, for these women, is more than just that. It gives them a voice in society, a choice for how to live their lives and a better life for their children.
I am often reminded of my own privileged upbringing, the opportunities I was given and the freedom to follow my dreams. Giving these women what I’ve always had is what motivates me to do what I do.
Our current customer base, while small, is spread across the US, India, Dubai, UK and Germany.
Our ethnic, embroidered backpacks, totes, containers and pouches are our most popular products today, all handmade by our artisans. Besides, we also have shoulder bags, laptop sleeves, shopping bags and more.
We combine jute with natural and local fabrics to give a unique, rustic-classy look to our products.
Tell us how your business is sustainable?
We love working with jute — a more natural, durable, breathable, and versatile material than cotton.
Some of our product elements are created from scrap by-products of our production process and from donated old clothes. I also chose to package all our products in up-cycled saris, which showcased our beautiful and fine sari fabrics, colours, patterns, and motifs along with our products, all a representation of India!
In this world of fast fashion, styles aren’t made to last. Ohrna, on the other hand, believes in creating responsible products — organic over synthetic, sustainable over non-renewable, and handmade over mass-produced. And most of all, we believe in people over products.
What does the future bring for Ohrna?
Ohrna is now four years old. I have trained and employed around 25 women so far. We sell to anyone who appreciates our unique designs, materials, traditions, and mission, from individual customers to small boutiques to wholesalers.
Within two years I want Ohrna to create steady work for at least 25 rural women for 50% of their available time.
I also envision setting up a standalone rural order-making and delivery unit, run and managed, complete with quality control, by rural women themselves.
By 2030, I envisage 100 rural women being employed by Ohrna full time. I also hope to recognize and develop a small team of designers that have grown from making the products to designing their own. This team will not only research market trends and come up with product ideas, but also take care of prototyping and variations of the designs.
My personal goal, having built Ohrna into what it is, is for it eventually run without me. I have never viewed Ohrna as just my organisation; it belongs to us all.
How would you summarise your journey so far?
Ohrna for me has been an exhilarating journey, one in which I grow a little every single day. I got into this for the long haul, and I will be gratified if the philosophy and goals I have tried to instil stay alive beyond me. I consider myself blessed to have had this opportunity to experience Ohrna and to leave behind something of value from which others may feel inspired.
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