Boca Raton-based Mela Artisans empowers master craftsmen in India

06/15/2014 7:00 PM

06/15/2014 10:27 PM

Mela Artisans is social entrepreneurial to its core.

Seeing firsthand that master artisans in India were losing their livelihoods because they lacked a global market for their products, Navroze Mehta and his daughter Sonali Mehta-Rao created Mela Artisans in 2010. For the first couple of years, the Boca Raton-based social entrepreneurial for-profit company, then called MyMela, ran a website that brought the handicrafts to customers worldwide while helping the artisans earn their livings.

Business grew steadily, and hundreds of artisans in remote villages were getting orders. But the small team knew that the more the company was able to sell, the more artisans it could help. And all that starts with building a brand that would be in high demand.

Today, Mela Artisans is well on the way to doing that. The company’s home and jewelry collections, all handmade in India, are in stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s around the United States as well as in high-end department stores in Canada and the United Kingdom. The collections are also sold on MelaArtisans.com and include intricately designed jewelry in a mix of metals; bone-inlay home accessories such as trays, photo frames and jewelry boxes; and hand-embroidered pillows.

“It’s a luxury lifestyle brand that blends traditional handcrafting techniques with contemporary design,” said Mehta, Mela Artisans’ CEO, who was raised in India. “We work closely with artisans who create high-quality products, promoting social uplift in their communities. That is what we are all about.”

Sales tripled last year, and the company is on track to exceed that this year, said Mehta, who has previously founded a half-dozen companies, mainly in healthcare. In March, Mela Artisans closed on $3 million in venture capital funding to help it grow.

Although the company has always been powered by passion, the pathway has not always been easy. About a year ago, Mela began a rebranding journey that started with hiring a specialist in the field with deep roots in India — Dipali Patwa, who had recently been working with the Martha Stewart brand, as well as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

“Bringing her on board was transformational. ... The fundamentals were in place, but her vision crafting collections enabled us to make significant progress with higher-end retailers,” said Daniel Echavarria, a founding board member and Miami angel investor who said he has admired Mehta’s leadership and has supported Mela since it was a “business plan of a few pages.”

The team relaunched the company last fall.

“We rebranded the company, the logo, everything,” said Patwa, who is based in Mela’s New York City office. “I felt very strongly that if we were to position ourselves in this marketplace, it was very necessary to position ourselves as a brand with a purpose, and that is what we were. We just hadn’t taken the time to convey that story properly.”

The collections changed dramatically, too. “The products had to work, the designs had to speak for themselves at retail. This is not a charity, it’s not a nonprofit, it’s a real business with a purpose,” she said. “Basically what it boiled down to was understanding the trends — the market trends, the fashion trends — looking at those holistically and incorporating those using our techniques and our style and developing a signature Mela style.”

Mariela Rovito, president of Eberjey, has been carrying bangles and cuffs from Mela’s new jewelry collection in her Miami Beach and South Miami Eberjey stores for a few weeks. “We found the collections modern and unique in the use of traditional handcrafting,” Rovito said. The story behind the brand also appealed to her, she said. “Part of the attraction of working with Mela was a desire to support a local company that is socially conscious and committed to fostering entrepreneurship in underserved communities around the world.”

Patwa said bone-inlay products, recycled from water buffalo bone waste, and hand-carved wood items are selling well in the home market, and horn and bone-inlay jewelry has been getting a strong response in its new jewelry line. Keeping it fresh means coming out with the unexpected.

“There is so much in textiles that come out of India that haven’t been even touched yet — there is so much still to be done,” said Patwa, who was born in India and moved to the United States 15 years ago.

Mela is offering a line of pillow covers next month produced by a women’s group in Kashmir that does “beautiful, cool embroidery,” she said. “That region is in a lot of conflict; they have such incredible talent but no platform. We are launching this line and see how it performs. If it does well, we can expand it into other categories.”

Mehta would not release revenue figures, but he said Mela Artisans sold 30,000 units in 2012, 100,000 in 2013 and is on track to sell 300,000 units this year. He said revenue grew 300 percent in 2013 and is projecting 400 percent growth this year.

Mela Artisans is now a team of 20, spread between Boca Raton, the company headquarters where operations and logistics take place; New York, its creative base; and Mumbai, India, where Mehta-Rao is now based.

In addition to managing the India office and working closely with all the artisan groups, Mehta-Rao also is in charge of Mela’s programs for improving working conditions. For example, health programs are a big need in the villages. “We are working with a social enterprise called VisionSpring to bring affordable eyeglasses and free eye exams to our artisans,” said Mehta-Rao, who worked for several social enterprises in the United States, India and Ghana before co-founding Mela, which means “festival” in Hindi.

“We are also working with the unbanked to help get them accepted into the banking sector; it’s a long-term project,” she said, adding that all the artisans get advances to cover production expenses.

One percent of revenues funds these community-based social programs, Mehta added.

The co-founders agree that timing was on the side of Mela and its social mission. Simply stated, social entrepreneurs work to solve society’s most pressing social problems through innovative solutions — and interest in the movement is surging.

“There’s no question that there is more and more awareness. Consumers want to buy products where they know where they are made — they don’t want to buy from a sweatshop,” Mehta said.

Nowadays, many brands have added on a social element to their business, such as buy one and we’ll donate one, Mehta-Rao said in a phone interview from Mumbai. “But for us, our impact is the core of our business, so the more sales we get, because of the fact we are working with artisans, the more business the artisans get. It’s integrated it into our operations. The U.S. sales team knows exactly what is happening in India.”

Since 2012, Mela has placed orders with more than 50 artisan groups across 10 states in India. Collectively, these groups employ 4,500 full-time artisans, of which 77 percent are women, and more than 6,000 part-time artisans, the company said.

It’s that kind of traction that attracted Aavishkaar, a leading social impact venture fund in India, to invest $3 million to help Mela expand its collections, grow its distribution channels and reach out to a wider range of artisan societies in India. Before the infusion of venture funding in March, Mela received about $1.3 million from angel investors.

Social impact investing is growing but remains a niche market. According to recent World Economic Forum figures, less than $40 billion of capital has been committed cumulatively to “impact investments” out of the tens of trillions in global capital.

“Mela was a compelling investment with its rare combination of established industry relationships with international retailers, significant backward linkages with artisan groups and excellent design capabilities culminating in an extremely competitive product,” said Noshir Colah, partner at Aavishkaar, whose due diligence included visits to the artisan villages as well as to Mela’s New York and Boca offices.

“Moreover, Mela’s eagerness to work directly with artisans and help them produce products of significantly superior quality has enabled artisan groups to upgrade their skills and earn more stable livelihoods, thus making the craft sustainable for them,” Colah said.

Echavarria, who first met Mehta through Young Presidents Organization and their work with the social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka, believes that down the road the Mela model could be replicated to help artisans in other parts of the world.

A more immediate goal, Mehta says, is expansion.

“What’s next for the company is continued growth in our large retail channel ... Specialty stores and boutiques nationwide are also an important focus. International expansion is definitely on our list. In addition to Latin America, the U.K. and the rest of Europe has tremendous potential along with the Middle East,” Mehta said. “We are also constantly looking to create a great buying experience for our customers online.

“Our driving force is to create a global company that can have dramatic impact on the lives of artisans by empowering them.”

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.

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