Born in Wales to Nepali parents, Jyoti Upadhyay moved to London at 18 to study Anthropology at the London School of Economics. After graduating she moved to Kenya to work on a FGM research program before training with a micro-finance organization in Western Uganda. In 2008 she returned to London to complete her Masters Degree in International Development.
Marrying her background in anthropology and a need to revive fading artistic traditions she launched Kaligarh in 2009, a small jewellery enterprise based in Nepal and the U.K.
After devastating earthquakes in 2015, followed by a crippling trade blockade, that the company is still trading is astonishing and testament to Jyoti’s drive and business savvy. I caught up with her in Nepal for a chin wag about how to launch a successful business, why the development industry in Nepal is so damaging and her understated, elegant style.
Tell us about your business, Kaligarh.
‘Kaligarh’ means artisan in Nepali, someone specialised in a craft or art form, usually working by hand as a jeweller, carpenter, tailor, mason or blacksmith. Kaligarh pays tribute to the ancient and contemporary art and artisans of the Himalayan region. In our jewellery lines, we play with motifs and designs inherited from past generations, re-crafting them into new forms. Each Kaligarh product is handmade by small-scale artisans in Nepal and across the Himalaya. All of our production happens here, in Nepal.
A couple of artisans in the medieval cities of Patan and Bhaktapur lost their houses because of the earthquake…his daughter-in-law was expecting a baby two weeks after the earthquake so sleeping outside in the cold was not an option.
How did the enterprise come about?
Working in development in Nepal I found it such a shame that so much energy was wasted on trying to bring in funds from abroad. That leaves little time to actually implement projects, so I became increasingly inclined towards social enterprise.
I realized the business was viable and beneficial for the region.
With my background in anthropology, I started to research traditional forms of jewellery realising that the Himalaya region has a huge amount of cultural diversity and traditions associated with the jewellery. The region spans 2,400km from Bhutan to Afghanistan and, before the modern age, artisans worked and travelled along routes crisscrossing these lands, creating distinctive indigenous forms of architecture, jewellery and textiles. The Valley of Kathmandu has long been a hub of artistic activity going back to the 16th century and beyond.
the artisans and their skill sets were quickly disappearing.
In many ways, I was a reluctant entrepreneur because my interests were more in preserving the craft and documenting traditional forms of jewellery. The entrepreneurial aspect came later as I realized the business was viable and beneficial for the region. The influx of low-cost foreign jewellery and household goods has meant that handmade items are only required for specific religious rituals. Because of this, the artisans and their skill sets were quickly disappearing. Labor migration is also a big issue in Nepal: young people were not pursuing these arts, they were leaving – alongside skilled craftsmen – to pursue unskilled labour in the Gulf, often working in gruelling conditions, far from their families.
By working with artisans one-on-one, Kaligarh aims to help them retain a positive sense of identity while enhancing their incomes and creating jobs.
What convinced you to quit your job in early 2016 to focus on the business full time?
After the earthquake in 2015 something shifted (literally and figuratively). A couple of artisans in the medieval cities of Patan and Bhaktapur lost their houses because of the earthquake and I felt a sense of responsibility and also an opportunity to support them. Immediately we were able to raise funds to get one of the artisans into rented accommodation – his daughter-in-law was expecting a baby two weeks after the earthquake so sleeping outside in the cold was not an option. Kaligarh gave him an interest free loan to build a temporary home while he saves to build a permanent home. Support came via our customers, friends and family.
It was at this point that I quit my job to work full time on Kaligarh.
What has been your greatest challenge so far?
2015 was a nightmare! First, there were the earthquakes…two of them. Despite the obvious difficulties, it was a really positive time because people came together and there was a real sense of, “…we can do this”. A lot of young people from Kathmandu went out to rural villages to get involved in the relief effort. I felt things were changing and that the youth were going to move things forward.
First, there were the earthquakes…then the monsoon and the trade blockade by India.
Then there was the monsoon and the trade blockade by India. I think the blockade had a bigger impact on the economic situation and on morale than the earthquakes. There was a six-month period through the winter where there were virtually no imports coming into Nepal: there was no gas for heating or cooking, there was no petrol, there was no diesel. Everything ground to a halt. People were struggling to survive and to get by. I thought it would just be temporary but it lasted five and a half months, ending in February 2016. Unfortunately, no other country stepped in to supply fuel.
A lot of positive energy dissipated because the blockade took everyone by surprise and sucked everyone’s morale. I think people realised the situation was out of their control.
…we were walking up to three hours every day to get to work and we ran out of gas…
For Kaligarh, it meant that we were walking up to three hours every day to get to work and we ran out of gas, which we need to heat the metal. Then the transformers started to blow and we were out of electricity for a week at a time. This should have been the time the business was moving forward because I had started to develop wholesale contacts, but we were just not able to.
Secure back up capital. Grow slowly.
How did you establish relationships with the jewellery artisans?
…over a period of time I built up relationships and an understanding of who was good at what and what they enjoyed doing…
I really took my time. I travelled around the Kathmandu Valley meeting different artisans who used traditional techniques and over a period of time I built up relationships and an understanding of who was good at what and what they enjoyed doing. I’ve taken a very idiosyncratic approach to developing these relationships.
They are paid premium rates as the artisan is at the centre of our company, and is treated with respect and dignity. Most of them are caring for large, multi-generational families, and urgent health and personal issues arise from time to time. In such cases, we support our artisans the best as we can, including providing advances and flexible work schedules.
How many artisans do you have at the moment?
At the moment we work with 12 artisans. Three are full time.
Traditional artisans here prefer to work independently rather than as employees. They usually work in their own studios which their fathers, and sometimes grandfathers, worked in. I’m very hesitant to take people out of that environment because that lifestyle is such an important part of their trade: friends and family pop in to chat throughout the day and get small things fixed.
What role do women play in business in Nepal?
Nepal is not a society where women are kept away from public life.
It is still fairly rare for a woman to own a business. In the villages women are always very active, it is not a society where women are kept away from public life. Nepal now has a female President and women are often very much in charge, but in terms of politics and in public life, it’s not always obvious or encouraged.
There aren’t many examples of female entrepreneurs or female business owners who have made it to a high level. However, Ambica Shrestha (83) the owner of Dwarika’s (a group of travel and hospitality companies) is a great role model. Dwarika’s is a good example of how a socially motivated business can work in Nepal how you can set yourself apart from the crowd by having faith in your vision.
What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
1. Secure back up capital
This is something I didn’t do even though a lot of people had told me to. I wanted to test the idea but I hadn’t thought through how to keep cash flow going and how I would expand. Think about these at the start as it’s not just about the idea.
2. Grow slowly
This advice was particularly valuable in an unpredictable environment like Nepal. A friend turned down an order from Nordstrom because she wasn’t sure she could maintain the quality for that quantity. At the time I thought she was mad, but she was right. If you build your product to be good enough, the offer will come at the right time.
I’m glad I grew the business slowly because we might have drowned during the blockade if we had committed to big wholesale orders. Now things are growing: we’re moving into a bigger workshop, taking on more artisans and employing more people. I feel like it’s the right time to do that and I’m glad we didn’t do it sooner.
Is the creative start-up industry in Nepal growing?
I have a few friends in Kathmandu who are also running their own businesses and we draw on each other. We meet for dinner once a month and laugh at all the mistakes we made.
I feel the development industry here is quite damaging: it takes away a lot of the best human resources and they pay so much higher than any private sector company or government can pay. But, I think that more young people are recognising the pitfalls of external aid and are moving away from it. There’s a growing group that sees opportunities in Nepal, rather than just problems.
How would your best friend describe you?
Sincere. Annoyingly difficult to contact – something I’m working on.
How would you describe your personal style?
Understated. My friends would probably say ‘put together’, but there’s always a hint of scruffiness that I can’t hide. I cycle to the studio most days, so trousers and comfy shoes are a must.
What are your go-to fashion brands?
I like to know where the garments are made and I try to buy natural fabrics. This obviously makes shopping difficult! That’s not to say that I don’t shop anymore. My favourite websites for sustainable style are Reve En Vert and The Acey. Everlane is also a great one. In L.A. I loved designer vintage store Collection – I found a tropical print Prada skirt and wore it all summer. I also love Osei Duro – they produce clothes in Ghana using traditional techniques. I have a blue and white silk t-shirt from there that I haven’t had a bad day in yet.
Have you faced adversity during your career or in establishing your business? Tell us how you dealt with these obstacles in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!
Elissa was gifted a pair of small silver Kaligarh earrings from the owner of Kaligarh after the interview.