Interview by Akanksha Sharma
Today, I’m in conversation with Yosha Gupta, fintech entrepreneur extraordinaire and champion of Indian artists all over the country. Yosha is the co-founder of Meraki, a women’s handbag brand whose products feature art by incredible Indian artists. I’m particularly interested in the background behind Yosha’s deep-dive into the Indian art sphere & also her take on the challenges facing artists in the country. Let’s see what she has to say.
Could you please introduce yourself to the readers of Indspire Me?
I belong to a small town from India, Aligarh and have studied in multiple places – in Jaipur, Maharani Gayatri Devi School, undergrad in Economics at Lady Shriram College, post grad at MDI Gurgaon (with an exchange programme in HHL Germany) and at HKUST in Hong Kong. Growing up in Aligarh, my main exposure to the arts was through my mother, she was a fabulous artist and had evolved a style of her own with charcoal paintings of Khajuraho. My family is full of entrepreneurs. My father started a new business at the age of 60 and worked very hard to make a success of it and I couldn’t be more proud of him. My brother is a very successful entrepreneur and has always pushed and inspired me. My aunt in Aligarh was one of the first female doctors there to run her own practice and started the biggest hospital in Aligarh at a time when working women were frowned upon. My great grandfather started the city’s biggest girl’s college, Tikaram College where 12,000 girls study every year. The values of hard work and resilience are ingrained deep in me because of each one of them.
You are an extremely successful entrepreneur in the FinTech space. What made you start something as different as Meraki?
I feel like I’ve just gotten started on my entrepreneurial journey so wouldn’t go as far as calling myself successful just yet. Starting Meraki was not a conscious move or pivot as such, it was a pure passion project from the heart which took a life of its own and evolved into a business. Art has always been a very big part of my life whether it be performing arts, fine arts or the folk arts. I have been organizing Indian classical events in Hong Kong for the last 8 years that I have been living here as part of a volunteer organization which have been attended by thousands of art aficionados purely for the love of arts and have long standing deep relationships with all the artists I have worked with.
In fact, I loved folk arts so much that everything right from my clothes, jewelry, my own bags, the furniture in our house are all hand-painted by Indian folk artists. Over the last couple of years a lot of people started asking me where they could get bags like mine from, what especially made a huge statement was when I got a Gucci handbag handpainted by our Madhubani artist Ranjeet Jha, everyone just loved it and it was obvious that there’s a market for this. The rest then followed- and the business took a life of its own.
Meraki’s luxury hand painted bags showcase the best of Indian art
You have co-founded Meraki along with your mother, the fabulous artist Ms Vibha Gupta. What has it been like, working with her?
As I mentioned, my love for art comes from my mother. She herself is an amazing artist and the one who works with all the artists to create our fabulous collections. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner, she is immensely talented and most importantly as committed to the cause as I am. It hardly ever feels like work because both of us love art and have such a great time doing everything together.
Meraki is really helping artists with their livelihood, and empowering them to preserve the legacy of their art. How do you go about locating the artists and connecting with them?
One of the lovely qualities in artists is how willing they are to introduce other artists, getting referrals from some of our early artists has been key. We are already working with more than 50 artists from different art forms across the country now and artists have started reaching out to us directly too. What they also love is that we trust them enough to send our products over to them so they can work in the comfort of their own homes in their own villages and towns and that helped us to reach out to a lot more artists instead of only restricting ourselves to artists who are in the big cities.
Could you share a few stories of your own experiences in interacting with artists? How do they feel about their work being able to reach thousands of people across the globe?
One of the most touching moments was when we recorded a message from one of our artists Ranjeet and sent it to our patron Meenakshi in Hong Kong, she was so touched by that message that she immediately recorded and sent a message back for Ranjeet. I can never forget the look on his face when he saw that message, to paraphrase him, he said ‘Maza aa gaya, laga ki main bhi hong kong ho aaya / I loved this, I felt that I also went to Hong Kong’. This has been the most gratifying part about building Meraki, to play a small part for our amazing artists and arts to get the recognition that they rightfully deserve.
What are the challenges artists face when it comes to surviving and thriving in contemporary India? Is there anything, on any level, that can be done differently?
A number of challenges to be honest, art and craft is really undervalued in our country and everyone has a mentality to haggle down the prices thinking that these are ‘unbranded’ products. Creating the ‘artisanal’ high end positioning is key, in countries like France, artisanal products are really highly valued and considered to be a part of the luxury segment, that’s where I feel more companies like us that start focusing on each particular craft or art and introduce quality measures to create higher end products and good branding would be key. It is also important to keep the younger generating learning these art forms and to that end we have also launched a crowdfunding campaign (https://nextchapter.com.hk/campaign/meraki-artisanal-luxury-bags) to help fund an art school in Madhubani region in Bihar in partnership with an NGO to help teach Madhubani art to young girls to help them get economically empowered.
What’s your vision for Meraki five years down the road?
The focus for the next couple of years is going to be completely on scaling up the business and targeting new markets like Japan, Singapore, UK and the US where people have appreciated our products but we don’t have targeted marketing and reach there at this point. The focus will also be on expanding into other product lines like hand-painted clothing, jewelry, furniture and more, the scope is endless and that’s truly exciting. We will also work on public art projects – seeing Indian folk art wall murals across the world is a big dream too. At the center of this all, the most important vision is to bring patronage and economic empowerment to our artists.
Thanks so much for your time Yosha. Please share an inspiring message with the readers of Indspire Me.
There’s nothing better than creating lasting value – that magical feeling to be able to create ‘something’ from ‘nothing’, with integrity, passion and resilience and with the ability to mobilize many to come on this journey. Be an entrepreneur, you won’t be disappointed.