Artists, Social Entrepreneurs and Founders of a sustainability start-up, PaperBaag, Priya Gour and Sumedha Mahajan may share their love for economics, art, books and coffee, but they come from somewhat different backgrounds. Sumedha spent her childhood in the terrains of Jammu and Kashmir. Both her parents are doctors and a huge supporter of art. They sensed her inclination towards art quite early. When she was in 8th standard, her mother even took her to an art studio which was run by a specially-abled teacher. “It was there I realized that art speaks beyond language, and it’d be a sin to not use it as a means to propagate beauty and connect with the world”, says Sumedha who has taken a five-year training in art. Priya was born in Bhopal to a family of agriculturists. Youngest of the three siblings, and the most pampered and protected amongst the lot, she spent her childhood in the nooks and crannies of her ancestral house in a small village called Datwasa in Madhya Pradesh. At the age of nine, her parents enrolled her into a boarding school, and life for an otherwise shy and reserved Priya transformed completely. “I believe early exposure to a hostel life made me much more adaptable and considerate of other people. I started making my own decisions and managing everything on my own.”
What’s interesting to note is that despite being miles away from each other, their dots connected and Priya and Sumedha not only ended up as good friends but also great business partners. “Thanks to Miranda House,” beams Priya. Sumedha jumps in to add, “We met at Miranda house in some of the oddest circumstances, a time of our lives when our mental health was at its lowest, and it had started showing up in our academic performance too. But we kept pushing through and didn’t let it break us apart.” The duo then also pursued MSc in Applied Economics with Public Policy together at the University of Bath, UK. Just as a selfless camaraderie between the two was flourishing, in the second year of their graduation, they decided to launch their Instagram page, which was then called Meraki, paving the way for a fruitful business relationship. “It was our collective interest in art that developed a good understanding between us. And so, we decided to take it forward. With Meraki, our aim at that time was to share our paintings and artworks. In a few days, we received appreciation from people we knew and even those we didn’t. One day, a mutual friend asked us to make a birthday card for her friend, and she insisted on paying for it. That’s how we received our first payment. Soon, the potential of finding financial security through our hobby started seeming like a tangible idea, and hence, we decided to commercialize our work and take it seriously,” shares Priya. Soon, the journey that started with selling handmade stationery through social media platforms and pop-up stalls in the college fests culminated into something more unique, more defined and sustainable. Meraki got beautifully transformed into PaperBaag.
One may wonder, what’s in the name? “We decided the first word to be PAPER because every idea originates from a scribble on the paper. And, BAAG (garden) originated from our intention to spread the beauty of nature. We wanted our work to transform lives the way art transforms a blank paper,” reveals Sumedha. When the two became co-founders, they decided to continue producing and promoting handmade. According to them, it was labour intensive and allowed them to generate opportunities for many in need, and it also brought a compelling and personal connection with the buyers. From the beginning, their focus was on reducing environmental inequality by adopting sustainable art practices & reducing socio-economic inequalities by empowering underprivileged women. And so, the name PaperBaag does complete justice to their end goals.
The start-up speaks of sustainability. For instance, and their best seller wooden décor is processed from dead, dry wood from fallen trees, they adopt packaging practices that involve cardboard wraps, and recycled paper. Their ideology rests on being socially responsible and as ecological as possible. They also ensure that their products leave minimal or zero waste. Spilling the details of their eco-friendly modus operandi, the founders share, “The motive behind it was to reduce our carbon footprint and give that dead waste wood life by converting it into a beautiful art piece. And, we focus on minute details, for instance, in November 2020, we launched our 2020 calendars that were designed in a way that left zero waste. The calendar comprised of a wooden stand (completely sustainable, processed from waste wood), six calendar leaflets printed on both sides where paintings were printed one half of the page and opposite sides that could later be used as wall arts, once the month or the year ends.”
The company also religiously dedicates itself to celebrate the work of local artisans. Both Priya and Sumedha accept that India’s local art and craftsmanship has got lost amidst huge global competition in the industry. And so, they want to push themselves as much as possible to preserve it. During the inception of Meraki, the talented duo also launched a sister campaign called PROJECT BUNAAI. Aimed at working with underprivileged artisans on a freelance basis, the project promised to create opportunities for those who lack the social privilege of pursuing their dreams. “We did not go far. We employed our house help Anu who showed keen interest in craft, especially the art of crochet. She taught herself through YouTube and within a month, became a trained crochet artist. We decided to launch a range of woollen products like woven bookmarks, coaster, potli, mats and book sleeves and shared profits with her. We sold her products in our college fest, and in no time, she became the face of our brand. When we registered our firm, she became our first employee!”
PaperBaag, that stands on the value of helping people build a thoughtful, artistic lifestyle that is both fashionable & sustainable, is now one-year-old and the founders are more than grateful to have come so far. Reflecting on their journey, they aver, “Running a business is like walking on a path full of learning and unlearning. It is important to make mistakes and even more important to learn from them. In the last one year, we have experienced it all – From getting the opportunity to display our work at Jaipur Literary Fest to make ends meet during the lockdown. But we continued to persevere and remain hopeful. Despite the tides, we celebrated every single win that came our way, starting with converting our store into an office space to getting featured as ‘women entrepreneurs of the month’ in Women in Design, India. From being appointed as video creators by Craftsutra to collaborating with Fabindia. With every opportunity that allows us to add more meaningful content into the world – we feel nothing but fortunate.”
For the unserved, the dynamic duo also offers freelance designing services such as brand development, product designs, book covers, wedding cards, print designing. Of the two, Sumedha is the artist, concept designer & the creative head and Priya is the think-tank and the graphic designer of PaperBaag. She also heads the operations department. We wondered, with such a wonderful camaraderie, the two ever faced any ‘difference of opinions’? “Of course! In 80% of the cases, my opinions differ from that of Sumedha’s. But we always talk, and find a middle ground. There have been times when we couldn’t find a middle ground and so we let the other person take her chances and see how it worked for us,” says Priya. Sumedha adds, “We respect each other’s opinion but never shy away from telling what we feel is right. And that has helped us grow as friends, and even more as business partners.”
According to Start-Up India, more and more women entrepreneurs are leading the business and economic development of the country. Not only this, they are also inspiring young girls to be a part of the entrepreneurship ecosystem, starting with encouraging them to believe in their dreams, and to fight for them. If given a chance, both Priya and Sumedha whose idea of growth is inclusive and wish to continue working on creating opportunities and building platforms for other people, would love to mentor budding entrepreneurs. In fact, they have already started a series of HUSTLE STORIES on Instagram where they share various aspects of running a business, and how not everything about it is hunky-dory. “We also intend to start a learner’s module for artists and aspiring entrepreneurs because we want to build a platform for them that we lacked. We also want to tell them that if they wish to become entrepreneurs – they need to be patient with the process and most importantly, with themselves. Network, no matter what stage they are in their career, they should create connections with people. And, should not give up when the going gets tough because feelings never produce outcomes, actions do.”
(Exclusive for Real Life Heroes – By Manvi)