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How These Entrepreneurs Bring Artisan-Made Goods to People Around the World

May 31, 2022 | Published by Faire

Image courtesy of Ichcha

As Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month comes to a close in the US, we’re sharing the work and stories of three Faire customers from the AAPI community—Soothi, A Million Elephants, and Ichcha—who offer sustainable and handcrafted goods from artisans in India and Laos.

Founded by Krit Khandelwal in 2015, Soothi specializes in handmade journals and greeting cards made of sustainable materials by artisans in India. For every Soothi journal purchased, one tree is planted through the non-profit One Tree Planted. Soothi’s journals are created to be catalysts and containers for creativity and change. 

A Million Elephants works with artisans in villages in Laos to create handcrafted jewelry, tote bags, home decor, and other eco-friendly gifts and accessories. Founder Brittany Phounsiri began the company with a mission to share Lao culture, create opportunities for Lao artisans to earn fair wages, and support elephant conservation efforts in Laos. 

Finally, Rachna, Ruchika, and Monika Kumar—the triple sister team behind Ichcha—work to bring eco-conscious home decor items to people around the world. Their goods are designed in NYC and handmade by artisans in India.

We spoke with Krit, Brittany, and Rachna about working with local artisans, prioritizing sustainability, and celebrating their heritage.  

Soothi

Faire: What led to the founding of Soothi? Where did the inspiration come from?

Krit Khandelwal: After a few years in the corporate world, it became clear that I had very little control over my career. I didn’t want to work 60 to 70 hours a week and be unhappy and unsatisfied with a big part of my life. So, I decided to venture out for myself and build a brand on my own.

I started looking for a product, innovative materials, and inspiration for my brand. I was shopping in an old street market in India, where I found a vintage journal that I just had to have. I’ve journaled my entire life and have this love affair with stationery and paper products. It occurred to me that if I could find a way to reimagine these journals using different materials and design techniques, it could be something that others might love too. I partnered with a local artist and a craftsman to create four designs and simultaneously learn the process of hand making journals. I did a small launch and immediately got very positive feedback, and that was the beginning. 

Faire: What materials make up your journals? How do you go about sourcing these materials? 

Krit: I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to use sustainable materials to produce our products. The leather we use is upcycled leather that other manufacturers have turned down because it has too many imperfections. The paper in our journals is 100% tree-free paper made from cotton waste pollution collected from local rivers and turned into pulp and then paper. We just launched a line of greeting cards made from tree-free paper that is embedded with marigold seeds so it can be replanted. 

Shop Soothi on Faire.

Zodiac journal from Soothi

Faire: Tell us more about the local artisans you work with. 

Krit: Since I grew up in India, I was aware of the artisans that work to preserve century-old crafts and techniques. These are families that have been practicing their crafts from one generation to the next. They aren’t on social media and don’t have access to modern forms of communication. To work with them, you have to go and connect in person, so that’s what I did. 

I went to India and asked everyone I knew to help me connect with these artisans. I eventually found a small manufacturer that partnered with an artisan coalition to create handmade products for exports. I toured his factory, met with the artisans, and decided to establish a partnership with them. The opportunities for these artisans are shrinking because they can’t compete with a machine-made mainstream product. I feel it’s vital to preserve these skills and craftsmanship that have been passed down for hundreds of years.

Faire: What’s one piece of advice you would give to fellow Asian American and Pacific Island entrepreneurs hoping to start their own business?

Krit: Lean into your story and your culture, because that’s where you can differentiate yourself and your brand. There were so many moments growing up when I felt embarrassed by my Indian culture and felt the need to downplay it because it made me feel like the “other,” but now I understand it’s such an advantage in the way I see the world. My brand and my products are something that people love because I was able to blend my Indian heritage with my American culture and create something different and worthwhile. 

A Million Elephants

Faire: What led to the founding of this business? Where did the inspiration come from?

Brittany Phounsiri: In 2017, I visited Laos for the first time. I set out on an adventure to visit some of my dad’s family and explore the country with no business plan in mind whatsoever. One night, I was walking through a night market and met a child selling spoons, keychains, and other products all made from shrapnel. Instantly, I remembered my father’s story of fleeing Laos because of the war to come to Canada. The child selling the products was also the same age as my son at the time, and I felt like I had to do something to support this community. 

I bought a bunch of products from that child, and throughout my travels in Laos, I kept coming across more and more amazing handmade goods, from textiles to jewelry and wood products. When I got home, I wanted to share these products with the people in Canada, and from there, the idea for A Million Elephants was born.

Faire: Tell us about working with artisans in Lao.

BP: I went back to Laos with my uncle for a second time, and we visited rural villages in remote places and connected with the people of Laos. I formed a direct relationship with many makers in the country and began sharing these artisan goods back home. Now, I’m able to share Lao artisan goods and the culture with my community, all while supporting local artisans. I still work with the same artisans I met on that trip with my uncle. Selling wholesale means that now more people can go into stores and flip over a tag to see “Made in Laos”—something you rarely see these days.

Faire: What does celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month mean to you?

BP: I see this month as a time to be grateful for and appreciate your history and where you came from. It’s a time to reflect on what your family has done and gone through—they’ve worked their butts off to give their children the opportunity to live their dream. It’s a reminder that we have to take this life and be grateful for it and make it what we want it to be. 

I love sharing my culture with my friends and with other Lao people. I see AAPI Heritage Month as a time to be loud. There’s so much diversity in the AAPI community, and this is a time to share our uniqueness with one another and be proud of it. 

Faire: What’s one piece of advice you would give to fellow Asian American and Pacific Island entrepreneurs hoping to start their own business?

BP: It can be hard to put your pride aside and ask for help. I would say find people who support you and want to help you succeed. Don’t be afraid to be yourself and show up as your true self. Most likely, people will want to see you succeed.

Shop A Million Elephants on Faire.

Ichcha

Faire: What led to the founding of Ichcha? 

Rachna Kumar: Ichcha started in 2011 when I decided to quit my lucrative job and join hands with my sister, Ruchika, who’d recently graduated from Chelsea College of Art and Design in London. Ruchika’s passion for block printing and my passion to preserve and promote Indian arts led us to India on a journey to explore the crafts of the country. Our travels and nature around us inspired us to create the designs you see on our products. 

Faire: How do you form the connections with the artisans you work with?

RK: Connections are made when you think of the good of others. When we started working with the artisans, we were not there to trade. We wanted to work together on promoting and preserving the crafts, encouraging the worker’s creativity, working out problems together, and building a future together. Now we feel we’re a big large family who works together.

Faire: Why is working with local artisans important to you?

We felt that the handmade art culture is slowly dying and with that traditions, festivals, and joint families would also sooner or later suffer. We decided to work with artisans to be part of the handmade culture. There’s something very satisfying about working hand in hand with the artisans creating our designs. 

We also have a collection called “Ichcha for artisans,” which is an effort to encourage artisans to create their own designs for us to sell on our website. We give them 100% of the profits from those sales. With this, we hope that the artisans are not just printing other people’s designs, but also cultivating their creativity, making it feel less like work and more like art.

Learning the process of drying fabrics in India
Image courtesy of Ichcha

Faire: What’s one piece of advice you would give to fellow Asian American and Pacific Island entrepreneurs hoping to start their own business?

RK: If you’ve been dreaming about it and have a passion for it, then just go for it. As AAPI founders ourselves, we know that we’re surrounded by people who’ve been raised to take the safe route in terms of jobs. But listen to your heart and you’ll be happy and content.

Faire: What does celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month mean to you?

RK: It means a month of sharing our culture, traditions, and more. We are so happy that Faire is encouraging AAPI entrepreneurs like us and giving us a platform to share our beginnings, our struggles, our transformation, and our presence.

Shop Ichcha on Faire.


Shop Soothi, A Million Elephants, and Ichcha on Faire.

Browse our AAPI-Owned Businesses Collection on Faire.

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