In Conversation: Noonday Founder Jessica Honegger & Artisan Entrepreneur Roopa Mehta
Noonday Collection Founder Jessica Honegger recently sat down with Roopa Mehta, an Artisan Entrepreneur from India whose business is responsible for creating some of Noonday’s beloved India styles. Based in Calcutta, Roopa has worked with Artisans in the fair trade space for over 40 years. In this interview, Roopa shares some of her personal story, and also sheds some light on the history and making of the bold and beautiful Dhokra Necklace, new for Fall 2017.
Roopa, far left, attending a fashion event with Noonday Founder Jessica Honegger, second to left, and Noonday Ambassadors.
Jessica: Roopa, I’m so excited to get to talk with you today about your journey into fair trade. So tell me, when you were little did you dream about working with artisans?
Roopa: No way! But as we say in India, “sometimes destiny takes over.” I grew up in Delhi and studied Economics and Business Management and went on to work in the hotel industry as a management trainee. One day I asked myself, “What am I doing here?” and soon after started working for a company focused on high-end women’s apparel using more traditional crafts.
In hindsight, I think my love of crafts and textiles stemmed from my mother, who filled the home with them! Through my work I was exposed to traditional techniques such as weaving, embroidery and hand-block printing and at the same time learned about design, production and retail. A friend of mine was heavily involved with fair trade. I thought I could make much greater impact working for such an Artisan Business as opposed to a large company by bringing my abilities and experiences there, and was interested in working in a much more collaborative space. When I finally transitioned I felt, “Now I am where I am meant to be.”
Jessica: At Noonday we talk a lot about “Going Scared…” the idea that in order to live the lives we were meant to, we can’t wait until we stop feeling scared to take a risk–we just have to move forward anyway. For me that idea came into play as I was starting a business with three young children, when traditionally in my family mothers were expected to stay at home. Tell me, as a woman entrepreneur, what have been some of your obstacles?
Roopa: I was very fortunate to have grown up with liberal parents. I was one of three sisters and my mother was a doctor. I also married into a family who was not demanding. A significant obstacle for me was when my friend who was the leader at the business we worked at, having struggled with cancer, passed away 13 years ago. I was grieving a friend whom I’d known for 26 years, struggling with the various dynamics of the Artisan Business and I doubted my ability to take the lead. But you know what Jessica? You just get out there! I had huge support from one of the business’ founding members who said, “You can do it!” I feel blessed because the one thing I don’t do is give up. On relationships, on circumstances, on people – I don’t give up!
Jessica: I love that attitude! You spoke a little about growing up in a liberal supportive family. Is that the case for the typical woman you work with, who is making Noonday’s products?
Roopa: Women Artisans’ primary focus is taking care of the family and the home – they take care of the home and family in the morning, come and work at the communal workshop, but also take work home and continue on their own time depending on the task at hand. Men do not typically help out within the household and households do not have washing machines, dishwashers or microwaves! As one of the leaders of the business I myself am lucky to have electricity! Women cook basic food staples such dal (lentils), vegetables and rice, and fish as a treat on weekends. The standard of food improves with an increased level of income and the women are more able to get help within the home when they are earning.
We have worked with many women who are fearful about beginning a job — especially women from the Muslim community who often cannot leave their homes. But the same women are now so much more confident and capable because of their work. When we first started working with them, they could not even hail a cab because they were so unfamiliar with life outside their own walls. But today they are moving from place to place, helping purchase supplies and haggling with merchants. Some have even traveled to Italy for conventions! This is the untapped potential we see and all it takes is a couple of leaders to empower other women within the community.
Women are more likely to put their family first by allocating money for better food, education and so on. When they begin to bring in money for the family, the women start getting more respect in the home, more self esteem and are able to participate in family decisions.
Jessica: So tell us about the technique known as dhokra, which is used to create one of my favorite necklaces for Fall 2017. Is this technique done in all regions of India? What’s the history of this craft?
Roopa: Dhokra is typically associated with tribal communities, especially in the Eastern part of India, in the neighboring states of Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and Chattisgarh. Nowadays, these tribal communities are established in one place, but traditionally they were nomadic communities who moved from place to place. Dhokra is a labor intensive craft and was originally undertaken to serve the needs of the tribal community. It is a hand done through a metal-casting process using a handcrafted clay furnace and a hole in the ground, not requiring many tools. Each piece is made using a wax mould that melts down during the process–meaning that every bead and adornment requires the Artisan to make a brand new mould!
In the past, the dhokra technique was used to create food storage containers, jewelry and deities for religious rituals. The aesthetics of the products are beautiful! Even practical everyday tools such as bows and arrows or machetes feature intricate design details.
Unfortunately, today this craft is at risk of extinction. People living in the region that traditionally relied on dhokra crafts are increasingly turning to mass-produced goods imported from the city, replacing beautiful hand-crafted metal with plastic items. As a result, our Artisan Business stepped in to help provide a market for the Artisans who still specialize in these gorgeous dhokra products. We believe this craft deserves to be preserved and enjoyed around the world, so we train Artisans to turn their skills into livelihoods. Our partnership with Noonday Collection allows these Artisans to continue to thrive by harnessing their ancient skills and making them relevant and sell-able within the US market.
We hope that Noonday’s customers will love this special necklace and share its unique story with their friends and families!
Want to support this incredible artisanal craft (and look good doing it)?
Meet Nisha Bhatt
Nisha has worked in the fair trade space for years and has a passion for storytelling. Her appreciation for artisan craft and culture drives her desire to provide a glimpse into the people behind Noonday's one-of-a-kind accessories.