March 15, 2010
Mayura Kona ('08) Uses Design Skills to Change Lives in India
Fair trade venture produces decorative home furnishings
Before coming to UCLA Anderson, Mayura Kona was a graphic designer who adapted licensed characters such as the Care Bears for t-shirts and other apparel. With a degree in design and media arts from UCLA, she had always imagined having a career in the arts. But her life took a sudden turn during a trip to visit her grandparents in a village in southern India.
"I met with a family friend, Sandhya, who runs an orphanage and local non-profit called The Vijay Foundation Trust," said Mayura. "Sandhya was driving home one day and found a woman left for dead in the bushes. So, she took her home and nursed her back to health. Wanting to do more for indigent women like this, Sandhya started a jobs training program for local women."
Mayura learned more about the training program and saw samples of the items being produced by the women. She realized it could be an opportunity to use her design skills to transform the work of these women into marketable products. "I told Sandhya that I wanted to start a company to employ these women and give them a new chance in life. So, that's how One Thread started."
One Thread Fair Trade is now a year-old company that managed to break even in the sluggish economy of 2009. But before the firm created its first product, Mayura decided to prepare herself by earning an MBA at UCLA Anderson. "I had no interest in being an entrepreneur," she said. "But the idea for One Thread was my impetus to apply to business school. I knew I needed to supplement my design skills with business knowledge in order to launch the company."
During her first year at UCLA Anderson, Mayura developed a business plan that earned her a $15,000 Wolfen Fellowship. This allowed her to visit India during the summer between her first and second years. "That was when I first met the amazing community of women that I'm working with now," she said.
Mayura had some initial designs and started developing samples. "We made duvet covers in the very beginning," she said. "There were basic questions such as where do we get our fabrics? Where do we get needles for the machines? I started building a supply chain and, more importantly, relationships with the artisans."
During her second year at UCLA Anderson, Mayura conducted extensive market research and refined her business plan while completing her Applied Management Research project with teammates Steven Toomey and Robert Nesbitt. "We were trying to figure out what product would fit our production capacity and be strategically right for us. After our research, it came down to decorative throw cushions, which is our main product now."
Designing throw cushions was a departure for Mayura. "I had to learn very quickly how to construct them," she said. "I was used to doing computer graphics but I had never actually constructed something out of fabric. It was a quick learning curve figuring out how to design in a way that meets actual production needs."
After graduating, Mayura went to India for four months. "I dove right into making things happen. We set wages for the employees, finalized our suppliers, and established a production flow. It was the most exciting and challenging time in my life to date. I really used almost everything I learned in the core program at Anderson."
An important aspect of the business plan was that One Thread would be a fair trade company. This means employees would earn a wage that not only covers their cost of living -- but also allows for a percentage of savings. After interviewing all of her employees, Mayura set a fair wage, as well as stratifications for women with additional skills.
Mayura sees the fair trade concept as a strategic advantage for One Thread. "You are offering something that a lot of larger mass-producing companies are not able to match," she said. "They would like to boast the same story and give their customers the same value, but they can't because of their volume and margins."
"We're adding an intangible value to our product that allows us to appeal to a different side of the customer," she continued. "There's a growing consumer demand for fair trade, eco-friendly products. This is definitely true in the luxury market, which is where we're targeted. It's definitely a win-win situation for both the artisans and the customer. Besides the fact that I love my work. I'm incredibly proud of what we do."
Mayura explained that girls are often pulled out of school at grade five in rural parts of India because they are not expected to earn money and help support a family. With no education, their only option is agriculture, which means nine hours of hard labor a day for little pay. This creates a vicious cycle of poverty and generations of uneducated mothers and daughters.
"Another horrible effect of this cycle is the domestic violence rate," said Mayura. "In India, it's all about the balance of power in the household. Because many women have no income, the balance of power is completely off, so women are often subjected to domestic violence and abuse and have no way out."
The fair wage at One Thread enables the artisans to support their families and build a better life. One artisan was able to add new bedrooms to her one room home. "It's been amazing to see the difference in these women's lives and attitudes since we first started working with them. They have become strong female role models who are showing their villages and rural society just how capable a woman can be. I have no doubt their success will affect generations of girls down the line," said Mayura. One Thread currently employs 12 artisans and has started a training program to support future growth.
"We keep the story of the artisans very close to our customers," said Mayura. "All of our cushions have labels with the name of the woman who worked on it, something she believes in and a number. Our customers can look up that number on our Web site and read the woman's entire story. They will see her photograph and really get to know this inspirational individual who tailored their product. That's something we're really proud of and it's resonated with a lot of our customers."
One Thread brought its first collection to market in February, 2009. Products were placed in high-end home décor shops around Los Angeles and showcased on the One Thread Web site. Mayura also looked for exposure in magazines and online.
"An amazing thing happened," she recalled. "A blogger found me on Twitter and wrote a piece about us. A buyer for a luxury catalog called Cambria Cove saw it and placed a 600-piece order. It's a Twitter success story. So, that launched our first major production run for an established retailer."
As the sole proprietor of One Thread, Mayura designs the products and handles all aspects of production, marketing and sales. "It's great in the sense that I'm able to control everything and I'm learning every single aspect of the business. But it can be very overwhelming."
Mayura recalls having to relearn her design skills after business school. "I sort of forgot who I was as a designer. I had to completely step away from the balance sheets and income statements for a while in order to get my creativity back." Now she finds it helpful to switch back and forth between business and design. "Sometimes I get blocked in the design process, so I take a break and do the business stuff. It allows me to be fresh coming back."
Mayura found sales calls difficult in the beginning - but accepted them as part of the job. "I used to look at people who run their own business and think I could never be that person. But going through the program at Anderson, I learned that I am very capable and it really isn't as intimidating as it seems. I can do this."
She has also drawn support from UCLA Anderson peers. "I had a great support network at Anderson and they're still there for me," she said. "They come to my tradeshows and any events that I have. It really makes a difference knowing there are people out there who believe in what I'm doing. I need that."
Mayura hopes to double One Thread's revenue in 2010. She launched her second collection in February and is developing a new product line - evening purses. "I keep plugging away everyday to get the brand out there and to share our story."
The recession has been a difficult time to launch a business - but Mayura is optimistic. "I always remind myself that we are in one of the toughest economies we've ever been in," she said. "I figure that if I can survive this market, we're going to do great!"
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