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Crafting a Sustainable Future

Apr/28/2024 / by Melanie Fourie

Priya Ravindra Kalyanimath is founder of Punar, a sustainable startup

South Asian woman with long dark hair outdoors
Photo courtesy: Priya Ravindra Kalyanimath

Melbourne-based mom Priya Ravindra Kalyanimath is quietly changing the corporate gifting culture in India. As  founder of Punar, she has championed the cause of women artisans and combating textile waste. Punar is an innovative sustainable startup based in India with a simple yet profound ethos: eco-friendly corporate gifts, handcrafted by women using recycled yarn and traditional handloom fabric. The startup offers fair wages, safety, and career support for its artisans.

Punar’s fusion of tradition and modernity earned them the She-Com Editor’s Choice Award in the sustainable and eco-friendly product category for their luxe tea towels in 2023.

With her roots in of Mysore in southern India, Kalyanimath has formal education in electronics and micro-engineering, complemented by a master’s degree in IT and business. Her journey is marked by accolades and achievements. Hailed as one of the top 5 young female executives by the Australian Indian Executive Council in 2013 and 2014, her commitment to gender diversity is unwavering. She also contributed to the bestselling anthology, “Voices of Influence: The Untold Stories of Remarkable Speakers.”  Even as Kalyanimath is blazing trails in gender diversity, sustainability, and empowerment, her zest for life is boundless. Beyond the boardrooms and factories, she enjoys adrenaline-fueled activities like bungee jumping and zip-lining. Kalyanimath embodies intellect, creativity, and a daring spirit, all rolled into one person. Join us as we delve into her entrepreneurial story.

Can you share the inspiration behind founding Punar and how your journey has been in empowering women artisans while addressing textile waste?

My purpose is to help women rise. I believe that gender equality, diversity, and inclusion will create a better world. Embarking on an entrepreneurial journey was just a seed in my mind while I was a teenage migrant student in Australia. But the concept of Punar came to life in 2022.

Before the onset of the pandemic, I connected with some amazing women in India who were using recycled yarn to weave fabrics and traditional Indian sarees. Call it intuition, but I knew that we could positively disrupt the textile industry by creating safe jobs, equal pay for women, and solving the problem of landfill textile waste. 

Shilpa Shah, co-founder of Cuyana, is one of my biggest inspirations. Her story and journey in Cuyana have helped me stay focused on building an ethical brand.

Did you know that Punar means “again” in the ancient Sanskrit language of India? Often used in the context of ‘rejuvenation’ and ‘rebirth’, we couldn’t think of a better name to honor our women who are making a new start in life.

Living in Melbourne while managing Punar’s operations in India must present unique challenges. How do you navigate this distance while ensuring the company’s values and goals are upheld?

I love this question! My view is that we live in a global village because geographical barriers are no longer a big issue. Thanks to technology, it is so much easier to stay connected to people around the globe. Sure, the time difference and not being physically present in India can pose some challenges, but it has never been a roadblock. I understand the culture in both countries; I can adapt and weave the two together. I always foster open and honest communication. I travel to India as and when possible, and while I am there, I make it a point to connect with our makers.

I am big on establishing solid foundations and processes coupled with contractual agreements.  As the founder and leader, it is important to set a clear vision, mission, and values for your company upfront.

What motivated you to blend traditional techniques with modern materials in Punar’s approach, and how has this innovation impacted your journey?

Not everything old is bad. We are reviving handloom, which is a zero-emission fabric-making technique with innovation. We use green textile innovations in our fabric finish. Hence our handloom fabrics last longer than cheap and fast fashion fabrics.

 What does this mean to consumers? We handcraft made-to-last, sustainable luxury gifts, custom-designed merchandise, and homewares. Our products are diverting landfill waste, reducing carbon dioxide emissions, investing in women, and uplifting their communities. We don’t need better motivation!

At Punar, the circular economy is at the heart of our creation. The handloom fabric used to create our products is made using the finest quality recycled yarn, developed by upcycling textile landfill waste. Some of our impact to date: Every 100 meters of handloom fabric, on average, stops 92 kg of carbon dioxide emissions, and it is completely handmade and requires no electricity. Since launching, we have diverted 158 kg of textile landfill waste, used natural dyes, and saved 620,000 liters of water. Recycled cotton yarn requires a lot less water compared to new cotton processing.

Winning the She-Com Editor’s Choice Award in 2023 must have been a significant achievement. How has this recognition influenced Punar’s mission and goals moving forward?

We were less than a year-old company when the Punar product was announced as the winner, a testament to the two-plus years of time and efforts invested in research and development. We are handcrafting the best products, and our women artisans deserve this recognition.

A big win following this award: we have likeminded organizations reaching out and asking us to supply gifts and custom-made merchandise. Our products support organizations with their CSR and ESG goals as we provide measurable impacts. I am grateful for this award because it establishes us as a trustworthy brand. Every product we make is a symbol of hope, resilience, and environmental stewardship. In the $242 billion gifting industry, where 40% ends up back in landfills, we are positively disrupting and infusing it with much-needed change.

Your commitment to fair wages and a safe working environment for Punar’s artisans is commendable. How do you maintain these standards in an unregulated handloom industry?

Handloom is an unregulated industry in India, making it often challenging for governments to ensure ethical treatment of workers and fair compensation.

At Punar, we interview our supplier partners to ensure value alignment. I make it a point to have a conversation with some of the makers because it gives us a better insight into their working conditions. We have already said no to some suppliers because we do not wish to engage any organizations that refuse equal pay and fair wages, as well as offer a safe work environment for all.

The last step in the selection process is a supplier code of conduct that lists clear terms, for example, equal pay, reasonable working hours, a safe work environment, etc. Our suppliers are required to sign and comply with this code of conduct. We will be implementing periodic site visits to ensure compliance soon.  This is not about perfection, but we are making progress. We are committed to equal pay, upskilling our artisans, and changing the handloom industry landscape.

With over 20 years of experience advocating for gender diversity, what do you believe are the most pressing challenges that women face in the workplace today? And how can businesses address them effectively?

Right now, awareness of gender diversity, equality, and inclusion isn’t always resulting in actionable changes. Sure, women are being assured—we hear you, we offer equal pay, flexible work arrangements, etc.—but the gender pay gap is glaringly real. Women are still being told to show up or lose that promotion, i.e., goodbye to flexible working arrangements. I have so many women validating that they are allocated to leadership roles, but with a glass cliff. Many organizations are doing this: when things go wrong, find an incredible woman and hand her the clean-up job!

My recommendation is that businesses need to get serious about turning promises into actions. Diverse teams and women-led organizations are smashing profits, resulting in great socio-economic impacts. What are we waiting for?

To all women: know your worth and do not be afraid to speak up. Your voice matters: when you stand up for yourself, you are leading a bigger change.

Your collaborative bestselling book, “Voices of Influence: The Untold Stories of Remarkable Speakers”, sheds light on remarkable speakers. How has your experience as an author contributed to your journey as a leader and entrepreneur?

Last year, when I was invited to join amazing women and share my story in the collaborative book, my first reaction was, “No, who would want to read my story?”

I am so glad that I am surrounded by strong, inspiring women and mentors who call out my limiting beliefs! Saying yes and writing about my life journey has been healing. It has made me a better human; I have shed my limiting beliefs, and I love that I am able to rise together with these incredible co-contributors.

The entire experience has given me a new perspective. I am no longer reluctant to use social media. I am using it as a platform to show up on behalf of Punar women.

What are your future aspirations for Punar, and how do you envision the company’s impact growing in the coming years?

My long-term plan is to establish handloom production hubs across the world, giving safe jobs and economic freedom to 10,000 women while positively disrupting the global gifting industry.

These women deserve economic empowerment, not charitable donations. What they are seeking is reward and recognition for their work. Equal pay for women should never be up for discussion!

Punar is established in Australia and India. We are planning on establishing a handloom hub in Australia and employing migrant and indigenous women. A good new story: using Australian textile waste to create sustainable products.

 We are committed to aligning with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and partnering with organizations around the world to create a better tomorrow.

How do you ensure both your family and professional commitments receive the attention they deserve?

Juggling various roles is hard; no two days are ever the same. I give myself permission to be authentic with myself and show up in the best possible way. I am not here to preach, wake up at 5 a.m., have an ice bath, eat organic, etc., but I have created routines that work for me and my family. I have vision boards, quarterly plans, and weekly action plans. It doesn’t mean everything works like clockwork, but it does provide some anchor. I practice conscious living and am still learning things that don’t serve us every day.


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