When one thinks of the social sector, the first images that appear are of poverty, mal-nutrition, inequalities and similar maladies. Now, imagine if by taking on such challenges, one is able to produce not only positive outcomes but also aesthetic outputs, except that in the case of Jaipur Rugs and its philanthropic arm Jaipur Rugs Foundation, ‘aesthetic’ might be an understatement. Earlier this January, I accompanied colleagues of mine at PYXERA Global to Jaipur and Bikaner in Rajasthan, India. We were hosted by Yash Ranga of Jaipur Rugs Foundation who spent three days introducing us to their supply chain ecosystem. Jaipur Rugs was founded by Nand Kishore Choudhary, a first generation entrepreneur who is often labelled the ‘foolish businessman’ only because he is a businessman with a golden heart.
Our Visit: Day One
Our travels were dictated by geography and ease of access and not in sequence with the steps involved in rug making. Our first stop was Aaspura village, a two hour drive from Jaipur airport. Aaspura is one of several villages where women folk weave carpets for Jaipur Rugs. Weaving equipment is provided by Jaipur Rugs- who procure the produce on a captive basis- and weavers typically conform to a design blueprint prepared by Jaipur Rug’s in-house design division. Its Foundation arm has joined hands with National Skills Development Corporation to provide certifications in carpet weaving. They classify their weavers in two buckets, the first, from those they expect defects will occur and the other of master weavers who have an outstanding record in producing zero defect carpets. It is the latter ones whose work commands a premium. One such weaver whom I met was Prem Devi (refer to Box below) who ended up becoming a mentor to the community.
Box: Prem Devi has been a trend setter and a catalyst in her community
We lunched at one of the village huts sitting crossed legged on the floor raking in the serenity of rustic life and treating our taste buds to a sumptuous home-cooked Rajasthani meal. Post lunch and before returning to Jaipur we visited one of Jaipur Rugs facilities. This giant warehouse serves many purposes. It acts as a distribution centre for the wool yarn which is stored in as many as ten thousand shades of different colours. It is from here that yarn is despatched to weavers. This centre also hosts a repair unit, where expert weavers correct untidy knots, and a trimming section where the thickness of the carpet is reduced to specification. Additionally, there is a section where carpets are washed and dried before being shipped to the buyer.
By dusk and before we returned to our guest house, Yash took us around their Jaipur office which houses a state of the art design unit; a call centre that provides after sales support to overseas buyers and a sales showroom which displays some of their fine works. Whilst interacting with the design staff, I learnt that most designs are conceived in-house but in five to ten percent of cases, designs are driven by customers. In fact, I learnt of an order that the wife of the CEO of a world famous sports car company had placed on Jaipur Rugs for her husband’s milestone birthday. The process by which a design is customised for a client is very interactive and iterative.
Clockwise from Top Left: A woman weaving a carpet conforming to the design given to her; The facility which stocks wool yarn in myriad number of colours; A geyser used by villages in Aaspura to boil hot water without electricity; The trimming section of a carpet finishing facility
Clockwise from Top Left: Jaipur Rugs in-house design unit; Sales showroom which stocks their produce; Carpets of different hues
Our Visit: Day Two
The next day, we set off early for Bikaner, a four and a half hour drive from Jaipur. The first thing we did post-lunch was to visit the mandi [trading hub] where wool is traded. Not only is Bikaner one of India’s top districts where wool is sheared and sold, it is also a regional centre for a flourishing wool trade where bales of wool from as far as New Zealand change hands. It is at these mandis that the sorting and grading of wool takes place before being transported to a buyer’s warehouse.
Our next stop was Jaipur Rug’s own carding unit. Carding is the process by which raw wool is flattened and entangled. This unit possesses heavy machinery through which wool is processed and then treated before it is spun into fine strands of yarn. About 40% of the yarn Jaipur Rugs works with is machine processed leaving the balance to handlooms.
From the carding unit, we went to another facility where women come and spin wool by hand. Spinning is the process by which carded wool is spun into fine strands of wool yarn. Trying my hand at spinning was a humbling and enchanting experience. My face lit up on seeing those women spin so adeptly. In no uncertain way, I was the unskilled worker in that facility.
Clockwise from Top Left: The Mandi at Bikaner; Jaipur Rug’s carding facility; in conversation with the women on Kakku village; Trying a hand at spinning
Gently Spinning a Magic Yarn (run time 22 secs)
Our Visit: Day Three
On day three we returned to Jaipur but not without visiting Kakku, the village from where those women spinners, we met the previous day, hailed. We spent over an hour talking with these gifted women in their colourful clothes. Interestingly, these women had never ventured beyond Jaipur and that left me struggling to empathise with and some of the women had never heard of Mumbai. Most of the male folk were labourers working in carpentry or construction. We also met the village headman who showed us around their dwellings and described their customs and practices. One particular one that took my fancy was treating scorpion bites through chanting of sacred mantras. By night-fall we had returned to Jaipur.
Set up in 1978, Jaipur Rugs is a family owned enterprise supporting over forty thousand women artisans across five Indian states. Their cash register is humming with exports accounting 90% of their turnover across 60 countries. They employ over thousand people of whom 15% work with Jaipur Living, their U.S. based subsidiary.
As a former management consultant having worked with several mid and large size organisations, this visit was an eye opener in many respects. First, Jaipur Rugs commitment to U.N.’s SDGs is very visible. Eradicating poverty and enhancing education is an underlying in their business activities. They have championed livelihoods for women, helping them improve their incomes and also providing them an opportunity to work from their own homes. Jaipur Rugs is now looking at instilling design skills that would allow their weavers to create indigenous designs and are also expanding their social commitment by enhancing awareness of health related matters. Second, in this day and age of Artificial Intelligence, it is a refreshing change to find an enterprise that puts a premium on balancing machine and precious human skills.
In a face-to-face meeting, Mr Choudhary, who is humility personified, revealed that he had invested in a large organic farm for the benefit of his employees. In the world that I come from, I know of few corporations like Google who please employees with daily free lunch but here is this man who has raised the bar so high that he feeds his staff nothing less than organic food. Taking care of your employees is a great investment and always pays off in the long run.
It is unusual for a commercial enterprise to build universal values of love, compassion and empathy in its business model. Jaipur Rugs and its philanthropic arm have developed a delicate blend of sound business acumen and products that are not only a manifestation of beauty but also a revelation of fascinating stories of imagination, courage, process innovation, social good and artisanship. Mind you, now we know what is really missing in the hallowed corridors of management education which no business school will dare teach.
Shakti Saran is a Senior Fellow with PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own