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Techie-turned-entrepreneur Anjali Chandran spent the last decade building her social enterprise Impresa, a Calicut-based venture that she is now proud to call “an ode to India’s traditional handloom sector.” 

Back in 2012, she did not fathom treading on this journey. She had just resigned from her job as a software engineer at Wipro and was looking forward to some quieter days of raising her daughter in her hometown of Thiruvangoor village in Kerala.

A self-proclaimed travel enthusiast, Anjali loves exploring rural India to experience different cultures and traditions–and one such trip to a weaving village in southern India, which she chooses not to disclose, sent her on the winding journey of starting a social enterprise.

“I met a master weaver who was about to shut the looms because there was no market for his products. When asked about the marketing strategy, he said they sell to middlemen and wholesalers who take their fabric and other materials to the cities,” the BITS Pilani graduate recalls in a conversation with HerStory.  

The plight of weavers and artisan communities hit too close to home for Anjali. Her village of Thiruvangoor (which means land with the loom) was once home to thriving clusters of weavers and much of her childhood was spent amid the looms, but it pained her to see handloom traditions slowly fade.
Anjali Chandran with weavers
In 2008, Anjali had dipped her toes into founding an initiative with her husband when they started an online space for Malayalam writers. So, when she bought a bunch of fabric given at throwaway prices as the loom was shutting down, she decided to help him sell the remaining products. Anjali set up a Facebook page named Impresa, and all the products she listed there sold out within 12 days. 
Impresa offers ethnic wear for kids, men and women, including Balaramapuram handloom mundu, sarees, kurtha as well as ikat, block print, and cotton fabrics.

Starting at Rs 250, the highest price for the products can go up to Rs 20,000 for Zari fabric of golden weaves. With artisan and weavers’ sustenance at the core of its interest, the products are available only on Impresa’s own website and at a store opened in Calicut in 2014. Impresa has fulfilled more than 50,000 online orders so far.

While the focus and demand for authentic and traditional weaves have increased over the years, Anjali says the loyal customer base she has established over the years is enough not to worry about competition. Others like Pickmycloth and MySilkLove are also providing a platform to weavers and artisans without having to go through the middlemen.

In the last ten years of operations, Anjali has worked with about 300 artisans from across Kerala, Bengaluru, and Chennai. The entrepreneur now knows better than to rush them on account of rising demand. When she suggested that weavers produce more as there are many buyers, a master weaver told her that things didn’t work that way in the handloom industry. He showed the workspace where often all family members are involved in different processes–that may take from months to years to finish.

“Working in the handloom is a business of patience. If you are looking to start businesses for money, handloom isn’t the sector for you,” she was told. 

Anjali’s effort in building Impresa eventually received global acknowledgement. In 2017, Impresa was named among the ten best global social startups by Capegemini, Paris. The following year, she was invited as an Indian delegate to the US state department’s premier professional exchange programme, The International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). She was also part of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women programme at NSRCEL-IIMB.

When businesses were staring at uncertainty during the pandemic, Impresa opened up the platform for women-led businesses to sell their products and has onboarded around ten brands so far.
When Anjali initially started Impresa to find a market for weavers by doing away with middlemen, gaining the weavers’ trust turned out to be more difficult than she had imagined. The network of middlemen was so strong and deeply entrenched that it became too hard for Anjali to locate looms and weavers without their help. But now, many weavers consider her a family member. 

But being a woman venturing into business came with its share of challenges. People who knew about her background in the booming IT sector thought there was something wrong with her. 

Anjali says, “Parents who would earlier send their children to me for advice and guidance on a career in IT started telling their children not to be like one. Some even asked me to my face, ‘Are you not ashamed of starting such a tiny textile shop after leaving a top IT brand?’” 

But Anjali does not feel an iota of regret. What she sought, she achieved. 
Edited by Kanishk Singh
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