From the time she was very young, Sruti Harihara Subramanian always wanted to lead a sustainable, zero-waste life. But she found it very hard. There was a lot of research involved, along with the hunt to track down brands and products that were truly sustainable. “That was when I realised that there would be many people like me out there who want to lead a sustainable life but don’t have access to it,” she says. “If the store next door sold sustainable products instead of chemical-based or plastic products, wouldn’t your first option be to step into that store?” That’s when the idea and initial launch of Goli Soda fructified. It was 2013, and the concept of sustainability was still fairly new.
Hari is multi-faceted, and has always found a kinship with the arts. She is a National-award winning filmmaker, and the Director of Amazon Prime’s Harmony with AR Rahman. She’s also the Founder-Trustee of ‘The Cinema Resource Centre’. So how did she find herself turning entrepreneur? “I call myself an accidental entrepreneur,” says Harihara. “To be honest, when I started the business, I was more driven by the idea rather than the practical aspects of how to run the business! The initial focus was on lifestyle products, which were eco-friendly and upcycled. In fact, we were the first upcycled store in south India. People were curious to see purses made from rubber tyres or stationery from elephant dung paper. While this was all well, I also needed to sell the products!”
This was when she realised that lifestyle products weren’t enough to make an impact. Goli Soda then started stocking everyday day needs like menstrual cloth pads, compost pods and bamboo tooth brushes. “We also wanted to ensure that these were competing with the day-to-day ‘regular’ products. We didn’t want to give ourselves the excuse that just because they were sustainable and upcycled, they were in any way lesser than the mainstream products. Along with this, I had to work on creating a community and educating people – this was almost a decade ago, so awareness wasn’t as widespread as it is today.”
Today, Goli Soda has shifted from a hybrid model to an online model, with a focus on the pan-Indian market. As a business they have two entities. “First, we manufacture our own products. We’re one of the first in India to have personal and home care products with probiotics. The other aspect is our online platform, where - besides our own products - we work on a drop-ship model with other sustainable brands.”
She admits that the concept is not without its challenges, right from finding packaging substitutes for plastic, to eliminating the water waste caused by manufacturing liquid products. And then there are the fluctuating profit margins. “We work on a lower profit model because we want to reach out to a wider audience and break the myth that being sustainable is expensive,” she says. “During manufacturing, we follow fair trade practices, the wages are right, and we use truly organic and locally-sourced ingredients. Since we don’t compromise on our checklist, keeping the margins within a comfortable range is challenging. Sometimes the market also becomes erratic while sourcing these ingredients. But we can’t always change our MRP based on that! So, we have to factor in a buffer as well. Almost 90 per cent of our products are handmade. We give local and rural employment to the community. At the same time, we’re not a charity. We have to run a business. And I think we’ve been able to survive for this long because we are able to predict market trends.”
Harihara wants to focus on constantly improving the website experience for Goli Soda’s customers. There are also other digital plans in the pipeline, in terms of loyalty programmes and apps. They would also like to distribute their products internationally, provided it is still sustainable in terms of the carbon footprint.
As for women entrepreneurs who want to enter this space, she advices them to come in with a lot of honesty. “You truly need to be passionate about being sustainable. You’re here for a purpose, but it should first start with you. Practice what you preach. You can’t compare this segment to any other start-up. In fact, I feel we’re constantly in a start-up mode, but that’s great because there’s a constant drive to innovate and try new things. The thought behind why we started is more important than just making bucketloads of money. It would have easy for us to get funding from major investors, but then we may have had to compromise on some of our core values and the essence our business was built on. So, we are happy to go slow in our growth. It is truly the case of the hare and the tortoise when it comes to running a business in the sustainable space.”
She also says that being an entrepreneur has been truly enriching for her, and wants more women to enter the space. “Women are born leaders, so it’s natural for them to be leaders and entrepreneurs. There will be an overall change in society when more women take that leap into becoming entrepreneurs. Besides being great leaders, women are naturally very empathetic, so this will in turn bring about empathetic workplace culture and an overall empathetic society.”