by Siya Aggrawal

Good earth is advertised as a “Sustainable luxury with unique product stories and craft traditions that celebrate the heritage of the Indian subcontinent”. The products of this endearing store are not only visually appealing but also have a vibrant heritage and culturally rich tales behind them. The vivacious and unstoppable, Pavitra Rajaram conversed with us about her background, experiences and journey, that led her to be the lead designer and director of visual merchandising at the iconic and immersive brand, Good Earth.

Question: “How did your formative years contribute to your journey?”

“When I was around 12 or 13 I was often asked the question, “what do you want to do once you grow up”? I would answer it by saying ‘I want to have a shop with nice things.’ People would be shocked, because for a conservative South Indian family, the notion that your aspirations could revolve around something unrelated to medicine,engineering or mathematics is quite frightening. This led me to think  that the only way I could forge my own path was to pursue studies abroad as an undergrad. However, in 1985 this was an extremely daunting task. But I applied to four colleges and got into all of them. I decided on Smith’s College, for the only reason that I received a 100% scholarship there. This was an all-female university. Due to my experience in college, I learnt the importance of womanhood, sisterhood and how surrounding yourself with other females can be empowering. I was the president of my class and graduated with a double major in Politics and Art History. I spent my junior year engrossed in two internships. The first one was in Rome, where I spent 9 months restoring paintings. In those nine months I developed an interest in the story telling behind art, design and paintings. As part of my second internship I travelled to Bangladesh, where I saw women working in craft. Although I didn’t recognise it at the time, this was an extremely valuable experience and it contributed greatly to making me who I am today.”

Question: “What was your introduction into the working world?” 

“I happened to meet Jerry Rao, the CEO of Citibank, in DC, where I was offered a job. I then returned back to India to work with this  bank. It was here that I experienced my first failure, since I was an extremely useless banker. It did not call upon my skills nor was I remotely interested in the profession. I think this first failure was such a tremendously significant lesson for me to undergo because it helped me fully comprehend the importance of passion. I realised that If I didn’t feel passionately about something, I would not be able to give it my all. I understood that banking was not for me and I should make a step in another direction, but it was hard for me to find the courage to do so. At 23 years old, I became a young mother and lost my child. Facing such a tremendous tragedy forces you to reevaluate your life and it can make you choose between making it or breaking it. This caused me to take the plunge and leave my job at the bank, and move towards a completely different career choice in design. There’s a wonderful quote by Gengis Khan which I often think about at a turning point in my life, “If you’re afraid don’t do it, but if you do it, don’t be afraid”.”

Question: “What is the idea behind good earth?” 

“There are so many beautiful and culturally rich crafts, but the finest Indian craft has never been available to Indians themselves. We all travel abroad and that is where we see the best Indian products. Indian products in India were at the time mostly unoriginal substandard in one way or the other which led it to be not valued enough. When I met Anita, who shared my ideas about Indian craft, I was completely awestruck by her philosophy and her passion. Neither of us had any formal design training or background in art except a deep passion and interest. We eventually opened a store in Bombay on Jan 17th, 1996, called Good Earth. We had painted the walls of the small store ourselves, a tradition that I continued for my 25 years in Good Earth, because I felt like painting the walls brought out my involvement and my passion and it gave me so much joy. The day we opened the first store, we sold every single product and by evening we had a store but no more products to sell. And that’s how the process started. Every single thing in growth was learnt through a process of making mistakes through putting ourselves out there.”

Question: “Is there any advice you can give to young and creative entrepreneurs?”

“Many people believe that building a brand starts with going to the drawing board and having a simulation involving the calculation of the risk and spreadsheets with enormous amounts of planning. However, in my life, the most wonderful things have happened serendipitously through relying on my instinct. That is actually something that I consider one of the most important lessons from my journey with Good Earth — trusting yourself, and trusting your instincts. The importance of expression, especially in an oral culture like ours, where we experience things and we express it through words, expressions, and dance through how we engage with something. Because of this, I would say to any young aspiring designer, the most important thing is the voice of the customer. Since I spent 25 years on the floor of the shop, all my customers have taught me so much. We opened 9 stores in India and then in China and Turkey. The thing that I focused on consistently is, “voice of the customer”. This included trying to create products that have relevance, authentic stories, originality, and a positive impact on the planet and on people‘s lives. This didn’t spontaneously exist, It was a journey that occurred throughout many years and a vital component of this was consumer feedback. Consumer feedback became a means through which everyone had a voice. Whether it is the product itself or all the walls of the store, I will try to remain authentic and true to myself by attempting to piece together an experience rather than selling a product.“

Question: “Are there any learnings you have from your journey that led you to this point in your career?”

“To me, Good Earth became much more than just a store. The transaction between producer and consumer became the least important part of the equation. It is the joy that I receive by seeing something that I have contributed to creating being a part of someone’s life in their house. Sometimes I go to somebody’s house and I see them utilising a craft that I have created and they themselves don’t know that. Sometimes I think that we let go of this tradition of ownership. In the West it is an extremely common practice to sign your name to your craftsmanship and to declare ownership over it, but in the east and in Indian philosophy that is not the same case, because everything is collaborative and it is a team effort that requires cooperation from a multitude of sources. There is no such thing as ownership by one single human being in the Indian philosophy and I try to emanate that in my work. We believe that we are part of a continuum. Although ideas may not be original in our culture, what is authentic is my point of view, my sense of storytelling and the originality that I can bring to that moment. I believe that is my biggest takeaway from my entire journey up to this point. That and, regardless of whether you work in a creative business or in entrepreneurship: passion, engagement, the desire to be authentic and the motivation to be original should be present.”