Aparna Thyagarajan is the Co-founder and Chief Product Officer at Shobitam, a D2C ethnic fashion brand that aims to make Indian handlooms affordable and elegant for a global audience.
Fashion and design have always been a passion for Thyagarajan, who remembers being a curious child who would take notice of the finer details of art around her. As a 12-year-old, she even stitched her first dress for her sister Ambika.
This passion was reignited during a sabbatical in 2019 when Thyagarajan met a Zardosi artist and was inspired to showcase Indian fabrics, culture, and heritage on a global scale. She took a leap of faith and, with her sister, founded Shobitam.
At Shobitam, the mission is to democratize ethnic fashion by making Indian ethnic wear more affordable, elegant, and accessible globally. The brand is all about embracing one’s ethnicity and wearing it with pride. Shobitam also has a focus on social responsibility, with initiatives like Shobitam Cares and Shobitam Gives aimed at creating a positive impact in the community.
Before founding Shobitam, Thyagarajan had a successful career at Microsoft, where she gained experience in e-commerce, global brand building, and social media. Building Shobitam has been a learning experience for Thyagarajan, as it has taught her the importance of staying connected to her roots and giving back to the community.
Now that we’ve discussed Aparna, let’s move on to know your answers to some of the common questions we have about Shobitam.
Your brand keeps launching something new, are there any plans to launch something new this season?
Amore, which means love in many languages, is the name for our upcoming collection for the season, and it brings out the beauty of exquisite Banarasi brocade fabrics in Western outerwear silhouettes such as Trench Coats and Jackets! We are excited about the release as it is not a common offering and provides premium products that cater to global Indian and non-Indian audiences.
Your startup is doing great in international countries, but what challenges do you face in advertising Indian wear in western countries?
We are fascinated by the growing number of non-Indian people who are embracing and appreciating Indian wear and Indian culture. Thanks to cross-cultural weddings, the increasing popularity of Bollywood, and general awareness of handmade articles in general, we won’t be surprised to see the models in Deal or No Deal walk down the ramp in a saree! Ultimately, our goal is that every woman in America gets to wear a saree at least once!
As we know, your startup is supporting Indian wear, so how is it helping in the employment of Indian weavers?
The Indian handloom and handmade industry is the country’s second-largest employer after agriculture. Many of the people employed in this sector straddle the poverty line because of the middlemen involved. Also, many people think that it is only the weaver who is responsible for a saree, but there is an entire ecosystem that is involved in producing handmade textiles. So, when we source a handmade item, we benefit not only the weaver but the entire chain of people who work behind the scenes. Shobitam also makes a difference by working directly with the weavers, eliminating middle people and thereby empowering them more. In our model, it’s a win-win for both customers and weavers.
Every startup works on some pillars to grow their business, so what are the most important pillars of your startup?
Technology, Innovation, Obsession over customers.
As you both are successful women, would you like to say something to the women to inspire them?
Less than 15% of start-ups are founded by women. This statistic is true not only for India but for the entire world. I think the main reason women don’t start on this journey is the fear of starting and the guilt factor of this possibly affecting their domestic lives. When we started out, we did not know where this would take us. We just followed our passion. So follow yours too; you never know what opportunities are ahead of you!
Customers are very choosy when picking up the perfect outfit, especially ethnic wear. So how do you help customers choose the perfect outfit according to their preferences?
There are three things that we are doing in this regard that have helped us.
- We have built a close-knit community with over 50K members on Facebook and have taken the time to understand their tastes well.
- We have also designed and categorized our website well, so people can quickly navigate to what they want among the 1500+ product choices.
- We also do several live shows on our social media platforms that help our customers experience our unique products as closely as they possibly can from the comfort of their homes.
Nowadays, technology is getting more advanced, and manpower is not offered that much. So, how do you manage to get weavers, and how do you support them to grow through your business?
We have found a fine balance between traditional methods and technology to get the best of both worlds. As much as technology in terms of machinery is getting advanced and fast fashion is becoming more proliferating, the craving for being connected to our roots and appreciating our heritage is also making its comeback. Look at the popularity of Ayurveda, Paleo foods, and so on. This is the case with handlooms as well. The techniques practiced in hand-looming have been passed on from generation to generation. They are like grandma’s recipes that instant noodles cannot substitute for.
We use technology in a manner that benefits these weavers. In a highly fragmented space, we are disrupting technology by connecting our 500+ weavers and having a solid system that allows inventory management of our unique products as 90% of our SKUs are not repeated. We also use technology to automate our backend tailoring system for seamless execution.
Brand advertising also plays a very important role in growing a business. So, how do you manage to advertise your business?
We do all the brand advertising that all leading businesses do. But we have seen that our customers have been our biggest brand ambassadors, and that is very evident from our customer repeat rate and referral rate. We have a customer repeat rate of 38%, which is much higher than the industry standard, and that speaks for itself.
As we have read about you, you have a technology background. How do you manage to work in a different profession?
It is this passion that has led us to take on a different profession, and at the same time, we are leveraging our technology background from Microsoft and Cisco. Technology is at the core of how we operate. We also use our corporate background and ethics to instill a high bar in terms of culture.
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