COHORT 1: Sustainable Fashion Designer Dipti Mrinalini

Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we are launching our interview series with the women from our first global cohort, which spanned 17 countries on 5 continents. The stories of these incredible women and their projects bridge a vast number of industries from marketing tech to farming and education — and in this case, sustainable fashion. Our guest writer Kirsten Alana took a virtual world tour to create these for us, and we hope you enjoy learning about these women as much as we have!

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Kirsten: Dipti, I love that when I asked if there was anything I couldn’t share, you replied, “I’m a 34 [yr old], never-been-married Indian woman and boldly so!” That response put me at ease and immediately made me think we’d be great friends if we could be doing this interview in person. Women around the world spend too much time being put in boxes formed by our ability or desire to conceive or be mothers, and I personally would love to see progress away from that outdated mode of characterization. So what a way to start! Let’s continue with talking about who you are and what makes you come alive.

Dipti: I’m a fashion designer and entrepreneur. I’ve been running my own sustainable and ethical fashion brand out of Hyderabad, India since 2016. It’s a beautiful, exciting and fulfilling path to be on and I’d rather not be doing anything else!

Kirsten: Not every human being is, or could be, that decisive in their 30s.

Dipti: I made a complete career shift in my late 20s and except for some traditional expectations of my own self that I should’ve reached certain professional and personal milestones, I don’t believe that my age really affects what I do.

Kirsten: Age is just a number after all! And career shifts are much more common now than they were for our grandparents and the generations before. How did you start your Ownership Company (Proprietorship) in India?

Dipti: I started off with doing just customisations for clients with their own fabrics and then moved on to creating my own line with the help of my parents. It was just 1 machine and 1 tailor in the garage where my first collection was born. It took 6 months to create the collection and I started selling the same at flea markets and local exhibitions.

Kirsten: Fast fashion on a global scale is one of the worst polluters of the environment and one of the most wasteful industries in the world, but you plan to approach this differently, both personally and with Dipti Mrinalini. Tell us about that.

Dipti: At a personal level, when I do buy garments, I now only buy from local, sustainable and ethical brands, and of late, it’s only once in a couple of years. Making the most of what I already have in my wardrobe is another principle that I practice. With regard to Dipti Mrinalini, we’re constantly striving to create garments that suit our customers’ needs in small numbers, offering made-to-order and customisation wherever possible. Our natural fabrics and trims are locally sourced from artisans and fair trade organizations, which means the local economy is benefited and the carbon footprint is minimised. We employ dyeing substances and processes that release little to no toxins into water bodies. Lastly, the cutting and stitching is done in such a way that waste is minimised. The leftover fabric scraps are never thrown away, and are used responsibly in future garment and lifestyle product collections.

Kirsten: India has such a vibrant cultural and design heritage. Preserving that, celebrating it even and yet addressing the very real problem of waste and environmental responsibility might not always match up completely. Talk to me about how you address that a bit more:

Dipti: Thus far, we’ve looked at how we can use all things natural in garment production. To address the problem of waste however, I believe that using deadstock fabrics, recycled yarns and yardage and upcycling second hand and vintage garments in the creation of new designs will go a long way. Having artisans create products out of the aforementioned elements instead of using virgin yarns and dyes would really help to keep the craft alive while also creating a solution to the waste issue. We hope to do both of the above things in future collections.

I strongly believe that I can make a difference in this world during my lifetime and after. My deep desire is to leave a legacy of running a fashion business ethically in a way that doesn’t harm the people or the planet. I believe that a lot of businesses are currently run just keeping profits in mind.

I’d like to remind people through my life that an inherent passion, fulfillment of purpose and people building need to be greater motivating factors for starting and growing a business.

Kirsten: And that’s part of the why behind this interview series. Together, when we’ve spoken these things out loud, we can support and hold one another accountable and hopefully make progress faster. So let’s keep dreaming big – how many people do you think you’ll be able to help with what you’re trying to do?

Dipti: I think I’ll be able to impact several thousands of people directly and indirectly through the work I do. Mindset change is such a great part of what needs to happen in the slow, sustainable and ethical space and I’m already doing that through interaction with clients, students and my personal network. In the coming years, through collaboration with other such people and brands, I look forward to changing the mindsets that are causing the fashion industry to indulge in wasteful production and consumption patterns. During the course of this, I believe that more fair, sustainable employment can be created for the producers in the industry.

Kirsten: How will you measure whether you are, or aren’t, having a positive impact in your community? Or around the world?

Dipti: I think this can be measured by the number of direct customers, people who have come in touch with the brand and business partners who made even a small change to how they perceive fashion and interact with the industry. It can also be measured by the number of natural resources saved, reduced microplastics and toxins per product made and purchased.

Kirsten: You were really the first person in your generation to have your own business. That means you’re changing things for your own family and potentially for other women in India. How did or does this affect you?

Dipti: In my generation, yes, I am the first and only person in my family to have started a business. I however learnt recently that my great grandmothers used to run a rice business and my grandmother was in the jewelry business for a few years. In my parents’ generation and among my generation however, I am the only person to be doing business. I was expected to take on a 9 to 9 job in the development sector or become a civil servant and business was never on the radar so it came as a shock to my family when I said I would do it. They were really kind and helpful when they understood that my heart was completely in it though. So far as how this affects me in the local context, it’s in how women are perceived. I remember an acquaintance telling me how women aren’t respected very much or looked up to unless they are in positions of power and a fashion business doesn’t really fit that bill. A marital prospect also once told me how he thought that running a business meant that you had more time for building a family and it was the same thing as being a homemaker. I also had family ask what else it is that I do apart from getting clothes stitched by the tailor. I believe that the role of a business person is not completely understood nor the personal priorities of a woman for how she’d want to live out her life.

It’s mentally an uphill battle to be walking against several conventional perceptions but I’m grateful for a support system that thinks big and thinks differently.

Kirsten: Support is so important! And in turn you now have the chance to be a support system for other women who will, like you, think big and think differently! So on that note, what advice would you give women in a similar situation? Particularly in India? And in other places with a similar belief system or traditions regarding the role of women in society?

Dipti: I always say that it’s important to listen to your heart. I know that that’s easier said than done but it’s a lot harder to have something dying to come out of you and just suppressing it. Fulfilling your purpose brings true meaning to life and that’s definitely not worth giving up for satisfying outdated perceptions of a woman’s role in society. A family life and managing home is such a significant aspect of people and nation building but it shouldn’t have to come at the expense of fulfilling your dreams. If you should want to choose a path that involves mothering a business and not a child at this moment in time, please do! The God who made you certainly doesn’t look at you just as someone who has to take care of home, marry, bear and rear children. He made you with a boldness and beauty of heart and mind that deserves to burst out and bless others.

Change how you see yourself first and others will follow suit.

Kirsten: That is so beautiful, Dipti! I think that’s something so many girls and women all around the world struggle with. Do you think there are others that women unknowingly put in their paths to success?

Dipti: I’ve seen a lot of talented women constrained by overthinking and getting hung up on the sustenance question. I truly believe that there are creative solutions to every problem in life and that includes finding ways to run a business without all the answers and without burning out your savings.

I think it’s important to take one step at a time towards your dream, build a strong support system for yourself and be willing to change along the way — both yourself and your dream.

I’ve personally never viewed myself as being any different than a man but I do do my best to bring a great amount of empathy and integrity to the process of creation, people management and sales.

Kirsten: Who are your mentors and why? What specifically do you admire about them? What qualities of their leadership style do you most respect or aspire to?

Dipti: Jennifer Iannolo, Lizz Choi and Sushrut Pradhan are my mentors as they have consistently and systematically supported and built me personally, professionally and spiritually. My coach Nathan Andrews has also been instrumental in keeping me strong and focussed during the very difficult year that 2020 was.

I love that they are so committed to bringing out the best in people regardless of their own difficult circumstances at any given point of time. I deeply admire the fact that they’re always willing to see the best in you and believe in you even when you’re not able to.

I aspire to be that kind of person — providing the right amount of resources, belief and space for the person to bloom and spread fragrance.

Kirsten: Do you have the type or size of local support network you’d like to have? And if you don’t, how do you plan to change that?

Dipti: I certainly wish I had a much larger support network locally, especially within my own field. That being said: the quality of the ones I currently have is very good and they’ve consistently stood by my side and supported me and that is so valuable. I think I also need to purposefully approach people I look up to in my field and network with them so as to improve the local support network I have.

Kirsten: That’s so true. We have to be willing to ask! Regarding support in a different sense, how important is it to you that you have a team helping you? What does your team look like?

Dipti: I think that having a team of people working together and believing in where the business can be and achieve, is extremely important as there is only so far you can go alone. I started off all by myself and then went on to have 4 people on the team before the pandemic hit. There was a master pattern maker and tailor, production manager-cum-assistant designer, store manager-cum-delivery assistant, textile design intern and myself. The crucial quality I believe people working in a startup need is the willingness to take on different roles. I was really blessed to have an assistant designer who didn’t mind taking up the role of a salesperson when necessary, a store manager who would gladly do a custom order delivery, an intern who would look after production when I needed to travel for work and a tailor who is constantly innovating and understands the importance of the same.

Kirsten: The pandemic has changed things for so many of us. It’s brought problems and challenges some of us couldn’t even have imagined. Do you approach problem solving in a big picture way? Or one smaller bite at a time? What are the biggest challenges you face?

Dipti: I prefer to do it in a big picture way most of the time. There are of course times when the big picture approach wouldn’t be suitable and that’s when I deal with it one chunk at a time.

The biggest challenge is to give a shape to the business that best suits the intentions of the business while also growing it to a scale that is not detrimental to the same intentions. That apart, finding and keeping good skilled labour, finding and employing the right people who will balance out your skillset, managing creative talent without stifling their creativity and creating collections that are fresh, innovative and in line with customer needs.

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Kirsten: The ability to adapt has become more important than ever. How important is it to what you do? How adaptable do you think you are? How have you overcome obstacles?

Dipti: I think adaptability is such an important trait for a businessperson to possess. If we were to be too rigid of expectations and processes, the business would really be affected negatively. I think a businessperson should constantly be willing to adapt both himself and the business to changing circumstances-both internal and external. Running business during the pandemic was a crash course in adaptability and I noticed how I wasn’t being very adaptable early on. I’ve got to thank people such as Jennifer who were around me to give me the right push and say that there is nothing wrong with making something that you didn’t think you’d be making and selling. That’s when I had to change my perceptions around what a fashion business is supposed to be making.

It’s the investment I make into my spiritual life that has helped me overcome every possible obstacle in business or otherwise. Moving forward is what matters and you’ve got to be willing to rise above your own self. That’s what I keep in mind when I encounter an obstacle.

Kirsten: That’s beautiful! Let’s celebrate a time that you succeeded, or had a big win.

Dipti: The first time the business doubled what was invested in an exhibition, was my first big win. It was amazing to see how people loved, appreciated and purchased my designs. Up until then, I had had people doubt and criticise the work I was doing so the first time profits came in, I was both nervous, fulfilled and excited about what could be achieved thereon. It made me think to myself: maybe the idea of running a loved fashion brand isn’t as crazy as I thought. More recently, Vanity Fair UK got in touch with me themselves without me hiring a PR executive/agency.

Kirsten: That is wonderful! Congratulations! Running a business and being creative aren’t always skills that everyone has in equal capacity. [I know I don’t!] But they’re both important to problem solving at mass scale and for those who seek to change the world, as you do. Which do you feel you’re better at [if not both]? And how do you handle the one which doesn’t come as naturally?

Dipti: Being creative is an innate ability I possess but business skills are something I’ve had to learn through experience, from people around me and through courses whenever I could. That apart, I have had people consult or advise on the business related aspects that I am not good at.

Kirsten: A perfect segue into how IMPERIA fits into your life. How has it helped you do what you do, better? Or what have been some of the key things you’ve learned that you’d feel comfortable sharing?

Dipti: Being a part of IMPERIA has helped me stay on track on some of the goals that I’ve had for the business. I was able to test out how to infuse a strong social contribution element into the sales process during the pandemic all thanks to the encouragement and support received from the Imperia community. The group calls we did when everything shut down just kept me going. I also made friends in the community that helped develop the curriculum for a volunteering project that I’m a part of. Looking at what a lot of the women were going through and pushing through inspired me to focus on what was really important. I learnt about how to negotiate, be honest and transparent about money issues with employees during tough times, became more organised with my time and priorities and most importantly, learnt to believe in myself-that I have all that I need to achieve my purpose within me.

Kirsten: How can, or does, IMPERIA help you feel connected to others in your industry or profession?

Dipti: IMPERIA has turned me into a stronger woman and businessperson.

The resilience that I’ve learnt to have simply by looking at the example set by Jennifer, my mentor Lizz and the fellow cohort members is something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life and into every other aspect of my life.

That is such an important quality to have as a person and a very necessary one in a highly competitive industry such as fashion.

Kirsten: Oh I love that, Dipti! I know from my own friendship with Jennifer, she’s such a wonderful person to have in your life. So let’s talk about hope which has been such a buzzword in this pandemic. But for a good reason. It’s essential isn’t it! Where or how does your hope stem from, related to what you get to do?

Dipti: Even on the most difficult and sad days, I’ve woken up with ideas in my head about what kind of products can be made next, I’ve dreamed of beautiful designs, employees who have refused to leave my side and clients who’ve asked me what we’re making next. Difficult times always coming to an end is a very true thing to believe in and that’s the hope that kept me going.

It’s the excitement of bringing to life a new design idea that’s stirring within me is what kept me inspired and helped me to keep the studio running.

Kirsten: As a creative person, I can totally relate to the excitement that comes from new ideas! I also get excited when I think about the impact I can make, in a positive way. Talk to me about the impact you want to make in the world.

Dipti: I want people to see the heart with which the work is done. I want people to see that honest, consistent and passionate efforts give birth to products and results that bring joy and inspiration.

Kirsten: I see your heart already! Thanks for taking this time with me – and for, all the people who will read this! Let’s close with an actionable item or step you’d suggest for the average person (someone not running an organization) to do to help others in their own space/community? Because everyone can choose to help others.

Dipti: Do what you can with what you possess and what you have access to. That’s the key to doing anything successfully really. Do your best with the drive you naturally have in your heart for whatever it is-a business, a non-profit, a social enterprise, a job, a volunteering project or consultancy gig. You will always have what you need as long as you’re willing to stay true to yourself and your purpose. Please talk to people in the field that you want to work in, be willing to learn from their experiences and don’t hesitate to ask for help! Be consistent with what you do and you will automatically see your actions bearing fruit for your community.

Kirsten: Thank you, Dipti! This was extraordinary!

To follow Dipti and her work::
Website: https://www.diptimrinalini.com/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dipti.mrinalini.official/
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dipti-mrinalini-yejerla-75205912/

All photos courtesy of Dipti Mrinalini