It was a journey to discover more about her family origins that led one US-based entrepreneur to start a business that helps struggling female artisans in a remote Indian village and pays them a living wage.
A few years ago, Manvee Vaid, who is Indian but lives in America, realized she wanted to know more about her heritage and culture so, with her husband, she travelled to Manipur in the north-east of the country.
It was here that she came across traditionally crafted black clay pottery, the making of which has been practiced by the local Tangkhul Naga tribes for centuries using techniques passed from generation to generation.
Always interested in fine art, Manvee knew that, under British occupation, western art had grown in influence and gradually become accepted as the norm, and she was struck by the beauty and simplicity of the locally made, handcrafted objects.
Manipur is extremely remote and surrounded by serene mountain landscapes, but it is also riven by internal conflicts and unrest, and communication in the region can be difficult. Visitors are few, and when Manvee and her husband arrived the whole community greeted them, and they soon got to know many of the villagers.
It was in this way that she met a group of artists who began to talk to her about selling their black clay pottery internationally. The result was Terra Klay, a handcrafted pottery business based in Illinois, which uses the internet to connect centuries of tradition to the modern world while providing a living wage for a dozen families in Manipur. This small business is having a big impact on the lives of the female tribal artisans, who dreamed of becoming entrepreneurs and selling their products worldwide.
“We don’t help them, they help us,” is how Manvee sees the work of her company.
Although she has an extensive background in fine art, Manvee hadn’t come to India looking for a small business venture. “This wasn’t my area of expertise and I was not sure how to market this pottery,” she said. She felt that selling handicrafts required a different mindset. However, after some consideration – and coaxing from her husband – she decided to give it a shot.
Though remote, she is still able to communicate with artisans via cell phone, and as formal banking in the region is difficult, she helped the women to open bank accounts so they could receive their money.
She also works with FedEx to ensure international delivery of the handcrafted teapots, cups and accessories that she sells through the Terra Klay website.
Manvee’s relationship with FedEx deepened when she was selected as a winner of the annual FedEx Small Business Grant Contest, part of the company’s commitment to global entrepreneurship.
Winners are connected to a network of more than 50 small business peers that provide experience and business advice.
Many small businesses do not have the tools needed to work on a global scale, so FedEx connects business owners like Manvee with expert advisors to provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to develop.
While the pottery she sells is beautiful, the story behind the business is often what really engages customers. Terra Klay names each teapot after the artist who created it, giving them a life of their own and connecting their buyers very different parts of the world. The company also encloses materials about the traditional art form with every purchase.
Terra Klay’s products, the story behind them and Manvee’s devotion have inspired many, including the FedEx team, which selected the company as one of 10 winners of the 2017 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest out of thousands of entries.
Through the exposure, the network of peers and the shipping advice that she has garnered since winning, Manvee has been able to grow Terra Klay while continuing to help a remote community to share its traditional products with the world and improve the lives of the artists who make them.
Kelli Martin is a manager at FedEx.