An Accidental Entrepreneur

Presenting to you, craft revivalist, jewellery designer and preserver of craft heritage, Gina Joseph.

Born to a family from Kerala, Gina grew up in Delhi & Chennai, moved her base to Bangalore after studies and in pursuit of a future. For the next 8 years, she worked in the field of advertising, public relations and corporate communications.  From her first job in advertising to her last stint in corporate communication, she was the best at what she did.

From the very first interaction, I was inspired by Gina. She was dedicated and she knew what she wanted and where she was heading. I have known her since 2014. We both met at the ‘Under the Parijatha,’ exhibition held by Purple Fete in Trichur. We were entrepreneurs working hard to make it in a competitive world, selling our products with passion and the fact is our survival depended on us influencing potential customers and in Gina’s case, spot sales. We had a connection and that spark led to a seven year friendship. Gina’s story is not just adventurous, challenging and inspiring, it most notably is a story for all those who are aspiring to make it on their own.

Over the last seven years, Gina has worked with artisans from various parts of the Indian subcontinent through her brand, Zola India. Through Zola, Gina provides a platform for artisans from various craft forms like Dhokra, Pattachitra, Toda embroidery, Wall Mural art, Aranmula mirror art, Leather puppetry and Lac Turnery, Bidri and Bead Embroidery and works along the fourth and fifth generation artisans from Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat. Gina has conducted over 30 design workshops with over 500 hundred artisans across rural India. Her work is unique and it supports the sustenance of various craft forms and provides artisans a platform to showcase their talent in new style, form and appearance.

Today, I have with me Gina herself, let’s dive into an incredible journey from an advertising internship to entrepreneurship.  How did she do it ? A corporate guru to a craft revivalist ? Let’s go.

A conversation with Chippy & Founder, Zola India, Craft Revivalist & Lead Jewellery Designer Gina Joseph.

CKChip Hey Gina, how have you been? 
GJI am good. Keeping myself occupied, working on new projects, collaborations and more. Considering the pandemic, I am okay. We have had to make a lot of changes and the early pandemic phase is not something I wish to see again. Hope to see the world in a better shape sooner with businesses and the economy thriving.
CKCThe last one and half years must have been testing. How are you coping with the pandemic and how has it affected you and Zola ?
Oh yes. It was indeed testing. It was hard initially. It was our artisan community that was hit hard. They found it hard to make ends meet and carry on with the basic livelihood. 
Now, things are a lot better, and we are striding in a direction that’s sustainable to our artisans and the business. 
CKCHow did you achieve this ?
GJInitially, the artisans were not able to sell their crafts. They could neither make new stock as the sales and shipping channels were closed for over two months. The solution was to create an online presence for our artisans products and create collections virtually. We also urged our customers to make a conscious effort to buy handmade and artisanal products to support the vibrant craft community.          
CKCLet’s move from the heavy topic and make it lighter. 
GJOh yes. Please do.
CKC You always say you were an accidental entrepreneur. Did you ever imagine you would become what you are today ? 
GJNo. Never. Not even once.
CKCSo how do you explain your success?
GJI don’t know how to answer that question. I have done a mix of things work wise. In 2004, I started in advertising. Later did a small stint in Public Relations. Then I was a journalist for about six years and was part of Corporate Communication for three and a half years. I made a conscious decision to take a break from the corporate world & work, and head back to studies. 
CKCThat must have been a hard choice to make.
It took a bit of getting used to, but I wanted a change. I did the Arts Management programme from Dakshinachitra in Chennai where I got introduced to the world of Indian and western art history, anthropology, museum studies and a lot more. I was always an art appreciator and this programme surfaced at the right time in my life. 
CKCSo, this programme kick started your brand.
Pretty much, Yes. There is a story behind this. Zola actually stemmed out of my Indian art project that I had to do while doing this arts management programme. The project was to create three pieces of Toda jewellery by whatever we are inspired from our programme literature or studies.
I was inspired by temple architecture and at that time Hindu mythology was very new to me, I was aware of a few stories, but not many details. Hindu mythology was fascinating for me. I was wowed by the pantheon of gods and goddesses, ancient architecture and the sculptures at these temples.For my project I took three women from Hindu temple architecture. These women were not goddesses, they were at the entrance of the temple. They all have names, a woman hanging from a tree is called ‘salabanjikas’,  a woman who has a parrot on her shoulder is called a ‘madanika’, a woman holding a mirror and staring at it is a ‘darpana sundari.’ Then there are apsaras and devadasi. I found these women more fascinating and interesting than goddesses. I thought why has no one explored more on creating textiles or designs and jewellery based on these women. So I thought I should do it. 
During my time at Dakshinachitra,  I interacted with artisans from across the country, getting to know them, about their craft and artistry. I met an artisan from Orissa here and shared my idea and asked if he could carve my designs onto wood. He sent it across to his brother in Odisha and got the work done in 10 days.
CKCWow, this is exciting. And then what happened. 
GJI created my first three pieces of jewellery as part of my Indian art project . The temple women in Indian sculpture, one was from the Gupta period, one a Madanika from Chennakeshwara temple and another woman with an ornate hairdo from the 10 century. I got them carved in wood and put them together with semi precious stones. My concept was ‘to wear a piece of history on you’. I made it into necklaces and called it ‘Zola.’ 
As I came from an ad world I wanted to brand my project, I didn’t think about it as a business, it was just a project. Zola is an Italian word that means a piece of earth. It resonated with the fact that the craft was part of my country’s history and culture, a part of my soil.  
CKCThree pieces of jewellery changed your life forever. So in fact Zolal is your first child
GJYeap, very much. 
CKCSo that was your beginning, the birth of Zola.
GJIn Fact no. 
CKCOh really. This is getting interesting. Could you please elaborate ?
GJI didn’t have any idea of taking it forward. I thought it would end with the project. I named and branded the project Zola, I did it as part of my history, tradition and culture and I thought a piece of earth really fitted the tagline for my project. That was that. After the project, everyone had rave reviews and everyone enjoyed it as well as loved it. Feedback was ‘you should make something more.’
So I had a conversation with my artisan and he made me realise something and this was a turning point in my life. My project happened soon after the Orissa flood and the money I paid the artisan for their work benefited them in ways I could not fathom. He said ‘with that money we were actually able to manage one months expenses at home. Thank you so much for that work.’ That was the thought I had, the upliftment of artisans with Zola. Still I had no intention of making it into business. 

In the background of Project Zola, I was planning and preparing towards attending the Art Marketing Course based in New York and also working on getting into an internship at the Smithsonian. My aim was to get into art writing and get into selling art. I believed as I had a communication background and now this one year Art Management course gave me new insights, I believed this was the right path for me forward. 

The “aha” moment happened seven years ago, when I had the opportunity to meet Ms Geetha Ram, the Chairperson, the Craft Council of India, (CCI). She knew I had attended the art management programme and I thought it would be beneficial to meet and discuss something totally different, not related to jewellery design. I wore my newly carved necklace and she admired and as well as was genuinely appreciative of it. I had the chance to explain to her my process and talked to her in length about project Zola.

As my conversation with Ms Ram happened, she urged me to do a jewellery design workshop in Odisha.  That’s how I got to do my first Dhokra design workshop in Bhubaneswar with 20 rural artisans. It was a turning point of my life and there’s been no looking back. 
CKCDid that trust encourage you to think about taking a plunge into the abyss?
GJOh yes. The trust in me and my work that was the stepping stone for Zola India. I was scared and at the same time, very excited about the journey . So I went to Odisha and  met the women artisans who came from the village to attend the workshop.  I was at ease and things fell in place. It was a great experience, I just saw lots of beads lying in front of me, lots of petit motifs and different colours of threads. Like a kid in a candy store, I sat on the floor, taking one by one and putting it together and created one piece at a time. At the end of the workshop in five days we made seventy five designs of necklaces, earrings and anklets in all.  
CKCWhat transpired after your first workshop ?
GJAfter the workshop when I came back they managed to get my designs displayed in a store and I was skeptical and told the store owner that I was not sure who would buy my jewellery. 70 Pieces were displayed and after 25 days the store contacted me and they said, ‘Gina, we need to re-stock.’ I was thinking, ‘people love it.’
CKC This must have boosted your confidence.
GJWhat actually gave me lots of confidence was my first exhibition by The Craft Council of India. This was happening just a few weeks  after the return from Odisha. I ordered whatever jewellery I made, but had no idea where I was going to build the capital to pay for it, I was extremely scared. This exhibition was for three days and by the end of it we ended up making a handsome profit. That time my products were available from Rs 300 to Rs 2000. This gave me a lot of confidence to create and take Zola forward. 
CKCSo Zola took off.
GJAfter this exhibition, I started exhibiting in different places, attending exhibitions and also had my products in twenty plus stores in India and also ventured my own online store. Along came design piracy, a lot of my work was getting copied and reproduced and that was hard to deal with.
CKCYour product started trending.
GJI don’t know about that but after a while I thought I should diversify and explore other craft, so I conducted a leather puppetry workshop. Initially people only made lampshades of it, nobody made jewelry. I explored ways to make jewelry from it. So I gave the entire thing a sculpted twist and started making neck collars, earrings and more.  I got to work with senior artisans and went and stayed with them for a week and came back and made it available online. People loved it and it sold out. Again people started reaching out to my artisan and offered him over a lakh to copy my work. Recently for another project, I met with him and he shared an interesting fact, ‘five or six of us work on your project and we only make it for you but more than ten households in the neighbourhood are running because they copy your work.’ 
CKCHow do you feel about it? Should you not challenge them legally !
GJI don’t know how to take it. When Dhokra designs were copied so vastly I had to send legal notice to so many individuals. 
CKCSo that’s all about yourself. Who you are. If someone asks you ‘tell me about yourself’, you will have to start from the beginning, a beginning even prior to Zola. 
GJYes. My work defines me in a big way and I think that’s fine. Especially now, at least in the past 7 years. Before that, I was working for someone else and that was a different phase in my life. No other job in the past gave me so much satisfaction and fulfilment. I realised that this is what I was meant to do.
CKCThat realisation of ‘what I am meant to do,’ is what all entrepreneurs seek. Did you as a child ever want to be in business?
GJNo. Never. I don’t think so.
CKCCan I take you back to your childhood? When you were a kid, did you ever have any thoughts about doing something close to what you are doing now ? How did this interest in art and craft come about, was there anything growing up. 
GJNo. I don’t think so. I was always drawn to making something from scratch. I was crafty as a child. I was interested in embroidery, working with papier mache and anything craft related. I was very alert and interested in craft, it excited me. 
CKCAfter 10th grade/standard, which field did you move into.
CKCAfter 12th grade/standard ?
GJB.Sc. Visual Communication
CKCWhat prompted you to move from commerce to communication?
GJI loved the whole course structure and was more inclined towards choosing it because of the advertising unit and writing part of the course. I wanted to get into advertising, so I chose this course. The other part that wanted me to choose Vis Com was for the psychology and media studies part of the course. It was quite interesting. 
CKCWas there any person in particular who you looked up to during your Vis Com days, who gave you a path forward for your future. 
GJNo and yes. I don’t think there was anyone who I looked up to. One exception was Professor Fr. Jerome of Loyola College. He gave me lessons on punctuality and discipline.  Even his lesson plans were not book bound, it was relevant to current affairs of the time from around the world, which was engaging.
CKCWhat happened after your graduation ? As planned, did you step foot in the ad world?
GJYes, I joined O&M Bangalore and stayed there for a year. Moved to Delhi and worked in PR for the next eight months. That was a short stint as I realised I hated PR. During this time I met many journalists and one of them offered me a job. I said yes and joined the magazine, Incredible India and at 21, I held the Assistant Editor position there. From here I moved to India Today, Spice for two years. I moved back to Chennai when I joined the launch team of Time of India and worked with them for two and a half years. Next I joined Uninor in the Corporate Communication team and handled the corporate communication for the whole of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. And my final employment was with Volvo based in Bangalore handling the Corporate communications for Trucks division of India and the highlight was the frequent travels to Sweden. 
CKCThat’s more than ten colourful years of amazing work experience in the advertising and corporate world. You really did well. 
GJAfter I quit my last job, I wanted to take a break for a while. Then, my friend from Bombay arrived to attend the Arts Management Course in Chennai. She started talking in length about this course and the more she describes the more I was tempted to join and I did. And it changed my life. 
CKCBig time !!! Your path to your Zola. 
GJYes, correct. It changed my life in the sense that after the course my path completely changed. After the project work, there were people interested to write about my work. I was not running it as a business until 2015. I used to have minimal collections and did make and sell my products to small groups and exhibitions and displayed in stores.  
CKCWhat changed to go full on business mode ?
GJIn Aug 2015 I did a four month programme called  ‘Crafting Luxury and Lifestyle Businesses’ (CLLB) from IIM Ahmedabad which helped me figure out a business model and investor pitch, which was really helpful in planning the way forward for Zola.  
CKCLet me ask this, how will you describe yourself in one word ?
GJOne word, that’s difficult. If I have to say a phrase not a word, I will have to say, even though I am someone who hates change, but for me change has been the only constant in my life. I hate it. I hate change. If I like a restaurant, I usually end up going to there often.  I don’t like change but change has just been such a big part of my life. 
CKCAll the changes keeps life excited for you right !!!
GJIt does but sometimes it is a little scary. 
CKCSo, if you had a chance to meet your 18 year old self, What would you tell her ?
GJI will tell 18 year old Gina to go and live a little because growing up I was told I cannot do this, do that and I was put into that box from a very young age.  I was just scared to explore anything new. When you are put in a box, you become this very righteous person who thinks if you do X, it is wrong, if you do Z, it is right. I will tell her, ‘people will talk anyway, so just go live your life.’ 
CKCThat’s a good one. And what’s your take on failure. Do you believe, in life, one should fail at least once.
GJYes, yes and yes. In my life it has happened so many times, in so many ways. Failure keeps you grounded and helps you come up with solutions to the problem instead of running away from it. 
CKCWhat do you stay away from mostly?
GJThese days I stay away from toxic people and toxic food. 
CKCAny words of wisdom for your future self ?
GJOh yes. It will happen when it has to happen. I will tell Gina that just continue living the way you are and be open to surprises of life and as said what has to happen will happen anyway. 
What is meant to be yours will be yours. Noone can take that away from you. What’s not meant to be yours how much ever you try to hold it, pull it, it’s not going to be yours.  
CKCYou love Chennai.
GJChennai is home. 
CKCAny plans to move out of Chennai ?
GJNot right now. If there are any opportunities, why not. 
CKCYou have travelled vastly. What’s your favorite city ?
GJIn India, it would be Kashmir. It’s a completely different experience.Outside India, two places that fascinated me so far, first, Oslo, Norway because it was extremely cold. It was -24°C. It was paying a price for beauty. Everywhere I set my eyes, it was picture perfect.Second was Maasai Mara, Kenya. I loved it there. I had the opportunity to watch the great wildebeest migration, it was magical and I have never experienced anything such as this. 
CKCWhat are your future plans for Zola ? What are the new projects and what’s new ?
GJPandemic has definitely changed me to push things around. It was a testing time for Zola and for myself. Like most small businesses we have had to change and make changes. As I said, change makes me very uncomfortable but it excites me again when I get a little bit comfortable with the change. 
So I am coming up with other product options other than jewellery. We are currently working on decor products, home decor and games.
CKCDiversifying is essential. And your new projects will also have craft as your underlying factor.
GJYes diversifying and of course and definitely everything I do will be craft oriented. No change in that. 
CKCHas there anyone who mentored you when you changed path and stepped into the craft world ?
GJWithout a doubt, Ms Ashrafi S. Bhagat. She is a living legend. For me, Ashrafi was my guru and mentor, when I did my Arts Management Programme. I don’t think I have seen so much discipline, commitment and passion towards art from anyone else in my life like I have seen with her. I was destined to meet her and she has definitely been an inspiration.
CKCIf you look back, from an internship at O&M, to PR to Incredible India to India Today to Times of India to UNINOR to Volvo to a project that launched an entrepreneur. It’s been an incredible journey. 
GJYes, when you say that loud, it sure sounds incredible. I agree, it’s been an incredible journey, it’s true and quite crazy too. 
CKCYou should be proud of yourself for what you have achieved. I am so incredibly happy to have known you from your humble beginnings. You are a woman who inspired me and still inspires me. I mean it. I wish all those who get a chance to read this piece will be inspired and motivated to aspire for more. Not many can take the entrepreneur pathway, it’s not an easy task. 
GJI was pushed into it. And then I kind of quite enjoyed it. Literally, one year into Zola, I was offered a job, I said,’no thank you. I’m going to stick to my business.’ 
CKCThat is the fact. Once you are an entrepreneur and you set your ideas into motion, you know your potential and you will never want to work for someone else. You want to work for yourself, build up your skills for your projects and products. It’s a different mindset and pathway all together. 
GJAbsolutely true. 
CKCPeople are wearing your craft as art and it’s very fascinating. What you expected has happened and it must be very meaningful to you. Wearing your jewellery is like wearing a piece of our heritage. 
GJOh yes. My idea and concept was ‘to wear a piece of history on you,’ and also it was to give people an opportunity to wear something traditional in a modern way. Zola is helping craft to be seen and worn and enjoyed.
CKCYour craft has had few famous personalities adorn them. 
GJAll my clients make me famous when they wear my piece. I love it when I get to see my customers in one of my jewellery. It’s an amazing feeling. Richa Chadda has worn quite a few of my pieces. She did wear them with so much love and passion. I was very excited when Revathy wore my necklace. As a big Revathy fan, it was a dream come true. Reema Kallingal got a few of my jewellery while I did an exhibition in Kerala. I am blessed to have customers across India and the globe. 
CKCI believe all your customers become famous when they wear Zola. It enhances our personality and Zola for sure is a confidence booster. That’s my take on it.
GJThat’s very kind of you to say that. It was so good to talk and once again relive my journey. I enjoyed it thoroughly. 
CKCI am glad we did this. I am hoping our conversation reaches that one person who is looking for that one story that not only inspires but also assists in making that first step in making a choice, a decision, a move that will change their life. Fingers crossed.
GJFingers crossed. Thankyou for having me.
Gina's mentor and friend, in her own words,

"I have known Gina for the past seven years, initially as a student of Arts Management at Dakshinachitra and later she maintained her contacts with me developing a relationship that went beyond guru shishya to that of a warm camaraderie, which extended to becoming travel companions when we started visiting kochi Biennale. Gina developed a passion for art in her arts management programme. From pictorial Indian art traditions of arts and crafts as well as modern Western Art history, she articulated and extended her knowledge when she initiated designing jewellery and other crafted forms. With sufficient knowledge of art history and traditions, Gina jumped into the fray of jewellery designers but with a distinct and different touch. 

Gina is innovative, always in quest to introduce originality and novelty, contemporizing crafts and art designs to suit the market and individual needs. She is meticulous and thorough in her research; paying similar attention to the finish of her products. Through her venture - Zola A Piece of Earth, she provided opportunities to several craftsmen in Orissa, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in generating income as well as employment and most importantly keeping the craft tradition alive. She has created and designed varied ornaments that are as evocative and beautiful as they are poetic and wearable all created according to her contemporary sensibility. 

Gina's success lies in her humility and respect for knowledge. She is warm, gentle, loving and empathetic. An enterprising entrepreneur, a supportive friend, generous hearted and an intelligent companion she can light up anybody's life with her contagious laughter and optimism. She has an aura of positivity about her and I consider myself fortunate in having known her and having her in my life." 

Dr Ashrafi S. Bhagat
Artist, Art Historian, Art Critic, Author and Curator
Associate Professor & Former Head, Stella Maris College, Chennai

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