Interview: Komal Hiranandani
Friday, 12 June, 2020
Tell us about SaltScout?
SaltScout is a social enterprise startup with a mission to make socially conscious spending mainstream—so we are always striving to make it easier and more fun for people to make socially conscious spending decisions.
What led you to create the platform, how did it all start?
Honestly, it started because I felt like my own shopping did not conform to the values I held. And when I tried to find products that were made in an environmentally and socially responsible manner, and that were also functional and affordable, the search could be incredibly hard. So we were driven to make finding such products a more accessible experience, because that is the only way we can hope for such products to become mainstream.
Tell us about socially conscious spending and how it works?
The concept of ‘socially conscious spending’ can be broad and ambiguous, and it can mean different things to different people. To us, it’s finding materials that have the lowest possible environmental footprint, products that take care of the people and communities that make them, and proceeds from sales benefitting important social causes. We also believe that the key is to look at it as an evolving aspiration.
We need to acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. For instance, if you ask what is worse for the environment—a reusable plastic bag or a reusable cotton bag—the answer can be very complex, with scientists themselves sometimes differing on the answer, considering variables from how each product was made, to the energy mix used in the country where it was made, to the supply chain transportation, to the durability of each product under different conditions, to the end-of-life recycling capabilities in the place of final consumption of the products.
But we should not be daunted by such complexity. We should ask, probe, investigate—because that is how we will get closer to the answers we need. And by taking incremental steps towards our ideal position, we can move to a point where it’s the new normal for everyone.
You’ve worked with some of the biggest celebrities in India, could you tell us about some of your clients and the causes they support through SaltScout?
We started our operations with an online pop-up store for celebrity wardrobes, with proceeds from sales supporting social causes. So this is not something we could have done ourselves—we had to wait and hope that people from the film industry would be open to trying this new concept. And honestly, it was not a “hard sell”. They really are looking for ways to leave the world better than they found it, and it’s been heartening to see how committed they are to be involved with the process—from connecting with a cause they are passionate about to connecting with their fans while drawing them in the circle of giving.
Of all the items SaltScout has featured, what is one you would have loved to snag?
We had made a large sculpture of a peacock entirely from rubber waste from footwear manufacturing, saving the non-biodegradable materials from being burnt, landfilled or tossed in the sea. It was such a beautiful and bright piece of art, made by skilled traditional Indian handicraft artisans!
When setting up a new business, what has been your biggest success and biggest failure?
What gratifies me most is seeing messages from customers who are not only happy to receive their purchases, but happy that their purchase has supported an important social cause. Especially with celebrity memorabilia, it’s easy for fans to just be satisfied that they have a piece of their favourite stars. But customers really do appreciate that this is not just a purchase, but a contribution to an NGO—and seeing this makes all the difficult days and all-nighters worth it!
Thinking of failures, if we’d start all over again, there are of course several things we would do differently. But we also believe that beyond a point, you don’t know until you try. So while everything has not worked out the way we imagined, we try to keep our experiments on a small and flexible scale, so we are not daunted and beyond repair if things don’t go as planned.
What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs?
Be obsessed with trying to get as much market feedback before, during and after whatever it is you set out to do!
Looking back at your time with Asia Society, what did you learn.Tell us about some of the most memorable programmes or projects you worked on?
Asia Society was my first job out of college, so it really molded me. I had real, solid, mentorship from my bosses. While we all had our defined responsibilities, we were allowed to see all parts of the institution—big and small. So whether it was thinking about a five year strategy or putting in place processes to make sure operations ran consistently, it trained us to think about how all aspects of an organization come together. Perhaps if I had worked at a bigger or more bureaucratic place, I would not have had the insight and confidence I needed to run an organization today.
It’s hard to pick a particular programme that was most memorable, because each was so different! The Asia 21 Young Leaders initiative definitely stands out, though, because it involved bringing together some of the brightest minds across the Asia Pacific spanning fields from business to politics. Structuring conferences that would facilitate new collaborations, seeing how they articulated their positions and negotiated with those that held different opinions… it was energizing to be around them!
Komal is Founder and CEO of the social enterprise SaltScout. She studied Applied Economics & Management from Cornell University, Law from Mumbai University and Government from Georgetown University. Her previous professional experience includes working as Senior Associate at IDFC Institute, a political economy think-tank set up by IDFC Ltd, and as Programme Officer for Business & Policy Programmes at Asia Society. As a development economist, her research has focused on urban governance and urban development in India. Her other areas of research included comparative analyses of the business regulatory environment across Indian states and analysing consequences of specific affirmative action policy designs. She is now committed to applying market-based approaches and incorporating insights from behavioural economics to propel socially conscious spending into the mainstream through her work at SaltScout.
About Summer Fridays
Summer Fridays is a brand new blog series by Asia Society India Centre, profiling established cultural influencers and rising stars in various fields. Each week we feature conversations, interviews, recipes, playlists, and more—on art, food, music, literature, and film.