October 4, 2022

Jonali Saikia Khasnabish on Heeya and motherhood

She is known as one of the most successful entrepreneurs, someone who has efficiently managed to get our attention on North Eastern fabrics, attire, sarees and bring that culture connect in Bangalore.

Meet Jonali Saikia Khasnabish the founder of the brand ‘Heeya’. Here’s an interesting story by Jonali talking as the mum who decided to make a shift in her life that would not impact her life but many others.

“I was born in Shillong, Meghalaya and grew up in this gorgeous hill town till I was 10 and subsequently moved to Guwahati, Assam. I belong to a large family of 6 sisters and a brother. I have beautiful childhood memories of growing up amongst pine trees, hilly roads, and the cosmopolitan culture of Shillong. After moving to Assam, some of these things changed but it was a good growing up, especially my school and our neighborhood. We grew up through the turmoil of the anti- foreigner movement in Assam, seeing a lot of agitation and protests etc that culminated in an accord with the Government of India.

I completed my studies in Guwahati before starting a corporate career that took me to Kolkata and then to Bangalore.

In my corporate life I realized this perfectly well-oiled machine would run without me and that I could make a difference in an area that needed it, and which I wanted to. I did a bit of soul searching to explore ideas which needed urgent interventions from an organizational, market building, skill and capacity building perspective.

After looking around I realized there is potential for channelizing the weaving potential of the North East region. The North East and Assam in particular has the largest number of looms in the country and a strong weaving culture, especially by its women. The idea was to create a model for sustainable livelihood for women’s co-operative groups that are engaged in weaving and also put the art of the region in the forefront.

I was not as skeptical as much as I was excited when I started, I still am, but yes through the years the journey has had its highs and lows. Creating a template and a market for the livelihood of hundreds of women has been a huge high, we have grown from 5 women to more than 300 women working on making global quality products right in their homes. There are many more lows as well, for example- running out of funds, weavers not being able complete an assignment on time or not finding adequate response in an event or for a collection. Also lack of support by Government officials and lack of interest from investors are two other lows.

Heeya means heart. When artists pour their heart to creating beautiful pieces, the result is a piece of art. I named it Heeya especially because the women who weave in these regions have never done for money but for their loved ones. Right from rearing silk worms to spinning the silk yarn to dyeing them and weaving the yarn on the looms at home while overseeing the home and hearth, the women do everything. The question was – can we give an opportunity to these women to create some financial security for themselves?

At a macro level, it also meant establishing a saree genre of the NE region, esp Assam. Now we have developed clusters with over thousand women weavers across different ethnic groups who translate their art to sarees. Our goal is not to make a few designer sarees only- we have created new saree types that are aligned to the weaving practices, culture of a community /tribe and we have named them accordingly. For eg- Chhaya sarees made in lower Assam by Assamese weavers, Riphan sarees made by Rabha women, Gero made by Mishing women and so on and so forth. These have a great acceptance amongst the target audience as so many saree types from the region were non existent and no one could experience the beauty of these weaves as a saree until now.”

Talking on having a work profile and identity as an entrepreneur and balancing it with the role of being a mother, Jonali shares, “ It has been a good decision to being an entrepreneur and having flexible timing, but it is much more than a full time job. It is a 24/7 job with lots of travel thrown in between and continuous new challenges in an unorganized market.

(Jonali from Heeya with her daughter).

It is fulfilling but also ridden with uncertainties. It is a big risk as you are in the most productive years of your life and the only thing that keeps you going is achieving small milestones.

If I have to talk on professional identities for other mums, I would say, taking up new roles post motherhood is a good idea as this time offers you a time to introspect what else you may be interested in than doing a 9-5 job. Some may even want to take a slightly long sabbatical. But at no point should you give up working altogether. Whether you continue to work as a freelancer, an entrepreneur or as a salaried individual, make sure you are using your time productively. It is important to nurture and upgrade your professional or creative self and also earn some money in the process.

Mothers and nurturing are opposite sides of the same coin. Everywhere mothers are same, caring, nurturing and thinking of the child’s future – in cities, mothers are more privileged to have help and money and the best of food and whatever else the child needs, whereas in the villages, mothers are constrained to afford good education and health. This is precisely the reason- the raison d’etre of Heeya. To enable mothers have an income without having to move out of their homes.”

Lastly speaking on her mother Jonali shares, “My mother has been a strong influence in my life as have been my older sisters. My mother is the most practical woman I have seen- she raised all of us, her seven children with great focus and strength.  She was a teacher in a Government school and continued till she had her first four children, that too in a nuclear family set up, which I think is highly commendable. She raised all her daughters to be on their own feet and carve their own mark in the world. She taught us the values of ethics and making the best of what life gives you, without waiting for perfect timing.  She also taught us the values of being responsible and independent. She also encouraged us to always contribute back to the society.”


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