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Let’s do Chai – The story behind the Brand

Happiness is when what you THINK, what you Do and what you SAY are in harmony” Mahatma Gandhi

Viki the owner of Let’s do Chai, journeyed through uncertainty and an emotional rollercoaster. Through this volatility, she stepped into her power.

I had coffee with the owner of Let’s do Chai this past weekend. If you are wondering, yes, I am not a fan of chai- “tea” unless it's green tea. Actually, the brand has nothing to do with tea. CHAI is an acronym.

Viki, you launched a business during an extremely uncertain period. What was the inspiration?

2020 was a very challenging year, for everyone. I went through months of restructuring, section 189’s, being demoted, taking a 25% salary cut, whilst still working 14-hour days, from home. I would pray every day to find something better and leave. Well, the universe granted my wish in the most unlikely way - I was offered a mutual separation agreement and found myself without a job from Dec 2020.

After the initial shock and anger – I accepted that I got what I asked for. With over 20 years of corporate experience, I could no longer bring myself or even convince myself, to continue working the same way. I am, a sole provider, so I did not have the luxury of doing nothing…I had dreams for days, but I could not fathom how to bring them to life. I had just enough money to cover my bills for 3-4 months.

I had already spent most of 2018 being unemployed – during that time I started a small craft business and subscribed to a company selling woodblocks. I found them to be expensive and never pursued the idea and forgot about them, to be honest.

In Jan 2021 I got a chance email from this same company announcing that they had changed their name and their offers. I had by this time, already started mapping out what I loved, passion points & what I could do to generate an income. Looking at my list of ideas and their offers felt like serendipity – they had everything I was looking for.

Miss S is an incredible woman who reinvented herself – she is a travel agent by profession, who would usually take groups on curated trips to small villages and communities, to experience the traditional making of crafts and fabrics. Due to travel restrictions, she no longer had work.

These small communities were also adversely affected – their livelihood depended on tourists – who bought their artisanal products and fabrics.

Miss S decided to reorganise her company to bring artisanal products to the world thereby creating employment for herself and the artisans.

After much discussion and planning, I knew I had found my sourcing partner who also made it possible for me to help artisans, small groups of women and their families, to sustain their livelihood.

What exactly is the “c.h.a.i” in your business?

The name “let’s do chai” is something I have held onto for almost 10 years now and it forms part of a much bigger dream. Whether it was a catch up with friends or a meeting in the corporate world, “let’s do coffee” became an integral part of my vocab. On the back of this line, I coined the name for the business - being Indian and growing up drinking tea, I had to put my own spin on things

I was so determined to use the name for my store, however the original tag line was “chat. colour. create.” I realised that the name would not instantly convey what the new offer was.

I spent hours writing down ideas, what the store would be like, categories of product we would stock and then one day, looking down at these pages, I realised that I had found the solution and could keep the name. The acronym C.H.A.I came about as a default rather than a purposeful design.

The product range is made up of 4 categories i.e. .clothing. homeware. accessories. inspitationery

(I fused inspirational + stationery to make “I” work, …and she smiles)

Who is Viki? Is your business an extension of your personality?

I am a university “drop-out”- after an unsuccessful first year of BSc, my Dad told me not to waste my time or his money, find a job and pay back my student loan. The first job I could get was in a leading retail store, paying R6 an hour. I studied Retail and PR on a part-time basis. Over time I progressed and spent years working as a buyer for ladieswear and then homeware, where I developed an absolute love for colour, prints, fashion and travelling. I was offered an opportunity to go into marketing - this shifted my career into a new direction and industry with an invaluable growth trajectory. I then went to business school on a part-time basis to study Advanced Management.

I am a proudly South African Indian. I am best described as a modern traditionalist. I am modern in my outlook, thinking and lifestyle however my values and beliefs have been shaped by my heritage, culture, and traditions.

I love all things Indian – more especially our clothes, jewellery, rich colour, and designs. I would often fuse pieces together – pairing something traditional with a western twist- I wanted to showcase my ethnic side, in a modern way, whilst still looking “acceptable” in a corporate environment (otherwise our Indian clothes were limited to saris and kurthis only worn to weddings and prayers)

Through my years in corporate, I prided myself on wearing my dresses and skirts, I embraced my femininity

The ranges I have put together is everything I would wear or use personally – it epitomises everything I love

Entrepreneurship is rewarding and challenging. Being a woman has additional challenges. Share some of the challenges and how you moved beyond the fear?

I launched the business just before Women’s Month - pure coincidence. I just knew that I was finally ready with the range, the operational aspects, and a website with an online store. I also desperately needed to start generating an income.

Being a single Indian woman in South Africa, is no mean feat – I have had to overcome so many stigmas from colourism to living an independent life and being unmarried. In the weeks leading up to the launch, our country was also overcome with riots, looting and racial tension – I honestly feared that being an Indian business would be met with resistance.

Over the years, as I have grown older (turned 45 in September) I stopped putting myself out there, shying away from the spotlight, becoming more private and very risk-averse. Starting this business has turned all of this on its head.

I have taken the biggest leap of faith, using all my savings. Starting a business in these unprecedented times, with no other source of income, has been the most daunting endeavour I have ever embarked on.

Yes, I am driven by the need to survive!

I have had to overcome so much – more especially relating to my health. I am at a point where I do not want to just live and work. I want to rather thrive, pouring energy, long hours, and hard work into bringing my own dreams to life. Being able to do this with integrity, honesty and in the most authentic way has been liberating. However, this has only been possible because I am blessed to have an incredibly strong emotional support system in the form of my family.

Tell me more about your products.

Our products are mostly handmade and sourced from small communities.

Artisans use traditional techniques and tools to carve wood (Indian Rosewood) blocks by hand. These blocks are then used for printing or turned into décor pieces.

Our fabrics are 100% cotton – made predominantly through a manual process of using a loom wheel or spinning/twisting cotton by hand. These fabrics are then block printed by hand, with organic dyes. After washing and drying, small groups of men and women stitch these fabrics into the beautiful, high-quality pieces we are offering. Our papier-mache and paper products are also handmade, using traditional techniques.

Are you an ethical and environmentally conscious brand?

This is incredibly important to me – I am passionate about recycling (it is a rule in my home) and advocate that we reduce, reuse, or upcycle wherever possible.

Our brand is the epitome of “slow fashion” – we use sustainable processes and fabrics (cotton, wood, paper) and do not mass produce – this means our ranges are limited and niche. In our clothing category, you will only find one piece per size in every style/design. Whilst our homeware, accessories and inspitationery collections have 3-5 pieces per item.

What's been the response so far?

As South African Indians we are an integral part of a rainbow nation-best described as a hybrid of western influences and our heritage and traditions.

Our products epitomise this fusion of a modern contemporary lifestyle/nationality and our love for colour, intricate design, handicrafts, prints and patterns.

COVID-19 forced a massive shift in consumer buying behaviour - decreasing the resistance and uncertainty associated with online shopping. Established businesses saw massive spikes in their online sales whilst smaller businesses who were not online scrambled to catch up.

I did not have the capital outlay for a brick and mortar store, and I had never considered having an online business. This change in behaviour paved an easier path for us to get started. The rapid rise in online businesses generated access to a lot of information - resources and platforms were more accessible. I spent a lot of time on e-commerce forums and observing established businesses for insights and learnings – this was crucial to define our niche (set us apart) and design our processes and customer experience.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive – it is rare for new small, unestablished businesses, albeit an online business, to make a sale on day 1. We are 2 months old - our community, on the various social platforms, has been growing steadily and we have had consistent sales with great reviews from our customers.

What's next for let's do c.h.a.i?

In the immediate future, we would love to see the store grow so we can expand the range of products. Our long-term vision is to have a physical store. There are already several other ideas of how we will expand the “let’s do chai” brand in the future. The ultimate goal though is to scale our business so we can create employment, especially to empower women.

Where can people get to know more about Let’s do Chai?

Mobile – 084 777 5002

Education and the growth of small businesses play an important role in growing the South African economy and creating jobs.

The high unemployment rate in South Africa impacts millions of lives. The hardship, anger, frustration, and pain is real.

Each of us has a role to play. In this scenario, we can choose to buy from Let’s do Chai or spread the word about the business.

I am going to pen off with this reflective quote by Dr Martin Seligman as well-being has become the focus especially during the past 18 months"

“Signature strengths such as Kindness, Persistence & Temperance are the foundation of well-being.”

Spread the love and Be KIND!

Take good care and stay safe, well and happy!

Thank you for stopping by!

I wish you love, light, happiness, and Freedom

Charmaine Soobramoney

I Am the Change and Free – Founder

Each One Hold One (EOHO) - Co-founder

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