Spotlight Series: Q&A with Founder of Chaya Candles, Zakera

We spoke to Zakera about her motivation to launch sustainable candle company, Chaya Candles.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

I’m a British-born Bangladeshi. I have a BA Hons in English and Philosophy. 

Since graduating, I have been working in the finance industry. In my spare time, I’ve always enjoyed making things and being creative – as a young girl my favourite show was Art Attack. I started Chaya Candles as I’d been learning and perfecting the craft of candle-making for many years and came to a point where I was ready to turn the hobby into a business.

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable, ethical practice?

In recent years, I’ve consciously made changes within myself to be more sustainable, so it was very important to me that my business also reflected these values. I made lifestyle changes like recycling more, eating less meat, and even little things like swapping cling film for beeswax wraps, and getting books from the library.

It highlighted that making small changes is a start and easy to incorporate, so if I can inspire others to be more sustainable through my product, that is a win!

Although it was extremely challenging to ensure all the packaging is recyclable whilst keeping the costs reasonable, it’s very rewarding to see the final product and to have persevered with my vision.

What is Chaya Candles, how did it come about and what are your values as a business?

I wanted a business that captures my British and Bengali roots with a product that delivers the best of both worlds. 

Each part of the product brings aspects of the East to the West – from the distinctive look of the terracotta clay, which are inspired by the rural villages of Bangladesh, to the brand logo, colourful packaging, and fragrances. 

Bengali language is something I am so proud of, hence why I chose a simple Bengali word for the company name – Chāẏā, meaning ‘shadow’. The fragrance names keep to this theme: Jibon means ‘life’, Aador means ‘affection’, and so on. I feel this gives the product a unique touch, whilst also introducing people to a few Bengali words.

The core value of the business is sustainability. I make the candles with soy wax and cotton wicks to ensure a clean burn with no soot. The terracotta clay for the pots is made from 100% natural ingredients and doesn’t involve any harmful chemicals in manufacture – it is simply heated and moulded into desired shapes. Also, the high durability of this clay means that each pot can be repurposed into something else for the home or garden.

Another value is that every part of the candle is handmade. I collaborate with a ceramist who hand-throws each pot and lid. I then mix the fragrances and hand-pour each candle. The packaging is finished with a handmade wax seal. The entire process means every candle sold is truly one-of-a-kind.

Being of Bengali heritage, did you face any backlash from family, friends or society at large for your startup? If so, how did you overcome it?

I am super lucky to have the most supportive family and friends. I know they’re biased but my parents are my biggest fans. I grew up in a very liberal family with a lot of love and encouragement and my parents have always been my biggest inspiration.

They are so proud of Chaya and that I have done something with our heritage. 

My husband and the people close to me have had to endure a lot of candle chat over the years. Their cheerleading has been key in making it all possible and believing in myself to take the step. I particularly remember being in a restaurant with my friend Prema, contemplating the business name, and she interrupted the table next to us to get their opinion – we then ended up having a discussion with the group and felt certain that Chaya was the right name.

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

Although I tried to be more sustainable in my everyday life, starting the business and undertaking research has opened my eyes and I have actively changed many habits. 

I’ve learnt that small steps can make a huge difference. I didn’t think anything other than plastic bubble-wrap would work in keeping the pottery intact during delivery – that said, I quickly found a sustainable alternative – a recyclable and biodegradable protective paper wrap that works better than bubble-wrap. I continue learning in this area. I always say to my husband that he’s the most eco person I know – he has few things and reuses everything he can, so I try to follow his lead. For a recent trip I needed snow boots and waterproof clothing – I borrowed everything from friends – something I wouldn’t have thought about doing in the past.

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis amongst South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?

I don’t feel there is any stigma specific to South Asian communities, it is a wider issue that everyone needs to address. I feel there needs to be better education and for people to incorporate changes to lifestyles and not simply talk about it. 

What have been your greatest successes and learnings so far? 

If you want to do something – stop thinking about it and make a start.

I thought about setting up the business for many years but never took the step as I always questioned my abilities. 

I would get overwhelmed with the to-do-list and feel too far-off from being ready to sell. I started applying a notion of doing a daily ten-minute task towards the business – however big or small. This could be sending one email, purchasing an item or researching. I found this more productive, and before I knew it, everything was done and I was ready to launch.

What career advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? Why is it important for them and their future? 

I think as with any topic at the moment, there is a lot of noise and opinions out there which I imagine makes things all the more confusing for the younger generations. I think it’s important for them to do their own research and apply what they believe in. Big decisions to do with the future of our planet will be made in the next 30 years (net zero targets by 2050); thus will be the world that future generations will live in and so it’s important to start taking steps now.

Can you share one life story which has deeply impacted you?

I visited Iceland last year which was really eye-opening for me – to see renewable energy sources and to witness unspoiled natural beauty. The buildings are eco-friendly as almost all electricity and energy production comes from hydropower and geothermal power. 

It was inspiring to see a country making the most of natural attributes. I incorporate this with my candles – I hope people will repurpose and reuse the materials so as to lessen our environmental impact. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I grew up on a street where neighbours were like family and everyone looked out for each other. My family were the only Bengalis but we were never seen to be different, and instead all aspects of culture were celebrated. From neighbours commenting on mum’s beautiful sari, to dad never taking off his flat cap.

My upbringing has also been a big inspiration for Chaya and celebrating both my worlds. 

Find Chaya Candles on Instagram and their Website