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

Spotlight Series: Q&A with Founders of StylHawk, Hetal & Dharmistha Patel

We spoke to Hetal and Dharmistha about their journey creating an online Marketplace App for users to buy and sell their new or pre-loved clothing and accessories.

What is your ethnic and professional background?

Founders: Hetal Patel and Dharmistha J. Patel are both Hindu (North Indian). Hetal Patel has her BBA in Business Management and currently works in the Hospitality Industry. Dharmistha J.Patel has a BBA with concentration in International Business and Finance.

What is Stylhawk? 

Stylhawk is an online Marketplace App for users to come together to buy and sell their brand new or pre-loved clothing and accessories. We want our consumers to feel and look their best without spending a fortune. We know most of our Indian luxury and unique pieces are only worn once or twice and come with a hefty price tag. Stylhawk provides a platform for sellers to recoup the majority of their initial investment and our buyers to be able to purchase those unique pieces at a fraction of the retail cost. This is a win-win situation for both buyers and sellers to think sensibly, sustainably and help protect the environment by keeping clothes in use longer. 

At Stylhawk, our business model is restorative and regenerative. We want clothing that is kept at its highest value during use to re-enter the economy after use, never ending up as waste. Stylhawk promotes circular and sustainable fashion, to avoid the harsh impact that the clothing industry has on the environment. We want our consumers to know that by buying smarter, they are in fact helping preserve nature and decrease waste.   

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

Based on the constraints that our previous generations have faced, we hindered challenges and unknowingly became sustainability advocates. Being resourceful through reusing, rewrapping, and hand-me-downs comes natural to us. I remember growing up in a household that had wrappers on TV remotes, plastic covers on dining tables, and covers on sofas and car seats to preserve the original condition in my home. Growing up in a traditional Indian home being a mom of 3 girls, it only makes sense to live sustainably for their futures. We attend many occasions where traditional clothing is worn and although we love dressing up in new fancy clothes every time, it didn’t make sense financially or environmentally.

Have you faced any backlash? 

Not knowing what to do with current clothing and not being able to afford a new one every time was same story heard from friends and family on a daily basis. This became the true motivation for creating this platform. It gives individuals the tools and motivation to do something about it.

As you become knowledgeable and learn how many resources are used to create a single piece of garment, you truly see what’s important and how much of an impact a single person’s choice can have. 

This is just the beginning; we have a long road ahead of us. We are thankful to have the support of friends and family on creating this platform but the only way we reach our goal and mission is to have our community join and become a part of this idea of secondhand clothing. Sustainable living is the new trend and as we are seeing a rise in awareness and users on our platform, we appreciate the like-minded people who are also appreciative of the concept of thrifting.

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

From repurposing old clothing, to up-cycling and handing down to younger siblings, to reusable water bottles and snack bags, we are practicing sustainability in different ways in our households. Passing on the same knowledge to our little people is one of the most important things we can do, so that they can become conscious consumers for the future generations. It is a way of life.

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?

Yes, people are becoming more aware of climate change issues, but we think the lack of actions are mainly due to them just not knowing what they can do and what type of resources are available. 

With continual awareness that provides encouragement and knowledge, living more sustainably is relatively easy.

If they do not know where to start, hopefully a platform like ours, where it will be beneficial for themselves as well as the environment, will be able to grant them an entry way into a more sustainable lifestyle.

Do you find such lack of understanding makes having a sustainability led business like yours more challenging?

Breaking the stigma of thrifting has definitely been a barrier. We are evolving as individuals and the importance of sustainability plays a more integral part in our way of life. Stylhawk solely relies on like minded buyers and sellers that are pro-sustainability.  This also makes fashion affordable for all.

Infiltrating into our niche South Asian market hasn’t been easy but definitely rewarding as we strive to spread awareness of the many benefits of sustainability.

In your opinion, what’s the future of South Asian fashion?  

Fashion should be affordable, comfortable and versatile. We are so fortunate that South Asian fashion has such intricate detailed work, with all types of fabrics that make our fashion so unique and desirable by all. The craftsmanship and work put forth by garment workers deserves more. Pairing a choli blouse/crop top with an old sari or dhoti pants, or adding a trendy blazer and piece of jewelry to an existing outfit to revamp the entire look, that’s the future of fashion.

Your imagination is limitless, and innovation is the future of fashion.

When you allow yourself to be free of judgment and get creative by up-cycling and mixing and matching different patterns and pieces together, we won’t necessarily need to purchase new every time.

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? 

A key piece of advice we would give is to build self-awareness. Be more aware of your surroundings and the impacts it creates in your environment and what you leave behind. Be practical in your day to day living for a greener tomorrow, that is manageable and realistic and to lead by example.

What have been your greatest success and learnings?

Our greatest success is building the courage to start our Minority-South Asian, Women led business. It’s one thing to dream it but making dreams into reality is another. After many hurdles we were able to launch in January 2021. We are still learning what consumers really want and are excited about what the future holds. Gathering all this feedback and learning throughout the process enables us to build on what we currently have and MAKE IT BETTER! Great things are coming soon for our Stylhawk users and we are excited!

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

Stylhawk is a partnership between two childhood friends Hetal Patel and Dharmistha Patel. We have been friends since we can remember. In the past few years with Covid-19, we have learned that life is not predictable. We have gone through personal battles and are thankful that we have managed to overcome them. We are both blessed with beautiful, healthy children and we want to create a better tomorrow for ourselves and our future generations.

This is what makes us women so unique, we’re resilient and we evolve over and over again and create our future. We gained a deeper appreciation for the work and the cause we stand for at Stylhawk. Breaking the stigma of thrifting is not an easy task, but we are very confident of what avenue we are providing to our users and always wanted to run a business with a meaningful purpose. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Currently there’s a generation that’s being caught in a whirlwind of fluster either with the trendy consumers wanting the newest styles with brand new outfits to every event and the conscious consumer, who’s trying to figure out the worth – economically and ethically – of something that will be worn only for a few hours. Tackling this one pervasive issue will solve the problem across the board.

It’s time. Time to change the narrative. Let’s do something now that our future generations will be thankful for later.

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