A Forbes interview with MyMela Founder Navroze S. Mehta explores why the online market place for Indian artisans was first established and how it works. MyMela was borne out a desire to help Indian artisans after understanding that many have been forced to give up their craft to take on unskilled jobs in urban centers in order to support themselves and their families. MyMela was therefore created as a solution that provided financial support to artisans and offered them an outlet to sell their products. More specifically, MyMela identifies loan requirements for different groups of artisans and uploads them on to the online platform so that the public or consumers who come to the site have the option of providing zero interest loans to artisans.

Recently, I interviewed Navroze S. Mehta, founder and CEO of MyMela, an online marketplace to showcase the unique crafts of Indian artisans who are at risk of losing their livelihood due to economic pressures.

Rahim Kanani: Describe a little bit about the motivation and founding of MyMela.

Navroze S. Mehta: My “MyMela” journey is a personal one.  Growing up in India I was surrounded by the beauty of handcrafted products for both decorative and everyday use; well made items created with skill and patience by artisans following age-old traditions.  But it was my daughter, Sonali, who provided the impetus for me to explore the critical challenges faced by these artisans today.  As a result of internship experiences in India, Sonali became concerned with the plight of Indian artisans whose traditional livelihood is in serious jeopardy.  Very few artisans can earn a living wage these days because of declining local demand for their work. Every month one hears of master craftsmen forced to give up their craft in exchange for a life of abject poverty as unskilled workers in India’s large urban centers.

Many dedicated organizations have recognized this problem and are making commendable efforts to help. However, Sonali and I felt that we needed to create a more scalable, holistic online marketplace that also incorporated micro lending and advances to artisans.  An online marketplace would introduce these beautiful handicrafts to new generations of Americans interested in a global perspective on social issues and already connected through social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn.

Rahim Kanani: How does MyMela work?

Navroze S. Mehta: MyMela features an array of exclusive Indian handcrafted items that consumers may purchase, just like any other e-commerce site. In addition to shopping on the site, consumers have the ability to make “MyMela loans” to featured artisans. Lenders can fund as little as $25 and as much as the entire amount of the loan request. In conjunction with our field partner, Asha Handicrafts, MyMela identifies the loan requirements of different artist groups and uploads the loan requests to MyMela.com. Consumers can then browse all available funding requests on the MyMela Loan List and choose their favorite artist group or groups to lend to.

Starting one month after a loan is made and continuing over the next 3 months, MyMela Credits equal to the loan amount plus 10% bonus will be deposited into the lender’s account in equal monthly payments. MyMela Credits may be used in two ways: to shop for more beautiful hand crafted works of art or to choose to invest in another artist group.

Rahim Kanani: And how does this service benefit the local communities more broadly?

Navroze S. Mehta: MyMela offers artisan producer groups direct access to a sustainable global market through its online marketplace. We identify producers of high quality handmade items through partnering with non-governmental organizations and cooperatives. These field partners are carefully selected because they adhere to Fair Trade goals such as improving access to education, affordable health care and adequate nutrition, as well as concern for the environmental impact of producing and transporting goods.

MyMela’s Integrated Micro Advance Funding (IMAF) model was inspired by microfinance: the practice of providing small loans to low-income individuals or groups who do not have access to traditional banking services. The loan component of MyMela offers visitors to our site the chance to make zero-interest loans to artisan groups who use these funds to make capital improvements, buy raw materials and train other workers. Small loans from individual lenders accumulate until the full amount of the loan request is reached. This may take some time so, in order that the artisans may receive their loan immediately, MyMela advances the entire loan amount to the artisans up front. This is an especially helpful feature for cash poor artisan businesses, many of whom operate on very slim margins and would not be able to fill orders without ready cash to purchase raw materials. Our innovative practice is, thus, more properly called a ‘micro advance’ rather than a micro loan.

In addition to providing artisans a sustainable market for their products and a resource for loans, MyMela also invests 20% of its profits in community improvement initiatives including education, healthcare, social services and vocational training projects.

Rahim Kanani: What are some of the key challenges in launching and maintaining this online marketplace?

Navroze S. Mehta: Increasing awareness will be the initial challenge we face.  Introducing the online public to the beauty of handmade Indian crafts as well as to the plight of artisans will be our first goal.  Subsequently, we will need to constantly challenge ourselves to bring to the marketplace unique and exclusive products that have never been seen by the US consumer.

Rahim Kanani: Similarly, what are some of the key opportunities?

Navroze S. Mehta: The key opportunity in India is to make a significant and measurable impact on the lives of artisans by creating a sustainable marketplace that empowers them to preserve their artistic traditions for future generations. Eventually MyMela hopes to help similar artisans worldwide. From a consumer perspective there are multiple opportunities to make a difference by getting involved in the preservation of these artisan communities…by buying their products, by lending to the artisans or by joining the MyMela outreach team and getting involved on a grass roots level.

Rahim Kanani: Lastly, if this organization’s work rests upon one core philosophy, what would that be?

Navroze S. Mehta: MyMela’s core philosophy is to use today’s technology to create a direct connection between consumers and producers who share a commitment to preserving artistic traditions that represent the best of human endeavor.  Sonali’s words capture our philosophy perfectly:  “The challenge of poverty is multifaceted and calls for interdisciplinary solutions, hence our combination of the principals of the Fair Trade and Microfinance movements. It also calls for a deep understanding of and respect for those with whom we work. My hope is that our online community will foster that important relationship of mutual understanding and respect between customer and producer, even though they are an ocean apart.”

Navroze S. Mehta is also the CEO of Device Innovation Group and managing director of MDI Partners, LLC, two companies comprised of medical device experts and leaders of innovation in the field. Prior to MDI Partners, he was the Founder and Vice Chairman of NovaVision Inc., a venture-backed company providing neurostimulation devices to restore vision in stroke and traumatic brain injury patients. Born in Wales and raised in India, Navroze received an MBA from Syracuse University and a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Bombay, India.

Sonali Mehta Rao, co-founder of MyMela, is an Associate at Missions Markets; an organization matching impact investors with social entrepreneurs, where she devotes her energies to business development and public relations. She has interned in the Corporate Social Responsibility department of Edelman, a global public relations firm, and has worked for a diverse group of social enterprises in India, Ghana and the U.S. Sonali also worked as a Summer Associate for Ashoka in Washington, DC and Mumbai. Sonali earned her BA in International Relations from New York University.

Rahim Kanani is a writer, advocate, strategist and entrepreneur for global social change. His articles, opinions, and interviews with global leaders can be found at www.rahimkanani.com. Follow Rahim on Twitter @rahimkanani. Have an idea for a great interview? Email rahim@rahimkanani.com.