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Jaipur Rugs: Self-Managed Art That You Can Walk On

“We Don’t Sell Carpets; We Sell a Family’s Blessing”

Nand Kishore Chaudhary, known to his close colleagues as NKC, is a man on a mission. The humble founder of Jaipur Rugs, now employing 40,000 weavers making hand-knotted decorative rugs for sale in forty countries, is theorizing how to elevate the collaborative and decision-making powers of the workforce using the power of organizational self-management. He, and his company, have come a long way since starting up in 1978 on 5,000 rupees borrowed from his father after walking away from a stable banker’s job to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams.

Riding around on a scooter, he started making carpets for sale with nine weavers working two looms. Over the next three years he expanded the number of looms to ten, requiring many more artisans to operate them. The media began to pay attention: art historian Ilay Cooper wrote a 1980 feature story on NKC and Jaipur Rugs for Inside-Outside magazine. The media attention made sense: gorgeous premium-quality hand-woven carpets are fine art that you can walk on (or hang on the wall), and last for generations to come.

A strategy began to take shape in NKC’s mind: eliminate the exploitative middlemen who take profits out of the system and steer those profits directly to the amazing artisan weavers who create the art in the first place: the villagers from the untouchable class who do the actual work. Global markets were thrilled to make the walkable tapestries available for customers willing to pay premium prices—and Jaipur Rugs was ready to supply them.

Growing demand for the beautiful artisanal rug patterns dreamed up by Jaipur Rugs’ inspired design team led to expanded production in India’s rural zones, using walkie-talkies (a rarely permitted privilege of the Indian government at the time) to manage the supply chain. In the late 1990’s, Jaipur expanded to include a U.S. sales and distribution arm. The company’s weaver community expanded rapidly to fulfill global demand, with weavers from Rajasthan villages and Gujarat tribal areas skillfully producing wondrous creations to delight the senses of touch and sight.

In 2004, NKC created the Jaipur Rug Foundation (JPR) under the auspices of the Rajasthan Public Trust Act to better the lives of the weavers on whom the company and its customers depend. The Jaipur Rugs Foundation’s purpose is to provide training, skill development and social services to make people’s lives better. Unsurprisingly, Chaudhary has been called the “Gandhi of the Indian Carpet Industry”, as his production network exploded to forty weaver groups across ten Indian states, hitting one million square feet of hand-knotted artistic beauty.

NKC’s business strategy was affirmed in the book, “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits”[1] by author C. K. Prahalad, which argues that some of the fastest growing opportunities for markets and entrepreneurship can be found with the billions of poor people in the world, at the bottom of the pyramid.[2]According to Bill Gates, this theory “offers an intriguing blueprint for how to fight poverty with profitability.”[3]

While developing his bottom-up business strategy, NKC’s daughter Kavita (“Kavi”) Chaudhary undertook professional studies and achieved design excellence, launching collections and winning international design awards. One of her collections, Anthar (meaning “differences”), is a family of rugs born of error (hence the label “Error Collection”). Perfectly knotted or not (no pun intended), every carpet tells a story. One of the famous carpets from the Error Collection tells the story of three weavers who didn’t get along that well in the beginning (at the bottom of the carpet, where it all starts)—and their disjointed weave shows it. As the three weavers got to know each other better, they began collaborating at a higher level, and their weaves got tighter and more coordinated. Finally, at the top of the carpet, the team artistry shines as the weavers are working harmoniously together in trusting, perfect synchronicity. A carpet thus became both a metaphor for teamwork and excellence. By learning how to work together, the three weavers overcame their differences.

As Kavi sagely observed, “Anthar speaks to our goal of connecting the world from the smallest villages in India to the top cities of the globe using design as a medium. What normally would have been thought of as a mistake has transformed into a piece of art.”[4] In a recent video interview, she stated it simply: “Beauty to me is about being in harmony.”[5]Anthar won a German Design Award in 2016.

One of NKC’s ambitions: connecting the weavers directly to the customers. Initiatives like sending handcrafted postcards from weavers to customers and taking weavers to international award events are two ways that artisans connect personally with the marketplace. The personal connection is crucial: as NKC says, “We don’t sell carpets; we sell a family’s blessing.”[6] That’s almost unique in the world, and an amazing testament to the humble founder of Jaipur Rugs and his own extraordinarily talented family. Customers, feeling blessed by the beauty of their rugs, often visit the villages in which their rugs were made to meet and personally thank the creators—a virtuous cycle of artistry, generosity and kindness (and a lot of work—a single rug may contain a million knots).

Connecting the weavers with the customers has been a huge catalyst for human development. Periodically bringing the weavers together to see the finished product has led to greater engagement and innovation. A new program to allow weavers to develop their own designs has unlocked creative genius and innovation. Weavers are now sharing aspects of their own lives and telling their own stories through their art. As Kavi notes, “Through the rugs, the customer has an insight into the weaver’s life.”[7] The villages, the animals, the people and the landscapes all become part of the artistic story that customers value. The circle connecting weaver to customer and back to weaver is paying untold dividends of happiness.

NKC’s humble leadership has inspired all the members of his family to join him on his mission. NKC’s kind and gracious life partner, Smt. Sulochana Chaudhary, oversees day-to-day operations at Jaipur Rugs. In addition to daughter Kavi, daughters Asha and Archana lead Jaipur Living, Inc. in Atlanta while sons Yogesh and Nitesh help drive the business in Jaipur. The family feeling extends well beyond NKC’s immediate family. He considers every member of Jaipur Rugs to be part of one beautiful, extended family. And he loves them all, a workforce that is now forty thousand strong.

As NKC told Bain & Company: “The insurgency [strategy] is simple—we want to connect the story of our artisans and their art to the desires of our consumers to bless their floors and walls with a beautiful carpet. Our consumers demand authenticity and kindness. They want to know that when they buy art, the artisan is rewarded and respected.”[8]

NKC’s idea was and is to improve lives through personal, economic, educational and social empowerment rather than just giving away charity.[9] As he told me on a recent visit: “The weavers are making better lives for themselves. They can now provide educations for their children, make it possible for their husbands to leave the village to work, and to better their communities”. His business goal is personal development, economic self-determination and prosperity for all.[10] Through it all, he remains humble: “I never say that I have done any good to the weavers. It is just the opposite: They have done good to me.”[11]

That sounds like the epitome of sound social entrepreneurship.

A sophisticated ERP system and computerized design processes fuse high and low technology (7,000 looms) to facilitate artistic greatness. Attaining Social Accountability International’s 8000 Workplace and Human Rights Standards branded Jaipur Rugs as a trusted, ethical concern.[12] For NKC and his children, the focus now is on how to double the wages of artisans and increase the company’s profitability.[13] NKC’s talks at Wharton, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and TEDx, along with visits from INSEAD and IMD are starting to get the story out about this amazing company.

But NKC isn’t done yet– not by a long shot.

 

Enterprise Self-Management: Unlocking Unlimited Potential

As the company grew, NKC found himself consumed with running an international business and not spending as much time on the front line as he wished, and losing touch with the people he loved—the weavers. He launched a series of initiatives to get back to his original love: initiatives in education, literacy, coaching, mentoring, engagement–and organizational self-management. As NKC spent time reconnecting with the weavers, vast opportunities emerged. He realized that, as Jaipur Rugs manager Sanjay Singh observed, “They are not only weavers. They have wonderful qualities within them. Some of them are wonderful mobilizers, quality controllers, teachers.”[14] Might NKC’s great experiment hold a key to implementing self-management at scale?

I was privileged to visit one of the villages and hear from the leaders responsible for the transformation, and from the weavers making it happen.

If self-management is about anything, it’s about respecting the voices of each and every member of an organization. NKC embodies a deep-seated belief in the dignity of every individual in his self-management journey. He created an amazing community of weavers by disregarding India’s rigid caste system, not believing that human beings should be “untouchable”. He believes that people should not be judged by caste, but by their own deeds. He finds beauty wherever he goes, in everyone he meets, in everything he sees.

As I toured a village with NKC, his daughter Kavi and HR leader Amit Kumar Agarwal, the weavers presented themselves as a living testament to the power of NKC’s self-management vision. We heard from quality leader Harfool about the importance of listening to the weavers, teaching them with patience and kindness, and helping them improve their lives. We heard from Swati, who is coaching and mentoring weavers in their new roles as self-managed leaders and innovators, involved in product development and design. And we heard from the weavers themselves, who are gaining dignity, self-worth and a future in their new self-managed ecosystem.

The basic repetitive movement: openly listen, teach, mentor and release is now bringing self-managed dignity to thousands in rural India—and paying dividends for Jaipur Rugs. NKC’s statement to me about the power of self-management, even in the people of the “untouchable” class: “Don’t tell me that these people can’t manage themselves. They’ve already learned how to survive.”

Even as he unlocks the limitless human potential of the weavers, NKC faces a new challenge: how to develop deep humility and appreciation for others among the educated professionals he hired to run the rapidly growing business. His philosophy of life is finding yourself through losing yourself.[15] It’s a process of becoming selfless, losing attachment to ego, and embracing simplicity and love. How can he get his professional managers to surrender to a purpose larger than themselves? That challenge represents the next frontier of organizational self-management Jaipur Rugs and its remarkable founder.

 

An Entire Global Enterprise Built on Love

Khalil Gibran said that work is love made visible.

James Allen, in a Bain & Company blog titled Jaipur Rugs: Selling a Family’s Blessing[16], told a prescient story about NKC’s university days:

The professor was asking about the purpose of business. One by one, students raised their hands to offer views, and you can imagine the answers: shareholder value creation, serving customers, beating the competition and so on. Mr. Chaudhary raised his hand to speak, telling the class, “Business is next to love. It is the creator and preserver of a civilization.” His teacher commented to the class, “This, ladies and gentlemen, is a successful business entrepreneur.”

“I love them so much”— NKC, talking about his relationship with the weavers

Jaipur Rugs is an entire global business built on love, one knot at a time, with a visionary founder’s dream for a self-managed future clearly in sight.

 

 

[1]https://www.amazon.com/Fortune-Bottom-Pyramid-Eradicating-Poverty/dp/0131467506/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=fortune+at+the+bottom+of+the+pyramid&qid=1554783098&s=gateway&sr=8-1

NKC + Me

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