CSM India: Good evening, and a warm welcome to Avantika and our viewers who will be watching this program, and Avantika thanks a lot for agreeing to do this conversation with us.
Avantika: You’re most welcome!!
CSM India: So firstly, lots of congratulations and felicitations on securing the ownership of the ‘Redbaari’ on 18 Sadanand Road; where the choice was between demolition or conservation, a very stark choice. And you came along like a saviour or shall I say in an ornate language a ‘Lady Knight’ saving the lovely edifice from obliteration!! So how are you feeling about this feat being achieved? I’m sure it wasn’t easy. And can you share a few insights for our viewers about this incredible journey?
Avantika; Thank you!! Yeah, this has been something that’s taken about a year or so for us to actually go through all of the process. We acquired the building finally in October. And the work had really started in 2021 November when I found out about the property being on sale and reached out to the owners, the Banerjee family. It was really really a nick of time kind of thing because they had already found a developer and they had waited for four years for someone to take the property and conserve it and not raise it. So my meeting with Mr. Banerjee was the last meeting he was willing to do before signing off the property. Actually it’s a big ‘Thank You’ to him(Mr. Banerjee) for delaying the process for another month because I was travelling and I had to tell him to wait for another month before I could even come and see the property. It’s also something that their family was very, very conscious of, they didn’t want to sell the building to a developer, they were wanting someone to come and preserve it. So it is twofold, it’s not just me who is preserving it, it’s also the family who had the tenacity to wait it out and look for somebody who would reuse it, or at least have a way to preserve it. In that way it’s been a really nice experience. We have a very good relationship with the previous owners as well. And since we’ve just taken it over in October we are going over all of the legal stuff to really kind of be able to use it now and start all of the restoration work.
CSM India: Thank you for this very impassioned response. And what I can detect in your response is your passion of heritage conservation. So can you tell our viewers about this debut because this is your first step into the world of heritage conservation. Now I can imagine belonging to an industrial family which has been in the business of tea planting and production for over four generations, dating back to the early 20th century, 1920s, that appreciation of heritage is second nature, comes naturally. We’re very keen to hear about the roots of your love of heritage and the desire more than just love to participate actively in its conservation.
Avantika: Yeah, that is actually very, very good point you have raised because we have grown up in a very, very old family. And we’ve always seen my grandmother and even my parents talk about how they have been over the years, conserving and fixing our houses in Assam, which are original Tea bungalows, probably more than 100 years old. I was born in one of them. We still own those. My great grandfather was the one who really started Tea. He himself was a very you know, conscious of architecture and like what he was doing at the time, because he didn’t want to buy Tea estates he wanted to build his own tea estates back in the day when you know, it was all British. We have some very, very interesting tea bungalows that we stay in, we live in and we’ve been preserving. So architecture and in general preservation has been something that’s just kind of always been part of our life growing up. And it’s not something that I have thought about so much till you presented this question to me. But it’s definitely something that’s not new as a concept. But the real reason why I’ve been so passionate about wanting to save a building, is after I actually found out about the story of the house in Calcutta that we live in, which is a tragic story. And I was told by my grandmother that she had fought with the whole family to preserve the old building. It was a beautiful old building. And as it goes like her decisions were overruled, and the younger generation, mostly male members, went ahead and changed everything when she was traveling and we lost a really beautiful building right where we stay now in Calcutta. So when that story came to light I was probably in my teens because I used to always point out other old buildings and always mentioned to my father that, ‘oh, this is such a beautiful building’, or like something would come down and I would always be like, ‘Oh I wish they didn’t do that’. So they told me the story that even our house used to be one of these. Since then it’s been something that I’ve been wanting to do, to at least ensure that I have some part to play in saving at least one other building. That’s kind of my personal take in it and why I was so kind of determined to do it. The ‘Red Baari’ happened to just fall in the lap in the sense that the timing of it all just worked out in a way that it happened. Like it was a bucket list thing. I never really knew if it was going to be possible. But I do have my father to thank for the ‘Red Baari’ to be reality because he knew this was something that meant a lot to me. And when the time was right, he definitely supported me in making that decision.
CSM India: Thank you for that very lovely, personalized response. And as someone who spent a lot of his academic years or I cut my academic teeth in a technique called storytelling or personalized narratives and I can always sniff a good story of a human being. Now I wish to press the reset button and being rather academic here and go back to hear a slice of your life story. You do please share some facets of your growing up in Calcutta, you attended Loreto school, you went to United States to do your undergrad and postgrad, you attended one of the prestigious business school Haas and then you came back to India. And you became a very successful social entrepreneur. You were successful in promoting organic tea, which I would like to try someday. And you’ve promoted social entrepreneurship. And if I may reveal for many of our viewers, you have a few firsts your credit, and including the launch of the first Kombucha, Am I saying it right, Kombucha brewery in Kolkata.
Avantika: I was just wondering if we were the first but yeah, no, you’re right. I think we were the first in Kolkata but not in India.
CSM India: I can see that self-effacing modest smile, but my job here is to talk some of your achievements for the broader viewers. Can you please share a slice of your life for all of us to learn more about the journey?
Avantika; Sure. I was actually born in Assam. My first few years were on the tea estate. We moved pretty early on and my schooling has always been in Calcutta. Like you mentioned, I did my middle school in the Loreto house. And then for my 11/12 I was in CIS. But before Loreto house, I was actually in a small school called ‘New Vista’. And a lot of my core sensibilities actually come from ‘New Vista’, which was for its time a very, very futuristic school because it included a lot of extracurricular activities and drama and a lot of arts and things like that. My love for the arts and the humanities and a lot of the softer side of academics actually came from my initial years like primary school years because that’s when I was most exposed to it. Since Loreto I’ve been more focused on science my undergrad was actually in Neurosciences. I actually attribute a lot of my love for Heritage, love for history, culture to my primary education years. Having said that in my last two years in Kolkata I was very involved in photography and we would just do a lot of photo walks around Kolkata and just explored the city just for fun with my friends and I got to learn a lot about Kolkata then. And then over the years I’ve really been studying sustainability, working in sustainability. So the idea of sustainability is something that is very fleeting; like you can use the word in any sphere of life and it can mean a whole different thing for business, it can mean a whole different thing or agriculture, it can mean a whole different thing in the arts.
But it’s something that has become a major part of how I think and how I just look at almost everything. And for me, it’s become more of a thought process than a word that kind of defines a business or defines a product. I think I skipped ahead a little bit. But in my formative years, I also spent a lot of time in rural India, because we used to visit the tea estates, of course, and then for a period in the middle my father was working with cotton in Madhya Pradesh. There I really got introduced to rural India, subsistence farming, a lot of handicrafts and culture in a different sense. We would visit the Maheshwar Temple which was really my first kind of heritage architecture that I got to appreciate and love and like that’s something really imprinted in my head. I think all of that adds up to what makes me who I am today and why I’m stepping into this new business, I would say but like new area now.
CSM India: There is something very interesting, I wasn’t prepared for this question. You keep mentioning your father, obviously, he’s a very inspiring figure. And for the viewers, I would like to mention that I had watched a video about the Jalan family and their Tea production and what came across about your father which I liked most is his sense of humour. He has a sense of wit which is very charming. Can you please tell us a little bit about this wonderful, inspiring figure in your life? And that’s your own father?
Avantika: This is a loaded question. And I don’t know if I’ll do a justice in a short answer. But so my father’s name is Mr. Mrigendra Jalan. He has been a pioneer in his own way in every field that he’s worked in. He’s used to work in tea. He started his career in tea and then he moved to spinning. And now he’s back in tea. He’s been a pioneer in both sectors and has always been someone who has been ahead of his times. His biggest accomplishment I would say has been introducing organic farming to India in the 90s. He created an organization called Bio-Ray with his partners and they really brought organic farming to the farm level. They had a whole organization working with farmers to teach them sustainable farming and not just organic farming. And because you mentioned like inspiration that that aspect of his work is where my inspiration for going into sustainability comes from. He unfortunately lost his spinning mill. He’s no longer working in that. But I kind of wanted to pick up a lot of things from where he had left and kind of work on it more.
So I’m not answering your question directly, because there’s a lot more to him and he has a lot of stories. He’s worked closely with governments. He’s had his own share of adventure with a lot of the political movement in Assam. He’s an industry leader in tea. So it’s a whole different discussion. But my inspiration is he has always made us rooted to the ground. For anyone who knows him he meets the person the way they are and it doesn’t matter to him whether they’re farmer or beggar or industry head or whatever. So that is something that he’s really ingrained in all of us, we are three of us. I think that’s something that’s stuck the most. He’s kept us very, very on the ground and given us a very good reality check on life in many ways. So I think that’s what inspires us most, that he can be everybody’s friend. And a lot of Yeah, and I think that’s, I think I’ll stop there.
CSM India: Thank you very much. This response was exactly like a proud daughter of a very brilliant father. And that’s what I needed. Thank you very much. It was, I think, one of the best parts of interviewing when people bring out their emotions and sensitivities. And I also happen to watch, very delightful presentation which made at your US business school on marketing strategies for organic products. And you had mentioned there that after returning to India you had worked in the agricultural world, you belong to the agricultural world, at the ground level of what’s called grassroots. Tell us a little bit more about it. What’s your take on this whole grassroots experience, which I found very fascinating.
Avantika: Um, just just a small technical edit. It was not a business school program. It’s a separate program called development, masters of development practice. But yes, it was associated with the Haas School of Business. Could you be a little more specific on what about the grassroots you would like me to talk on?
CSM India: I mean, you know, going into the agricultural world, living in the ground reality in the grassroots. If I may say something. You weren’t really prepared well surely to some extent were. But it’s encountering a very different world, you know, after your undergrad studies, living in an urbane setting, very comfortable and grassroots is not just the physical material reality, but the way people look at life the way people think. How was it? I mean, I’m not saying I’m not making any presumption that it was different. It was not that different, or it was very different, but that you ventured to do that experience, you know, it’s very important. It was not that you’re forced but you volunteered to go and live in that world and experience the grassroots agricultural world.
Avantika: Okay. I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you what I was told before I entered this world by my father. I was looking for jobs in the US, after my undergrad. And every job I was interviewing for, rejected me and and I was looking at environmental organizations in America. A lot of my interviews went all the way till the second round and then they would basically say, ‘What do you want to do is actually in India, what do you want to do is actually in the developing world?’. So that’s kind of where I started talking to my father that ‘hey, I want to do this’. I’m going to move back I don’t think I can stay in America and do what I want to do. Just mind you before this I had not interacted with him about any of his work like there was no adult conversation about what he had done and the cotton and all of that.
So he told me, I remember the sentence he said, ‘it’s great that you want to go into this world. But just know that once you enter it you will not see the world the same way and you will not connect with your friends in the same way, you will have a whole different dimension that you won’t be able to unsee’ and the reason I’m repeating that is that is exactly how I feel. It is something that I would say everyone should experience because it really does connect you to a different side of humanity and reality. So, yes, grassroots in the physical way, everything you described was different, it was also exciting. It wasn’t also that different for me, because I’ve always, like I said, I was always in these rural areas as a kid. So it wasn’t all that new. But yes, for the good 15-20 years of my adult life, I mean, childhood growing up in school and stuff I was definitely not connected to it. But it gave me a real sense of connection, like I just loved meeting the people, it was happy, it didn’t feel poor to me, it was something that really said that, ‘you know people can live sustainably if you just have systems around it’. And that’s kind of where this idea of wanting to keep things in a way that don’t need outside intervention emerged. That was the idea that I was trying to do through my company MANA where I wanted to work with villages and have a sustainable system where they didn’t have to go out if they didn’t have to bring in the outside world like just a small example plastic cups and stuff like that. It’s been something that was very naive when I started and over the years obviously I have grown and a lot of reality checks have come in. But still as a concept I think rural India is very very powerful. And something that also needs in some ways a lot of preservation. And I don’t mean that from don’t develop it. But a lot of systems, a lot of culture, a lot of things that are truly sustainable are being lost. And I think that’s where my real passion came from. In a second I would go back to it. Like that’s something that is definitely the way to do it.
CSM India: You know, when I was hearing your response, it was something very intriguing that you set out with the spirit of adventure, you were told, its going to change you, it’s going to dramatically transform you yet you took a plunge, you come out and every proud of that. And you recommend that experience to everyone. Let’s say all kudos to that wonderful adventure or wonderful experience and you’re only enriching it, it’s not that you have stopped. So that brings me to the next question, because it’s connected. I was very struck, when I heard that business school presentation by two words which you used: trust and authenticity. Now authenticity is such a distant concept in the current world of social media and glitz and nothing is authentic where even the news isn’t authentic. And as I recollect, you spoke about notions of trust which is so fundamental in our daily life and especially in business. Can you please say a few words or elaborate on this notion? I thought it was a very philosophical idea which you have propounding!! And also I’m very curious when you talked about the idea of perceived quality and perceived quality is a lot about perception and how do you blend perceived quality with trust or authenticity? Usually there is a temptation to have the perception very different than reality and how do you match a projected image of quality which may not be necessarily exactly authentic? And it’s not necessarily done with a spirit of deceit or guile but sometimes it’s living up to a certain expectation and, you know, I myself work on many of these themes and topics, and I thought if aesthetics is the answer?? There are two questions; One is your idea of quality and authenticity and the other about trust.
Avantika: Sure. Answering your first question about how does it work in the current world where most things seem inauthentic even the news is inauthentic. And the idea of quality. So what I was trying to study back then was what sells in the market. As a consumer what do people look for when they buy anything, whether they buy news, whether they buy a product, so, in a sense, it is from the customer point or the viewer point that they are asking for quality, and they are asking for authenticity. It’s really up to the human understanding of what authentic quality is for that person. And you kind of determine your market segment or your customer for whom strikes the same chord as far as what authenticity and what quality your brand or your product is trying to communicate. And that kind of leads into perceived quality, because specific to that study perceived quality is what you want your product to be perceived as; how do you want to show what you are to the world. The more(striking the customer chord) that is true to your core product or the core values that your company has the closer you are to achieving the quality and authenticity in the mind of the consumer. Does that make sense?
CSM India: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
Avantika: It’s all about bridging that divide. I mean, it’s bridging the gap of what you are trying to communicate as a product which is authentic, and whatever quantity you’re talking about and it’s what your marketing is saying what your people are saying what your customers saying, and if you’ve successfully communicated your core values and your perceived quality is your idea of quality and authenticity, then you’ve kind of hit the market the way you know like a good product would. For example I am just giving an example in the Indian segment I’m just talking about the bigger brands here. Tata as a whole has a perceived quality, at least, of being more authentic, more trustworthy, and connected to the people. But it doesn’t come from marketing it also comes from their ethos and how that group operates and what those values are and how they employ and how they do their benefits. Like it’s not just the marketing, it’s also how a whole organization is run. And there can be other companies that are doing the same thing as Tatas. But the person on the road has a very different understanding and different relationship with any Tata product compared to similar other products. In the Indian context, I would say this is the one that comes to mind. But I was looking at it from a very, very specifically gourmet food and high a sort of high quality stuff, which, at that time, I was trying to bring our organic teas to the market. I wasn’t understanding how I would compete in the market, because everybody claims to be organic, everybody claims to be socially responsible, everybody claims to be fairtrade.
CSM India: Buzzwords…
Avantika: Yeah…and I thought, okay, everybody’s doing it, how will my product compete with this? So that’s when I understood that having these tags is a bonus thing, because everybody does it now in this particular segment. How you communicate your story, and your actual product’s quality, and what you’re offering is really what takes it through for the longer term. And then, again, the trust is another thing we’ve built into the what customers want, it’s, again, just the idea that you know, that this product is good, you can rely on it not just on the regular kind of available. Is it available all the time? Do you get the same taste every time? If there’s a problem will you get a refund? Its building in basic customer satisfaction to build that trust in a way that you know this company is what they say. And at the end of the day it’s the customer who decides whether they trust a company or not. Because even in news like you used the example of inauthentic news, the news that’s inauthentic to you may not be inauthentic to somebody else. It really depends on what your views are and what and who you think you connect with. It all boils down to personal choices. And that’s why it’s very tricky in business and I struggled with it myself, because you mentioned about how sometimes it may not be what you’re saying. Even today I struggle with the fact that we have to say certain things in the market segment, and I don’t always feel like I’m living up to it. But then when you look around I’m like, okay, but you have to use these particular terms if you’re in that category. In a way, it all comes down to how you run your business, how you interact with people, it all comes down to people in my understanding everything comes down to people. How your organization deals with a problem or an opportunity or product. It just comes down to that.
CSM India: A very fascinating and a very enlightening answer. Well the discussion about fake news is a whole different story. You can watch some of the other discussions happening on some of the other platforms I’m involved. But now I heard your life-story, learnt about your values, learnt about your inspiration and it’s time to come back to the dream project because all this is going to go in like ingredients into cooking up of that wonderful new meal which we are all looking forward. So this dream project is not only your dream project, but ours, the people who love Kolkata, the Kolkataphiles. How would you wish to move ahead? Well, there has been some media coverage, I’ve done my homework, planned to convert the ground floor into a cafe, you have plans for utilizing the two floors above as a commercial space and co working space for exhibitions workshops. But we’d also like to hear from you how do you envision this ‘Red Baari’ in a couple of years’ time? And what’s your fundamental vision? What you’d like to do with it?
Avantika: I’m going to tie your last question to answer to this question. Because you asked me about aesthetics in the last one, and I didn’t answer. I think your specific question was where does aesthetics play a part in determining authenticity and quality and whether it does? Right? For me, the ‘Red Baari’ is a huge opportunity to let my creative side flow. And I would hope that the aesthetics of the ‘Red Baari’ will speak for itself in what the space wants to be, should be and how I’m hoping for the space to be used. I guess now I’ll cross over to what I would like to do. I want to stay very authentic to the original structure. It’s funny that I use the word authentic but this is related, but completely unrelated to the rest of the conversation. I’m envisioning the space to be, of course used as a commercial space, we have to be commercial.
It has to run itself, it has to be something successful, and have enough to keep it renovated and run it, work around it, because nothing is free. So, yes, we are going to be a coffee shop, we are going to be a co working space. And it’s a four-storied building. We’re doing a coffee shop, co working space and an event space. And the last floor for the time being is I’m thinking about it as an Airbnb sort of place, because it’s a little less accessible. But again, there are lots of buildings that turn into coffee shops and turn into co working spaces. In this particular way, I want to tie a lot of what I’ve learned about community development and sustainability over the years to build it in a way that is true to that. But also operate it in a way that is true to that. I need to be a place where true Kolkatans come to hang out, work, do events, connect, share ideas, you know, just kind of give back to the city that a lot of spaces have been lost, and kind of be a bridge between what the old coffeehouse would do and what you know the new-age cafés do. I just want it to be accessible by all walks and be somewhere that is creative.
CSM India: Fantastic. So we can all look forward to having another conversation sipping a cup of coffee or tea at your red berry in the coming months, or a year’s time. Thank you very much for your time.
Avantika: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for hosting.