Grit, Successes, And Spice Trade Disruption With Sana Javeri Kadri Of Diaspora Co.

What’s Sana up to and how did she get to where she is today? Yup, I wondered the same. Join me, Geana, founder of GDS, in a conversation with Sana about all the stuff you never learn from a business’ About Page. Building and leading a business to success is not easy. In this interview, we get right to the highs and the lows a business owner must face if she is to truly disrupt and decolonize the spice trade.

Geana: Could you give us a quick introduction to what Diaspora Co. is?

Sana: Diaspora Co. is a direct trade single origin spice company that's doing things very differently. Our hope is that we're disrupting the spice trade–a colonial, outdated commodity-based spice trade–and essentially championing for equity for farmers, transparency within the supply chain, and higher quality products all around. It's a lot (!!!) and we're just getting started.

G: What were your key motivations to start Diaspora Co.? Was there something you wanted to be nearer to in your own life or history? Was there a problem you couldn't just leave alone that you wanted to solve through Diaspora Co.?

S: I think first and foremost, I recognize that the farm to table model that was extending across restaurants to grocery stores, that is really correcting the food system in a lot of ways, wasn't extending to globally traded goods and it specifically wasn't extending to the ethnic food aisle. David Chang recently said that the ethnic food aisle is racist and I completely agree that it is. It's really problematic given that people don't cook ethnically versus non ethnically, we have global palates and pantries, food has moved across the globe for thousands of years, and it's time we acknowledged that. Oranges are originally a Chinese fruit, maybe we should be historically accurate and put those into the ethnic food aisle too? 

When I was working at BiRite in 2016 in San Francisco in marketing, I very obviously and quickly noticed that anything that was sourced from California was given this kind of preciousness with this high degree of care, but the minute it came from a different country, it didn't matter and there was an expectation that it would be cheap. I knew that I loved storytelling, talking about where food comes from, understanding food systems, and I felt strongly that a global supply chain deserved that same level of care and quality. 

I moved to the U.S. to attend college in order to then go back home, make a difference there and work there, not necessarily to bring my western ideologies back, but to use my tremendous privilege for good.

Secondly, I was born and raised in Mumbai and my whole family is there.  I moved to the U.S. to attend college in order to then go back home, make a difference there and work there, not necessarily to bring my western ideologies back, but to use my tremendous privilege for good. The idea for Diaspora Co. as it formed was primarily because the turmeric trend hit in 2016. It was really an opportunity to have it be sourced much more sustainably. That was initially the idea that led me to the research and thinking “I'll go to India, I'll find some incredible turmeric farmers, then maybe I’ll sell a little bit of it back here and it won't be a big thing but it'll be an opportunity to test this idea out.” When I went back to India, I bought a 1 way ticket, I  realized how broken that system was and I ended up spending a lot of time with the scientists at the Indian Institute of Spice Research who really gave me an education in the brokenness of the spice trade and just to what degree the Indian food system hasn't recovered from colonialism, which is devastating to hear that 70 years later the Indian food system is still hurting from hundreds of years of colonization. I think for me it became this opportunity to not only do something with where I'm from and where my roots are and where I most want to make a difference, but also then do something that would affect a grocery store aisle here in the United States and how home cooks here perceive what ‘Made in India’ can mean.

G: How do you normally answer the question where are you from?

S: I say I’m from Mumbai. I’m Indian through and through. Now for the past few years I've spent a few months of the year in India and a few months of the year here in the United States, more United States than Mumbai, but come 2020 I think I'll probably be spending more time in Mumbai than here. I don't identify as Indian-American because I will always feel like a bit of an outsider here. I feel rooted to India forever because that’s where my family is.

I often say that this project was honestly a dystopian art project to begin with, it was my wildest dreams of what a supply chain can look like and what a business can look like creatively, spiritually, emotionally, and financially. Is it possible? It was really a wacky experiment and I did it 100 percent my way.

G: What challenges have you faced introducing your products and running your company in the U.S. maybe some challenges that you found surprising or maybe that you know our readers would find surprising? Did you always see yourself being an entrepreneur? What resources were the hardest for you to access?

S: In response to the entrepreneurship question, I didn't necessarily know I was going to be an entrepreneur. I always knew that there were other people in my family, namely my little brother, who are much better with numbers and business. I'm definitely a creative soul. I love the concept of giving things away. I would be an anarchist if I could. I'm not the kind of shrewd businesswoman but I think I've had to become  through this project. I often say that this project was a dystopian art project to begin with, it was my wildest dreams of what a supply chain can look like and what a business can look like creatively, spiritually, emotionally, and financially. Is it possible? It was really a wacky experiment and I did it 100 percent my way. I did all the photos. I put up the website together. It was a total artist approach to business and then it worked, and when it worked I think that's when it honestly got more challenging because that's when it hit that I had to make the decision. The dystopian art project had been fulfilled. I thought “are you now going to turn this into a business or was this going to be a wacky experiment you're going to move on from?” I think that the decision to turn it into a full fledged business and hire folks really came from suddenly realizing that there were people dependent on the business and so I owed it to them to grow the business.

I actually went to a business course for photographers about a year and a half ago and they asked us to outline our hopes and dreams and at that point I was still doing photography as much as I was doing Diaspora Co.. About a quarter of the way through, I realize that I was answering all the worksheets about Diaspora Co. instead of my photography business and it was because, I quickly realized, that's what I most wanted to succeed,  that’s where my deepest passion was. There was a pretty hard pivot and it was quite unintentional. 

In terms of challenges, last year we had one product, turmeric. We had our old packaging. We had a shitty Squarespace website and we really weren't making very much money. In August 2018, knowing that moving our entire website to Shopify would cost us between 5K to 8K in developer fees, overhauling our packaging, moving to a co-packer was going be incredibly expensive. It all felt very impossible like I needed an 80K that I certainly didn't have. That’s when the New York Times gift guide and the Washington Post gift guide happened and it just literally gave us that 80K bump that I didn't know we were going to get. It was a game changer. I think if those two things hadn't happened, I probably wouldn't have made the switch to doing this full time by February. That really confirmed that we can do this.

Often in the past year so many young folks like me have reached out asking should I start a business, they ask me what made me take the leap, they say "I want to quit my tech job and start working in food" and what I say to all of them is that when I started the business, I was comparing myself to wealthy white men starting similar businesses not realizing that they either had the ability for their rent to be covered for years, they have the ability for somebody to support them financially, and/or have access to investors very early-on before proof of concept. I didn't have any of those things, I think you’ll relate to that, and it was really hard to know how am I supposed to eat when this business isn't making enough for one lunch. I've constantly told folks that unless your overhead is super low and you have a significant amount of money saved up that you can then pour into this business and not expected to be profitable for 2 years or more no don't do it unless you have reason to believe that you know your idea is going to work SPECTACULARLY and you're willing to really grind it out for those 2 years, please don't leave your cushy tech job with health insurance. There are people who've been in the industry for years and years and years trying to make this happen, invest in them before you dive in headfirst yourself? I'm a little anti ‘everybody should start their own business.’ We don't live in a world where we're all systematically advantaged enough to do that. It's one of the big myths of the American meritocracy!

G: What do you do to persevere? What inner resources and skills helped you through? What external support made it possible for you to continue?

S: I can start with external because that's so easy–the food media! The food media landscape right now, all of the editors, writers, producers, photographers that shared our story and put really beautiful pieces about us together. We owe so much of our first year’s success to that. from Food & Wine to Bon Appétit to Vice, everybody came out to bat for us at a time when I didn't even fully believe in the idea. But they did. I think that was partly because, as a photographer and somebody in the industry, I already had a lot of those connections not professionally but we saw each other on Instagram and as a marketing person I knew how to pitch to journalists. Our first 3 press pieces, I pitched. I sent those emails and said please cover us. That definitely created a snowball effect and once we had those 3 pieces of press folks were crawling out of the woodwork.

From Samin Nosrat to Alison Roman to Heidi Swanson those are 3 very powerful women in the food industry who I can personally say were responsible for making us money when we most needed it. Samin has introduced us to every press person that she knows and without even trying to take credit for it. She really opens doors and is such a gatekeeper. Same with Alison Roman. There are a lot of very powerful women in food right now and I just find them to be incredibly generous. 

I think internally, starting the business coincided with me retiring as an athlete. I was a semi pro weight lifter. Being an athlete has defined the early years of my life, ages 16 to 25, and then I broke a vertebrae in 2016. That's an injury that a lot of people die from or get paralyzed from. I am very very lucky to be alive and realized that I needed to channel all of that energy and all of that grit into something else. Some of the best business folks that I know are ex-athletes. I think athletes are some of the hardest workers and mentally some of the strongest people. My partner is a professional athlete and an inspiration to me every single day. The founder of Allbirds was a professional soccer player and he talks a lot about how his work as an athlete informed his attitude towards the founding of Allbirds. 

The other thing is that I've had incredible parental support. I did have the privilege to have them pay my rent when I was starting the company at a point when I just didn't have the ability to do that, and they gave me an inventory loan in a crunch too. It was amazing that they believed in me enough to do that knowing that they may never get that money back. Even just for business things, I end up calling both of my parents for different things almost every single day. My dad helps me a lot when we're in a bind or when suddenly there's an unexpected expense. He’s the one who taught me how to use spreadsheets and build out my cost of goods. My mom is definitely who I go to in terms of branding and more visual advice. Just being able to call them and have them as experts in their field constantly is amazing.

That's really something that I'm trying to shake up, that this very precious idea of farm to table can only exist in affluent western communities when actually it's always existed across Asia and multiple European colonizers stripped us of that.

G: Starting to head towards the end of this now, I’m curious about the role you see education playing in your business?

S: I knew early on that I wanted the business to be really shaking up what ‘made in India’ means. making sure that folks knew that ‘made in India’ could mean some of the most excellent produce out there. Actually recently at a conference, a woman who I was on the panel with came up to me and said “you know,” she didn't fully even know what I did and she was like “oh I can't wait to grow masala spice blends on my vineyard.” I was just like what are you talking about and quickly realized that she didn't even know which spices go into masala spices. I asked, “oh, what spices do you think you can grow here in northern California? That would be so cool!” She just liked the concept of magical Indian spices growing on her vineyard not knowing that it's physically impossible for these spices to grow in Northern California. When I prodded her and was like “yeah but you know what my farm partners are growing in India is unparalleled. As a winemaker you make a huge argument for terroir, well you know the same stands true for Indian spices. Growing indigenous seed on indigenous lands has a lot of power and that flavor comes through.” She couldn't quite believe that. She gave me kind of a half make answer, but you could tell that for her, terroir only applied to champagne and to California.

That's really something that I'm trying to shake up, that this very precious idea of farm to table can only exist in affluent western communities when actually it's always existed across Asia and multiple European colonizers stripped us of that.

We’re also making sure people know how to use spices, understand the context for it, and see that spices can actually be very fun and accessible. So we’re definitely trying to be educational and political but we're also trying to be fun, and beautiful. 

G: Looking onward, what is Diaspora Co.’s vision? If the business is immensely successful, in 10 to 20 years, what does the Diaspora Co. future look like?

S: So many big future plans! We’re going to be launching on the Indian market and the European market domestically with sizes and marketing that’s needed for those markets. For the Indian market for example, we're overhauling packaging. It'll be much bigger given how quickly we go through spices in India. And, then eventually - there will be spice store/cafes in Mumbai, London, Brooklyn, New York, and Oakland!!!

I feel a little like mini spice version of Elizabeth Warren these days–we have a plan for that! Haha. 

Learn more about Diaspora Co. and shop spices, collaborations, and more at diasporaco.com