Sana Javeri Kadri is a seriously inspiring food lady. She’s the founder of Diaspora Co., a turmeric company based in Oakland, CA that works with small scale, sustainable spice farms in India. Her big mission is to bring the finest possible product to the US, while paying farmers fair wages in an industry that more than often does not. And as her company grows, she plans to expand the line to include more spices from all over India and beyond. Read on to hear more about direct trade, sustainable architecture, and all the ups and downs of starting your own business.
Let’s start with the basics. What’s your official job title?
I’m the Founder and Chief Feelings Officer of Diaspora Co. The term CEO still irks me because we’re rooted in social justice and equity and that title holds so much weight and has such corporate connotations, so I’m sticking with feelings for now.
Can you tell me about what you were doing before this?
I’m young, and I’m learning to be more open about that rather than hide my age! I graduated from Pomona College in May 2016, where I’d been the founder of the Claremont Food Justice Summit during my time there, as well as photographed A LOT since high school, so I graduated and was able to pretty seamlessly combine those things and start working in photography + marketing in the “good food” and food justice worlds. It’s a unique time where the need for storytelling and content is at an all-time high, and I feel like that gave me an edge in terms of getting gigs early on, and allowed me to really hone my eye and my niche. So I was doing a scattered, more food-porn centric version of what I do now – photographing and storytelling around good food and food culture.
You worked at the food company Bi-Rite in San Francisco. What interests you about the food business? And what pushed you to start your own company?
I think working at Bi-Rite really cemented my understanding of the value of clean, transparent supply chains. I got to see how a peach traveled from Masumoto farm to the aisles of Bi-Rite, and how much care and dedication went into every single step of its journey. Because it was the right thing to do for the environment, for the farmer, for the farm workers, for the customer, and for the sheer beauty of a dripping, delicious Masumoto peach. Sometimes I joke that starting my own import export company is the ultimate immigrant scheme- it takes missing your home, and its takes it to a pretty profound level to justify importing several tons worth of the flavors of home. I love knowing that I can have a little spoonful of the best turmeric from home, in my new adopted home, and that there’s an unlimited supply of it. It makes me excited for the day Diaspora Co. has spices and rices and pulses and oh my! It’s about bringing more and more pieces of home with me every time, and slowly making these United States the home that I need it to be.
What is the mission of Diaspora Co.?
To use good food and sustainable agriculture as a vehicle for social change.
Can you tell me a bit about how you chose the name?
I’m a new member of the diaspora and feel like that experience of being neither here nor there, and caught in between is huge part of my identity and folks like me from all over the world. There’s a bakery here in the Bay Area that I love called Third Culture Bakery and they do things like Mochi Muffins and Thai Ice Tea Custard Cakes, and I feel like we’re both pinpointing a certain yearning for our immigrant experiences to be made more visible in everything from the news to the grocery aisle. Every day, I feel like the name Diaspora Co. draws me closer to people that I admire, feel kinship with, and want to surround myself with.
How much time do you spend in Mumbai vs Oakland?
I’m still figuring it out, honestly. My day to day life is very much rooted in Oakland- I moved here only two years ago but it felt like home in a way I’d never felt before. My community is here, my girlfriend is here, our puppy is here. But my family is in India, and it’s where I’m from in the deepest sense of the word. A large incentive towards starting this business in the first place was finding a way to work with India and create a way to go back and forth between these two worlds that are every important to me. Right now I’m back in Mumbai for a month every three to four months. That may change in the future to involve more time in India as we grow, but I’m not there yet.
Can you tell me about the structure of your company? How many people are in each location?
I’m afraid all my answers are going to be some variation of “we’re figuring it out as we go!” But as of this evening, and these roles might have already changed by the time this interview comes out we have:
Jess & Rosie doing packing + fulfillment for us part time - they’re both scholarship athletes and full time chiropractic students so this works perfectly for all of us.
Madeleine is our intern and a sophomore at UC Berkeley who divides her time between dealing with fulfillment and working on very exciting special project research that you’ll just have to wait to hear more about.
Lisa is our wholesale distribution consultant who I just brought on when I realized that I really need to learn how to delegate certain things to people who are far more skilled in a given area than me.
Sophie is our amazing graphic designer who works with us on a project-by-project basis. She and I worked together at Bi-Rite and she’s been my work wife since Day 1.
Sonam is our apprentice via the Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture who is doing business development research for us.
Sayed works as our Operations manager and Mr.-Fix-It in Mumbai, coordinating with our farmers and Whatsapping with me at all hours of day.
And me! Our only full time employee and captain of this ship! Currently, I’m the only one who travels, but that will likely change as we grow and get more full time employees who take the lead of certain aspects of the business. I’m all about delegating out to highlight other people’s strengths.
How did you work out the pricing in order to pay the farmers a fair amount, and charge the customers a fair amount?
This was a huge challenge for me. I don’t come from a business background so it’s been a LOT of reaching out to mentors, advisors and random strangers on the internet and asking seemingly obvious questions and then doubling down and trying to make sense of it all. First, paying a fair price to our turmeric farmer was my top priority- so I simply asked him what he felt was a fair price for his work and we went from there. Sure, his price is 6x the commodity price for turmeric, but I understand that the huge investment he makes in his crop, and his dedication to sustainable agriculture and heirloom seeds makes it a small price to pay. We’re value aligned, and the price we agreed on was just a reflection of that mutual respect. That being said, we re-negotiate with every harvest, and I want to make sure we are growing in tandem and that his goals are being met as much as mine are.
With regards to customers- we go back and forth on affordability a lot. For the first couple months, I was so adamant about keeping my prices accessible that my business model made no sense and I was hemorrhaging money on unexpected costs because my margins were too slim and didn’t have the wiggle room that a small business needs. It took a lot of adjusting to get to where we are and we’re always trying to find that balance between making enough money to sustain the business and pricing it such that it’s not a luxury, or elite product. I know that price-wise, we’re selling on par with what most grocery stores are selling at, for a far superior product, which is always nice to know.
Speaking of business models, how did you fund the company in its early days?
Haha, this question. After much number crunching and 6 months of out of pocket research, farm visits, and living at home- I asked my parents for $4000 in exchange for “equity”. I know I don’t have to worry about letting them down but it still gets me on off days. That being said, I’m so grateful for that privilege to have had that resource at all. I also maxed out my travel rewards credit card to pay for the first round of labels, design and packaging- which felt like a very odd and scary thing to go into debt for. I was very, very nervous about this, and only went ahead with it because I knew that I would have to pay 0% interest on my first year of use and so it gave me a solid 12 months to pay it back. I was able to pay it off within 3 months though, phew.
Can you talk about getting a new business established, and the most effective way to do so?
To be quite frank? I have no idea! I spent years identifying people that I looked up to and then studying their Wikipedia pages with great intensity to try and understand how they got where they were. I also found constantly reaching out to people that I admired to be a great way to build a network. More people will respond to a nineteen year old’s wide eyed emails asking to get coffee than you’d think! Trust me! Also- the internet is amazing. Early on with Diaspora Co., I found a web page that allowed me to track every single large turmeric container leaving the port of Kochi, in Kerala, India. The kind of information and resources you can dig up on these interwebs fascinates me, and I have no shame in being a total creep in order to learn more about making the world more in sync with what I believe is possible. In India I really struggled to be taken seriously, especially in the earlier stages of the business. A lot of farms and rural places I visited are not used to seeing an young, urban, chatty woman coming in and presenting herself as a potential business prospect. After several frustrating encounters of folks asking me whether it was my “daddy’s business” or whether I had a male CFO, I started just lying about my age in order to get meetings and for people to take me seriously. That’s changed now since I know a lot more about the world I’m working in and can quickly make sure people understand that not taking me seriously is a mistake. It’s taken developing a really tough exterior, really quick.
What’s the most important/unexpected/valuable thing you’ve learned while creating and running Diaspora Co.?
It will be harder than you ever imagined, it will require more therapy than you ever imagined, but it will also make you happier than you ever imagined. I honestly started the business with a whole lot of naivety- I didn’t expect it to grow as quickly as it did, or become what it has. It has been thrilling to see this baby grow into its own thing, and get to grow with it. Until Diaspora Co., I was the type to do something, work at it until I felt like I’d figured it out, and then put it away for something chewier. I never felt wholly consumed and challenged by my work. With Diaspora- it’s an endless series of big, challenging questions, and it’s super exciting to get to figure out or make up the answers to them every single day. I can see myself growing with this business for the next decade, and that’s a very exciting, fulfilling thought.
What’s been one thing you didn’t expect you’d have to do in your role but you do?
FULFILLMENT. You’d think that somebody opening an online shop with nation wide shipping would recognize that order fulfillment would be a huge part of my job? Nope. I remember the first ten preorders coming in, and me drinking a beer to celebrate and falling asleep. And then waking up the next morning and being like- oh shit so now how do I actually get these orders to these people?! Fulfillment, shipping, order management- that stuff took serious brain power. I’m a visual person and a hands on problem solver, so it really took a few rounds of orders for me to really get it right.
Most favorite part of your job?
Getting to collaborate with, uplift and support all the incredible women, people of color, desis and queers (sometimes all of those things in one) on anything from cookbook collaborations, to events, to hiring, to just getting coffee and plotting for the revolution.
How much of your life does this job take up?
All of it and then some? I’m working on being better about that though - like taking larger chunks of the weekend off, or not checking my email all the time, or stopping to eat a longer lunch than just hovering over my desk with a bowl of food. That being said- I love this business, I love my job, and this feeling of building a business from the ground up through the really low lows and the very high highs is one that I wouldn’t trade for the world. It definitely pays off, even if not in a monetary way. I wake up every morning pretty chuffed that I made up my own job and that it can be whatever I want it to be, with only minimal boring/frustrating bits.
If you’re comfortable sharing, what is your salary?
None. I was lucky to start this business from a place in my life where I’m able to live comfortably on very little- I have an incredibly affordable housing situation, I cook most of my meals, I don’t really buy things, and I take on 2-3 freelance photography gigs every month to pay bills + be able to splurge on nice meals every now and then. And my girlfriend is a grad student and scholarship athlete, so living happily on very little for this phase of life is something I’d like to think we’re pretty good at. So I’m in the very rocky but lucky position to be able to dedicate time and energy to growing my business without taking a salary from it. Obviously, it wouldn’t be sustainable if it continued that way, but we’re just not there yet. I know we will be though.
How does your identity play into this business?
I’ve been open and adamant since day one that this business is a desi x queer x immigrant x woman of color centered one. Queerness is a huge part of my identity and I am deeply invested in folks normalizing queerness, in all aspects of life. Often folks will ascribe a lot of value judgements to a business importing spices from India – and assume a lot about my identity as an Indian woman. Those assumptions can be anything from asking me whether I had pet tigers growing up, to questioning my ability to use a knife and fork, or assuming that I must have grown up in an oppressed backward society. None of those things are true and if folks are going to be consuming the highest quality produce of Indian origin, they owe it to the producer – and themselves really – to have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of where it’s coming from, and what the lives of the people getting it to them really looks like. So I’m here to champion for and be an ambassador for desi culture, for queer culture and for women of color to get paid what they deserve on both sides of the world, here and there.
Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining to your ten-year-old self.
Thanks very much for sharing your story, Sana! Your work is inspiring, and big congrats on your recent official organic certification, too! Readers, you can see more about Diaspora Co. here, and come back next week for Sana’s how to. (Photos provided by Sana Javeri Kadri, Sharon / Records in the Den, and Laila Bahman)