This Indian American woman’s first startup was barely out of the gate when global markets crashed. Her latest venture defies all traditional definitions of success

Rohini Shah’s Blu Salt combines fashion with function to create sustainable products – handbags made from organic and recyclable materials

India At Large staff

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Rohini Shah runs a successful design company focused on combining form, function and fashion – an idea that was born in 2013, motivated by the sheer lack of utility in women’s luxury accessories.

But success can be a tricky affair. The Michigan State University graduate’s first startup, Bacche Inc — a line of organic cotton children’s clothing that featured Indian-inspired colours and designs — was barely out of the gate in 2008 when global financial markets crashed.

“It took us about two years to educate ourselves about the market and get the product ready for market,” she told India-West, adding that the timeline brought them right into the heart of the recession.

The business was just getting traction, she said, when consumers stopped spending, retailers faced a liquidity crunch, and many of the independent boutique owners who had enthusiastically placed orders called her in tears to say they could no longer carry the clothes.

By 2010, with all the financial restraints, Shah and her partners decided to close the US operations and transferred the day-to-day operations to their partners in India.

The 39-year-old Shah, however, doesn’t regret the experience. “I wouldn’t have gotten here and I got to learn because of things that went wrong [in the economy],” Shah, who is originally from Andhra Pradesh but was raised mainly in Singapore, told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This time around she’s marketing a line of handbags made from organic and recyclable materials. The bags are targeted primarily to women who want a luxury look combined with durability for daily use and travel.

Blu Salt – “Blu” meaning indigo, or a major export of the British Raj; “Salt” meaning the salt tax that Mahatma Gandhi opposed and used to galvanise India as a nation – offers wallets, tote bags, handbags, lunch bags, drawstring bags and even laptop sleeves, ranging in price from $18 to $610.

Besides sustainable materials, Blu Salt produces its bags and packaging at fair-wage factories in Vietnam and India, and donates part of its proceeds to the Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development, which supports women and youth in India.

“Business is a way for me to fulfill my responsibilities to society,” Shah, who also has a postgraduate diploma in marketing and finance from the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, and an MBA from Yale School of Management, told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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