Origin Story Interview W/ Aarav Chavda, INVERSA Leathers

Origin Story Interview W/ Aarav Chavda, INVERSA Leathers

Brighter Future

 / 

Apr 18, 2024

#BrighterFuture #originstoryseries #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #SustainableFashion #EnvironmentalConservation #EthicalFashion #FashionForChange #ClimateChangeSolution #seekthechange

Brighter Future

We were excited to be joined by Aarav Chavda, co-founder of INVERSA Leathers, a company making incredibly high-quality leather products from invasive species. Until recently, one of the few organic ways to actively control invasives has been encouraging people to eat them. Some are quite tasty! INVERSA provides a different profit incentive by harvesting these damaging animals for fine leather with a fascinating, novel, and eco-friendly story.

Thank you so much for being here with us, Aarav. Do you think you could tell me a little about your business?

We're INVERSA Leathers, a positive fashion materials company. This means we make leather that restores biodiversity by as much as 50 to 70 per cent across affected areas by addressing invasive species, which are one of the UN’s top drivers of biodiversity decline. We started with the invasive lionfish supply chain, and now we're involved with invasive carp and pythons as well. We operate in over a dozen geographies, have three distinct supply chains around each species, and sell to over 30 different fashion brands.

The very definition of luxury continues to expand. It used to mean one thing a hundred years ago— and as consumer expectations continue to grow they always outpace what worked last year. Luxury lives just an arm’s reach beyond reality. As reality expands, so does luxury. Nowadays, purpose is part of luxury, and consumers want that service to a higher cause. Why? To fit our perceptions of ourselves, and to fit the karma-positive voice now living in the back of all our heads.

That’s extremely interesting. What are you trying to achieve with your company? And why does it matter?

We're trying to protect biodiversity and do it in style. At the end of the day, it's about meeting consumers where they are and helping them have a fantastic, amazing, and incredible image and story, without trade-offs or sacrifices.

By meeting consumers where they are— be it e-commerce platforms or malls— we tell the story they want to hear, letting them participate in an ecosystem and economy that excites them. I'm super happy to meet people who think about this problem regularly.

It matters because biodiversity is crucial. We've seen a 69% decline in wildlife numbers in the last 50 years— and that's a scary stat. We need to keep highlighting this issue.

The worst part is, in many cases, there's no going back. Invasive species, for example, are responsible for 60% of extinctions worldwide. Think about it— it's crazy. We're beset by a thousand different problems, but people have to be aware. They have to care about invasives in the way we care about plastic and in the way we care about all these other issues. We're causing irreparable harm, but by making the right choices we can undo at least some of the damage.

I try not to adopt a doomsday perspective, but I know what's on the other end of this. That's why I find just the raw mission personally motivating— what happens if we don't act? Our efforts are time-sensitive. Unlike startups that might focus on catching the next wave, funding cycle, or trend, the next 20 years are crucial when it comes to protecting wildlife. We have to catch it now.

I've been watching Jacques Cousteau's old documentaries lately, and they reminded me of all the beautiful things in the world and how much things have changed since just the 70s— only about 50 years ago.

That is the single scariest part. There are some parts of the world where there used to be this gorgeous biodiversity with incredible life all around, but in some cases that was literally centuries ago. Globalisation, industrialisation, and all these things have set in, and there is zero generational memory of what life used to be like 300 years ago. No one's fighting for it today. They can’t even remember what there is to be fighting for.

Where does the company name come from?

INVERSA comes from our perspective of being an inversion of traditional consumption models. We chose to play it literally.

What are your roots, or the path that you come from?

INVERSA has been a combination of two of my great loves: scuba diving and material science. I'm trained as a material scientist, and I’ve worked on many cool materials. I always look at the world through that scientific lens. What our society achieves is largely dependent on the resources available to us: paper, plastics, or other materials. I put these two interests together and sat down with the invasive lionfish problem that had lived in my brain for years. I eventually linked up with my two co-founders and we were off to the races.

What exactly led you to create the business?

I was motivated by the fundamental frustration with the pace at which invasive species were winning and the insufficiency of our solutions to that so far. We're not going to solve this with a beach cleanup. We're not going to solve it by throwing a tiny bit of taxpayer money at it. If you see the numbers, invasive species cause almost $430 billion of damage every single year. So, what? We either redirect half of the Pentagon's budget, which I don't see happening, or we tap into an industry where that kind of capital is actually scalable. And if you look at fashion, this is a $4 trillion industry, and that's the kind of industry where change can happen.

How many species are you using for your products?

We work with three right now, and we have numbers four and five lined up. The way we approach this problem is through a pool of 3,500 invasive species that we aim to target in a long-term framework. We've picked the worst of the worst, because that's where our solution is most effective, especially when working against what are known as “mature” or “established” invasions, where invasive species’ densities are extremely high and widespread over large geographies. The solutions have far exceeded the available capital to manage them in these places, and that's our sweet spot, where we can offer scalable solutions and capital against these challenges.

Who are you doing your work for, or who are you speaking to directly?

We’re doing our work for anyone who has ever enjoyed nature in a beautiful area and wants to carry that forward to the next generation. More directly I'm pulling from my personal experiences: I’ve hated seeing what’s happened to coral reefs in even the last ten years. They're being hit by a thousand different problems. Some of these have very intelligent and clean solutions, like reef-safe sunscreen. Brilliant, right? And heat-resistant coral, though that takes a lot of engineering, planting, management, and species proliferation. It’s definitely a challenge, but some solutions are starting to exist. But of course there’s that little thing called climate change, too.

There's nothing more depressing than a dead coral reef. You see this once-teeming ecosystem, bone-white and silent, and you think: “If that's dead, what hope do we have?” But on a positive note, if you actually tackle these invasives correctly, you actually see, as academic literature demonstrates, that native biodiversity and biomass rebound by up to 70%.

How long does it take for reef biodiversity to recover?

Literally months. Not years. Biodiversity recoveries are extremely fast, especially compared to carbon recoveries and the carbon cycle. It's not overnight; it still takes many months. But that's what gives me optimism, because if we redirect capital into the right space, we can win this fight.

What's your opinion on heat-resistant coral?

It’s in quite a few spaces, and I haven't caught up on the latest literature. Last I saw, heat-resistant coral that’s been planted has a decent survival rate. But I remember being impressed, thinking that the capacity to do that was pretty incredible.

The problem you end up with, though, is probably two-fold. One, it's an expensive process, so only the wealthier parts of the planet can invest in that. The other problem is that you can rapidly end up in a monoculture.

I think the science has been demonstrated, though, and the installations have worked, and I think the proliferation needs to happen both across species and into new geographies which, again, that's one of the largest issues with climate change, because the geographies that have the money to innovate will. But heat-resistant coral is a promising start.

What part of your work is most fulfilling for you?

I really love seeing when the consumer starts telling the story. Some of my favourite stuff is, I’ll give you an example: we did a showcase in a few different places, and long story short, a lady who's part of a yacht club in Florida ended up buying a handbag made from our materials. One of my co-founders found her telling her friends about the story of invasive species and why it's really important. Her bag was so cool to her and all of her friends. It was incredible. Think about the advocacy that happens with encounters like that, the awareness that suddenly arises, and the extension of what counts as luxury now.

Now, it's not enough to say that something is a cool species and exotic or something like that. Now the question is, “What does it do for me and my principles?” Fundamentally, this is about an external-facing audience. What does it do for us when we're not in the room? What are our buyers actually saying in their communities?

I see what you mean. That’s pretty powerful. I’ll change tack here and ask: when was it that you decided to do something differently or take a new direction in your life or career?

Yes, I really enjoy finding masochistically hard problems, and that hasn't changed. However, taking this path was certainly a new direction. Before this, I was working in consulting, tackling extremely different problems. But I loved the model I was working on, essentially private industries serving fundamental goals of the public good. Recent political insanity and environmental costs of battery-making aside, climate change-positive products like the Tesla are simply a better product than what came before it. And it's just a faster car, right?

Or think about how we've seen space launch costs spiral downward to mere fractions of what they used to be. Those types of things inspire me a lot. For my part, I became obsessed with this model of thinking, and this just ended up marrying with that lionfish idea that lived in my brain.

What life experience gave you the perspective and confidence to know that you can come up with something different or better than what was currently out there?

I think it just comes down to the engineering background I studied. Technically, my degree was mechanical and aerospace engineering, and what I really appreciated was how the engineering mindset forced me to take on really challenging problems, break them down, and then see them as solvable from there. As long as you feel comfortable breaking big problems into smaller ones, suddenly, there's very little that the engineering mentality can't wrestle down. It only becomes a matter of when we solve the next problem.

I had a very theoretical education; I graduated in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton in 2017. Theoretical education might sound negative, but I believe it forced me to go back to the first principles of everything. I think that kind of education really helped me gain the confidence that anything is solvable.

It’s a great attitude to have. What were the biggest challenges you've faced or mistakes that you made when you started out on your journey, and what do they teach you?

I think one significant challenge, which I'm still tackling, involves our story. It's quite complicated, unique, and a bit potentially shocking regarding the invasive animals, but I think it’s a good thing— especially when considering story proliferation. However, condensing that story into something quickly tellable, understandable, and digestible by the everyday consumer— who will give you 30 seconds of attention if you're lucky— has been challenging. I think that's one that I'm still working on, but I think we've come a long way since we started.

Do they have a hard time with the whole “killing the animal” part of this? What's the problem?

Way less than I expected, honestly. I thought it would take much more consumer education. But in the end, it’s really not that controversial— if you care about the planet and biodiversity, you end up here. There’s a reason we’re funded by the US government, Conservation International, and some of the leading ocean nonprofits. Conservationists like us really care about the massive gap between invasive species proliferation and the lack of available capital. Our solution solves that. Removals are the only thing that recovers biodiversity.

But I do think the consumer has to be brought along for the journey. They need to really understand and digest it before they're ready for the next step. It may sound unexpected, but we use what I call Taco Bell's “rule of two.” Taco Bell has a rule when they’re developing new food that goes like this: you can change the taste, the texture, or the format— format being whether it’s a taco, burrito, or something else— but you can only change one at a time. It's the “two degrees of weird” rule.

So, we use that approach— always changing just one thing at a time, because the consumer needs to be brought along gradually.

For example, one of our leathers derives from a species of python that's popular today, but instead of sourcing from farmed, trafficked, and laundered pythons, we use an invasive variant. It’s the same animal, just invasive. In that way we’re trying to adhere to the rule of one degree of change at a time.

Where or how do you source these animals? Can you tell me anything about that?

The sourcing process involves connecting with the fishers and hunters who are already taking care of those waters or lands. Mostly, it's through cooperatives, which are collections of multiple hunters and fishers, but sometimes, individuals as well.

What is a hunting cooperative?

It’s like a collective of a group; it's tough to do when the animals would come from just recreational hunters or fishers. It really has to be done on a commercial scale or you end up with the beach cleanup problem. It has to be people who either are already, or are willing to begin, doing this at scale because you don't see the biodiversity uplift if you just do this once and then walk away. It has to be done on a consistent and regular basis.

Fascinating. When have you experienced your greatest “Aha!” moments?

The biggest moment happened to me in Paris, much earlier in our journey, when we’d been iterating on leather prototyping. We’d burned through tens of thousands of fish just trying to get the correct formulation that’d be best for the species.

So I was getting coffee with one of our French brand executives and I handed them the latest prototype we had. Almost in a mystical slow motion I saw them take it, look at it, then look down and pause as they felt the leather’s texture. Their eyes went wide.

I thought: “Okay. We have a business.”

That’s brilliant; congratulations. I’ve heard French executives aren’t the easiest people to impress. I’m going to leave this extremely positive recollection for a moment and ask now: What were the biggest compromises or sacrifices you’ve made on your journey?

The founder's entrepreneurial journey is extremely all-encompassing. You have to be willing to go emotionally all in, with time commitments, social trade-offs, and life— it's kind of all of it. I think the joke is what I’ve heard from my fiancée, who is a resident doctor: “If you don't have to do it, don't.” I feel this is equally true for founders.

Because you have to have that irrational side of you that's like, “This is the thing that has to be done.” And you can't imagine doing anything else: you think, “I couldn't live without doing this.” This is truly, truly important for me. I mean, because it's awesome. I have a blast; it's so much fun. It's a lot, but so fulfilling.

What future are you hoping or envisioning to help create?

I like the future we're creating, one where “invasive” is part of the luxury lexicon, expected and demanded. I want a future where we’ve built out a portfolio of dozens of materials where you can throw a dart at a map of the world and we have an offering to help you save that ecosystem— whether it's coral reefs, forests, even deserts. We want to give consumers the expectation, motivation, and demand to push other brands down this path of making something good from something bad.

How do you want close friends and family to look back on you and your journey?

I'd just be really happy knowing that we went completely all out on the problem and came up with a creative, fun, and honestly attractive solution. It would be great, and a bonus point, if other people were inspired to create models for solving other problems around the world like this.

What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur just starting out?

You have to be ruthless about the economics, especially if you're solving social or environmental problems. You have to be ruthless about the closed economic cycle— this will be the jet fuel for your business.

Understand that the market typically doesn't value sustainability enough to pay a premium for it. There's little willingness to make sacrifices for sustainable practices, so your product or service must offer zero trade-offs on quality. Consumers are unwilling to compromise, whether on price or quality. You have to meet them where they are and you have to speak their language. They're not going to care in our case.

Sure, it has to be beautiful, but fundamentally, they have to feel it and they have to be hit at an emotional level, right? You have to translate this visible physical-like thing.

It's not about specs or quality or durability. It's fundamentally about emotion and inspiration and feeling. And that's the exciting part.

What books, movies, speeches, people, and so on have inspired you most in your journey?

I would say I get a lot of inspiration from biographies. Anything by Walter Isaacson. I'd also say Masters of the Air, a book on World War II aviation. I’m an aero guy myself, a pilot, aero engineer, all that. It’s an absolutely incredible story of just true sheer determination and innovation in the face of unbelievable odds. I find that one inspirational. Haven’t seen it yet, but I think it also got adapted for TV recently.

There’s a great biography on the Wright Brothers by David McCullough, which I thought was extremely interesting. It pulls you right into the story of these guys who are doing something that people thought was impossible. It shares with you the arguments they had, among themselves and others; the fights, the ups and downs, the tragedies and successes. These guys literally created magic. Fiction, right? They left the Earth. How incredible is that? I loved hearing how that story was told in a very intimate, personal way. Of course, against that is the backdrop of my obsession with flight, so I feel like part of it's just material science being the underlying thread.

Aviation is really just a product of materials. Especially as that relates to pushing the boundaries further and further into whether it's speed or fuel efficiency or whatever it ends up being. But I do think it's just an obsession with hard problems. Aviation is exciting, and there's much more to do.

That’s a very interesting series of works to take inspiration from. If there was one lasting message you could share with the world, what would it be?

I'd just ask the world to be regenerative. Expect it in your daily lives, expect it from what you buy, expect it from how you make decisions. Be regenerative, and if all of us do a little bit of that, all of a sudden, we've solved our problem. It kind of sounds like, sometimes, people get exhausted from the problem, because I do, but the honest answer is to just do it yourself and then let everyone else follow in their own way.

That’s a great message. Aarav, thank you very much for spending some of your time with us today, and for telling us about your story and your product. From all of us at Brighter Future, we wish you nothing but the greatest, chic-est success for INVERSA’s leathers and your efforts to combat invasive species in this creative way.

To read more about INVERSA, please see www.inversaleathers.com.

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