Origin Story Interview W/ Rhea Singhal, Ecoware

Origin Story Interview W/ Rhea Singhal, Ecoware

Brighter Future

 / 

Sep 6, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #biodegradable #compostable #biocontainers #ecowareiseverywhere #consciousconsumer #circulareconomy #ecoinnovation #PlasticFree #ZeroWaste

Brighter Future

We’re here with Rhea Singhal, of Ecoware. Ecoware uses agricultural waste to create biodegradable and compostable food containers.

Thank you so much for talking with us, Rhea. Do you think you could tell us a little bit more about yourself and your company?

My name is Rhea Singhal, and I founded Ecoware about ten years ago. When I moved to India, I was shocked by the enormous amount of plastic being used. So we wanted to create something safe for people and the planet while being authentic and purposeful. That's how Ecoware was born.

In our organisation, we clean agricultural waste, such as sugar cane, wheat, or rice waste, and convert it into packaging through a thermal foaming process. This packaging is naturally biodegradable and compostable, eliminating the need for industrial composting, artificial conditions, or waste management systems. That's the beauty of it. Once it comes in contact with the soil, it breaks down into soil within 90 days.

Our goal is to displace as much single-use plastic as possible with our packaging.

Compared to today's trend of utilising reusable or compostable packaging, what was the situation like in the past?

My thoughts extend beyond just India; however, in India, there needed to be more conversation or education surrounding biodegradability or compostability when we began our efforts well before the “#CleanIndia” campaigns. Our stakeholders were unfamiliar with the concepts, but we've witnessed several significant shifts over the past decade.

Firstly, we now spend much time engaging with communities to raise awareness and educate individuals on the topic. I strongly believe that an informed choice is lifelong, instead of simply imposing a ban.

Secondly, consumers' mindsets have shifted, and more people are seeking healthier alternatives to single-use plastics and turning them down. A new generation of consumers is emerging, aligning their purchasing power with responsible organisations.

Thirdly, plastic bans are being implemented worldwide, and I hope countries enforce them adequately to create the change we need. These are just a few ways we have observed the landscape evolve since our efforts began.

Where did your journey begin before your current business? What are your roots?

I was a pharmacologist and studied pharmacology at the University of Bristol in the UK. After graduation, I worked at Pfizer in the UK for about five years across various portfolios, including their most important drugs. However, what interested me the most was my time in oncology, where I worked on breast and colon cancer. This was particularly meaningful as my mother had battled breast cancer twice, so I was passionate about the work.

What led you to the climate space and build your business?

I strongly believe in transferable skills. Your degree or first job does not necessarily define you or determine your future. Instead, the skills you develop and how you apply them to different scenarios matter.

When I moved to India in 2009, finding a job was difficult because I did not have an MBA. I started studying for the MBA exam initially, but it didn't feel like the right path. Then, my father-in-law, a civil entrepreneur, inspired me to consider starting my own business. At the time, I was 27 years old, without any children, and my husband and I decided it was the right time to take a risk. I remember the day I registered my company, GlaxoSmithKline offered me a job. While I considered it briefly for 30 seconds, I pursued entrepreneurship instead.

When starting a business, how did you know you wanted to work with compostable packaging?

When I first moved to India, I was shocked to see the excessive use of plastic and the amount of littering that occurred. It was evident in the overflowing landfills and the outdated practice of throwing all waste into a single dustbin. Proper waste management needs to be improved, and it continues to challenge the growing population.

Coming from an oncology background and a family that valued the significance of lifestyle changes for preventing disease, I was aware of the dangers of plastic. I learned at a young age, not to microwave plastic or drink from plastic water bottles left in the car because the toxins from the melted plastic can seep into the food and cause disease.

Observing people eating from styrofoam and plastic containers in India concerned me, and I wanted to find a healthier alternative. Fortunately, my father-in-law's experience in the sugar industry gave me access to various agricultural waste raw materials to experiment with. In addition, my experience at Pfizer, where I marketed and sold brands, allowed me to connect the dots and make my vision a reality.

To whom do you primarily direct your communication or message? For example, is your main audience the general public, or do you primarily address companies?

We take every opportunity to speak with everyone because we believe every stakeholder counts. We work extensively with schools, colleges, disease support groups in hospitals, cancer support groups, and local welfare and residential associations. In addition to business stakeholders, such as those in the F&B and e-commerce industries, we collaborate with NGOs and the government. We consider everyone a stakeholder because, with over a billion people in India, we need to reach a mass audience. Everyone must have access to education and awareness about making informed choices.

What part of your work would be the most fulfilling to you?

The impact we have created is remarkable. As an entrepreneur, I have kept my head down and worked tirelessly towards achieving my goals. I took a moment to reflect a few years ago, and I am extremely proud of our impact. It's what motivates me to continue, especially during tough times. Our impact has been threefold.

From an environmental standpoint, we have managed to displace over a billion pieces of single-use plastic. Additionally, a circular economy model generates 100% of our revenue. From a social perspective, we have created an industry that was non-existent before. We have also provided employment opportunities, with plans to create more as we grow. Currently, 30% of our team comprises women, and I am passionate about improving their role in manufacturing. Lastly, from a health perspective, fewer people are now exposed to plastic, making it better for humans and the planet.

How did you come to name your company Ecoware?

I cannot recall the exact details, but my father-in-law suggested the name, and I thought it was so good that I agreed without hesitation. We began this as an experiment, never anticipating it would grow to what it is today. It felt like I was toying with the idea then, but I hit the ground running and never looked back.

Have you ever had to change your strategy or take a different direction than planned while running Ecoware or after starting it?

As an organisation, being an entrepreneur means constantly navigating through the unknown. The past two years have confirmed the need to be agile, especially with the impact of Covid. Innovation and forward movement are essential to stay relevant and continue creating purpose. We have experienced this firsthand by adapting our business model.

Pre-Covid, we primarily served B2B clients such as railways, travel companies, and large-scale restaurants. However, post-Covid, we shifted to becoming a D2C brand due to a spike in online sales. This allowed us to sustain our business and keep our customers happy.

Additionally, we have been experimenting with different raw materials to create new product lines. Although we started in the F&B industry, we are now expanding into other areas, such as the medical industry, e-commerce, and sustainable fashion.

We aim to constantly explore new applications and innovate with different types of raw materials. For instance, India being a biomass-rich nation, we are experimenting with sugarcane, rice, wheat, and other raw materials. As a result, we have become Amazon's bestsellers with at least eight of our products. During lockdowns, the online marketplace provided the safest and most guaranteed supply chain. Whether it's a small or large business, people were getting deliveries.

How about your personal life changes?

This year, I finally stopped and took a sabbatical, which I had been threatening to do for some time. I realised I wanted to do something different, and EcoWare seemed to be in a good place to do that. We've established the company, it's doing well, and we're in a scalable, growing position with a great team.

Additionally, in the last couple of years, after receiving the Nari Shakti Puraskar award (the highest women’s-only award in India) from the President of India, I've had the opportunity to do a lot of work around women's empowerment. Given that the impact of COVID has not been gender-neutral, I wanted to focus on more inclusive growth this year.

Which life experience gave you the perspective and confidence to start your business? While you previously mentioned discussing Pfizer and the knowledge you gained, can you also share the earliest instance when you discovered your entrepreneurial skills?

I don't remember the exact moment, but I wouldn't attribute my entrepreneurial skills to any specific event. As a child, I possessed a "go-getter" attitude that drove me to pursue my goals relentlessly. This mindset has always been at the core of who I am and has played a significant role in my journey as an entrepreneur. Throughout school, college, and even my time at Pfizer, I continued to build upon this foundation. Ultimately, my life experiences have shaped my confidence and allowed me to thrive as an entrepreneur.

With EcoWare, what were the biggest challenges you faced throughout the last 10+ years?

We have faced several challenges. For example, India's landscape was entirely new to me, and Delhi was a city I had never lived in as an adult. Moving here to set up a business was a massive learning curve, especially since I was a 27-year-old woman with limited Hindi skills. You can imagine the difficulties of establishing a consumer business in these circumstances.

Today, we face different challenges. Firstly, we want to create education and awareness about the global problem of single-use plastic. It's not just an issue in India but globally; we want to be recognised as a global solution. Secondly, keeping up with demand is a significant challenge as we constantly scale and grow. Lastly, we are continually lobbying the government to recognise green businesses and reward those that act responsibly and differently from a financial perspective. These are our current challenges.

When you began your work in India and didn't speak Hindi or have a strong understanding of Hindu culture, did you face significant challenges due to your gender and your passion for gender equality?

Yes, it can still be a problem even today. However, I cannot let it hinder me from achieving what needs to be done for the business. I ensure that whatever task needs to be accomplished is completed without any impediments.

Have you experienced significant mistakes or failures in your life that have provided valuable lessons on how you currently operate your business?

My most significant life lesson has been resilience and accountability. Sometimes things don't work out how I want them to or how I think they should, but there is always a lesson to be learned. The important thing is to keep learning, moving forward, and evolving. This lesson has been evident throughout my academic and professional life, from applying to schools and jobs to proving myself as an employee at Pfizer and an entrepreneur in an industry that was new to many people. I had to work hard to convince others to take me seriously and introduce them to a product they had never heard of before.

Did you ever have a big “Aha!” moment or an epiphany that shaped you in a certain way?

I have experienced several “Aha!” moments throughout various phases of my life. As a child, I realised that I was not competing with others but rather with myself, which is when my ambition was born. I always challenged myself to step outside of my comfort zone, which drove me to continue improving. Being good is simply never enough.

Boarding school was a difficult experience for me, as I was the only Indian girl there. I joined sixth form in the last two years of school, and it was challenging to fit in. However, this experience taught me to be comfortable with myself and built my confidence, which can be difficult at 16, 17, or 18.

As an entrepreneur, I recently read something that resonated: you must show up every day and be consistent. By doing so, you will be surprised at the number of opportunities that come your way. Consistency is a crucial part of life.

Throughout your journey as an entrepreneur, what was the source of your inspiration? Did a particular book, movie, speech, or person inspire and motivate you?

I believe that two key factors keep me motivated. Firstly, my family provides me with tremendous support, from my parents and in-laws to my husband and children. Their support inspires me to keep going on my journey. Secondly, meeting other entrepreneurs doing incredible things worldwide or country also fuels my motivation. This interaction inspires me to do more, to scale my impact, collaborate, and innovate. Ultimately, it ignites my excitement and drives me to succeed.

What were your biggest compromises or sacrifices to get to where you are today?

I don't think I have compromised or sacrificed anything. I have been fortunate enough to do exactly what I wanted. Moving to India was initially difficult for me even though I was born in Bombay, but I grew up between Dubai and London. However, I now see it as an opportunity because I have been able to accomplish so much and impact so many lives. I love what I am doing and would no longer call it a sacrifice or compromise but an opportunity. Fortunately, I haven't had to sacrifice anything to make it work. Whether through family, kids, or work, we have found a way to make it work.

What future are you envisioning that you're, or that you're helping create with EcoWare?

I believe that the term "sustainability" is often used loosely. I define sustainability as achieving intergenerational well-being by meeting our own needs without compromising the needs of future generations. EcoWare exemplifies this concept and provides a great model for businesses to follow. Sustainability represents an opportunity where people, profit, and the planet can coexist rather than being a choice between one or the other. As a small-scale industry, we take pride in setting an example for responsible behaviour. With EcoWare, we aim not only to create a better world but also to conduct good business, make an impact, and act responsibly.

You have big ambitions with EcoWare.

Of course, when we launched, we focused on the food and beverage industry and have been growing quite rapidly in that space. However, we are now also exploring opportunities in the startup space and how we can create a sustainable business. We also consider establishing new revenue channels across different industries, such as the medical and e-commerce sectors. We know that our raw material and application work, and we want to support different applications and industries to reduce their plastic footprint. Single-use plastic is a global problem, and we want to be a global solution. We have certified every claim we have made about our product from global labs and are expanding our reach from the US to Singapore. The COVID-19 pandemic has made products like EcoWare even more relevant as people associate single-use items with hygiene. There is a significant opportunity for us, and this is a turning point for our organisation.

What guidance do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs, particularly those beginning their entrepreneurial journey or considering starting a business soon?

The greatest injustice is not making an effort. If you have an idea, try it out. Even if it fails, every situation presents an opportunity to learn. That matters most as long as you learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward. Having a clear vision and purpose in what you're doing is crucial, especially during tough times as an entrepreneur. When hiring people for your team, I prioritise transferable skills and aligned values over impressive resumes. These are the three key things to remember when building a team.

What would you like future female entrepreneurs to take from your journey?

Use your voice. The biggest lesson for me has been that if you don't ask, you won't receive. Your voice matters, and no one will ask on your behalf. It's your business, so speak up and take action if you want something. The power is entirely in your hands.

If there was one lasting message that you could share with the whole world or just with everyone on this globe, what would that one be?

Well, we've always known that the climate crisis is an urgent issue. Of course, we need to behave more responsibly, but I'm not asking for extreme changes in our behaviour. Instead, we can make at least one small change in our day-to-day activities to help create a better planet. We can move from rampant consumerism to conscious consumerism, share knowledge with our community, engage with different stakeholders, and help spread the message of responsible behaviour. My message is that if we can make that little change, it would greatly benefit the world.

Thank you very much for sharing your story with us. We hope your efforts to reduce waste and promote sustainable food storage succeed immensely.

To learn more about Ecoware, please see www.ecoware.in.

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