On 22 October, the courtyard of the Lucie Stern Community Center in Palo Alto was buzzing with activity. Families vied for cushy spots on benches to enjoy momos and pav bhaji, while others chose to stand amid the shady trees as they caught up with friends or acquaintances over tea. A few paces away from the courtyard, the buzz was even louder as shoppers, foodies, and art enthusiasts surveyed wares from over 30 businesses who had set up shop at the ArtForum SF Fall Haat 2023.
Neither the harsh afternoon sun, nor the intermittent bouts of unexpected rain seemed to deter these Bay Area residents or businesses from attending this celebration of South Asian entrepreneurs that has become a fixture in the Bay Area’s events calendar.
Shruti Goradia, the entrepreneur behind Indian jewelry brand Studio Anai kicked it off last year when she put together a Diwali Haat in San Carlos with just eleven vendors. A year later, Goradia and her co-founders Fatima Aslam and Gaurav Bhushan are receiving more applications from vendors than they ever expected.
“Right now, I feel like there’s 70 entrepreneurs that I can pick up the phone and talk to about anything I need,” said Goradia, speaking of the thriving community of South Asian entrepreneurs that has grown around this event. “We take collaboration over competition anyday,” said Aslam – founder of gifting brand Kishmish – pointing out the importance of having other entrepreneurs to lean on for support. “This kind of belonging is hard to find,” said Bhushan.
Tea or coffee?
In that spirit of collaboration, Joshua Chemparathy, founder of Sinwise Farms – a cold brewed chai brand with roots in the rolling hills of Kerala – was sharing a light-hearted chat with another vendor Sajani Amarasiri of Kola Goodies, a brand specializing in Sri Lankan tea. Apart from these brands, Simply Bhonu and House of Maskan offered a taste of Parsi and Kashmiri tea respectively, representing four distinct sub-continental tea traditions at the Haat.
Where there is tea, coffee cannot be far behind; for Tanya Rao, founding her venture Kaveri Coffee Works was a homecoming of sorts. “My family has been in the coffee roasting business for three generations and I am fortunate to bring that tradition here to the United States,” she said. Founded in 2019, her venture prioritizes sourcing from single-estate coffee estates in India that follow sustainable agricultural practices and pay equitable wages, a commitment that unites most of the brands gathered at the Haat.
Sustainable fashion on the rise
Nowhere is this commitment stronger than in the ethos of the fashion brands on display. The Tega Collective, for instance, centers the Indigenous Lambani communities of south India and their tradition of intricate embroidery.
“I was introduced to Adivasi activists in India who said that a lot of their work is mass produced by non-Adivasis,“ said founder Niha Elety who is also a climate activist. “For example, Warli art is all over India, but it’s not actually made by the Warli community.” Working with these communities, Tega Collective brings high quality hand-loomed, naturally dyed fashion to American markets, and funnels 15% of the profits back to the people who made them. Creating a financially sustainable model for indigenous traditions to thrive is a crucial element of the brand’s mission, but creating awareness and recognition for the artisans is just as important.
Similarly, Vinod Muralidhar also founded his brand Pali to promote traditional Indian textile styles, but specifically in menswear. While this is the only exclusive menswear brand at the Haat, the disparity in choice between men’s and women’s wear holds true outside too. “So one of our inspirations to start Pali was to bring these vibrant fabrics that you often see in women’s wear and children’s wear into men’s clothing,” said Murlidhar. He himself was wearing a bright red bandhani shirt, which is a traditional tie-and-dye method from Gujarat. The San Francisco-based brand launched in 2021 and within two years, made it to the New York Fashion Week 2022 as one of the few sustainable menswear brands in the country.
The age of the South Asian founder
Food and fashion aside, the Haat also featured brands like Kula Nursery, a plant nursery that specializes in South Asian herbs and plants; South Asian jewelry brands like Studio Anai, Surmeyi and Goldstories; Neeshi, a brand that makes plant-based treats to treat menstrual cramps; and two children-led brands Ana ‘N Shy and LaJawab Treats. Cumulatively, all the brands featured at the Haat represent a new identity, that of the South Asian founder, capable of starting a business ground up in any industry. And this entrepreneurial spirit extends beyond the Bay Area.
“We are talking about a travel Haat to represent South Asian brands outside of the Bay Area, like Los Angeles, New York, or other places on the East Coast because there is definitely some interest,” said Aslam, when asked about plans for 2024. However, whether the Haat also travels outside of the Bay Area or not, founders Aslam, Goradia and Bhushan are confident that residents can look forward to the Haat returning to the Bay Area next year, potentially in an even bigger event.