An Interview with Sukhdev Hansra

Tell us about yourself – family background, personal story, education, and previous professional capacities.

I am a British Indian. My father and grandfather came to England in the 1960’s, as my grandfather was part of the British Army. At that time, being in the British army allowed families to resettle in the UK. We are a close knit family. I have one brother, who is married and has three boys (the oldest of whom is in university). My family all live in one family house in Reading, England. I still have a room there too.

Unlike my family, I decided to live and work in various places in the world. I wanted to see more of the world than Reading or the UK. I have lived and worked in the US, Dubai and England predominantly, but have also had short stints in Colombia (travelling) and Lithuania (working for the UNHCR and teaching English).

My parents have no formal education (not even high school). My father is the oldest of three, and my mother was the oldest girl in her family (2 boys, 4 girls). As such, and in keeping with India at that time (and even now), they had to help with family work. My father worked on the farm and my mother looked after her younger siblings. My father came to England at the age of 16 with GBP 3, no English and no education. Through hard graft he taught himself mathematics that would help him run a business, English and reading to a rudimentary level (though he still can’t write). After a number of labourer jobs, he started his first shop, and from there he went on to be quite successful as an entrepreneur.

I tell the above story because I also wanted to be an entrepreneur, but in a different way. As my father never had an education, he valued it higher than anything else. He wanted to make sure I had an education. My father was also quite strict. I did well in school, and then went on to get my first degree, a Bachelors in Computer Science focusing on Artificial Intelligence from Aston University in Birmingham. I thought I was going to be a neural network engineer at the time, but that never materialized.

I took a year off to go live and work in Lithuania. During that time I planned out what my next 10 years should be: complete my year abroad, Masters (1 year), and then work in several 2 year stints to gain the skills I needed. So I worked as an IT consultant in London and Boston and with projects in Tokyo (2 years), strategy consultant in London and with projects in Paris (3 years), MBA (2 years) and then in finance in investment banking in New York and London (actually 3.5 years). You can see that some of the jobs were longer than the 2 years I envisaged. This gave me a grounding in how to organize and run companies, as I had a good understanding of IT and ops, marketing, and finance.

During this time, I tried to volunteer my time to worthy causes. I used to work as the finance director at Yaa Asantewaa in London, a black arts charity, for 2 years, and at Junior Achievements in New York giving classes on everyday living. When I moved to Dubai, volunteering became very difficult due to the restrictions on good causes and foundations, so I decided with my business partner at Isthmus (Javier Cervino) to start up social impact projects instead (see below).

Along the way, I have helped to start-up a number of companies, both as a partner, and as a consultant for others. The most prominent is a finance consulting company, Isthmus Partners, which is a corporate finance company that has been operational since Feb, 2009 in Dubai.

I have also helped to started up The Carbone Clinic (see below), which has been a major part of the last 3 years for me. Chanzez is a startup that I have been working on for the last year, which is in its initial phases.

Sukhdev Hansra trusted clothes interview

As stated above, along the way I picked up a degree in Computer Science from Aston University, a Masters (ADMIS) from the London School of Economics, my MBA from Columbia business school in NY (majoring in finance and economics, and entrepreneurship), and my CFA.

On the personal side, I live and work in Dubai currently, and am married to Marina.

What is the importance of ethical fashion?

First, we need to ensure we are speaking the same language. For us ethical fashion is clothing that is produced with labour that is provided appropriate working conditions, paid fairly and are managed assuming the dignity of workers. This is our main focus, and sustainability is a longer term objective.

This is important on a human level. I think everyone can agree with that, but many are happy to turn a blind eye, as it is too difficult and entrenched as a problem for any one individual to think they can help. On a business level, this is important too. It reduces staff churn, increases productivity and helps service levels. This is not simple academic babble – we see it in the project we run.

Ethical labour standards is the first thing we look for in each of our social impact projects, and we grow out from there, as you will see in how our clinic operates (see below).

What is the importance of sustainable fashion?

Sukhdev Hansra trusted clothes interview

For us sustainable fashion is production, use and disposal of clothing in a way that will have the least impact on the Earth.

As sustainable fashion impacts so many people (through purchases and production), but also the earth (through the whole lifecycle of growing fibre such as cotton through to production with the use of chemicals through to disposal of clothing) it is an industry that needs a more sustainable production cycle. It is not even a question to ask why, but how and when can we help.

We are new to the sector, so we are still learning how to ensure sustainability. Essentially, we are focusing on one small part of the production cycle, but hope to vertically integrate over time, so we can be responsible for the whole cycle for our products. How that happens will evolve over time. We are realistic about the learning cycle for us, as well as for the market and production.

Our current focus will be to purchase organic material, and not use chemicals in the process of cutting, sewing and packaging. We are still working through our supply chains, so this will be our first aim. Later, we will look at weaving and growth of cotton itself, but this is a longer term goal.

You work with start-up companies that have social impact. What companies?

Our main success story has been The Carbone Clinic in Dubai. This is a clinic for children with autism. We helped start this clinic because we saw the need (in the autism field), and the poor way in which services were provided in the region (no regulation, few qualified staff, and many clinics that operate purely as a money making scheme).

We are not a charity, a strictly for-profit company, an NGO or a non-for-profit company. We are a hybrid. We operate like a for-profit company. Therefore, we are as efficient as possible. We are competitive on market rates, salaries, and compete with everyone else in the market. The difference is what we do with the profit.

The majority of the profit goes towards raising awareness of autism, paying for services where parents of children cannot afford services (on a means tested basis), and helping to influence government policy (through trying to regulate Applied Behaviour Analysis correctly, as a treatment for autism). With this method, we are never in a position of continuously asking for money, as we generate funds with which to run our social impact programmes. The minority of the profit is used to pay shareholders, as we do need to attract investment.

We also ensure internally that we run well provisioned staff. That means a lot of investment in training. As well as all the normal training employees should expect from a clinic, we also fund Masters programmes, the cost to become board certified, etc. We do this with our administration staff also so our accountants become chartered, our IT staff upskill in new technologies, etc. Our staff also get real progression opportunities through promotion once they show they have aptitude for the next level and have taken advantage of the training we provide.

This mix of running like a pure for-profit company, having a social impact project funded by the profit and ensuring our staff are treated properly is evident in all our projects. We find that it helps both improve productivity and reduce churn of staff. People who work with us stay, grow, and ultimately make our services better. Over three years, the clinic has gone from a startup to being one of (if not the) most prominent autism clinics in the MENA region.

We also work with startups as consultants that want to make a social impact. For instance, we helped to finance Talah Board, a wood board production company that produces OSB board from palm tree waste (the fronds that are chopped off). 95% of this waste is either incinerated or dumped into landfills. Talah Board will be able to take at least 20% initially of this waste to produce new wood board that can be used for multiple purposes, predominantly in concrete form work to start with in the development of new buildings.

We are also involved in the due diligence and financing of new bio fuel companies.

Why those companies with social impact?

We are looking to start social impact projects in a number of sectors. The important thing is to find markets that are large and where the impact is wide reaching. Healthcare, education, textile production, farming, and energy are all sectors that we would be interested in.

Your recent venture is Chanzez. What is Chanzez?

Chanzez is a clothing production company, which aims to initially produce ethically, and then look at more sustainable practices across the lifecycle of its clothing production. We expect people to want fashion, rather than need fashion. We aim to fill this gap in the mass market. So we are not looking to be high fashion or to produce eclectic designs. We aim to fulfil the staple clothing functions, with designs that are contemporary and appeal to the masses. This means t-shirts (to start), jeans, button down shirts, etc. We will look to produce for men (first batch), women and children.

We are looking to produce on a mass scale, so we can sell at fair prices. Though our production costs will be higher, we aim to be profitable by reducing other costs such as marketing spend. We also are looking to make less in profit, but enough to attract investors.

What other work are you involved in at this point in time?

See above

What meaning or personal fulfillment does this work bring for you?

That is a complex question. I firmly believe this type of work is a duty. I have the skills I have because an immigrant moved to an unfamiliar country where he had no money, could not speak the language and could not get a job that would pay him fairly. That immigrant’s hard work gave me my education. I could use it to gain just for myself: I work in finance (which is a dirty word in many circles), which pays well. Why spend the time to do start social impact projects?

A couple of things:

1)      It would be unfair to all those that were born into a country of no opportunity and whose parents did not have the chance my parents had (what little chance that was) for me to use my skills purely for personal gain. Using the skills I have learnt for only a fraction of my time to help start social impact projects is not really that taxing on me.

2)      I am fortunate. I like what I do. I don’t have a 9-5 job. Some people would find my job tedious and boring, but I like finance, economics, and negotiating contracts. I enjoy organizing, working through organizational structures and process charts. I like working with people and helping to train them. So I don’t see the work as a chore.

3)      I used to think that I needed A, B and C to be happy. Over time I have realized that it is not A, B and C that makes a person happy, but the pursuit of A, B and C. It is the desire to get up and have purpose. Achieving A, B or C ends the journey. Ends are never as good as beginnings or the middle (I find). Also, I start thinking of A, B and C as less necessary.

With regard to organizations/companies, and so on, like Trusted Clothes and Chanzez, what’s the importance of them to you?

I think there should be more organisations out there like Trusted Clothes and Chanzez. Once there is a critical mass of such organisations, they will have a greater say in how things are done. What matters in this world is the power wielded by companies that have the ear of consumers. That may be unfortunate, but in the large part true. So once companies that produce ethical and sustainable products have enough of a market share, suddenly things will start to change. For that to happen, ethically minded companies and organisations need to appeal to the masses, not by preaching, but by just doing. Create the products people want regardless of how they are made. Make them sustainable and ethically in the background. People don’t really want to know how they are made, and don’t really care. Making the products people want is what is important. Companies should produce them ethically regardless.

So the importance of these companies is not as individual organisations, but as a market share. It doesn’t matter they do not relate, or even if they compete against each other. The point is that they have to become a larger piece of the overall pie.

Thank you for your time, Sukhdev.

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About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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