Naqiyah from India, founder of ethical jewellery brand Kashka
Naqiyah Sultan, from India, was an MA History of Art student at SOAS in London when she had the idea of starting her own business.
Her young company, Kashka, is focused on ethical jewellery – jewellery that’s made of sustainably mined metals and precious stones – and it works as a launch pad for budding jewellery artists. Naqiyah’s aim is to create a business that sells an art form with a positive message.
Tell us about your studies at SOAS…
'I’ve always wanted to go to SOAS, and when I applied there to do my Master’s they suggested I apply to do a diploma in East Asian art first, to see if I was interested enough for the MA. I thought, "Why not?" and I started at SOAS back in 2008. I took some time off, came back and continued it between 2009-2010.
'I then interned at Sotheby’s (the auction house), moved to Bombay and worked there for two years. I thought, "You know what, you don’t have any major commitments, so why don’t you finish your MA?" so I finished it in 2013 as I combined it with work. I still have a day job and also work on Kashka – my entrepreneurial project.'
How did your degree help you?
'I definitely gained writing skills. I’m Indian and sometimes my English writing doesn’t make sense. When I went back to Bombay for two years and came back, I suddenly realised I needed to tidy up my writing. My professors helped me with structure, and that comes into place when I’m writing e-mails for my business or even putting proposals into place – it seems trivial, but it is really important.
'My speaking and vocabulary in English also improved! SOAS is great; you get to be your own person in a such a varied school. At SOAS, everyone is aware and conscious of their actions. When I was talking to the university’s entrepreneurial hub about Kashka, being an ethical brand was something they really understood.'
Where has your inspiration come from?
'I’m Indian but I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, and my entire academic background has been British – in Saudi we went to a British international school and my academic qualifications have been British. I can’t speak for anywhere else, but I think there is no better place to start than Britain. I’ve experienced so much diversity – having studied anthropology and east Asian art, it’s a lot of diversity in ten years of academia. I’m trying to bring all these influences together in my Kashka adventure.'
Who helped you at university?
'The professors from my MA have been really encouraging, saying it is wonderful to see how far our students are going outside of academia. The entrepreneurial team have also been amazing. There are moments when I panic and I e-mail them, and they’re very calm and reply with great advice. We’re a nice friendly community of entrepreneurs at SOAS.
'When my MA was coming to a close I thought, "What do I do now?" – I always knew I wanted to open up my business, but I didn’t think I would do it aged 29. I remember hearing about this graduate entrepreneur scheme and being really arrogant and thinking, "I’m not going to apply for this – I don’t need this" and six weeks later I was the most eager person, applying like crazy!
'I’m also really happy in London and not ready to leave; I really prefer working in London. I had to overcome some setbacks – the panel at SOAS rejected my first business plan. They told me to resubmit the business plan but I don’t think they were convinced until they met me. This is where the beauty of SOAS comes through, as their personal stories really add a lot of value to their ventures.'
How is the business doing now?
'I have a day job but I have been very lucky that I can take calls for Kashka at work. I’ve been working on branding and now I’m waiting for my products, which are currently being manufactured – they should be ready at the end of this month, just in time for the Christmas markets!
'I’m specialising in baby jewellery, which is an upward trend in London – more and more families are offering jewellery to young children. The whole collection is coming from fairly mined silver. The other aspect is for women who like dainty earrings and small necklaces.'
What were the biggest struggles?
'I didn’t realise I needed to be a licensee holder to buy the raw materials and use fairly mined silver. It can be a very long process. Dealing with banks was also an interesting process, but I have an ethical banking account – it was very difficult to set up, but is worth it so that the whole company is sitting on really ethical footing.'
How do you make sure the material you use is ethical?
'I meet companies at trade shows and according to what my budget is, they recommend which company is best for my needs. The people I have met along the way have been great – even companies I can’t afford have been supportive and told me to keep in touch. I have also used an online tool for networking, Meetup.com, which has various groups for different cities, and a lot of entrepreneur groups.'
What are your ambitions for the future?
'I hope Kashka takes off as a brand, but also as a lifestyle choice! My pricing is mid-market or a bit lower – around £50-80 for a pair of earrings. I want to teach people that ethical can be done, and it can be done cheaply.
'It’s all well and good to say, "Why don’t I donate money to a charity?", but if I can help someone with something as basic as sanitation – for example, for women who use the same bowl to feed their children that they take to work, which is a massive killer in mining environments where there are mercury traces – then I can be satisfied. People think that if it is glamorous and associated with luxury, then it should be trustworthy, which isn’t always the case.
'I want to create a fun and accessible brand where the objects become keepsakes, especially for young children – they are the future, and if they can start off having an ethical piece of jewellery rather than the alternative, then I can be proud of what I am doing.'