BALA SARDA, Founder & CEO, VAHDAM India, has taken India’s finest teas, spices and superfoods to the world under a home-grown label that has been organically endorsed by global icons like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres. Here, he talks of plans to grow the brand, empowering farmers along the way and moving towards a completely plastic-free and carbon-negative footprint in the company’s operations
You belong to a family that has been in the tea business for more than 80 years. How did the idea of VAHDAM and reaching Indian tea to global audiences take shape in your mind when you were just 23?
Even though my family has been in tea for four generations, I never thought I would join the industry. From the outside, it looked like a very boring and commoditized industry. Everybody from India was primarily bulk exporting, and that did not excite me. Only after my undergrad studies did I start researching a few industries and realize the white space for a native Indian brand for the world. India is a magical land of ingredients. It grows 25% of the world's tea produce and also herbs, spices and superfoods like turmeric, moringa, ashwagandha, tulsi, giloy, etc. Turmeric is one of the most trending and high-growth superfoods. India produces 80% of the world's turmeric. But no home-grown Indian brand was actually taking these products global. In 2015, I finally decided to launch VAHDAM India at the age of 23.
From setting up VAHDAM India in 2015, to reaching over 2 million consumers in 130 countries today – what are some of the memorable moments that you can recall through this journey?
There are too many memorable moments, but the ability to take an Indian product global is very exciting and drives all of us at VAHDAM India. The day we started VAHDAM, we knew that if we can build a successful business in this category, we can not only make available India’s finest teas, spices and superfoods to consumers under a home-grown label, but also help empower the farmers here, who will ultimately benefit from a positive macro environment for Indian products. Emails from Indians who have settled abroad, who discover VAHDAM is an Indian brand, are the most heartfelt and motivating. The entire journey has been extremely fulfilling, though there is a long way ahead.
Tell us about your initiatives to make VAHDAM a certified plastic neutral and climate neutral brand. What next on the sustainability front?
VAHDAM India has been deeply committed to ‘People’ and the ‘Planet’ and its motto of business has always been ‘Do good by doing good’. It is one of the first few tea brands to be a certified climate neutral and plastic neutral brand, and these are steps in the right direction as we strive to become a more sustainable and responsible brand. Till the time we are completely plastic-free and carbon-negative in our operations, our endeavour is to offset all the carbon footprint and emissions created by us. While still a growing company, VAHDAM has been keeping up continuous growth as a responsible brand committed to sharing success, and making a difference wherever possible.
As a brand, how did you react to being organically endorsed by global icons like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres? What is your USP compared to many competitors in the same segment today?
Oprah is an inspiration for millions around the globe, a huge chai-lover and one of the biggest philanthropists. We were thrilled and honoured to know that she found her favorite chai blends in the VAHDAM collection. It was super exciting to work with Mariah Carey to launch a custom assortment of VAHDAM to mark the 25th anniversary of Carey’s 1994 holiday album ‘Merry Christmas’ and its record-breaking single, ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’, which has been the most-streamed holiday track for two years running. Being endorsed by icons like Oprah, Ellen, Mariah Carey, were great validation for the brand and of our vision to take India global. It has told us that a good product finds its audience… and this is just validation of quality obsession with our range of teas and superfoods. With respect to the brand's USPs, firstly, VAHDAM is building a home-grown native Indian brand and taking India’s finest teas and superfoods to the world. It is offering an origin-based product with a rich legacy of 85 years in tea and building a high trust factor. Secondly, our supply chain is devoid of any middlemen, right from the farmers in India to consumers in various countries, and this helps us make available a much fresher, higher quality product with strong control over the entire experience. Thirdly, the brand also has a strong social purpose. It is a certified climate and plastic neutral brand and directs 1% of its revenue towards the education of tea growers’ children. It partnered with the decacorn Byju’s and committed access to 1,00,000 academic programmes which are now being distributed to the tea growers’ children, absolutely free. These three strategies have helped us differentiate ourselves from the competition.
Going ahead, what are your plans for VAHDAM India? How do you grow the brand from here?
The pandemic has accelerated our growth, given the shift towards high quality and trusted wellness products, larger adoption of e-commerce globally and a more effective execution capability with a strong leadership team in place. We plan to continue to grow by focusing on three key growth triggers, i.e, going deeper into our current markets (USA, Canada, UK and Germany) and growing our omni-channel distribution, strengthening our presence in new markets like India and diversifying into other relevant product categories.
PASSIONATE AND PERSEVERING
Ask Bala Sarda to describe himself in a couple of words, and he says, “Passionate and persevering.” Outside the realm of work, he is very close to his family. “My father has been a great inspiration, personally. In fact, VAHDAM is an anagram of my father’s first name, MADHAV,” he adds.
ALL ABOUT VAHDAM
VAHDAM India closed FY21 with a net revenue of Rs 159 crore, up from Rs 75 crore in FY20, marking a 110% YoY growth, and it turned profitable. It is targeting Rs 500 crore in revenue in the next three years.
Notably, VAHDAM is the only Indian brand to be featured in Oprah Winfrey’s ‘Favourite Things’ list for two years in a row. Mariah Carey, Martha Stewart, Sarah Jessica Parker, Chris Pratt, amongst others, have of their own endorsed VAHDAM’s products.
VAHDAM offers 100 signature blends spread over 200 SKUs including loose-leaf teas, pyramid-shaped tea bags, gifts, samplers and assortments, turmeric teas, herbal teas, matcha, iced teas, teaware and drinkware.