Childhood influences play a crucial role in how one grows up to be or what one eventually ends up doing. For entrepreneur Kalyani Gongi, growing up around a farm left a lasting impression.
“When I was in class 3, my father, an Electrical Engineer, bought farmland near Dundigal, Telangana. He would grow herbs like lemongrass, neem, and tulsi to distill essential oils, explaining their benefits,” says the Hyderabad-based entrepreneur.
Influences from childhood
As an Engineering student, Kalyani assisted him in planting saplings on the farm. Bopanna Nageshwar Rao, her father, refined his knowledge of aromatherapy over time and shared it with his daughter.
So in 2010, when it was time for Kalyani to manage the farm, she embraced the journey.
“My father was still making different blends of essential oils to benefit and heal the body. I started thinking that there is so much to learn what each herb and plant can do. If only we could go back to our roots and the ancient wisdom of our ancestors,” she says.
With this realisation, in 2010, she founded Ancient Living, an organic brand that provides holistic wellness through its range of soaps, face packs, hair oils, massage oils, shampoo bars, blended essential oils, native games among others.
The reason why Kalyani used the term ‘holistic’ is that she believes psychological well-being is as important as physical health. To achieve this, Ancient Living has a range of native games like Ashta Chamma, Puli Meka, Vamana Guntalu, Pachisi, 7 stones among others.
“We always knew that games would be a part of our product range because they bring joy and have a positive impact on the mind. They also bring back memories of childhood or time spent with grandparents,” explains Kalyani.
Ancient Living has a range of 225+ products in five categories — skincare, haircare, aromatherapy and native games, with about 550+ natural ingredients. The ingredients include produce sourced from her father’s farm while 95 per cent of other produce is sourced from organically certified farms.
Moreover, Ancient Living sells at least 30,000+ units of their products each month and even ships abroad to Germany, Australia, the US, Canada, Maldives, and the Middle-east.
Seamless transition from Engineer to Entrepreneur
Although managing her father’s farm may have been a possibility for Kalyani, becoming an entrepreneur was uncharted waters. She passed out with an Electronics Engineering degree from Ramaiah Institute of Technology in Bengaluru.
She soon joined a software company as a programmer in Hyderabad while also taking programming classes for college students at a premier IT education institute. This continued for about seven years and she decided to move to Bengaluru.
In Bengaluru, worked at an IT company but quit a year later to start a playschool-cum-activity centre with few others and named it ‘Prakrit Kids Zone’. At this time, she also pursued a course in Child Psychology from Banjara Academy.
“The course itself was so good, and being with kids was always a joy for me. It made me want to start an activity centre. Here, we focused on science experiments, dance, playing chess and music to understand what kids like,” she explains.
Engaging with kids and exploring their likes and dislikes often took her back to the time she spent with her father on the farm and their experiments. “We would make a mixture of soapnut and shikakai and use it to wash our hair. My father has been distilling essential oils for over 30 years now. He influenced and introduced me to a lot of things,” she says.
This wealth of knowledge ultimately urged Kalyani to start Ancient Living. “My father made me realise that nature has the answer to everything, and one can deeply be connected to it. So, if I am doing something today, I owe it to him,” explains Kalyani.
Kalyani recalls setting up a stall in the initial days. She ended up going to a furniture convention and felt out of place until she sold her first product to a customer who was willing to listen.
“Four days later, we ended up selling products worth Rs 1.25 lakh! It was one of the best affirming experiences. Even now, I tell my team to go and set up a stall there for old times’ sake,” smiles Kalyani.
Solutions from nature
Ancient Living began operations with a factory in 2010. A microbiology lab was set up so that products could be tested for quality. Kalyani started with essential oils because of her background until she could have the right machinery for diverse products.
“Since the beginning, the quality of products was non-negotiable. Every product of Ancient Living reflect ancient wisdom with the right modern technology,” she explains.
Kalyani believed that organic ingredients would keep the soil healthy and contribute to better products. The ingredients are sourced from farmers and naturally dried in a glass house set up in the factory.
From there, they go to the lab where they are tested for quality and moisture levels. Pulverisers powder the ingredients finely and begin the process for ubtans, hair conditioners, anti-dandruff packs, shikakai powder among others. At every stage, the products are tested in the lab.
Handmade soaps are some of the best selling products. Made from ingredients like neroli, lavender, tulsi, kasturi turmeric, multani mitti (Fuller’s Earth), avocado, and neem, there are quite a few to choose from. There are also designer soaps for children in animal shapes, as well as shampoo bars.
Currently, Ancient Living has a repeat customer base of over 8,000. One such individual is Pillanagrovila Sandeep, a Hyderabad-based employee at an IT company, who discovered the brand at a stall in Manjeera Mall about four years ago.
Intrigued by the concept of organic plant-based solutions, he decided to try the Manjistha face wash and a rosewater-based face pack.
“Within three months, I could notice changes in my skin. My skin felt fresh, and seeing the results, I suggested it to my friends and relatives. I have even gifted the products, and I love the fact that they are all-natural and don’t contain chemicals,” says the 29-year-old.
Now, Sandeep and his sisters use the sandalwood face pack, neroli face cream, tooth powder, almond oil from Ancient Living.
Another customer, Bengaluru-based homemaker Pavani Reddy was looking for good quality hair oil when she stumbled upon Ancient Living products. She ended up buying the Ashta Dasa Hair Oil along with a few basil handmade soaps. Gradually, she also tried the protein pack for controlling her hair fall.
“The hair oil and the hair pack have worked wonderfully in controlling my hair fall. My daughter also uses the soap to wash her face, and her acne has reduced considerably. I love the fact that the products are pure and contain no artificial scents,” she smiles.
Challenges and looking ahead
From their humble beginnings in 2010, Ancient Living has come a long way. More than anything, Kalyani believes that her team is one aspect of Ancient Living that she is truly proud of. Currently, there are 70 full-time employees.
“Speaking to customers is a great way to understand their needs and come up with new products. My team has also been integral to this process, and they’ve come up with some brilliant ideas. I feel blessed to have colleagues who are as passionate as me,” expresses Kalyani.
However, no journey is complete without challenges, and Kalyani too had to face her share of battles. At first, they struggled with visibility as they were based out of Hyderabad, but as they set up a website, these concerns eased.
And since running a business was new territory for her, she had to up her game. “In 2012, I was one of the 10,000 women globally to be selected for a business course with proper mentorship at the Indian School of Business (ISB). These experiences taught me operational efficiency and addressing needs,” she says.
From her journey, Kalyani has some advice for other entrepreneurs.
“Only you can believe in yourself. Once you show results, people will start noticing you. Your passion and purpose should be strong, and nothing should take you away from it. When you make business decisions, do not get emotional because a lot of people are involved, and you must remain true to your organisation’s core values. Never stop learning and always be ready to enhance your skills because there is something to learn from every person,” she says.
Now, there are a lot of exciting things in the pipeline. The savvy entrepreneur has navigated through the pandemic to come up with timely solutions. They have come up with a refreshing spray made from essential oils of tulsi, basil, and eucalyptus that comes with a cloth mask. The choice of the blend is based on how these herbs facilitate freshness and ease breathing through the mask.
Another offering is to utilise the remains of handmade soaps to make mini soap balls. “The idea is that you take one soap ball and use it for a one-time hand wash. This way, you avoid contact with soap bars or hand wash pumps,” she says.
Additionally, they are also developing new games and improvising old ones. Kalyani informs that they were approached by an old-age home who wanted them to demonstrate the Ancient Living board games. The objective was to use the games for residents who had Alzheimer’s or dementia.
“I want people to realise that it is possible to lead an alternative lifestyle. And, I want them to think of us when making a healthy change,” she says. Kalyani adds that Ancient Living wants to provide quality and efficiency for anyone who looks to them for a solution not only in India but from anywhere across the world.
*An entrepreneur you admire.
Ans: Anand Mahindra
*New tech that can transform the future of small businesses
Ans: Digitisation and online presence
*One value that can help small businesses thrive
*Your favourite book
Ans: Becoming by Michelle Obama
*In my free time, I ____…
Ans: always try to learn something new. Currently, I am learning how to paint
* Before this interview, I was ____…
Ans: doing research online
* A message for your past self about small businesses
Ans: Learn and unlearn
*Something they don’t teach in college but is important to run a business
Ans: Persistence that needs to be developed over time.
*Best advice you ever got is ____…
Ans: that entrepreneurship is like pedaling, and the minute you stop, the journey also comes to a halt. Also, it is important to do your best everyday.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)