Boca Business Helps Artisans From India

By Marcia Heroux Pounds
Sun Sentinel.

As a family, the Mehtas of Boca Raton would often travel to India and bring back crafts from local artisans.

But enjoying the crafts, which are made with ancient techniques in danger of disappearing, was not enough.

“I felt we should do something about it,” said Sonali Mehta-Roa, now 26, who in 2010 co-founded Mela Artisans with her father, medical-device entrepreneur Navroze Mehta.

The Boca Raton-based company sells artisans’ goods in the U.S., Europe and South America, while reinvesting in the artisan communities.

Mela Artisans designs jewelry and home decor that is crafted by the artisans and then distributes the goods to stores including Bloomingdale’s in Boca Raton and Aventura and Neiman Marcus in Boca Raton and Palm Beach. It also sells them directly to consumers online at

Products include picture frames and bowls made from buffalo bone, gold, silver and gem jewelry, silk pillow covers, cashmere shawls, embroidered bags and handcrafted trays, coasters, place mats and runners. Prices vary from around $25 to hundreds of dollars.

The company devotes 1 percent of its revenues to help sustain the artisan communities. One recent project provided safety equipment for artisans working with dust-intensive bone.

Mela’s business model so impressed Aavishkaar, a Mumbai, India-based venture and private equity group, that it earlier this year invested $3 million in the company. The funds are helping Mela reach out to a wider range of artisan communities in India.

The company said it has generated enough direct income for artisans to support more than 800 individuals working full-time for two months. Those artisans typically contribute more than 50 percent of the household income.

“We’re helping them generate income so they can decide their own future,” Mehta-Roa said.

Last year, the company partnered with New York City designer DiPali Patwa, who is both familiar with the artisan techniques in India and has worked for American designers including Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart.

Patwa leads a team of designers who keep on top of the trends and give the artisans design concepts. The artisans then use the techniques they know to fulfill those designs.

CEO Navroze Mehta said that combination results in a style that is contemporary while maintaining tradition.

Mehta said the private company has tripled its sales — now in the millions — since its start in 2010. Mela Artisans works with 50 groups across 10 states in India that employ 4,500 full-time artisans, of which 77 percent are women.

Every item sold comes with tag, some hand-painted, that tells a story about the artisans. The company also blogs stories about the artisans, their craft and community on its website.

“We want to give voice to our artisans,” said Kirsten Gilbert, who heads marketing and sales.

Mehta-Rao grew up in Boca Raton but spent summers in India visiting her grandmother and working for an organization that helped low-income people.

While in the U.S., Sonali said she got tired of seeing crafts from India marketed “with a sad picture of a child.”

Besides high-end retailers, the company’s crafts are sold on specialty goods websites including

Fort Lauderdale resident Theresa Hickler has purchased silk and cotton pillows, silver jewelry and a handcrafted tray from Mela. “They’re more unique than anything you can find shopping around,” she said.

Mela’s give-back philosophy also makes a difference to her. “You know you’re helping keep their traditions alive,” she said.
Mehta has started many South Florida medical and technology businesses including NovaVision, Dermdex, and Boca Research.

But he gets particular pleasure from working with his daughter on Mela.

While it was essential for Mela to have an operation in Manhattan, the design center of America, Mehta said he will maintain Boca Raton as the company’s home because of the team he has built.

“Get talented people who know more than you” is Mehta’s advice for any start-up.

Mela Artisans will hold a sample sale from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Dec. 4 at its headquarters, 131 NW 13th St., Suite 39, Boca Raton.

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