Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
Sana Javeri Kadri was born and raised in Mumbai, India and currently lives in Oakland, California. As a third generation Mumbaikar, Sana wanted to bring better flavors – flavors of home and a taste of her culture – to people’s kitchens.
Five years later, Diaspora Co. is growing and thriving as a company that puts money, equity and power into the best regenerative spice farms across South Asia and brings wildly delicious flavors to the U.S. and beyond.
Tell me about how Diaspora Co. was created.
SJK: “My intention was always: how can I bring more delicious flavors to people's kitchens? That small dream, which involved being a solo entrepreneur and hauling bags of turmeric from one side of the ocean to the other, has become a business that focuses on bringing all kinds of flavors from all over South Asia to a different context.
Diaspora Co. is committed to honoring the incredible, regenerative farmers in bringing their products to our customers as quickly and as thoughtfully as possible, while still telling their stories to the best of our ability. We aim to be really equitable translators – we're taking somebody else's story, their work and their harvest, and we're sharing that with a culturally different community in the U.S. and beyond. We’re also committed to educating the consumer on the most delicious ways to use our products – how to incorporate those products into their rituals and their cooking in ways that are rooted in origin, but also inventive, innovative, exciting and new.
We now have an incredible team of 15, and my job has essentially become: weaving everybody together to make sure everyone's doing their best work, living their best lives, and figuring out how you grow a company that's ultimately rooted in regenerative agriculture, in a way that’s equitable, thoughtful and true to my values.”
Are you a big foodie? Where did this idea of sharing flavors originally come from?
SJK: “I've worked in the food industry since I was 16. I was always trying to figure out where in the industry I fit in. I was the kid that my dad was hiding fish from at the dining table because he thought: I paid for that, I worked hard for that, I don't want my four year old to be all eating the expensive fish, right? As an adult, I'm an avid home cook – it’s how I center myself, but also how I share love and show care. So, building a brand for and by home cooks has been at the heart of what we do. We're really just a bunch of dorky cooks who are trying to figure out how to make a dinner as tasty as possible.
In terms of what led me here: I studied food systems and visual art in college. Part of my thesis during my senior year, which was really corny thinking about it now, was turning an elevator into a chai stall. I wanted to take this idea of learning about food culture, food histories, food politics, and find a vessel that held all of those things. For my 20s, that vessel has been a spice company. And as we grow, the vessel will grow too. We’ll continue to think along the lines of: what are the symbols that we're using to tell stories around cuisine, communities, and people?”
Tell me more about how you maintain sustainable production and ethical manufacturing.
SJK: “It's really simple: if we don't think something is the best on the market, we don't want it. I would've liked to launch chai five years ago, but we launched our Masala Chai ($15) last October because that was the point at which I felt like we had the most incredible sources for each spice.
Our chai masala has six spices in it, from 40 different farms. Those six spices took four years to source. There were points at which we could’ve taken shortcuts, but we constantly reiterated: our job within this industry is to set the standard. If it's coming from us, it's the most delicious out there. And that has really paid off, which means that people deeply trust us.
When it comes to how we choose our partners: we only work with real champions of regenerative agriculture and land stewardship, ones that directly align with our values. We're trying to be the gold standard for what the spice trade can be and what our ancestors deserve.”
What do you hope that the people who engage with your company will take away from it?
SJK: “Other than upgrading the hell out of their cooking?! I hope it makes you think more carefully about where everything comes from and who grew it. I want to use Diaspora to open people's eyes to the food system, to make us think better. But you have to be in a place, financially, where you have the bandwidth to think about that kind of thing. I'm fully aware that that work as it currently stands only serves a certain privileged community.
More generally, it’s about sharing culture and creating an archive for South Asian culture, in all of its complexity, nuanced depth, rather than merely being about representation, which feels so surface level. We want a lot more than that for our community. And we struggle with that all the time. I said to my team this morning: ‘We want to dismantle white supremacy single handedly, but we also work within capitalism, so there's limits.’
It’s hard for a lot of people, both internally and externally, to sit with that tension of being a queer, woman of color founded business working within capitalism, every single day. There simply aren’t cute, neat ways to tie bows around that, but if we're aware of the places of tension, we can try to push forward in those places.
Just recently, we added a caveat to our sourcing map. We share this map of all the places in South Asia that we source from, but I also keep thinking: is that map reinforcing colonial boundaries and borders that both historically and in the present day, cause a lot of harm? So we’ve just added this acknowledgement on the back of every single map, saying: we will continue to push this map forward to visually represent people, cultures and spaces, in a way that doesn't agree with boundaries. But, these are the confines we're working within right now.”
In what ways has this work allowed you to think critically about your own identity and about the term ‘diaspora’?
SJK: “It's actually helped me reduce my identity, in that I'm really honest about being a bratty Bombay girl. I’m not the representation for all Indians, I barely represent my own city. I think there isn't enough of that in the industry – we're often forced to be the tokens, to represent an entire country and/or culture, and Diaspora Co. has allowed me to realize: this is who I am, this is my identity. It’s limited, and there's a lot of beauty in going deep into that identity, rather than trying to claim a wider one, while still making room for other identities.
Something that’s been so exciting about this brand is questioning: if we're calling ourselves Diaspora Co., who are the people within our diaspora, who are the ones we're not representing, and what about the ones we need to do a better job of serving? And more importantly, as Diaspora Co., how are we better equipped to serve these communities in comparison to the rest of the industry?”
What moves you? Where does your inspiration come from?
SJK: “It's a mix of things. Both of my parents run architectural practices in Mumbai. Architects have this lucky thing of working within development and art; I've always watched my parents negotiate art, textiles, interiors, public & urban planning, city planning, and more. They would bring people from all those worlds to our dining table. That’s what's been exciting to me, to use Diaspora as a vessel for art, textile, culture, food and stories.
We have really only scratched the surface in the storytelling realm, so that continues to excite me – thinking about all the content we can create that hasn't existed before, content that has depth and nuance. At the end of the day, it’s really as simple as: what are our needs as people cooking food of different cultures? We're truly a community-grown, tightly-knit, home cooking, pantry brand. As long as we continue to embrace that, our community will grow exactly in the direction I imagine.”
Want to know more about Diaspora Co.’s organic take on bringing the best flavors to different parts of the world? Discover the brand’s latest products and guidance on how to use them on Diaspora’s website and Instagram. (And try the masala chai recipe for a real taste of South Asia!)
Have a founder you’d like us to interview next? Let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org