BY SAMIRA SOOD
Next up in our series on conscious businesses, we talk to Kanwaljit Singh, a consumer brand investor with decades of experience. The Founder and Managing Partner of Fireside Ventures, a major investor in consumer brands (including Slurrp Farm), Kanwaljit has seen this space grow right from when he was handpicked via campus placements by Hindustan Lever.
From there, he moved to Intel and then investing with the Carlyle Group and Helion Ventures, before eventually setting up Fireside. But for him, investing is not about hitting a few big sixes and making a quick exit. It’s about nurturing a conscious entrepreneurial community. Bullish on socially and environmentally conscious brands before they became trendy, he is clear that conscious businesses are going to become not just the norm, but a requirement. Here are some excerpts from our chat.
When and how did you get interested in investing, and what made you change track from marketing? And what drew you to the conscious approach to business?
It’s been more than 20 years now. There was no Aha! moment per se, but when I was head of marketing at Intel, we were right at the turn of the millennium, and we were caught up in the excitement of the internet and how it was going to change lives. Being at Intel, one had an inside view of the progress in that space. I started thinking about whether I should actually start something of my own or join a startup. I spent a lot of time evaluating ideas, thinking about what would inspire me enough to turn entrepreneur, but nothing really stood out. Also, we couldn’t forecast all the ways in which the internet would change lives, and what was possible. So I went into the VC side of things — working with entrepreneurs. That was an area of interest — engaging with startups. Funding was more the via media to get into that world.
ESG and the conscious approach have always been at the back of my mind. That desire to look for the bigger good, that’s part of who I am and what I believe in. And it’s something my family is involved in as well — my wife is the chair of Pratham Books. My daughter works in the climate action space. After her post-grad in environment management, she joined a climate initiative, a policy grant matchmaking organisation that brings billionaire funders and interesting projects together. She has just turned entrepreneur and is launching a seaweed-based nutrition company — it’s the superfood of the era right now! So their interests have also shaped my interest in these areas.
A lot of these terms – ESG, conscious capitalism, CSR – are used interchangeably. How do you see each of them and how they play off each other?
Honestly, I don’t have that kind of distinction in my head. Our aim here is to be part of a brand ecosystem that not only does well but also does good. That then takes away these artificial definitions. We aren’t doing this to check some boxes, and no one has asked us to do it. We believe that tomorrow, this will become important, and we hope it does — everyone should be careful and responsible. Our agenda is about linking all these areas — environment, society, governance — and looking for practical solutions to problems in them.
What drew you to consumer brands, and why do you think children’s brands are becoming such a large part of that pie?
To your first question: my job at Hindustan Lever. There was no better place to learn about consumer brand marketing. The fact that brands today are getting built in a completely different paradigm is a new twist, but my fundamental love for consumer brands came from there.
Coming to children’s brands — a number of societal factors have contributed to the growth of that sector. One, the construct of family has changed — from joint to nuclear, both parents working or single parents. And as awareness grows, you look for better alternatives for your child. We grew up differently, with generations handing down nuskhas in joint families: my mom would have learnt from hers, who would have been advised by hers. Today, many parents are all by themselves, plus they’re extremely aware of what’s happening in the rest of the world.
Economically, too, the country has done well over the last decade, and most middle-class people have higher disposable incomes. And with both parents earning comes the ability to spend more on your child. So, less children, more money, plus access to products, together trigger a certain behaviour. Parents don’t mind paying a little extra so that their kid has the best of what’s out there. I would even argue there might be a little bit of guilt — for leaving the child at home with a nanny or grandparents.
Do you think that when customers are looking at a brand, they also look at its values and whether they align with their own?
Absolutely, directionally that is happening. The exciting thing about young brands is the chance to tell not just the brand’s story, but also the story behind the brand, which, very often, is the founders’ story. For example, Slurrp Farm’s catchphrase, Made by 2 Mothers, is part of who your brand is. That is a claim that a Unilever can’t make. They can talk about product and innovation, but they can’t talk about the soul of the brand. But then you live by the same sword.
And it’s great to see brands and founders being held accountable. Today, Ola’s Bhavish Aggarwal and Zomato’s Deepinder Goyal are celebrities. But then they have to live by that code they espouse. And that’s where social media plays such a huge role. The fact that today people can raise your voice and actually influence a brand’s business — more power to them. Of course, there are mischief mongers on social media as well, with vested interests — you have to figure out a way to navigate that. But that’s one negative against a lot of positives.
So, how a brand does that, how it tells its story, is what sets it apart. It’s not just that Slurrp Farm is selling me a millet dosa batter. That’s a great idea, but tomorrow any brand can copy that. You have to give me a belief system, a feeling of trust. I have to feel like Slurrp Farm is my friend and I would trust it over anything else from some soulless factory. All other factors being equal, the consumer will choose the brand with the right soul, message, and emotional connect.
Also, it will soon become a regulatory requirement — that expectation of certain behaviours from every business, every brand. And that will be governed by society and by law. In a sense, it is inevitable. So you can do it as a box to tick off, or as a service, or an ethos. The thing is, once you start realising the correlation between these policies, it improves your business, too. So there’s no choice. Everyone will have to do it — the difference lies in how they do it.
What role do/can investors play in taking forward the conscious approach of the brands in their portfolio?
An aspect internal to us is our own filter of what kind of company we want to work with. Then, we want to encourage our companies to be more conscious of some aspects, and find a way to exchange best practices among them. For example, how Slurrp Farm is building its narrative — working with millet farmers, promoting a certain standard of food for children — can be a great learning experience for another of our brands, too. So we want to build a community that can learn and grow together. And third, we will try and take on some projects to drive these aims at our end. Right now, we are now finalising a new hire, a chief of staff, whose job will be to drive the ESG and community agenda. So our commitment is to putting our money where our mouth is in every way.
See, we want to help find solutions for some of these problems that are universal, so our companies can also move their agenda forward. The obvious one in our CPG industry is the use of plastic, especially single use. Our companies might try to address this, but realistically, it is tough for it to be their priority. But then it’s for Fireside to say: Look, we have 25 or so companies — how can we help them? Can we talk to people who’d be interesting potential partners to find solutions, so we can help the whole ecosystem? That’s what’s exciting for us, not doing a policing job with a checklist.
So what do you look for in a potential investment?
We will not compromise on the basics: what space the company is working in, whether it’s exciting and sustainable over time, how good the founders are and how we can work with them. The test will be how firmly we stand our ground on the conscious approach — like, what if there’s a great company on these fronts, with a great founder, but it has no sensitivity to ESG and conscious aspects? What is our cutoff beyond which we won’t go? We are very new to this so we have not had this experience yet and can’t really say. Simple, obvious things are easy to call out and to avoid, like no child labour in factories. But because most of our companies don’t even produce their offerings themselves, the question is how tough to be on their third-party outsourcing partners.
Another key area for me is gender equity. I am personally extremely committed to having more women in investing, in our portfolio, and I’ve been accused of being parochial for it! It’s not that we would choose a brand because it’s woman-led, but all other things being equal, yes, I would like to back that company. 50 percent of my portfolio has women founders. Now of course, people can argue that there is a greater propensity to have female founders in the consumer brand space than in tech, but I see it as a glass that’s half full. I am solving a certain problem in my own way, I am happy and celebrating this ratio.
Right now, as you know, we are doing a kind of retrofitting with the brands in our portfolio, with a major ESG-related questionnaire to see where they are on certain fronts. It’s not an exam to pass – it’s just to see how we go forward from here. But in the future, we do want to use that as a filter. I can say confidently 60-70 percent of our entrepreneurs not only believe in a conscious approach, they are doing things around it.
You talked about climate action — do you think young people today can collectively mitigate the effects of the climate crisis? And how do you see the role of social media in this?
Oh I get a lot of positive energy from entrepreneurs, not just in our portfolio and not just on climate change.
And yes, I certainly believe the current generation can make a difference. Collective consciousness is really starting to manifest itself, and social media is becoming a very powerful tool. A strong voice got built against the actions of the Trump administration, so hopefully things will get back on track.
In India, too, where biodiversity-rich areas are under threat, there’s a lot of protest now, loud protest. Aside from the Gretas of the world, who are fighting vehemently for the environment, you’re starting to see many more prominent voices here as well, like in Bollywood. Dia Mirza is the first name you think of now in this space – she’s made a brand for herself, which is good. It’s an opportunity to genuinely influence outcomes. And the situation has most definitely reached crisis point.
A lot of these ideas about a conscious approach to business are correct and good things to say, but how do you realistically embed these practices? Have there been any companies that haven’t been too open to ESG principles, and with which you hit a roadblock?
I don’t think we’ve dug enough to give you a good answer for that. But I can tell you about the positive side: there have been so many examples of companies who keep coming to us with the kind of initiatives they’re doing, all by themselves. Like, Mamaearth has a policy that for every product you buy, they will plant a tree in your name. And they’ve tied up with an environmental organisation to maintain and water the saplings, but they send the customer a message or email showing the tree that was planted, its geolocation, all of that.
The founder, Varun, was recently talking to me about going deeper into Tier-2 cities. They were doing consumer focus groups where they were showing them concepts. And this tree planting came up and the response was so overwhelming – people said “Agar aap aisa kar rahe ho toh hum yehi khareedenge” [If you’re doing this, we will buy this product only]. See, everyone recognises there is a problem. And some might dismiss this as marketing – I say, sure, this is great marketing, but why is that bad if the brand has meanwhile planted 50,000 trees?
Another of our brands, Vahdam Teas, just got board approval to put 2 percent of their topline (not even the CSR model of 2 percent of profits, but 2 percent of revenue) towards education of the teapickers’ children.
Since you got into investing, what fundamental shifts have you seen in the business world, especially in the Indian context?
I think Y2K was a big marker for India, because our IT industry shot into the global limelight and that led to a whole chain of infrastructure development — telecom, BPOs, IT services — so a roadmap got established. I think India has always been able to leapfrog infrastructure. For example, we started doing online banking way before many more developed countries, at least at scale – because we had no branch infrastructure! So people leapfrogged to using ATMs and digital banking. That leapfrogging has been to India’s advantage. We have a huge talented, educated workforce, and the minute you give them an infrastructure, the ability to apply their skills, and marry the two, you see some wonderful stuff coming out of that.
The other dramatic positive has been the story of India’s consumption. The economy has grown, and consumption in India itself has become a theme. Unilever, ITC – these are all mega, mega companies. There’s also been great success with online disruption in the education sector – and Covid will be another gamechanger. It is the biggest precursor to us going 100 percent digital, and will completely change how we live our lives.
Speaking of Covid, where do you think businesses will go from here, especially in the (hopefully soon) post-pandemic world?
I do believe we’ll turn out to be a kinder world. But there’s not enough evidence so far, it’s only anecdotal. Like, our companies went to distribute food etc during the migrant crisis, but at a micro level. But I do believe that not just businesses, even governments will have to acknowledge this pandemic is something that can’t be allowed to be repeated.