After leaving Michigan, Tribalfare boutique owner plots her next steps – The Indian SCENE

After leaving Michigan, Tribalfare boutique owner plots her next steps

Though her Clawson storefront has closed, Ojas Akolkar is still committed to supporting artisans and fostering community.

(David Lewinski/SEEN)
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Ojas Akolkar, 46, the entrepreneur behind Tribalfare has moved a lot. Her husband’s work has taken her all over the country, and globe — from Michigan to Florida, China to Mexico. But that hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her dream, curating a different kind of artisanal shopping experience. In fact, every time she has moved her business has only grown and evolved, incorporating pieces of the places she has lived.

Tribalfare is Akolkar’s life mission in action. It’s a by-appointment shopping experience for hand crafted and artisanal goods from around the world. Akolkar travels personally to meet with the artisans, watching their process in action, getting to know the craft and the stories behind it. She brings these back to share with others, in a one-on-one shopping experience that is rooted in connection, mindfulness, and cultural awareness.

“In functionality is where you see the products,” said Akolkar who was inspired by the homes of the artisans she has visited. During those experiences, she saw that the textiles and jewelry also  served a purpose — for example, the pottery that an artisan might craft is also what the food or tea was served in, the textiles they wove were what bread was wrapped in.

Handcrafted Moroccan and Mexican pottery at House of Tribalfare. (Photo: Juan Carlos Perez/Courtesy of Tribalfare)

“That feeling of walking into a space and seeing these products, as more than something beautiful, made me feel like home,” said Akolkar, a first-generation immigrant to the United States who finds herself gravitating toward places that remind her of home.

And so, last November, Akolkar launched the House of Tribalfare in Michigan, the first storefront that was all her own. When you stepped inside, it felt like a different world, or many different worlds. Akolkar greeted guests with a smile, sometimes a cup of tea, in what could double as someone’s actual home. But everything was also for sale. The living room couch featured cushions block printed in India or handwoven in Mexico. The bedroom upstairs was home to a Moroccan wedding quilt. A large closet area held scarves, kurtas, and handbags with intricately woven work from different artisans, many of whom Akolkar has personally visited and gotten to know.

But soon after, Akolkar had to close as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. By the time businesses began re-opening in May, her husband had a major job change, and her family relocated to Florida.

Last November, Akolkar launched the House of Tribalfare in Clawson. (Photo: Juan Carlos Perez/Courtesy of Tribalfare)

“I’m staying positive,” said Akolkar, who is being patient and taking this time to reflect on what the next phase of Tribalfare will look like. And her customers are at the center of it. “I take my customer relationships very seriously, I’m invested in you and what you are looking for. When I’m traveling or sourcing, you are on my mind.”

She has thought about hosting retreats, immersion experiences and shopping appointments at her own home, in an intimate and peaceful setting. One thing she hopes to bring back is a trip she was able to lead, before the pandemic worsened.

In early February 2020, Akolkar took a group to India to attend a textile workshop for the first time. She, along with Caitlin Garcia-Ahern from Thread Caravan, co-hosted this trip to help those interested learn more about the process of block printing, an ages old craft still practiced in Jaipur, India. Over the course of ten days, the group met with local artisans, carved their own blocks to engage in the process, and learned Jaipur’s history through visits to old forts and palaces.

“It’s a way to understand how much goes into making the blocks — the amount of skill to place the design, carve out the design, clean it out, condition it on oil,” said Akolkar. “These are the things that when we are purchasing textiles as consumers we don’t think about; we just look at the price tag and that’s it.”

Akolkar prioritizes spending time with the artisans, understanding how they are surviving and learning the intricate details of their craft. She pays a fair wage for all of her products, something that aligns with her mission to honor their craft.

“They are so humble in spite of being so talented,” said Akolkar. She travels at least once a year to stock up inventory for Tribalfare. So far she has collected unique pieces from China, India, Mexico, Guatemala, and Morocco.

And, the pieces are one-of-a-kind. Akolkar doesn’t set out to fill a quota. Rather, she collects as many pieces as the artisan has made.

“Enjoy the process of purchasing for yourself or gifting to someone,” said Akolkar. For her it is about helping people find things they might connect with. “I have this idea of needing less but investing in good quality pieces that will last for a long time.”

Formerly a dental hygienist, Akolkar found an opportunity to dive into a new passion after life moved her to the other side of the world. Her husband received an expat work assignment for two years in Tianjin, China. While she lived abroad with him, she started hosting small pop-ups at her home. She would invite people over and share some of the artisanal work she had grown up hearing about from her mom in Mumbai, India. She received such an overwhelming response from people who were interested in her vision that she knew she had landed on something special.

“It made me feel so proud of my culture,” says Akolkar. “And I was providing sustenance to an artisan in India.”

She also realized how much she loved retail.

“I love meeting people and talking to people,” said Akolkar who reiterates that the goal of Tribalfare is to connect with people first. “It made me feel like this is what I’m supposed to do.”

When she got back to the United States, she started hosting more pop-ups, all the while continuing her work as a dental hygienist. But the spark had been ignited, and Akolkar didn’t feel like she could just go back to her old life. So, in 2015 she transitioned full-time to Tribalfare.

Akolkar gives Gov. Gretchen Whitmer a tour of Tribalfare’s now-closed Clawson storefront. (Photo: Juan Carlos Perez/Courtesy of Tribalfare)

“When you are a first gen [immigrant], you have to be the one stepping out of your comfort zone,” says Akolkar.

She got in touch with individuals at Build Institute, a Detroit-based program that helps entrepreneurs turn their business ideas into reality. She also was one of five entrepreneurs to win an award at the Retail Boot Camp Pitch competition held by TechTown Detroit, a small business incubator.

In addition to traveling around the world to hand pick products for her brand, Akolkar has designed some of her own. She launched her IDM line, which is “Inspired by India, Designed in Detroit, and Made in Mexico.”

The seeds for the IDM necklaces were planted when Akolkar was living in China. At this time, Akolkar observed the nuances and beauty of written script, and after seeing the meticulous process of drafting Chinese characters she wanted to create something similar that drew from a culture she had grown up in. She wanted to experiment with Sanskrit writing.

So she made some doodles in a sketchbook and then set them aside. When she moved to Detroit and started building out her pop-up business she revisited those sketches, and along with her husband she worked on an initial prototype for a necklace that would read “namaste.”

Then as destiny would have it, Akolkar moved again. This time her husband’s work took him to Saltillo, Mexico. One day as Akolkar was exploring the local markets around her new home, she walked into a silversmith’s shop and connected with the owner’s son.

“In my broken Spanish and his broken English, we communicated,” says Akolkar. “He had so much energy and was so proud of his heritage.”

She had found someone who mirrored the vision she saw for Tribalfare. Together they ended up collaborating to design necklace pieces reflecting the vision Akolkar had for Sanskrit script.

They designed five pieces each showcasing a different word: namaste, ahimsa, santanan, tathastu, and nirvana.

“[The] goal is not to sell, it is to connect,” said Akolkar. “The feeling I get when a customer engages with me — asking about the textile process — is extremely rewarding.”

Hand-carved wood blocks from India at House of Tribalfare. (Photo: Juan Carlos Perez/Courtesy of Tribalfare)

Akolkar was inspired to name her company Tribalfare because she’s always been fascinated by how people band together to support one another. She saw that loyalty of being a tribe in the artisans she was speaking to.

“Those who are creating these crafts are never alone,” said Akolkar. “There is a constant state of community.” She wanted to find that community of her own.

She also hopes more individuals from the South Asian community will check out the work she pours her heart into.

“It’s not an easy ride when you are a first gen immigrant and blending cultures, you have really strong roots where you come from and stronger branches where you are,” said Akolkar. The pandemic has forced her to reflect, and she’s found a lot to be grateful for. “I feel blessed to be in the situation I am in right now. But I want to be there for my family, and also be true to myself. That’s the next phase for Tribalfare.”

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