Rhea Singhal, Founder and CEO of Ecoware – India’s first and largest sustainable food packaging company – tells us about her move from Pharmacology to environmentally friendly tableware, what she learned from her time at Bristol, and how to confidently follow your passion.
I fell in love with Bristol on my open day at the University. The city had such a nice feel to it, not too large but big enough to be interesting. It was easy to navigate as a student and I always felt at home, which was particularly important, as I was an international student. I made a great bunch of friends at Bristol that I’m still in touch with today.
I had wanted to be a medical doctor since I was very little, but when it came to actually attending university I wavered, and I wasn’t so sure. So instead I chose to study Pharmacology. But I found the degree to be very research based and I personally didn’t like that, I wanted more face-to-face interaction. It was very hard, but I also knew that nothing lasts forever. I was also lucky in that the faculty were always super supportive and honestly felt like family. And I loved all of the societies and extracurriculars that I was part of.
My time at Bristol taught me a valuable lesson – that sometimes there are things you just must do, you must power through, even if you don’t always love it. What you study doesn’t define you. Your life experiences do. There is so much more in life that’s still to happen after you graduate.
In fact, my Pharmacology degree meant that after I graduated I was offered a job at Pfizer in London, where I worked for five years. I absolutely loved it; it was transformational for me. I was in a customer-facing role working on branding and marketing and I learned so much. In 2009 my husband and I moved to India, and Pfizer in India wanted me to have an MBA to work there; my work experience didn’t count. I started studying for the GMAT™ exam for an MBA but I hated it. Instead I chose to become an eco-entrepreneur. The day I was registering my company Ecoware, GlaxoSmithKline called and offered me a job, without the need for an MBA. I turned it down. It was time to carry on going my own way.
I decided to replace single-use plastic food packaging in India with something better for the environment. I was raised primarily in Western society where there is an emphasis on recycling and being environmentally aware, where there are laws and rules enshrining that. That didn’t exist in India when I started my company. There are 1.3 billion people in India, so I just had to start trialling and see how it went. Initially I bought in some products for this trial run, to see how they were received. I ended up supplying the Commonwealth Games! They were our first huge client. In time we had another great success in persuading Indian Railways, the largest food service operator in India, to switch to biodegradables. Now all our packaging is made in India, from agricultural waste products, and is completely biodegradable.
‘Everyone else sees a problem, but an entrepreneur sees an opportunity and a solution. The biggest injustice to the world is not to try.’
Education was key to getting this off the ground in India. No one understood why they should change, and this remains a challenge. Bans on plastic are not always enforced. Also, there are no industry standards for this in India, so we run to global standards. India is a very large nation, so it’s a huge task to change the consumer mindset and help it stick. I go out to schools, businesses and offices giving educational talks about why we should remove single-use plastic. I love it now, but I used to be very shy. But I was recognised for my work by The World Economic Forum and so many things changed. I changed – I had to step into this role to make a difference.
I have 120 employees, 30% of whom are women, and I’m passionate about increasing the role of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) and manufacturing. My company is also working with rural women living in poverty, helping them to go into business with environmentally friendly packaging. Scaling up my company means that I can offer employment and improve livelihoods, as well as helping the environment. We have a 100% renewable circular economy model, with no waste. The agricultural waste that we use to make our products is typically burnt which causes air pollution. So we’re also able to make a reduction in that. And I’m so proud that at the end of each year we can say how much we sold and how much single-use plastic that replaced. Last year alone we replaced 50 million items of single-use plastic with our ecoware. Sustainability and profitability can go hand in hand.
I’m often asked what makes someone an entrepreneur. I think that everyone else sees a problem, but an entrepreneur sees an opportunity and a solution. The biggest injustice is not to try. The world needs solutions and who knows if you can do what you want unless you try? Failure is only failure if you don’t learn from it. Otherwise it’s part of the journey.The highlight of my career so far has been the recognition of my work from the President of India. But you know, I was told that this was not for what I did, but for the huge possibility of what I could still do. And so I go on.
Ecoware supplies eco-friendly products that are 100% natural, biodegradable and easily affordable. Ecoware disrupted the food packaging industry by introducing a fully compostable alternative to plastic and Styrofoam. The packaging is made from the waste of common agricultural crops that would otherwise be burnt in the open to clear farmland. In 2019 Rhea was awarded the Nari Shakti Puraskar, the highest civilian honour for women, by the President of India.