Nand Kishore Chaudhary from Jaipur Rugs on love, collective consciousness and self-management

Ep. 57


Nand Kishore Chaudhary is the remarkable founder of Jaipur Rugs, a company employing 40,000 weavers in 600 villages selling beautiful carpets in 40 countries. The artisans – most of them women in India’s “untouchable” class – are the “heroes of the business”, and self-managed principles like distributed decision making have long been a hallmark of the company. We talk about how N. K. Chaudhary has created a “business ashram”, where people find their clarity of purpose and gain higher consciousness, as well as his thoughts on humble leadership and how Jaipur Rugs will evolve self-management further.


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Lisa Gill: Mr. Chaudhary, thank you so much for coming on the Leadermorphosis podcast I'm really looking forward to hearing about Jaipur Rugs and the amazing work you've been doing. So I thought we could start with, perhaps for people listening who don't know anything about you and your company, what do you think are the key pieces of information for people to know what makes Jaipur Rugs special?

NK Chaudhary: Jaipur Rugs is connected with 40,000 artesans in 600 villages in India, and all these women are working from their own home. We work with them to change their mindset and bring heart to heart connection with each other. The carpet industry is one of the most unorganised sectors and is still largely dependent on contractors. At Jaipur Rugs, we have developed direct connection with weavers by eliminating the middleman so that benefits can be directly reached to the artesans. C.K. Prahalad in his case study said "Jaipur Rugs is connecting the poorest of the poorest to the richest of the richest, by enhancing the capability at the grassroots." I often say that we don't sell carpets. We sell family blessings. We sell stories. We sell experiences. When our customer buys our carpets, he gets the blessing of our artisans and our artisans receive back the healing which comes from the customer happiness and demand. And this completes the circle. Jaipur Rugs is known as a healing organisation, working to bring human transformation and dignity at the grassroots.

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Lisa Gill: I've read about Jaipur Rugs that love is quite a key part of your vision and how you work. What does love mean to you in the context of your business?

NK Chaudhary: For me love means that if I allow myself, it starts overflowing and reaches the others, but my experience is it will only overflow if you love yourself.

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Lisa Gill: One of the things that I read about Jaipur Rugs that was interesting to me, on the topic of being quite a special organisation, I think not just in India, but anywhere in the world... I really liked this idea I read about which is called the Higher School of Unlearning. Can you tell us about what that is?

NK Chaudhary: When all my five children joined the business, the business started growing like a wildfire. To support the rapid growth of the business I had to hire experienced professionals but all that put me upside down. I learned that knowledge is power. But too much knowledge and knowledge gained without practice doubles ego. Practitioners sometime get their skills without having the knowledge to break the ego of our professionals. I started a learning initiative, which we named Higher School of Unlearning. We made the professionals work with our older, uneducated people in different departments to develop a deep understanding of the business processes. I also took the challenge to teach them the basic fundamentals to manage the business and people like ours, which they never learned in schools and colleges. We also worked on the philosophy, 'finding yourself through losing yourself'. The more I lose myself, the more I find myself. Learning, unlearning and relearning is a continuous process and it brings the childlike innocence, which is important for the business to follow this in an organic manner.

Lisa Gill: Yeah, thank you for sharing. I think so many organisations out there, when they hire people who have come from business school or traditional education or other companies, it's really difficult for them to adapt to a different way of working, which, as you say, involves unlearning. So I just love that you have this school of unlearning, that the first thing they do is they go, and they experience firsthand what it's like to be among the weavers and to see, you know, where the value is really created firsthand. So I think that's really interesting. Is it challenging for people to do that? Like, is it unusual? Or did people find it valuable pretty quickly?

NK Chaudhary: It depends on the people. There are so many people who have got the fixed mindset. And it is very difficult to make them realise. But I think as I told you the people who are like the child while innocent, then they take my advice and start working on that.

Lisa Gill: I really like this idea of going back to childlike innocence and curiosity and openness. So I'm curious, Mr. Chaudhary, because from the beginning, I know that Jaipur Rugs was quite a radical organisation. And I think in the beginning, perhaps many people might have thought you were crazy for starting a business in this way. And now you're entering into a new phase, as I understand it, where you're talking to people like Frederic Laloux, Doug Kirkpatrick, Miki Kashtan, and you're really interested in taking it to the next level in terms of self-management. And really kind of decentralising. What is important to you about learning more about this and helping the organisation evolve in that way?

NK Chaudhary: The problem started when I established the head office in 1999 in Jaipur. People in the head office did not have the understanding about people, processes, and products. At the grassroots, self-management was already there. But at the head office, everyone went for a command and control approach. Nobody understood the importance of the frontline and everyone tried to undermine them. Because of this, we started losing the focus and simplicity in our business. When I started realising this issue, we started seeking help from people. In 2016, I met with senior consulting partners from Bain and Company, who helped me in implementing founder mentality in our business. They made me realised that the frontline is the king. The frontline is the hero of the business. And the frontline pays a salary to the professionals. If there is no representation, and voices of the frontline in your boardroom, then you are creating a death bed for your company. To further bring speed and scale, we needed to bring simplicity and focus in our business. For this, I started researching and came across self-management principles and then I found: this is my way.

Lisa Gill: What are you finding are the biggest challenges in terms of this ambition to be self-managing? Clearly you see an alignment there between what your ambitions are for the company and self-management. What has been most challenging so far in trying to start to implement that?

NK Chaudhary: There are two major challenges, from my own experience, in implementing self-management. The first is: how to create a core team of professionals who are naturally naturally inclined towards self-management and can then further become the ambassadors of the same in our organisation. The second is: to create the right and relevant training programme to bring a mindset change in the whole organisation. So now we are seeking help from people around the world who have already implemented self-management across their organisations.

Lisa Gill: I know that when you and I spoke before you shared that. And you just mentioned there again, as well, that one of the challenges is in the head office, and you've learned a few lessons I think about hiring people and realising that perhaps the mindset change isn't possible or that they're too ingrained. So as you grow as an organisation, how do you think you can keep alive this culture? As new people come in, how can you keep the culture sustained? And keep this respect for, as you say, this idea that the frontline is king?

NK Chaudhary: To begin with in 2017, I had an intuition and called my staff from the HR department. I told them that from today, we are going to change the name of our HR department. We renamed it to 'Search for the divine soul'. We decided that we shall only hire people who are highly sensible and purpose-driven. People who don't require to be managed, people with empathy, creativity, and who are driven by love, passion and not by fear. To develop respect for the weavers, there are many initiatives where we are bringing our professionals and weavers together. One such initiative is called 'Sensing Journey', a rural immersion programme, where new joiners go to the home of weavers in the villages and live with them and be with them and help them in their work. This brings in a lot of love and empathy which results in a heart to heart connection with each other. We are also working to create a rite of passage, Harvard Professionals, making them go through the same experiences, much like we did in early times.

Lisa Gill: Thank you. I know that you're familiar with the company Yash Pakka and I've spoken to Ved Krishna there and a lot of people have said to me that self-management isn't possible in countries like India, where there's a strong hierarchical culture. I'm curious, what do you think about that? What is your take? Is that true? Is that a myth?

NK Chaudhary: Hypocrisy is the biggest problem in our country, which I had to face from the very beginning. I never understood, how can a person be different at home, different at work, when they are the same in this world? For India, I see this is an opportunity. In ancient times, we had many highly conscious people and sages in our land. The religiousness of the East and the scientific approach of the West, if this comes together, will give birth to a new humanity. India as a country is a huge talent goldmine, and to harness this enormous potential, self-management would be the key. The youth of new India is highly passionate and all they need is love, direction, and freedom.

Lisa Gill: So it sounds like what you're saying is that there's great potential in India and a uniting of some of the ideas, some of the spirituality, perhaps of the East with the more scientific approaches of the West, could really make a powerful combination. And if you can tap into this younger generation that's coming through in India... In general, it sounds like what you're saying is: human beings in general have this potential to be more conscious, to be more human, that we don't have to separate who I am at work so much from who I am with my family and so on. Is that what you're saying?

NK Chaudhary: Yes, you are right.

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Lisa Gill: I'm curious, Mr. Chaudhary, because when I've had conversations with you, and I've read articles, you come across as such a presence, you have this real warmth and love that emanates from you in terms of your leadership. And it strikes me that you have this very clear vision of of how this organisation should be, but also how life should be. So you have this remarkable vision, but also humility. I think that you really see the potential and the best in everyone. So I'm curious to learn a little bit more about these philosophies that you feel passionate about. Where did these come from? How has your view of leadership been shaped?

NK Chaudhary: Leadership is a journey, leaders are not selected. They are not nominated. Leaders transpire and they emerge. They rise up in times of hardships when others stay seated. Leadership is not an occupation. It is not a job. Leadership is a passion. And actually, it is a calling. In 1990 when I was about to move to Gujarat, to work with the tribal community, everybody in my community told me that tribals are not very welcoming to outsiders. If they don't like you, they can harm you badly. But one of my friends suggested to me that tribals are innocent people, and they have been exploited by the outsiders. So if you treat them with love, they will become your most loyal force. So I decided to move to Gujarat, where I stayed for eight years. In this period, I had the opportunity to train and develop a network of about 15,000 tribal women in the art of rug weaving. Initially, I faced challenges working with them. But I knew that love, empathy and respect could make the relationship much easier. In just a matter of three or four years they started to respect me as a guide. It was then I realised that innocence and authenticity is the key for my leadership.

Lisa Gill: That's a really interesting story. It seems like even before you had that realisation, that somehow you had this unconditional love as a philosophy, where did that come from? Have you had that since childhood?

NK Chaudhary: Yes, if I remember, I had this in childhood. But I think in the last ten years, when people started visiting our weavers and when they started talking about the Jaipur Rugs business model, then I realised, for the first time in my life, that I'm driven by love.

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Lisa Gill: I'm wondering what is on the horizon for Jaipur Rugs now? What do you see as the next steps for continuing to realise this vision? I know there's a book that you were part of, Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid about shifting things by looking at improving the lives of people at the bottom of the pyramid, so to speak, and Jaipur Rugs has been incredibly successful as a result of this very deep, love-driven mission. So what's next, what would you like to see happening?

NK Chaudhary: My future vision for Jaipur Rugs is to create the best artisan proposition on earth, where each and every ones of our artisans will become an artist and be connected with the world of design. This shall allow the artisan to get a greater share of the wealth they produce. Furthermore, I see Jaipur Rugs as a platform of connecting the end consumer with the artisan, so that they can both emotionally connect with each other. This shall lead to the utmost level of dignity of our artisans and will lead to a further stage of co-creation. In 2019, Raj Sisodia in his book 'The Healing Organisation' published a case study on Jaipur Rugs about the power of innocence. I believe that innocence could be the future of the business. Innocent people, just like children have the power to see and understand things others can't. And this will transform the business around the world. Jaipur Rugs has become a business ashram, a place for the people to find their clarity of purpose and to gain higher consciousness.

Lisa Gill: Wow, it's inspiring stuff. I'm wondering if you could share a story or two perhaps of some examples of some of the weavers or the employees in Jaipur Rugs whose lives have been transformed. Or some examples that to you are inspiring or are treasured in terms of what you're striving for.

NK Chaudhary: There are thousands of examples with our weavers. When our customers and people from so many countries go to meet them they never could have imagined that through this Jaipur Rugs weaving, they are so happy. And they feel so dignified and they get so much confidence. I want to share a story with you. One day I was sitting in my office and I got a phone call from one of our villages. And the lady said "I'm a Harvard professor, and I'm in your village and I'm so impressed with what Jaipur Rugs has done with these viewers. So I want to meet you." And then she came to my office and she told me "I've been coming to India for the last ten years to bring empathy into to all the big and great hospitals in India and we are doing research on how to bring empathy and compassion [to interactions] with the patients. But what I have seen in your village, this is the perfect example of empathy and compassion. And I'm very sorry to say that we missed it. We tried very hard, but we were not able to make it happen. So we want to learn from you."

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Lisa Gill: I'm wondering if you've ever been challenged by people from more traditional organisations, for example, who say, "Well, Mr. Chaudhary, all of this love and compassion stuff sounds lovely. But what about business results? Does this really make a difference? And do I really have time to be doing all of this?" What do you say to people who are sceptical about the difference that this mindset makes?

NK Chaudhary: I want to tell you one thing that since I started with this business... I've been in this business for the last 42 years, and for 30 years of my life, everybody was telling me the same thing, that "Mr. Chaudhary uou are a very good person, but a very, very bad businessman. You talk always about love, empathy and that doesn't work in business. But the growth I see in my business in the last 12 years is a surprise to the whole world. And I think it is a global phenomenon when our customers, and people go to see our weavers. When they see their happiness and when they see all these people are driven by the love. And they also see it makes perfect business sense. Because Jaipur Rugs loves them and they are paying back to the customer. We gave all our weavers strict criteria: zero defects, 100% on-time delivery, and zero waste. And I'm happy to say that all our weavers are taking care of all these criteria and that is why our customer is so happy. And that is why our brand is such a luxurious brand. People love to buy the Jaipur Rug carpets due to this philosophy. So I think love makes perfect business sense to satisfy the customer needs.

Lisa Gill: Yeah, it must give you some satisfaction now that there's proof, right? So what advice would you give to people who are listening? Who, like you, are interested in introducing self-management principles to fulfil the purpose of their organisation even more strongly? What advice would you give them in terms of what you're learning so far?

NK Chaudhary: Find yourself through losing yourself. Because the more you lose yourself, the more you will find yourself. The problem is not outside, but inside. And it begins with you. Second, people need love, direction and freedom. Self-management is about empowering the frontline and the doers. We must not forget that they are the heroes and kings of the business.

Lisa Gill: For you has it always been easy? I mean, what has your journey been with losing yourself in order to find yourself? Have you had painful moments as a leader and noticing your own blind spots or pitfalls? What has your journey been like?

NK Chaudhary: I'm driven by the three things. The first is unconsciousness. And the second is the desires. And the third is the ego. And I also found that it is impacting my decisions. And I also found that I'm driven by habits. And then I started working on my own consciousness. So one thing is to reflect on what I did yesterday due to my habits. Either I was reactive or responsive. And slowly, slowly I found that I was getting more consciousness and now I'm happy to say that I have developed a level of consciousness where I can see what I do. So now I have more power to choose. Now I am a good listener. And I became more responsive. And it changed my behaviour so much, that it became easier for me to bring the results into my organisation through my own behaviour.

Lisa Gill: I think this is something that I'm learning more and more that if we really want everyone to flourish and create an environment based on self-management principles, it's not going to happen by chance. And it's not going to happen only by introducing new structures. But it's so much about intention and habits. And like you say, being really conscious and self-aware of how am I showing up? How am I NOT doing the things that I want to be doing? And just continuing to practice until as you say, you develop those new muscles like listening, like being able to let go of ego.

NK Chaudhary: Because what I found, Lisa, is that the iceberg is the biggest problem, because what we see, what we hear, what we listen to, is only 10 to 15%. And 80% is hidden in the iceberg. I also went to see Otto Scharmer in Boston, and learned about Theory U and then I started working on my own iceberg. And that changed me a lot. Because what I found was that whatever we do, we work very hard but generally we don't get the results. But when I started working on my own iceberg, I found that results don't come by working hard. Results only come from what you were thinking when you were working.

Lisa Gill: I so enjoy talking to you, because you just you just come out with these wonderful phrases as if you're channelling them from somewhere. [Laughing] It's really quite profound. So what what else do you think is important for for listeners to learn? When you're telling the Jaipur Rugs story to people, and other people are interested in having these results for themselves, what for you is really important?

NK Chaudhary: I think the problem starts when we create our own identity, as a manager, as a CEO, as the owner of a company. Then we mix two things together, we mix our identity with our role. Our role is separate and our identity is separate. So when we develop our identity, we don't want to lose that. And we are driven by fear. And so it impacts our role. So my suggestion, and my advice is not to create that identity, only focus on the role. When we mix them together, it makes things more complicated. And when we are driven by losing our identity, we are driven by fear. So it really impacts our decision-making and then we are not able to take the right decisions.

Lisa Gill: Yeah, I really agree with you there actually, that's a very clear way of putting it: to separate identity and role. Because I think that's what many people are afraid of, as you say, to sort of let go of having ultimate power, to let go of being the hero, if you're the CEO is scary and feels like a loss for people sometimes I think. But if you keep role and identity separate, it doesn't have to be a loss.

NK Chaudhary: And I think it comes from the inferiority complex, because when we are driven by the inferiority complex, we want to fill the gap and the gap is filled by having that identity. Identity means having a false image of yourself.

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Lisa Gill: Yeah. I'm curious what else you've learned because I'm sure many people listening are perhaps even envious that you've spoken to some of my big heroes like Frederic Laloux and Doug and Miki, you mentioned what you've learned from Otto Scharmer, for example. Are there other key lessons that you've learned so far about self-management that you think would be useful to share?

NK Chaudhary: I think when I meet all these great, great people, I see they are highly conscious people. And the world is moving towards consciousness. What I learned from them is how everybody can realise that when we are driven by the unconscious, this is in autopilot mode. So how to break the autopilot mode by bringing the consciousness, by bringing that mindfulness. And we can only create the new future when we are mindful. So I think consciousness will be the way to bring that self-management. The more conscious the leaders, the more consciousness, self-awareness [there will be in the] staff - it will make a difference. Because the future lies in the present. So the more we are conscious about the present, [the more] we are creating a future.

Lisa Gill: That's a good way of putting it. Are you noticing that there's more interest? You said you think the world is moving towards greater consciousness. Are you optimistic that more organisations will go in this direction? Or do you see it still as quite a small percentage?

NK Chaudhary: I think, Lisa, that my experience says that in the past organisations were driven by the muscles, and at present, organisations are driven by the brain. But future organisations will be driven by the heart. I would like to tell some of the stories, which I'm realising. I do so many webinars in the best colleges of India. Last week, I had two webinars with IIT, IAM, they are the best colleges in India. And when I was talking about my life journey, and when I was talking about this love and consciousness, I found that most of the students, they chased me so badly. This is the first time at college, the first time in their life where somebody is giving them the right direction. They not only asked me questions, they started bombarding me with questions! So I always see that thirst.

And I also want to tell you that after COVID, in the last five months, I have taken on more than 50 people who are searching for the direction of their life, searching for the purpose of their life. And I'm getting more and more requests from candidates who are searching for consciousness. And I also feel that, now the whole world has made the mistakes of command and control and suppression. So what I see is that this is the only way. People have to come one day. I want to give you an example. We have a very good relationship with Bain, with their senior partners. And last year, they sent me a report. The report says that research says that out of three big companies in the world, two companies will be closed down or will be merged with other companies. So the research says that bureaucracy is the biggest problem and the only companies that will survive are those who will go towards self-management. So this is proved by the research.

Lisa Gill: That's good to know. It's touching to hear that students are both sort of surprised because it's so unfamiliar to them to hear you speaking in this way. But I'm happy that they're interested. I get excited about the fact that if they hadn't met you, they might perhaps go quite a while before ever experiencing that kind of perspective. And I really think we need to reinvent education, as well as our organisations because they go hand in hand. So it's good to know that you're spreading these messages into into these top schools as well.

NK Chaudhary: And also, I'm choosing new candidates very carefully. And I tell them beforehand that you need not to come across that reality, you have to develop the understanding about people, process and product, then your career is safe. So I have seen from the last two, three years, that students are not only listening to me, but they are choosing that path.

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Lisa Gill: Good. I really hope one day that I can come and visit because it seems to me that one of the best ways to see the magic of Jaipur Rugs is to go and visit one of the villages and to see the weavers and the artisans in action.

NK Chaudhary: Our weavers need you in India. Spend a week with all our weavers, so they can hear from you about the importance of what they are doing, and how these things are going global, and how it will create a new future.

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Lisa Gill: So in in starting to conclude our conversation, is there anything else you'd like to share with listeners?

NK Chaudhary: I'm really happy that when I started this business 42 years ago, the purpose of starting this business was: to know myself, who am I? And I thought I did not need to go to a temple or to the Himalayas to practice religion, I will know through my actions, I will know through my decisions. And now at this age, and at this stage, I'm happy that realising yourself, finding yourself, knowing yourself really makes a big, big difference. That difference which Jaipur Rugs is creating. And that difference, which I see in myself, is a great satisfaction for me. If somebody asked me, "Mr. Chaudhary, you have earned a name, you have earned so much money, what is your next step?" I will only answer: to lose myself. Because the more I lose my identity, the more I'll be a satisfied person. I can create a difference in the life of my people. So I'm very happy that the time has come. And so many people are talking about self-management. I'm really happy to see that.

Lisa Gill: Do you feel like you will be able to pass on this legacy after you're gone? Do you think there's a strong enough culture in Jaipur Rugs that it can survive and flourish even without you?

NK Chaudhary: Yes, I want to tell you: yesterday when I was outside Jaipur, and I was going home at 10 o'clock, I get a phone call from one of my staff members. And I was afraid – why is he calling me at 10pm? And I became a little bit anxious. But I answered late, and in the morning again he called me. And I asked him "Why are you calling, what is the problem?" And he says "I'm searching the purpose of my life. And somebody died in my family. So for the last 10 days, I've been realising that what you are talking about in business is true. So I'm surrendering my whole life to Jaipur Rugs to make it happen." So there are more and more and more people realising these things. And very soon we are in a position to create a community of these people. And then we will be able to bring the collective consciousness and they will run the business and they will keep alive this philosophy.

Lisa Gill: That's powerful. It strikes me actually that that's a much more long lasting approach than trying to teach people structures or processes. You know this piece you say about identity and knowing yourself and losing yourself in order to find yourself, that if you can spread that amongst people, that is so much more powerful, I think. Long lasting.

NK Chaudhary: Yes.

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Lisa Gill: Well, that feels like a good place to stop, perhaps. A big message and a beautiful message. So thank you so much for sharing your time with me and having this conversation. I really, really enjoy talking to you and the wisdom that you share.

NK Chaudhary: Thank you very much. I also enjoyed it very much.

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