Shivam Punjya’s story has taken him from an agrarian community of 19,000 people to a studio in New York City where he has led the Behno brand from its inception as a ready-to-wear label to its current iteration – a label that focuses on leather goods and selection of basic tees. Behno describes itself as “the world’s finest, consciously made handbags” and “an honest accessory”. So how did a graduate of Berkeley and Duke studying global health and poverty, while writing a thesis on the maternal health of textile workers, end up becoming the founder of a fashion brand that sells handbags?
Shivam Punjya was born in California into a family of Indian immigrants from Zambia and Gujarat. Punjya’s father and his brother married sisters, and Punjya was raised in a joint-family household – a dynamic that is familiar in many parts of the world, but somewhat rare in 1980s California. When his father first moved there, Tracy was a small agricultural community. Being an immigrant and a physician, he went where he could be useful. His brother and his wife, who Punjya refers to as his second father and mother, followed. He talks effusively about his childhood in California, referring to his “two moms” and recalls that the family shared a small space, “I shared a room – my cousin slept on one side of the bed, my aunt in the middle and I was on the other side. It was just normal for us. We’ve always been a big family.”
His interest in social justice issues arose from his childhood – growing up as the son of a physician, he was aware of his relative privilege in a low-income community. He found himself considering intersectional issues and questioning what he was told while seeing different realities of the lives of those around him. “My fathers grew up poor and while my mothers didn’t in comparison, when they moved to Tracy, they started out with very little. Their immigrant story was very different from mine and mine was very different from the ones I saw around me. Tracy was a predominantly Latino community of farm workers. It forced me to contextualize my own life,” he says and then trails off softly for a moment.
“I’m a really emotional person,” he says with a chuckle and detours into astrology, describing himself as a pure Cancerian, before coming back. “I internalize everything I see. So, when I went to university – first to Berkeley for undergrad and then to Duke for my master’s – I took those sensibilities with me. I wanted to learn more and find out how I could be an ally,” he says.
After Berkeley, he spent eighteen months working for non-profit organizations in India, trying to understand how they worked while also applying for a Master’s program at Duke University. He describes himself as having an entrepreneurial spirit, something he attributes to his family and so, while he was at Duke’s Global Health program, he chose to look into developing a food supplement that was palatable for local communities in India, while also working with remedial policies for the educational system. A few focus groups later, he discovered that the idea of fortified foods was taboo in rural and peri-urban communities, so he started looking at maternal health instead. The change in direction led him to textile workers in Rajasthan, where he did his field work. Over the course of a few months, he lived alongside the weaving community, collecting data, engaging with them and learning about their lifestyles and habits. On his return to Duke to finish his thesis, Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh.
“The Rana Plaza collapse was an emotional moment for me,” he says, “Because we have a lot of family friends in the garment space so I had grown up with that dynamic and dimension in my life. I had just spent months with textile weavers in a place that was so close to where this atrocity had taken place. It took a toll on me because I didn’t know what to do anymore.”
Punjya had been on a path to graduate from Duke and enter the world of consulting. After Rana Plaza, he wasn’t sure anymore. He felt a different calling and after speaking with his fathers, he decided to pursue it by building a factory with a non-profit in India that could showcase what conscious manufacturing could look like. Behno began as a manufacturing standard that was rooted in social justice and named after the colloquial term for “sisters” used across Hindi-speaking India. It also is a subtle nod to Punjya’s mothers, who are sisters, and his own sister, Nirali, who has Down syndrome.
“We built the factory with our non-profit partner, MSA, and created the Behno standard. It was completely bottom up because in international development, top-down policies are almost never successful. I am not a garment worker, I’ve never been a garment worker and I will never know what it’s like to be one. We need them to tell us what they need,” he says.
“We wanted a baseline of standards to implement at the factory level – health, worker mobility, family planning, women’s rights, worker satisfaction and eco-consciousness. We never thought about creating a brand at the time. Once the factory was launched, we started to run into roadblocks – suppliers questioning the quality of the product we would be able to offer. So that’s when we thought about making a product ourselves to show the level of quality we could provide.”
The ready-to-wear market proved to be difficult to penetrate, so Behno made the switch to leather goods, namely handbags. Initially, Punjya was desperate to find leather from tanneries in India, to give them the space to participate in the industry. The tanneries, however, didn’t meet the Behno standards and Punjya’s team had to make the painful decision to look at tanneries outside of India and eventually chose to partner with a factory in Italy.
Behno found success with their formula, with the leather handbags finding their way to the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and the New York Times. Punjya had created a brand that was rooted in conscious manufacturing and ethical entrepreneurship. In 2020, as a global pandemic set in, Behno’s sales started to plummet.
“We wanted to find a way to support our garment and factory workers and also find a product that would suit the lifestyle choices that people were making. The tee-shirt is such a simple, humble product and it also ties us back to our roots when we started out as a ready-to-wear label,” Punjya explains.
The Behno team wanted to avoid cotton, a resource-dependent material, so they partnered with Lenzing to source micro-modal. To further underscore their commitment to conscious manufacturing, Behno partnered with Canopy, an organization that works “collaboratively to transform unsustainable supply chains, catalyze innovative solutions and keep the world’s vital forests standing.”
“The tee-shirt is a part of almost everyone’s wardrobe and yet, it unknowingly has such a high carbon footprint. About twenty hands have touched that tee-shirt before it reaches a consumer. We felt that it was a really important way to showcase an ethical supply chain,” Punjya says.
When he first launched Behno, Punjya would shy away from speaking about the Behno standards because he didn’t want it to be seen as a marketing play.
“I wanted it to be just the way we did business. But then people who were looking for better brands to shop with didn’t know where to go – so that’s when we started talking about it more. Consumers should be able to shop for what they want without thinking about the ethics – but it’s not how things work at the moment. So, I wanted Behno to be a place where people can shop for a simple tee-shirt or a beautifully made leather handbag knowing that they are buying a product that has been made ethically.”
Shivam Punjya’s journey has taken him from the halls of Duke to a factory near Vadodara, and now Nashik to tanneries in Italy and back to Behno’s studio in Manhattan. Ultimately, it is the story of an Indian-American entrepreneur who was determined to demonstrate that a fashion brand with beautiful aesthetics can also have conscious and ethical supply chains.