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Lara Sengupta is the founder and owner of CorkYogis, a right corker of a social enterprise. Situated just off the renowned Lordship Lane in East Dulwich, they make and sell as the name would suggest – yoga mats made out of cork.

Woman on a yoga mat with her arms stretched out

CorkYogis does more than this though – they are also on a mission to use yoga to empower women in the developing world working with sex slavery survivors in Kolkata, India.

Yoga has been Lara’s passion for six years, which led to her desire to find the perfect yoga mat. This was discovered whilst doing paddleboard yoga in Canada. Lara saw that the mats on top of the paddleboards were made out of cork and thus water resistant. An idea was hatched – Lara wanted to see how cork could be used for regular yoga mats, realising it was a versatile and far better material than the ones used for gym/yoga mats.

Lara did some research and found that the quality of existing yoga mats was a big issue for yoga practitioners, with bad grip, and ‘unhygienic’ and ‘unnatural’ being some of the typical complaints made of existing mats. This further incentivised Lara with her idea, cork providing a great grip. Cork’s grip increases when wet so when you’re working out during yoga the mat’s grip increases. Cork also has the same natural temperature as the human body, which means it feels very comfortable under foot. Furthermore, the mats are also naturally anti-bacterial due to cork’s impermeable surface, so they don’t absorb smells and bacteria.

CorkYogis mat

After her grandmother’s death she wanted to find a way of donating her grandmother’s many saris to a charity in her hometown of Kolkata. After meeting several charities she visited Destiny, a charity that helps rescue young girls and women from a life of forced prostitution and sex slavery. Sex slavery is a growing problem in India. Poor families often sell their daughters and sisters for a lump sum to help feed the rest of the family. Some of these girls are as young as 12 years old. With the help of the police, Destiny raids illegal brothels and rescues girls and young women. Once rescued, Destiny houses them, feeds them and teaches them skills to seek alternative employment. The charity is funded from products the girls make from donated saris.

Lara found that they were so grateful for the donation but she wanted to do more. Yoga has always been a love of hers and Lara knows how much it helps and empowers women in the west. She wanted to combine her yoga passion with her desire to help empower women in India and improve their quality of life.

This is when Lara came up with the idea of pairing a new, environmentally friendly, super-grip yoga mat – together with the handmade yoga mat bags made by Destiny’s women. So CorkYogis was born!

CorkYogis has a ‘One for One’ business model with every yoga mat sold, one girl learns a skill; and with every bag sold, a week’s wages is provided for one girl. CorkYogis supports two educational courses; literacy, numeracy and sewing (teaching the girls to make bags and clothes).

Lara’s product also stands out from other yoga companies out there with its eco credentials, with the mats being made from cork harvested sustainably from the bark of oak trees in Portugal. The bags are also made from recycled saris.

CorkYogis mats and bags

They have already received a host of favourable reviews including one from which describes the mats as “very solid and durable. It is probably the sturdiest mat I’ve practiced on.”

Business is going swimmingly, with the current possibility of more investment going into CorkYogis. This will allow Lara to go full-time into the business and to get a full team behind her. Lara is looking at establishing the brand’s online presence further and getting more contracts with wholesalers. Lara is also looking at partnerships with gyms and studios – as well as supplying self-teaching and workout yoga apps for mobile devices and tablets.

Lara has been teaching herself about business and social enterprise by attending as many seminars and workshops as possible to realise these plans. This has been supplemented by Lara making the most out of the mentoring supplied by Start Up Loans, describing her mentor as “a great person to boost self-confidence in the early stages of the business and to also bounce ideas off.”

Lara’s dream is to conquer the colossal yoga market of the U.S, Canada and also Latin America, proving that cork is not something which should just be bottled up. She would also like to develop other giving partners, supporting many women’s charities in India.

Published on 23 February 2017

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