To be queer is to imagine and create a future that’s happier and safer for all. A future brimming with promise, hope, and radical community-building. A future where authentic connections foster mutual care, curiosity, and trust. From the ways that we redefine families to gender explorations expressed through creative outlets, queerness can bleed into every aspect of our existence. Sometimes, this feels like innate behavior; other times, we must actively choose to align our actions with this overarching queer philosophy. However, what happens when our ability to do so is impeded by the systems we’re bound to function in? How can we continue to center queer values while operating a business in a capitalist system—one that exacerbates inequitable systems?
For the team behind Diaspora Co, this means prioritizing sustainability, transparency, and accountability. Founded in 2017 by Sana Javeri Kadri (she/her) with just 1 spice, the global business now sources 30 single-origin spices from 150 farms across India and Sri Lanka, and says it serves around 150,000 people. But this business growth isn’t a product of exploitation. By establishing mutual respect, the organization centers people, champions a more sustainable future, and challenges historic ideals of professionalism and productivity.
European competition for control over the spice trade played a huge role in driving the colonial conquest of the Indian subcontinent by England, France, and the Netherlands, creating complex and unethical supply chains. Four centuries later, challenging these supply chains is easier said than done. Javeri Kadri explains that Diaspora Co’s business model was born out of a desire to restructure the spice trade, ensuring that farmers receive fair pay in the first instance.
“Queerness is about equity, liberation, and making sure that we all feel free. That ties in perfectly with wanting to build equitable supply chains,” she says. “The spice trade, as we know it, sucks. It’s stale. It’s unjust. It was built by white colonizers. [I thought:] oh, currently it takes 5 to 7 years for spices to get from the farm to the customer. Why? Let’s blow that up. Let’s talk to the farmer and figure out how to get there faster.”
“A lot of what I was dreaming up was thinking of it as an art project—or, if we could rebuild this in the most hopeful, delightful way possible, what would it look like?”
Diaspora Co partners with small, multi-generational family farms, paying them on average 4 times the commodity price and more than 3 times the Fairtrade price (2021 Impact Report). Operating a 3-step supply model, taking 6 to 12 months, the business aims to dismantle the system in which farmers have “no agency or control over the price they receive or the quality of the final product,” Javeri Kadri says. A traditional commodity model can have 7 steps and take 2 to 7 years for spices to get into customers' hands, typically going from the farmer to an auction house, through multiple traders, and importers and exporters, before being processed by a manufacturer to send out to retailers.
As outlined in the Impact Report, Javeri Kadri and her team also provide partners with cash advances, so that “they’re able to pay for operational expenses without loans that drag them into cyclical, generational debt."
“Our mission as a queer business is very much championing this next generation of farmers across South Asia, who’ve been doing this with very little credit for a very long time—which sounds very familiar to queer people,” she says.
As part of this, Diaspora Co works with farmers to help increase capacity for on-farm processing. For example, it helped its Guntur Sannam chili farmer purchase a mill as, on average, it can charge up to 25% more for powdered chilies than whole ones due to processing costs. Not only does this add value and allow the farmers to be paid more, but it also contributes to long-term investment and responsible growth. It offers the organization’s partners in South Asia the opportunity to maintain autonomy over their output, expand their skill sets and teams, and build resilience to the changing climate.
“Sometimes, [these farms] have a fungus attack or there’s sudden flash flooding, intense rain or drought. We help them find a secondary income because their primary crop has been affected by the negative effects of climate change,” Javeri Kadri adds.
The climate crisis is a stark reality for those working with the earth to provide produce—especially for communities based in the Global South. So, along with care for people, care for the land is at the heart of Diaspora Co’s ethos. After all, how can we create a better future for our people if there’s no future for the planet?
“If we continue to work in extremely extractive ways, we will not be here very soon. And the hope is to be here for a long, long time to create safer futures for future generations of queer babies,” states Javeri Kadri.
In practice, this means collaborating with partners who prioritize regenerative farming, work to improve long-term soil health and climate resilience, and grow within the natural bounds of seasonal output. In its 2021 report, the business notes the story of one of its partners, Harish Manoj Kumar, “who has spent the last 10 years converting his family’s farm from a chemical one to a regenerative one, where the health of the soil is the primary focus.” The estate is now covered in flora, ranging from cacao to guava trees, and exists in harmony with the surrounding tiger reserve. This symbiosis with the world around us is queer practice—an antithesis to the greedy hand of capitalism.
In a post-colonial landscape, such a relationship with the land has the power to connect us with our South-Asian ancestors—as does Diaspora Co’s queer business ethos. Statues, myths, and tales of a pre-colonial South Asia represent fragments of a shattered past, where queer existence was perceived as an aspect of human nature and sensuality. Despite lingering colonial-era stigma and a right-wing hetero-patriarchal political landscape, homosocial interactions are normalized within many South-Asian cultures. Yet, working and living in the West, our understanding of queerness exists within a colonized framework.
Diaspora Co’s queer business manifesto is built on the theories of Black feminist writer Audre Lorde—specifically as written in her essay ‘Uses of the Erotic’—and acknowledges the work of Black, queer, and trans elders in rooting queerness in active momentum towards liberation. Although a complex dynamic, the team is aware of the tensions that arise when pairing queer politics with a business that inherently operates under capitalism.
“The true sense of being a queer business is... holding this dissonance and these conflicts while still doing our best to temporarily work within the systems as we aim to dismantle and abolish them,” writes wholesale manager Namita Chandra (she/her) below the manifesto. “Although I do not believe we can abolish systems of oppression through reform or working ‘within’, we work to provide support and hope in the meantime. Being a queer business means working towards this fruitful and affirming future.”
This future is only possible if we work together. Queer community has immense power; it builds solidarity across borders, changes minds, and saves lives. Diaspora Co builds community through ventures such as Club Masala, its “spice-forward quarterly cooking club,” hosted by Javeri Kadri and recipe editor Asha Loupy (she/her). Seeking collaboration with value-aligned brands and creatives, the business also actively centers and uplifts the voices of marginalized individuals—in 2021, 44% of its marketing spend went towards queer and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color individuals. The team at Diaspora Co use their privileges to offer visibility and championship for their communities, a safe space for those who fall outside of the “norm,” and validation for others who want to challenge the unequal world of business.
“We have the privilege to exist, succeed, and provide people with spices while saying that we’re a queer business. There are so many queer businesses out there that don’t have the voice, scale, size, or resources to take that risk. So, in existing, we’re sort of opening the door,” shares Javeri Kadri. “Even though I’m sure there are cons to us publicly mentioning that we’re a queer business, mostly it feels like an opportunity and a way to use our privilege for a lot of good.”
Queer-Owned Brands Doing Things Their Own Way
Three other businesses that center LGBTQIA+ community values and support the greater good.
Rhi Dancey is an all-female collective based in London that produces small-scale, ethically conscious garments using deadstock fabrics. Founded in March 2020 by Rhianedd Dancey (she/her) in her bedroom after she lost her job due to COVID-19, this blossoming business now consists of a core team of 4 as well as 3 freelance seamstresses. Growing up in a small Welsh town, Dancey struggled with feeling alone in her queerness. However, her business has “opened up a world of inspiring energies and influences.” She now often collaborates with creatives around the world to create wearable art pieces.
Prioritizing sustainability, inclusive sizing, and accountability, Rhi Dancey challenges the often oppressive fashion industry. The business practices “transparent communication when creating new pieces that are mindfully produced in small-scale batches in the UK.” It acknowledges that growth is an ongoing process and feedback, impact, and learning must flow in both directions between the business and its audience.
“Innovation is key,” says Dancey. “I love working with others to try and build a safe community that encourages creativity and collaboration.”
“Sustainability is more than just a recycled package—it starts from the team and the energy. How people respect and communicate with each other is equally as important to where and how garments are created.”
Jecca Blac’s mission “is to be a brand that represents all beauty lovers: all expressions, genders, sexualities, abilities, pronouns, shapes, and sizes.” Founded by Jessica Blackler, this vegan, gender-free makeup brand champions queer values of sustainability, community, and liberation. Existing outside of society’s binary gender norms and expectations can be dangerous. With its origins in private makeup lessons that Blackler would offer the trans community, the brand launched a concealer marketed to cover beard shadow, the Correct & Conceal Palette, while its Sculpt & Soften Palette can be used to contour and “feminize” the face.
Jecca Blac also brings together members of the queer and trans communities. In 2020, it held a Trans Festival in Covent Garden in central London, featuring panel discussions with trans activists, advocates, allies, and influencers, as well as a private marketplace. Its Instagram page is also filled with videos showcasing the diverse faces and experiences of the LGBTQIA+ community, and its website hosts a section amplifying the products of female-founded and LGBTQIA+-led brands.
Speaking to Dazed Beauty in 2019, Blackler said: “Being inclusive of all makeup wearers is key for us, as is educating the customer and the beauty world about the importance of the LGBTQIA+ community.”
With much of the beauty industry focusing on constantly increasing profit, the needs of communities—especially marginalized individuals who fall outside of cis, white ideals—can far too easily fall by the wayside. Jecca Blac is breaking the mold and serving the direct needs of the LGBTQIA+ community in an ethical and innovative way.
“[As a company,] we’re really interested in how we can take liberatory practices and make them part and parcel of the DNA of this culture. To the best of our ability, we’re trying to find ways to do that better and better.”
Speaking with Coveteur magazine in 2021, Chani Nicholas (she/her), the founder of CHANI, highlighted how the business incorporates queer liberatory politics within its model. The app, which describes itself as “astrology for self-discovery, mindfulness and healing,” challenges fear-based astrology—instead providing information on “times that are great to work with and times that are great to rest.” For its ever-growing community, the app also provides weekly audio readings, comprehensive birth-chart analysis, and daily and new moon meditations.
Within the organization, the team of 13 receives intimate-partner-violence leave, paid leave for menstrual care, and a wealth-building stipend. The organization also donates 5% of app profits to Black, Latinx, Native, Indigenous, queer, and trans survivors of gender-based violence via national organization FreeFrom.
Nicholas views CHANI as more than just a business. It’s a means for aiding collective healing and growth, and a tool to help us take care of one another—all crucial building blocks in creating a more liberated, more queer future.
Five key learnings from Javeri Kadri
Queerness is about much more than just sexuality or gender identity. In business, this involves centering equity, respect, and liberation.
An inclusive ethos also needs to be enacted internally to be effective externally. A queer business needs to foster a caring and safe environment for its team.
Sustainability is about more than just sticking a label on a product. Investing in people creates room for long-term growth, helping create a better future for everyone.
Accountability and the flexibility to learn from mistakes are central parts of building a queer business.
Business is inherently rooted in a capitalist structure, but the ways that we form lasting connections with stakeholders can build authentic relationships instead of transactional arrangements.