By the time he graduated from Yale in 2010, Rishabh Khosla YC ’10 had worn many hats. As a Trumbullian, he was both Head First-Year Counselor (“FroCo”) and Vice-President of the Trumbull College Council. As a Yalie, he was a Yale Campus Tour Guide and International Admissions Ambassador, among a host of other extracurriculars. Talking to Khosla today, it’s clear that he has not lost his ability to wax loquacious about the Yale experience and the community he found at the University. He says, “It was just such an environment of wonder and creativity and inspiration.”
Anyone familiar with Yale College knows that the roles Khosla held on campus are ones that require a deep commitment to the Yale community and which have resounding impacts. FroCos, in particular, often leave indelible impressions on the first-year students they guide through Yale’s early challenges and joys. Despite over a decade out of New Haven, it is clear from speaking to Khosla that the emphasis he places on having a positive impact is as strong as ever.
Khosla currently serves as Business Head at Freedom Tree Design, a Mumbai-based design brand that creates home products from furniture to fabric to decor and dining, as well as women’s apparel. It also offers a design advisory service with a specialty in color strategy. Founded in 2010, the studio integrates Indian color print designs, handmade goods, and contemporary touches. Khosla joined the company almost five years ago as a hire to grow the company’s distribution networks, solidify its brand, scale it up, and move it toward profitability. All, he says, while figuring out how a design brand like Freedom Tree can exist in—and beyond—India. Despite what Khosla describes as a “really tough operating environment” in India, he has successfully led the scaling up of the brand while balancing three commercial strategies: the design advisory business, e-commerce, and retail stores.
Khosla’s path to Freedom Tree was circuitous. He worked in management consulting after college before moving into impact investing and then to a tech startup. Reflecting on his trajectory, Khosla says he sees impact as being the driving force behind his choices. Whether making recommendations to Fortune 500 companies or delivering seed funding to social enterprises expanding financial access in underserved communities, Khosla says his previous roles were satisfying for the opportunities they presented to address difficult challenges and help people. He explains that the potential to create impact was what ultimately drew him to Freedom Tree. He says, “When I joined, I saw this amazing, nascent product and design studio that had a really incredible aesthetic—really unique, even for India—and this tremendous potential. So I said, ‘Okay, I can create an impact here.’”
In Freedom Tree’s case, creating an impact isn’t just restricted to Khosla himself. It’s also a key question for the brand. Khosla says Freedom Tree thinks about its impact along three axes: impacting sustainable livelihoods, impacting responsible design and environmental sustainability, and impacting the Indian design ecosystem.
Khosla explains that for much of Freedom Tree’s existence, sustainable livelihoods have been its biggest impact-related focus. The company strives to work with skills and crafts, such as various kinds of weaving and woodworking, that are endangered by commoditization, mechanization, and globalization, and to preserve and upgrade them through upskilling and modern design. Khosla also emphasizes a collaborative relationship with Freedom Tree’s supply chain in which the brand’s creative partners learn from the brand but also teach Freedom Tree new things.
The first thing Khosla notes when he begins talking about environmental responsibility at Freedom Tree is the desire to avoid greenwashing. He emphasizes that rather than being at the “contemporary, cutting edge of sustainability,” Freedom Tree is doing things in a traditional, “almost pre-industrial way.” All of the wood used by Freedom Tree is recycled and remade, and architectural fragments are integrated into designer pieces. The brand is also increasingly using recycled yarns for its textiles—Khosla emphasizes there is no change in quality—and coconut husks for décor.
The final element, Khosla says, is the ecosystem impact. Freedom Tree’s founder and Design Director, Latika Khosla, has emphasized hiring from and engaging with schools like the Indian National Institutes of Design. Freedom Tree’s advisory side has also been at the cutting edge of color design in India. More broadly, Khosla says, “we want to nurture young brands and inspire young entrepreneurs and designers. So many of our designers have gone on to start their own brands.”
While Freedom Tree has given Khosla the opportunity to continue to focus on creating impact, he admits that he is “100% surprised” he ended up at the company. He says, “I would not have expected it if you told me even six months before I joined.” But Khosla says that’s been true of much of his career, whether moving from management consulting to impact investing or from impact investing to tech startups. Chance and serendipity, he notes, have enabled surprising and fun transitions over the course of his career.
One thing Khosla says he does wish he were as involved in today as he was at Yale is community. There is no Trumbull College in Mumbai. But he also says that at this stage in his career, as a part-owner of Freedom Tree, he may have found a new kind of community. Freedom Tree employs more than 100 people and has an expansive supply chain. Khosla says that with ownership comes “this immense sense of responsibility” toward the employees and supply chain that depend on Freedom Tree. He cites with pride the example Freedom Tree set during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it donated to good causes, bought stock from rural artisans saddled with canceled orders, and more. The goal, Khosla says, is to do good by three parties: customers, employees, and creative partners. That grouping of people even has a name: the Freedom Tree Tribe. While Khosla is quick to admit it is a branding term, he also says it has real value for Freedom Tree’s customers, fans, and affiliates. When a customer from the “Freedom Tree Tribe” reaches out to ask if Freedom Tree can fix a product a kid may have broken, Freedom Tree is quick to replace it. When a supplier asks for a small advance due to market challenges, Freedom Tree will respond. Khosla says, “One of our core values is integrity. And we stick to that by doing right by everyone we interact with. It’s really important to operate like that—to prioritize our impact on our community.”
Byline: Daevan Mangalmurti