Aishwarya Iyer, the founder and CEO of Brightland, is an innovator who thinks outside the box and surprises the world with a new category of pantry essentials. Olive oils in mundane tin cans or glass bottles are against the trend when Aishwarya delivers not only fresh and tasty olive oils but also with their exquisite packaging. This new type of luxurious pantry staples comes from Aishwarya’s unique background.
Growing up in Houston, Texas in a traditional first-generation immigrant household, she was intimately involved with her South Indian heritage from having food conversations with her family to building barriers to overcome burnout. She went against the grain studying at the Gallatin School of individualized study at NYU where she first experienced what it’s like to be entrepreneurial. That cornerstone motivated her to explore all sorts of internships in New York and led to working in tech, venture capital, and startups for 10 years.
After founding Brightland in 2017, Aishwarya Iyer is living a much bigger life than she ever thought she would. She works as an intersectional environmentalist, analog moment pursuer, and multidimensional pioneer who challenges conventions. Here is an interview with Aishwarya that covers her whole story in developing Brightland.
From New York to countless tech companies that led to her innovative brand
I went to NYU and studied at the Gallatin School of individualized study, which is as uncertain and unsafe as all the words that my parents did not want to hear. It was as unstructured as possible. You create your own curriculum. And it’s quite entrepreneurial! No two concentrations are the same ever. So mine was media and globalization with an emphasis on South Asian gender studies. It was a phenomenal experience, but you know, what am I going to do with that? It was a very open-ended question, but being in New York, I was obsessed with internships.
And so I interned left, right, and center, trying to figure out “Is this for me?” I worked as an intern in market research and also at the city council, a couple of nonprofits, including the anti-domestic violence center, and at L’Oréal. I think that’s where CPG lodged a bit of a chip in my brain and I ended up working there for a bit, and then made a bit of a hard pivot into tech. I worked at a venture-backed FinTech company doing public affairs.
I think that’s where I saw what it means to build something from nothing, what it means to be at a startup and hustle and be nimble and be scrappy. And I loved it. That impact that your work can make was palpable and powerful. All of those things swirled together with my baseline foundational love for food and cooking and ended up propelling me towards what I’m doing now.
How her home roots cultivated her unique company
My great grandparents and I had a lot of conversations about food, and how food is the language of love and care. Even if I were to call my dad or mom today, they would ask me what I ate for lunch or dinner more than ever. With Brightland, my grandpa—my mother’s father—was an entrepreneur in India, so there was a sense of pride that my mom felt in what I was doing. She was really, really excited about it.
My grandpa has passed away, but I think about him all the time and wonder if he would be proud. I think he would be! For me, it was so important to look at where I came from to be able to know where to go and thread some of those dots together and realize that a lot of it is cyclical. My ancestors were salt farmers in South India, so food and land and farming have been a part of my heritage. I didn’t know that. To learn that and to also internalize that made me think there’s something powerful about it.
Responding to the stereotypical bias about non-Western food
It just feels so outdated to think like that. I’m a South Asian woman who has started a company that isn’t South Asian or Asian-based. We’re not doing masalas or spices or curries or whatever. I’ve had some people assume that I would, or some people would be disappointed that I don’t, when in fact my heritage and my kind of point of view shows up in so many ways in Brightland.
Even the bright colors of the brand are based on my love for bright colors in my South Asian heritage or the huskies that we feature quite a bit. We have a Pakistani American chef in residence, and that’s very much by design. She features Paratas and a lot of South Asian recipes that we get to showcase olive oil and vinegar and honey being used, and that I think is so special. It feels a little bit like a reflection of me… You can layer in other elements of you and you can contain multitudes. And just because you’re an Asian woman doesn’t mean you have to start an Asian food brand.
Building barriers to overcome burnout
We give up a lot of things for work. You want to be proud of the work you’re doing, you want to do excellent work. If you’re at a startup, you want to be comfortable with the discomfort. If you’re building a company, you are going to make sacrifices. But you can also build barriers for yourself.
And I always say, what are you doing in your spare time? Even if it’s those five minutes where you’re in between calls or you’re from the hours that you decide to put your laptop away, what are you doing? Are you on Instagram scrolling and comparing your life, or just blindly scrolling and looking at things? Or are you thinking about what you want to eat, going for a walk or getting a workout, or just sitting with yourself and reflecting on your day? That quality of your downtime matters a lot. If you take your downtime and just use it by looking at other people’s lives on social media, then, of course, you’re going to feel burned out and tired.
Appreciating and pursuing analog moments
I felt like we were all spending so much time on our screens. Even when we’re cooking, we have screens open and we want to take pictures all the time. So, part of it was like a moment of, “What if we can create products that inspire people to put their phones away and just enjoy that moment that they’re living in?” Life is so short and precious and you want to be living it and feeling it and not experiencing it through a screen.
We talk about analog over digital a lot. It’s really hard. It’s a big duck’s position and sort of a contradiction because so much of how we communicate with the world and the community is online, but we’re trying as much as we can to build in analog moments and analog priorities.
Brightland standing up as an environmental protagonist: Intersectional Environmentalism
Intersectional environmentalism means that you’re looking at the term environmentalism from a three or four-dimensional perspective. You’re thinking about not only how your actions are affecting the ecosystem or the broader ecosystem at large, but about your hyper-local community and those around you. It’s taking a much more multi-dimensional view. “How are you treating your team?” is a part of it, because if you give your team the time and space to be able to make better decisions on behalf of the planet, it all ends up playing hand in hand.
A couple of team members and I visited one of our farm partners on the central coast in Paso Robles, California last month. And they told us that because of Brightland’s growth, they have planted over 30,000 olive trees in California and are continuing to plant tens of thousands of them, which are extremely drought resistant and are amazing for the environment, so talk about sustainability from the source! I think that was the biggest moment for us this year.
We definitely did not set out to become land stewards when we started this company, but I’m amazed at this kind of direct impact. When most companies grow, it’s like there’s more plastic in the world or more junk out there. For us, more trees are going to get planted. That to me is a wonderful way of thinking about sustainability and our very fragile, but invaluable, environment.
How to reach out
Brightland is available on our website, brightland.co. If you want to discover, check us out and we have a few amazing recipes that you can dive into in a world that we’re creating there. We are also on Instagram @wearebrightland and mine is @helloaishwarya.
Credit to Tiff Soga for the interview.