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Vegan accessories maker has success in the bag Add to ...

Inder Bedi knows how to create a buzz.

The 37-year-old founder and co-president of Montreal-based Via Vegan Ltd., designer of Matt & Nat eco-friendly accessories, stopped traffic a couple of years back when he and his staff tossed about $10,000 worth of merchandise from their fourth-floor office windows into the parking lot.

The company used e-mail and social media to alert fans, then let them spread the word. Close to 1,000 people showed up for the freebie event, which was posted on YouTube.

The Concordia University marketing graduate learned his lessons well, including the value of celebrity endorsement.

Matt & Nat’s mid-priced lines of men’s and women’s vegan bags, belts and wallets, made mainly with recycled plastic bottles and free of any animal products, are popular with stars such as Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron and Sir Paul McCartney.

Vegan talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has even given away Matt & Nat bags to audience members on her show.

The company also regularly sends out bags to women’s shelters in and around Montreal and, on occasion, Matt & Nat staff volunteer to feed homeless people a vegetarian meal.

Chosen by Profit magazine in 2009 as one of Canada’s 100 fastest-growing companies, the company sells its collections through boutiques and department stores in Canada, the United States and Britain and on its website. It was recently commissioned by Apple Inc.’s Europe division to make bags for Mac computers.

Q: Who came up with the bag throwing?

A: I did. Doing stuff like that, seeing the consumer face-to-face when we give them free stuff, is really fun. It ended up being this ridiculously crazy thing.

Q: Where did the idea for Matt & Nat come from?

A: Our family is from India. I didn’t grow up in a religious household – my mom is Hindu and my dad is Sikh – but they exposed us to all kinds of Indian culture. When I was 18, one of Dad’s good friends, who was head of the Hare Krishna temple in Montreal, asked me out of the blue to go vegetarian for 30 days. I did so out of respect, and it had a profound effect on my whole life. I continued being vegetarian at Concordia, where I majored in marketing and minored in corporate law, and gave up leather as well.

In my last semester in 1995, when I was deciding between law school or an MBA, I had to do a course called entrepreneurship – which I really didn’t want to take. As part of the curriculum, we had to come up with a business and try to raise funding for it. I thought it was interesting that there weren’t any companies doing fashionable, utilitarian items that were also vegan and eco-conscious, so that led to Matt & Nat. In spite of not getting any funding and only 77 per cent on my paper, I dropped the idea of law school or an MBA and started the business [launched in 1996]. I still have no explanation for it.

Q: Do you think there’s a gap between what they teach about entrepreneurship in school and reality?

A: Back then, I would say yes. I had dinner with one of my marketing professors who became my mentor and said I was thinking about starting this business. His advice was to get out of school and give it a shot. There was a feeling then that the more you went to school, the more it made you raise questions and sway you away from it. I think that’s changing.

Q: Did you have a vision of what you wanted?

It kind of evolved. I remember telling myself at the time that if I could do this and make $40,000 a year for the rest of my life, I’d be very happy because I truly enjoyed what I was doing. That may be part of the reason for our success at Matt & Nat. We don’t base our decisions on dollars but on passion.

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