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Founder Susana Gago on stewardship and female-led governance

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By Praveen Gupta, Susana Gago

· 14 min read

As the visionary Founder and Lead Steward at Unakti, Susana spearheads a unique, female-led ecosystem. Unakti's mission is not just about restoring human and planetary health, but about pioneering replicable agroforestry projects for biodiversity restoration and leading the charge in detoxifying the cosmetics industry.

At the heart of Unakti's initiatives are the local women farmers and communities. Working closely with them, Susana’s team cultivates valuable medicinal and aromatic plants. These botanical gifts are the foundation of pure and potent raw materials, used in cosmetics, health and wellness, and Unakti's own regenerative skincare line.

Under Susana’s leadership, Unakti prioritizes impactful outcomes, ensuring financial gains align with their core values. They harness business as a catalyst for positive change, integrating regenerative design and social responsibility at the core of their operations.

Praveen Gupta: You quit the financial markets to nurture an alternative form of governance for a new system of doing business?

Susana Gago: My journey has been one of transformation and growth. I left the corporate world in 2000, at the age of 32, to reorganize my inner architecture. This decision opened up space for more inspiring and purposeful possibilities in my life. It was a transformative journey of personal, professional, and spiritual growth that deeply influenced my worldview. My path led me to India, where I was captivated by the profound insights I gained from several yoga books, most notably “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda. This incredible science introduced me to new spiritual dimensions and ignited a passion for exploring more profound, meaningful ways of living and working.

After nurturing a slow fashion brand for 17 years, I embarked on a new chapter in sustainability. This journey led me to Unakti, a more ambitious project that aims to create a positive impact on a planetary bioregional scale, starting in India.

Unakti is not just a brand; it’s a movement dedicated to ecosystem and biodiversity regeneration. We are committed to empowering women from the grassroots level, providing them with the tools and opportunities to uplift their communities. Furthermore, our initiatives are designed to foster community-based resilience, ensuring that local populations can thrive in harmony with their natural environments.

This new chapter is about taking everything I have learned and applying it to create a regenerative, holistic, and inclusive model of business that respects both the planet and its people.

PG: There are no directors, only stewards?

SG: At Unakti, we pioneer a governance model rooted in stewardship, moving away from traditional hierarchical structures, which seem outdated and somewhat immature to me. Recognizing that all team members are capable adults with enormous potential, we empower our team of co-stewards to step up into their own leadership roles. This approach is not only about empowering but also nurturing and sustaining.

“Our model emphasizes accountability and long-term caretaking over short-term gains, ensuring that every decision made is in the best interest of the community and the environment.”

Our model emphasizes accountability and long-term caretaking over short-term gains, ensuring that every decision made is in the best interest of the community and the environment. It’s about creating an environment where leadership involves guidance, empowerment, and oversight. This holistic approach helps ensure that our practices are ethical and collaborative, reflecting our core values of sustainability and inclusivity.

By focusing on stewardship, we cultivate a more participatory and responsible form of governance that aligns with our commitment to regeneration and resilience at every level of our organization. This transformation in leadership is not just a policy but a practice that permeates our entire operation.

PG: How are you leveraging self-help groups (SHGs) to nurture agroforestry in the Himalayan region?

SG: We are in the early stages of establishing our operations in the Himalayas, with our efforts focused on securing appropriate land. While our on-the-ground activities have not yet begun, our strategy includes empowering local self-help groups to implement sustainable agroforestry practices that benefit both the environment and the communities.

A crucial component of our approach is the educational side of our project, which aims to enhance skill sets and build capacity among local women farmers’ groups. By introducing them to the latest AgriTech innovations and providing training in regenerative farming practices, we are committed to supporting these groups with the knowledge and tools necessary for regenerative farming.

Moreover, our project is designed to bring all seven forms of capital to these communities, including financial, natural, social, human, intellectual, cultural, and spiritual capital. This holistic approach ensures that the interventions are robust and sustainable, empowering the women farmers to optimize their efforts, manage their resources more effectively, and ultimately lead their communities towards greater economic resilience and environmental stewardship.

Our partnership with these self-help groups will be instrumental in fostering a model of agriculture that is not only ecologically sound but also economically viable, creating a blueprint for sustainable development in the Himalayan region.

“Only men insecure of themselves feel uncomfortable with the idea of a Matriarch or Feminine leadership (which is genderless).”

PG: You have always been candid about the downside of Patriarchy. What’s your concept of Matriarchy? How does that align with Nature?

SG: Indeed, my reflections on patriarchy have always been forthright and are based on proof-of-concept, highlighting its many limitations as a system characterized by violence, extraction, devastation, and exploitation. Over the last 7,000 years, patriarchal structures have significantly endangered life on our planet, with clear evidence all around us. If such a system, based on ego and ignorance, were a startup, it would have failed within just a few years. The acquisition of power through brute force is no match for the more effective powers of subtle and comprehensive intellect.

In contrast, my concept of matriarchy is deeply rooted in the historical success of such systems, which thrived for over 200,000 years. In a matriarchal system, gender does not dictate roles; instead, the focus is on balance and the equitable distribution of power and resources. This approach is intertwined with the feminine energy in all of us, regardless of gender, promoting a system that values nurturing, cooperation, and sustainable growth. Only men insecure about themselves feel uncomfortable with the idea of a Matriarch or Feminine leadership (which is genderless).

These principles align with nature, embodying how natural ecosystems operate through interdependence and balance. Matriarchy, in this sense, champions inclusive leadership and collective well-being. It draws upon the nurturing aspects traditionally associated with feminine energy, aiming to create a society that is balanced and equitable. Such a system supports social cohesion and ensures that growth and development are sustainable and beneficial to all community members.

Additionally, some compelling data and statistics support the notion that women are well-suited for leadership roles. Women’s collaborative, compassionate, and empathetic qualities have been shown to enhance team dynamics and deliver better business outcomes. This evidence further bolsters the case for a matriarchal approach, highlighting the effectiveness of leadership that is attuned to these inherently feminine traits.

“Compelling data and statistics support the notion that women are particularly well-suited for leadership roles.”

While we operate within a matriarchal ecosystem at Unakti, it is crucial to emphasize that men on our team are deeply valued and respected. They are integral to our community, and there is a mutual appreciation that enhances our collaborative environment. Indeed, the men on our team are very happy—though for an authentic insight into their sentiments, one would need to ask them directly! This balance and mutual respect underpin our success and contribute to a thriving workplace.

PG: Is much of the cultivation dependent on women farmers?

SG: Yes, women farmers are indeed the backbone of smallholder farming. Their invaluable knowledge and skills in farming are critical not just for sustaining their families but also for enriching the region's biodiversity. By focusing on empowering women, we ensure food security and enhance community well-being, thereby driving progress from the ground up. This empowerment is central to our approach, recognizing these women's vital role in agriculture and community development.

Furthermore, we firmly believe in the enormous untapped potential of women at the grassroots in exploited, robbed, and abused countries worldwide. They are our first investment priority, especially those in marginalized communities who have endured exploitation for generations. Despite these challenges, these women remain the backbone of their families and communities. We aim to catalyze sustainable development and regeneration in these regions by investing in and empowering them.

Additionally, it is historically proven that top-down approaches to development are often inefficient and prone to failure. These methods lack holistic problem-solving capabilities and a human-centered approach to addressing planetary issues. We focus on fostering bottom-up initiatives that empower individuals and communities from within, ensuring that solutions are sustainable, culturally relevant, and directly address the needs and challenges those on the ground face. This method promotes long-term success and aligns with our commitment to respecting and uplifting human dignity in every aspect of our work.

PG: Are you beholden to the concept of Gurukul and the Vedic lifestyle?

SG: Absolutely. The Gurukul and Vedic lifestyles are foundational to our mission and deeply influence our practices and ethos. These ancient systems emphasize wisdom, respect for nature, and a holistic approach to living, aligning perfectly with our sustainability and community empowerment goals.

The Gurukul system, traditionally a residential schooling system that teaches academics, life skills, and high spiritual knowledge, inspires our approach to learning and personal development. It fosters a close-knit community environment where knowledge is passed down through experiential learning, much like the mentorship and hands-on approach we advocate.

Moreover, the Vedic lifestyle principles prioritize balance and harmony with nature, guiding us in creating regenerative practices that respect and replenish our natural resources. This approach to living is more crucial today than ever as we face global environmental challenges that require modern technological solutions and a return to more balanced, conscious ways of living that can be sustained across generations.

“Moreover, the principles of the Vedic lifestyle, which prioritize balance and harmony with nature, guide us in creating sustainable practices that respect and replenish our natural resources.”

In my view, without any shade of a doubt, the most elevated evolved, and flourishing civilization that has ever walked the face of the Earth is the Vedic civilization. Their profound contributions to language, science, astrology, geometry, binary mathematics, arts, and spirituality not only unveil the intricacies of the cosmos and universal powers but also qualify them as an immensely advanced culture. Therefore, we acknowledge this culture as the most valuable asset that Bharat has to offer. We are committed to preserving and spreading this valuable heritage globally, ensuring that the wisdom of the Vedic civilization continues to enrich and inform modern society.

By integrating this ancient wisdom into our modern practices, we aim to create a life-affirming model that nurtures the environment while also fostering personal and community growth. This holistic approach ensures that our initiatives are not only effective in the short term but also contribute to a regenerative and thriving future for all.


With the school kids in Nepal, gurukul style, talking to them about climate collapse, female leadership and regenerative farming.

PG: Your skincare venture aims to be regenerative. Will even the packaging be made from mycelium?

SG: Yes, Unakti is deeply committed to regenerative practices, extending beyond the products themselves to include every aspect of our packaging. In our relentless pursuit of planetary stewardship, we’ve chosen to move away from conventional, toxic plastic packaging options. We are pioneering eco-viable solutions by utilizing bio composite-based jars, which significantly reduce the use of plastics. Additionally, we’ve adopted mycelium-based secondary packaging, a material that naturally biodegrades and ultimately nourishes the earth rather than polluting it.

Moreover, each product is wrapped in a hand-made, seeded paper sleeve. This unique packaging choice not only reduces waste but also invites our customers to actively participate in the regenerative process. By planting the seeded paper, they can watch it grow and flourish, becoming a part of the cycle of life themselves. This holistic approach underscores our commitment to regenerative design and our belief in the power of community involvement in fostering environmental well-being.

PG: How do you wish to minimize the wealth gap between your grassroots workers and those of you at the very top?

SG: To minimize the wealth gap between our grassroots workers and those at the very top, we are actively implementing policies that bridge this disparity through a more equitable salary structure and through a steward-ownership model in which all the members of the team working actively and bringing value to the project, are having access to shares. We are consciously reducing the traditionally high salaries associated with top-level management and C-suite positions and simultaneously increasing wages at the grassroots level. We find the current wealth gap not just disproportionate but frankly unacceptable, and we are committed to rectifying this through our ecosystem policies.

Our approach is grounded in the belief that dedication, commitment, and contribution should drive compensation, not just titles or roles. We consider all jobs within our organization as fundamentally important, adhering to the principle that no one is above anyone else based on their role or different birth opportunities. In fact, given that clean water, food, and air are essential to survival, we believe that the roles of farmers and other foundational workers should be especially recognized, supported, and compensated appropriately.

"We find the current wealth gap not just disproportionate but frankly unacceptable, and we are committed to rectifying this through our ecosystem policies."

This shift towards a more equitable distribution of wealth within our company is part of our broader commitment to a just and sustainable business model, one that respects and uplifts every member of our community. By taking these active steps, we aim to not only address the financial inequities but also foster a culture of respect and mutual appreciation across all levels of our organization.

PG: How successful are your crowdfunding campaigns to raise necessary capital?

SG: Our upcoming crowdfunding campaigns are poised to play a crucial role in raising the necessary capital to advance our mission. In June, we are scheduled to initiate a pre-seed equity crowdfunding campaign by invitation only. This selective approach is designed to build a community of aligned individuals who recognize the urgent need to move away from outdated, profit-centric, short-term investment models to a smarter system where the planet and people are priorities, and profit is merely a byproduct.

The anticipation for our model is palpable, as we reached the funding target months before launching the campaign. This reflects a strong desire for change towards nature-based, female-led business models and governance structures. The interest generated so far indicates a clear appetite for innovative, regenerative approaches that challenge traditional paradigms.

In addition to our equity campaign, we plan to launch a rewards-based crowdfunding campaign. This campaign will open up opportunities for our fans and broader supporter base, allowing them to contribute in various capacities. Participants will have the chance to pre-order our first product at a discounted rate, further engaging with our mission and becoming active members of our ecosystem.

These strategic crowdfunding efforts are aimed not just at financial backing but at cultivating a robust, engaged community. This community will be deeply involved in our ecosystem, joining us on this inspiring journey towards a higher purpose. By fostering this connection with our stakeholders, we aim to collectively pursue sustainable and equitable development, making significant strides in transforming our industry and the world.

PG: What draws you to the Himalayas?

SG: The Himalayas hold a profound allure for me, driven by a combination of their majestic natural beauty and the deeper values they embody. This region is home to some of the most forgotten and vulnerable communities, whose resilience and wisdom are a continuous source of inspiration. Their rich indigenous culture offers invaluable insights into sustainable living and a deep connection with nature, principles that are core to our mission at Unakti.

Additionally, the Himalayas are a treasure trove of high-value, potent medicinal and aromatic plants, which serve as vital raw ingredients for our products. The ecosystem here is not only rich but also critical for biodiversity conservation. These plants not only contribute to the efficacy of our products but also support the local economies and traditional practices that are centered around sustainable harvesting and use of natural resources.

“The Himalayas urgently need protection. These areas play a crucial role in the global climate system and water supply, underlining the need for environmental stewardship…”

Moreover, the region’s environmental significance cannot be overstated. The receding glaciers and the critical landscapes of the Himalayas are in urgent need of protection. These areas play a crucial role in the global climate system and water supply, underlining the need for environmental stewardship, a responsibility we take seriously in our operations.

Lastly, the spiritual aspect of the Himalayas, often referred to as the abode of the gods, adds a profound dimension to our work. This spiritual heritage inspires our approach, infusing our efforts with a sense of purpose and dedication to preserving and celebrating this sacred landscape.

Together, these elements draw me to the Himalayas, compelling our commitment to work in harmony with the local communities, protect and leverage the natural wealth responsibly, and uphold the cultural and spiritual legacies of this magnificent region.

PG: This is amazing stuff, Susana. All good wishes in your endeavour to create a just and equitable order by rediscovering ancient best practices.


illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Praveen Gupta was the second most-read author in the environment and sustainability space for illuminem in 2022. A former insurance CEO and a Chartered Insurer, he devotes his time to researching, writing, and speaking on diverse subjects. His blog captures much of his work.

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Susana Gago is the founder of UNAKTI, a female-led ecosystem dedicated to cultivating high-value medicinal and aromatic plants, and transforming them into pure raw materials for the Cosmetic, Health & Wellness industries. As part of her job at UNAKTI, she collaborates with local women farmers and communities, empowering them through regenerative medicinal forest cultivation to step up into leadership roles within their families and communities. 

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