Being #GirlBoss And Everything That Comes With It

Two and a half years ago, when I decided to quit the corporate world and try my luck at self-employment, little did I know that the path held whirlwind lessons and experiences for me.

One of the brands I’ve had the good fortune of working with, is Arture. The brainchild of two young incredible entrepreneurs Shivani Patel and Keshsa Vasant, Arture designs eco-friendly, vegan, sustainable, fashionable accessories. Think functional yet sexy bags, wallets, laptop and Kindle sleeves – all made from strong cork fabric.

Over the year I’ve known them, we’ve worked out of each other’s homes – writing product descriptions, talking database segmentation, stalking bloggers over raw carrots and filter coffee, walking dogs, and skyping across continents.

I will forever be in awe of their thirst for success, and their determination to uphold the values closest to their hearts – something the big bad corporate world can sometimes severely lack.

Shivani and Keshsa came up with #Collaborate – an idea to bring together their team (designers, writers, photographers, stylists) every few months. For the day, one of us teaches the rest of us something new. So far I’ve learned how to dress to express, and had some solid lessons in home decor.

To mark their second anniversary (Yay Arture!) they put together the 2017 Collaborative: #GirlBoss Edition.

“In the last two years, we’ve worked with a whole range of self-employed professionals and business owners – most of whom happen to be women. We wanted to find a way to celebrate that with #GirlBoss” says Shivani.

Breaking The Ice

That title is a lie, because there was no ice to break. We instantly bonded over the challenges we face as 20-something female professionals and business owners. The team included fashion designers, make-up artists, accessory manufacturers, a fitness instructor, retail store owners, a wedding planner, a chartered accountant, a photographer, an NGO founder, restaurant owners, mums, mums-to-be, writers, and certified scuba instructors.

Our Biggest Challenges

Once introductions were made (and we found out that the doggie-lovers outnumbered the kittie-fans and the sole pig-enthusiast), we jumped straight into talking about the challenges we face.

Gender and Age

Making the choice to be business owners is the easy bit, what comes after needs some navigating.

“I need to keep my store open till about 10pm, so I was looking to hire a male store manager,” said K, who as much as she dislikes it, must think about the safety issues that come with women working late into the night. “When I asked them to come in for interviews, most of them rejected me! They simply could not fathom reporting to a young, female boss.

“Yep! Being a young woman can sometimes be an issue. The male tailors in the factory find it supremely challenging to take instructions from me.”

“There is an expectation that women should be polite and demure, so the moment you are assertive it blows minds.”

“I cannot understand the obsession with marriage and being “settled” in life. What does that even mean, “being settled”?!”

Our Own Worst Enemies

We’ve heard time and again that women are their own worst enemies. We asked what everyone thought of that.

“Can we all just agree that aunts are the worst?

“I was always being told to cover up my belly so people don’t know I’m pregnant. Seriously?!”

“At the end of the day it is down to women – at home and at work – to support other women. We need to stop telling girls that their biological clocks are ticking, that their main goal in life is to procreate, or that they “will change their mind”. It is a personal choice that needs to be respected.

“We couldn’t do what we do without our support systems – parents, partners, spouses, friends. But it irks me when I’m told “you can try, see what happens” I’m here to make a real effort at this, not to simply “try” until I decide to “settle down.””

“It’s most definitely changing though, we’re seeing our own parents opening up their minds to the baffling possibility that girls can be smart, independent business owners too, OMG!

“I want to just chip in here and add some more positivity to the table,” said V, who works with underprivileged women and children through her NGO. “Many people are scared for me, because I work in the slums. But it’s the women I work with who have inspired me the most. They’ve taken me in, and struggle to comprehend why I or someone who cares for me would be afraid. They stand up for and back each other up. Sometimes women can be their own best bets.

Making Compromises To Be Taken Seriously

“I had a store manager once, who was an enthusiastic, fresh-out-of-college designer, with new ideas and infectious energy. She was a fashionable person, and dressed to impress. But she found it so hard to get work out of the tailors because they wouldn’t stop staring at her bare legs. To date it is one of the worst things I’ve had to do – talk to her about making dressing compromises to be taken seriously.”

“I don’t even care anymore. If it means my work gets done, I just wear a salwar or a saree. I have a business to run, and I cannot fight every battle.

“And if you don’t look old enough to have had a few children and greying hair, good luck trying to get anything done.”

“I’ve taken unreasonably low-paid projects because the client wouldn’t take me seriously, and I had to prove myself to them while gaining the gracious “exposure” they were giving me.”

“Don’t ever tell people you work from home if you can help it, they automatically think you’re doing it for time-pass!”

Recognising Privilege & The Option To Fail

The very fact we’re able to chase our dreams and be our own bosses, comes from privilege. We’ve all got the option to fail – we can all go back to a job if it doesn’t work out, or our circumstances change.

“We acknowledge that we’re blessed with a support system where it’s okay to not have an income some months. We understand that we’re part of the very few that have the opportunity to take a shot and explore their strengths.”

“Our challenges as women are many, but we’re not living under a rock about the fact that men aren’t always afforded the same privileges. They continue to carry the pressure of being primary breadwinners, with an expectation to bring in a steady stream of income.”

“We’re seeing everything we’ve discussed changing though. We’re building and running successful businesses, we’re creating jobs, we’re making an impact. And those of us that choose to have children will hopefully be able to foster a respect for gender equality, and entrepreneurship from a young age.”

Meet The Entrepreneurs

Shweta Raman and Saloni Shah – Style Salad

Shweta Raman and Saloni Shah run the Style Salad, a curated gifting website for interesting and customised gift boxes.

Shahin Ansari – Maal Gaadi

Shahin Ansari is the co-founder at Maal Gaadi, a creative concepts store in Besant Nagar that curates accessories, clothes, jewellery and related products.

Lavanya Mohan Suhrit – Chartered Accountant, Writer

Lavanya Mohan is a chartered accountant. She also runs a personal finance blog, and writes for a whole range of media houses.

Shiv Dhanya – The Knottt

Shiv Dhanya is the Managing Partner at The Knottt, an event management firm specialising in weddings.

Indou Theagrajan – Indie Culture

Indou Theagrajan is the Founder and Principal Designer at Indie Culture, a leather apparel and accessories brand.

Roshni Sanghvi – Fitness Coach

Roshni Sanghvi is an online fitness coach, who builds custom fitness regimes to help her clients get in shape.

Shrutilaya Ramanathan – Makeup Artist

Shrutilaya is a make-up artist who works on fashion, bridal, and special effects projects.

Bhumika Bhatia – Portrait Photographer

Bhumika is a portrait photographer and has worked on some incredible projects over the last few years.

Vedika Agarwal – Yein Udaan

Vedika runs Yein Udaan, a non-profit organisation that works towards the holistic development of underprivileged children.

Kshama Adka – Shmoozie’s

Kshama is the Founder at Schmoozie’s handcrafted ice-creams. She runs a store in Chennai and takes online orders as well.

Sruti Ashok – Inai

Sruti owns Inai, a women’s leather bags and accessories brand in Chennai.

Swetha Rengasamy – Mezze

Swetha (second from right) is a partner at Mezze, a cool new Mediterranean restaurant. Special shout-out to Mezze for the finger-licking good food at the event.

Bandana Narula – Fashion Designer

Bandana is the Founder, Director at her label Bandana Narula. She specialises in bridal wear.

And JIC You Don’t Know Me

I’m the nerd making notes and sticking up my paw to ask a million questions.

 

Special thanks to Prachi, the photographer!

Also read: Inside The Entrepreneur’s Head.

The Allure of Ellora & Ajanta

Are you embarrassed by your fellow-travellers? Do you cringe and step away to disassociate yourself from selfie-obsessed loud littering tourists? Do you groan at the sound of passengers unbuckling themselves from the shackles of the airplane seat-belt the second the wheels touch land? I do.

Why do people leave garbage at monuments? Why do we scribble on the walls? Why must we express our love for Mona and Shona and Ramesh on ancient structures? Nobody cares that you <3 Kishore, Laila!

This unsolicited marking of territory is no better than the apartment kitten I feed everyday, who has recently discovered he is a boy and must wee on my couch to announce his existence. He has been christened Lulu McSusuFace, and is not allowed inside my home anymore. Ah who am I kidding. Of course he is. Look at that moonji.

Lulu with his sisters

On this trip to Aurangabad, apart from the beautiful caves, I saw the following:

  • Morons climb up an ancient monument with their shoes on to get selfies, and then walk past the rest of the temples without even looking.
  • People scribble on the walls of the 2000 year old cave structures.
  • Families have a picnic in the lovely lawns, and then leave their garbage there.
  • Stone-carved goddesses with well-worn breasts and thighs because guess where people like to touch the statues the most.
  • Flash photography inside the dark caves that house the world-famous Ajanta paintings.
  • People scream at their kids to stand still for photographs inside the Buddhist shrines, while the serene chanting was in progress. 
  • People scratch the painted walls and then say “huh, it’s not very well maintained, the paint is coming off.”

If you plan a trip to Ajanta-Ellora, please do your bit to not destroy what remains of our heritage! Continue reading The Allure of Ellora & Ajanta

Listen: A New Way To See Chennai

Even before we learned about the Partition in history class at school, our grandparents told us tales – tales of heroism and cowardice, of homes left behind and acquaintances lost. They told us of the fear and the resentment, the times they felt their hearts in their throats.

We listened wide eyed and fascinated, to stories etched in their memories from 7 decades ago. These were history lessons sans facts and figures, but they stuck. I will never forget them – they help me see an entire generation of people in a new light.

I understand why they are the way they are. I understand why they hold on to some material possessions and see no value in others. I understand their warrior instinct, I see why they aren’t willing to let go of some prejudices. All thanks to their stories.

Storytrails

When someone asks us – how is work? The answer is usually along- oh it’s all right, you know, my boss is okay and I have a wonderful team. The highlight of my day is lunchtime as this colleague brings hot mum-cooked food and has to bring an extra dabba for the rest of us!

As opposed to – Work is good, my office has a 5 foot long desk and the A/C is not too cold. I do have to climb up 50 steps though, but can’t complain.

We share experiences through stories.

Surely then, every city and its history has fascinating stories too. Some partially true, some cooked up through the ages, some mythological, some factual.

Going strong for 11 years now, Storytrails has regaled thousands of visitors to Chennai with its stories. The company hosts walking tours in Chennai, Madurai and Pondicherry, with ‘storytellers’ who will entertain you with tidbits you can never find in a book or blog, or even from a travel guide looking to make his quick buck and be done with you ASAP.

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Audio Tours

A brand new venture, Storytrails has now forayed into audio tours, offering trails on an app. It has been a truly humbling experience learning about my city, and lending voice to these tales.

Did you know, for example, that Chennai has one of the only 3 churches in the world, built on top of an Apostle’s remains? I sure as hell (sorry St. Thomas, I mean heck) didn’t!

I learned about Cenotaph Road, about King James’ new crown, the sparring sects of Christianity, the thieving British (but also the good ones like Annie Besant), the love-hate relationship between the English and the French that extended to Chennai as well. I learned about the mighty Pallavas and their mightier egos, that the Pancha Pandava Rathas have nothing to do with the Pandavas, and that Ganesha wasn’t part of Shiva’s family in South India for a long time!

If you live in Chennai, these trails are guaranteed to have you look at your own city from a fresh perspective. And if you’re a visitor, there really is no better way to learn!

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Download the app here, to walk (and listen to) the British Blueprints and Mamallapuram trails!

Waking Up To The Taj Mahal

Ticket guy at Taj Mahal: You have to pay 1,000 rupees for the ticket madam.

Me: But….that’s the foreigners ticket price. The Indian ticket is 40 rupees.

Guy: Yes.

Me: But I’m Indian.

Guy: How do I know that? You look like you could be a foreigner.

Me: But…what? We’re literally the same race! What?!

Guy: Can you prove you are Indian?

Me: But… main Chennai mein rehti hoon, kaun si bhasha samajhte hain aap? Naan Chennai le indhu vandirukein. Tamil Nadu India le iruku, theriyuma ungalku?

Guy: Whatever. Can you prove you are an Indian citizen?

Me: I have a PAN card…

Guy: I need to see your passport.

Me: Who brings their passport to the Taj! I’ve left it in the hotel!

Guy: Have you got your Aadhaar Card?

Me: ….no?

Guy: In that case please pay 1,000 rupees for a foreigner ticket.

I had been up since 4am to catch the sunrise over the Taj Mahal, managed to wake a sleepy auto driver to take me there in the dark, got to the counter well before it opened, and was mighty proud to be the first in the Indian ladies queue. There are 4 queues – Indian men, Indian women, foreign men, foreign women. Besides me, there were some scruffy hippie Aussie tourists who looked like they had camped outside the Taj to be able to beat the morning lines. Continue reading Waking Up To The Taj Mahal

Beyond The Taj – Agra’s Other Stunning Structures

The city of Agra is perhaps one of the most visited by foreign tourists coming to “discover India.” From Delhi, the Gatimaan Express (the fastest in the country) gets you to Agra in about 100 minutes, serves a meal, and even has hostesses, as the public sector attempts to up their tourism game.

But as soon as you step in to what was once capital of the great Mughal empire, you see that it is utterly chaotic, underdeveloped, and a challenge to navigate. It is quite unfortunate that the divide between the rich architectural history, and the current state of affairs is so extreme.

Nevertheless, Agra has plenty for the tourist apart from the Taj Mahal, which will no doubt be the crowning glory of a trip to the city.

Fatehpur Sikri

To get here from Agra, we booked a cab online with Gozocabs. The driver was well-spoken and knew where he was going, although a little on the expensive side. On the drive there, we encountered groups of religious protesters carrying swords and chanting slogans. It freaked us out when the driver turned around to make sure our doors were locked. They didn’t seem interested in passersby though, but our heart rate took a while to come back down again. Continue reading Beyond The Taj – Agra’s Other Stunning Structures

In Pictures: Discovering Delhi

The capital city of Delhi is one of contradictions. It houses some of the greatest architectural accomplishments of the mighty Mughals and other Islamic rulers, and is yet one of the most congested, polluted cities I have been to. It’s got lavish malls and an excellent Metro system, and yet only areas of commercial and diplomatic importance are clean, green and well-maintained. For the history and architecture buff, there couldn’t be a better city in the country.

Getting around Delhi is super-easy, with the Delhi Metro Rail being efficient, well-connected, unbelievably cheap, and extremely helpful to outsiders. Uber and Ola help things even more, allowing you to discover the city’s jewels at your own pace.

Humayun’s Tomb

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Humayun’s Tomb – constructed in memory of the great Emperor Humayun, commissioned by his grieving wife.
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Humayun’s Tomb – the structure was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, which was followed by repair and restoration work.

Continue reading In Pictures: Discovering Delhi

Have 48 Hours? Go To Singapore

This article was published in Metro Plus, The Hindu

Living in Asia has its perks. The weather, the food, and most importantly, easy access to incredible travel destinations. Singapore has consistently been a favourite among couples, friends and families alike. The Singapore Tourism Board reported an incredible 12.4 million international visitors from January to September 2016.  817,000 of them were Indians.

The ease of travel and range of accommodation catering to different budgets makes Singapore a must-do destination, even if you have just 48 hours.

Arrive

Indigo, Scoot, Jet Airways and Air India Express operate budget flights from Chennai to Singapore (ranging from INR 13,000 to 16,000 return depending on when you book). Taking the 10pm flight will get you to Singapore at 4.40am local time. Check-in to your hotel and catch a few hours of sleep.


Day 1
8:30 am – Singapore Zoo

The zoo is well connected by buses or you can take a taxi from the nearest train station connected to your line. Hang out with free range orangutans and lemurs, feed the giraffes, watch the Komodo dragon, learn about tropical and polar critters, and walk through the fragile forest enclosures. You can pack your own lunch or go to the restaurants on site for a choice of Indian, Malaysian, Chinese and international food. The zoo also offers River Safaris and Night Safaris which we decided to skip to be able to tick more things off our list.

We then took the free bus shuttle to the Khatib MRT station, and made our way to HarbourFront Station.

10 - Free range orangutans singapore zoo Continue reading Have 48 Hours? Go To Singapore

A Parallel India In Jaipur

I’m staring at the visual symmetry of a stepwell in the middle of Rajasthan, and I can hardly believe my eyes. We’re on the last day of our Jaipur exploration and happened upon the Chand Ki Baoli by divine intervention from the travel Gods.

While touring the palaces and to-do monuments the previous day, we feel like we’re on a United Nations field trip. Tourists from all over the world wander around taking selfies at the glimmering Sheesh Mahal, and hold up victory signs as they pose with the mahouts and the poor elephants who’ve been taking captivated travellers up and down the hill all day.

Amer Palace - Jaipur
Amer Palace – Jaipur
Sheesh Mahal - Jaipur - 1
Sheesh Mahal – Jaipur
Sheesh Mahal - Jaipur - 2 (Custom)
Sheesh Mahal – Jaipur

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We see something called Panna Meena Ka Kund on the tourist map and an auto-driver takes us to it. Through tiny streets and massive potholes we bump our way to the deserted stepwell. It’s taken us by complete surprise – there are no entry tickets and exactly zero tourists. And yet, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Meena Panna Ka Kund - Jaipur
Panna Meena Ka Kund – Jaipur

Continue reading A Parallel India In Jaipur

Cheese, Wolves, Food and Paper in Pondy

Always be nice to chefs. It pays to be in their good books.

My friend and I talked about doing a short holiday together. We went over every destination that mildly interested us. Ellora? Too far. How about Bali? Ugh, flights are too expensive. Kerala? Already been. Gujarat? Not so appealing actually. After 4 months of talking about going to an unconventional, exotic, impressive destination, we decided to go 4 hours down the road to…..Pondicherry. Yay.

This is when the Executive Chef at the Promenade (one of the finest hotels in Pondicherry) came to our rescue. An ex-colleague, he ensured we got a fantastic room rate and even better food.

We ticked off some very ‘Pondy’ things to do, and below are some recommended highlights. We didn’t get around to Auroville, the Ashram, or diving (we’re both awful swimmers), but do those if they interest you!

Walk Along The Promenade

“Watch out for the wolves on the promenade,” someone told us when we reached Pondy. Wolves?! What the hell kind of wolves live on the beach in coastal Pondicherry?! Obviously, we rubbished the warning and set about making plans for the rest of the day. Continue reading Cheese, Wolves, Food and Paper in Pondy

Textile Luxury In Our Backyard

In March 2016, I was lucky to get to visit a textile factory in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu. Since then I have learnt a lot about the water and soil pollution from textile dyeing units, and a lot more about sustainable vs fast fashion. I am personally an advocate for buying less and reusing more, and during my fleeting visit I did not have the opportunity to ask questions about pollution and proper waste treatment.

It was however a wonderful peek into the textile export industry that has put Indian produce on the global map, and this is a gist of that experience.



“Madam, please give me 5 star rating on the app” says the taxi driver as I jostle about getting my bags onto the over-crowded railway station entrance. “Sure, sure” I mumble half asleep. The strong smell of raw fish jolts my senses out of lethargy and I elbow my way through the human soup to the early morning Shatabdi taking me to Coimbatore. My mission is to see textile factories in the humble town of Tirupur, and I am armed with a million questions. Little do I know I am about to get a lesson in globalisation, international trade, and government policies. Continue reading Textile Luxury In Our Backyard