Global Indians: igniting the start-up spirit
We've found Indians entrepreneurs making it big all around the world, and they're all proud of their roots. We always knew that being brown was awesome - now the world is starting to realise it too!brunch Updated: Feb 17, 2014 11:33 IST
This story is not about them. It's about India's other tales of success abroad. Of those who've followed their heart to avenues less explored by the desi diaspora. Of those who've met with parental disapproval despite wider opportunities available to them. Of those who didn't let their roots, their modest upbringing or their skin colour stop them from thinking they're just as good as anyone else. Of those who stuck it out and struck it big.
Some of our global Indians speak no Hindi; others are die-hard Bollywood fans. Some have no fixed address; others visit India at every opportunity. Most of them have little in common with the other; a few of them even believe their success transcends their ancestry. But all of them have, in the words of jazz musician Rudresh Mahanthappa, "blazed some trails and made it easier for those coming behind us".
Here are their stories…
Visual storyteller, USA
You gotta love this guy. He spent 12 years at Pixar, using his visual effects wizardry and graphics artwork to turn Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Toy Story 3 and Cars 2 into classics. Then he gave it all up to set up Whamix and chase a new challenge - making comics interactive on the just-released iPad. A Mumbai boy at heart, Shah did his engineering from KJ Somaiya College, but credits his love for computers with spending all-nighters at a training institute run by web pioneer Vijay Mukhi. And like a proper Bombay boy, he multitasks. Shah is also Chief Visual Officer at the 3-D animation and visual effects studio, Prana.
From Pixar to founding Whamix and working at Prana Studios. What a ride!
I joined Prana for both personal and professional reasons. The Indian film industry is going through an amazing transformation. Directors are interested in new technologies and visual effects in their movies. At the same time younger, urban audiences are demanding content that breaks from the "ghisa-pita". My mom lives in Mumbai, so it's great to be able to spend time with her as well.
It's pretty hectic right now with my responsibilities at Prana and Whamix in startup mode. I have to travel between San Francisco, Mumbai and LA. However, I still feel energised because I'm working with a fantastic creative and technical team at Prana and breaking new ground in content creation and distribution at Whamix.
What was growing up in Mumbai like?
Bombay/Mumbai was a wonderful city to grow up in. It's very multi-cultural and always reinventing itself. It was less crowded and quite a bit safer. When we were kids, our parents didn't have to be so nervous letting us go out with friends for movies or dandiya.
Learning not to get trapped in stereotypes. When you live as an outsider, you suddenly start questioning all your own assumptions. In the US you can really focus on your work and excel at what you do, [there are] not too many distractions and obstacles. I know many people in India who also have a singleminded dedication to their work, however, I think they need superhuman strength. I have the greatest respect for them! - Shreya Sethuraman
Gauri Nanda, 34,
Product designer, USA
If you're Indian-American and female at MIT, you're already going to stand out. But Gauri Nanda, a student at the institution between 2003 and 2005 stood out for a different reason: high heels! She wore them to all her classes. "I was raised to believe that I could do whatever I wanted," explains Nanda from her home in New York. It explains why, when the Michigan-born designer found people expressing interest in a concept alarm clock she had created for a class project, she decided to market it herself. Her company, Nanda Home, now sells various versions of Clocky, a wheel-mounted alarm that runs away when it rings, forcing a sleepy user to get out of bed to turn it off. She's also helped launch Toymail, a range of Wi-Fi enabled toys that let kids send messages to each other and let loved ones from abroad keep in touch. It's put Nanda in the pages of the New York Times and she's only just begun.
Is it harder to be an Indian American or a woman when you are an entrepreneur?
It's harder to be a woman, I guess. I was lucky that my family put their money into Nanda Home, and I was able to keep everything pretty low in terms of funding. At its best, being an entrepreneur never feels like work, though it is hard work. The worst thing is never being able to turn it off. I've been practicing yoga and meditation in an effort to have a balanced lifestyle.
What's the best thing about being of Indian origin?
It's wonderful to have exposure to a rich and diverse culture that has so much to offer. As the daughter of immigrant parents, I felt that I had such a rich and unique world view.
What drives you when it comes to designing products?
All of my products are ideas that are functional and have character and personality. I approach a problem that's emotional in a way, and always want to create playful and fun products that are different from what you see in the market. - Mignonne Dsouza
Fashion media entrepreneur, London
Imran Amed was always interested in fashion. But it wasn't the designs or the designers that drew his attention; rather it was the business of fashion. Which is why, when Amed launched a personal blog in 2006, that's exactly the title he chose. Seven years later, BoF (Business of Fashion), has rapidly become a byword for fashionistas of all hues. Amed says he has a reader base of "one and a half million fashion nerds". Last year, the Calgary-born Amed received investor funding to turn BoF into a website, hired an office and team, and now gives it his "full-time focus".
That's quite a journey for this son of Indian parents (who came to Canada via east Africa). But Amed, who studied international business and finance and went to Harvard Business School, is well up to the task…
How do you turn a blog into a paying proposition?
There's a long journey ahead of us. But if I were to name factors that gave investors confidence it would be that BoF has an emotional connection with its community, and that it is a really respected brand.
Has your cultural identity ever been a problem when it comes to meeting fashion giants?
I have never felt that anyone has dismissed me. At the beginning, I started meeting people very humbly, because I really didn't know anything. Also the fashion industry has a distinct culture, and I'm very respectful of it. I didn't start this to make money - this was a passion project. I'm very fortunate that it has all turned out well thus far, though it was not always easy.
Your take on Indian fashion?
I attended my first Indian fashion week in 2006 and thought it was a bit schizophrenic! It was not clear which customers the designers were trying to reach. Now they're sure that they want to focus on the domestic Indian market. Last summer, I wrote an article on how the bridal market in India is estimated at 38 billion dollars, and how clothing accounts for a significant portion of that. So it's obvious that the real opportunity is here. There are too many fashion weeks in India. With over 75 fashion weeks in the world, you need just a few high quality Indian ones to stand out. - Mignonne Dsouza
Industrial designer, The Netherlands
Satyendra Pakhalé studied at IIT Bombay. But he always knew he wasn’t cut out for a desk job. He dreamed of being a cultural nomad, someone who’d create art, break conventions and try something new each time he sat at his drawing board. He became an internationally acclaimed industrial designer instead, giving new form and identity to electronics, home appliances, furniture, transportation and décor. His pieces showcase technology, materials and techniques, but most of all his perseverance. One of his works, the Bell Metal Horse, took him eight long years to make. Winning with his designs prestigious industrial design awards like the Red Dot, he creates also edition pieces represented by Gabrielle Ammann Gallery, Germany. His works are in the permanent collections of several museums worldwide.
What is your design philosophy?
My philosophy is not to have a philosophy, a fixed notion, a dogma, but to be free. To cultivate the mind is the highest objective. We believe in creating human design that has warmth like a human being, as we are surrounded by designed objects and environment on our tiny planet. Constant curiosity about life is our drive to create.
What do you think about the upcoming design talent in India?
There seem to be two scenarios: some are trying to impose a so-called Indian identity, others are mindlessly copying designs. One does see examples that are more genuine – the works of the artisans. However, design requires one to go deeper to the
roots of the things, have free mind and be able to ask fundamental questions. However I am hopeful that it will improve from the designers side as well as from manufacturer’s side. Both have to push the limits to innovate.
How is the Indian design sensibility different from that of the world’s? Or is it at all?
Every culture has its own particularities, and they do reflect into creations of all sorts when done genuinely. But often that is what is missing in the Indian context at this point.
What do you miss about India now that you live abroad?
Everything and nothing at the same time. I never feel I am away from India as I often travel back and forth. Being born, raised and educated in India. Everything connects me to India. I just live abroad. What you are asking is when was the last time I was myself: Every day.
-- Amrah Ashraf
From HT Brunch, January 26
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