Digital media, menstruation, and mental health: how 27-year-old Kanika Agarwal is scaling heights as a parallel entrepreneur
It took Kanika Agarwal just two years to see a 90 percent growth, a $2 million (SGD) turnover and an expanding clientele with the likes of Microsoft, Estée Lauder, GROHE and Zee TV for her Singapore-based digital media agency, Passion Peers.
It was not time to rest on her laurels, but Kanika, who was at the peak of her career, suddenly faced severe anxiety and depression that brought life as she knew it crashing down.
“I still remember my first anxiety attack. It hit me at 4 am on a Monday morning when I was at home in Singapore. I was awake, still working on a big assignment for Zee TV that I had the next day, and before I realised it, I had started hyperventilating. The worst of thoughts started racing through my mind and I felt like I was dying. I was rushed to the hospital, and I couldn’t stop crying for four-five hours on end,” she recalls.
But Kanika knew she couldn’t give up. She did a lot of independent research about mental healthcare and reached out to her parents for support. Despite some initial hesitation caused by the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, Kanika started seeing a therapist and practising mindfulness.
“In the long run, I feel therapy and mindfulness exercises have impacted me positively. And in a way, I feel that the experience was my body asking me to take care of myself; an alarm bell of sorts,” she says.
The beginning of Fem Peers
While battling anxiety and depression, Kanika’s menstrual health was affected as well. She had irregular periods and went through intense pain and mood swings that accompanied her pre-menstrual syndrome symptoms (PMS).
Through this experience, Kanika realised that she was not the only one going through painful periods, and in 2017, decided to start Fem Peers (with her earnings from Passion Peers) - a platform that offers menstrual kits, complete with sanitary products of one’s choice, snacks, heating pads, and a whole lot more.
Kanika decided to take Fem Peers to the next level and turn it into a social enterprise when she saw her domestic help bring her young daughters with her to work. She had stopped sending them to school after they reached puberty. The main reasons were that the school provided zero facilities for menstruating girls, and that period stains would be embarrassing to deal with.
Fem Peers, now also pairs each buyer with a girl in rural India, and donates a similar menstrual kit to her for each purchase made. This encourages the girls to continue going to school and lead their lives without shame. So far, Fem Peers has benefited nearly 700 girls, mostly across rural Mumbai and Delhi NCR, with menstrual kits.
Fem Peers has also started 'Talk Pad’, an online community where women can openly discuss anything period-related without shame.
Kanika Agarwal at the Exabytes eCommerce Conference 2017
Overcoming anxiety and depression also made Kanika realise she had to do something to combat the serious issue on a large scale. So she came up with Mind Peers - a platform that aims to destigmatise mental illnesses, and makes certified mental health professionals accessible and affordable to anyone who needs their help.
“We cannot speak a transactional business language when it comes to mental health, because if we do, we are not addressing the true purpose of helping people. Hence, our platform will have customised content curated around key symptoms of mental illnesses, such as loneliness, relationship problems, body image issues, work stress and more,” she explains.
Kanika urges everyone to hold mental health and physical health in the same regard. She emphasises that dealing with mental illnesses is nothing to be ashamed of, and that seeking medical help is more helpful than just ‘praying it away’.
Through Mind Peers, Kanika will also be introducing the concept of a ‘happy box’, which in essence, is a toolkit for patients to help themselves cope with anxiety attacks and depression. The immediate goal for Mind Peers is to launch the platform by the end of May 2019. As soon as it goes live, Kanika will be looking to raise external funds for it.
Growing up empowered
Born and raised in New Delhi, extrovert Kanika Agarwal dreamed of making it big ever since she was a child. Whether it was getting good grades, pursuing extracurricular activities or wanting to build a legacy, her zest for grabbing opportunities has kept her going strong. She thanks her parents for their unconditional support through all her endeavours, but also points out that her independence stems from them encouraging her to be financially self-sufficient.
“When I moved to Singapore for my BTech in 2009, I had a huge education loan to pay off. But my parents told me very candidly that they would only be covering it for the first year. And although I had earned a scholarship, there were other expenses involved. So, from my second year onward I started working at Google and then went on to work at Microsoft,” says Kanika.
At Google, Kanika was a digital consultant, while at Microsoft she looked after the consumer digital marketing landscape for 13 APAC markets. It was then that she realised the disconnect between growing client demands for digital and integrated support from agencies, and the way work was being delivered. Kanika’s determination to bridge this gap led her to start her first company, Passion Peers.
She says that one of the biggest factors that motivated her to start this new age digital media firm was the need to encourage MNCs to ‘think like startups’ in a dynamic industry, and to help them run creative technology-driven campaigns for their consumers. Kanika wanted Passion Peers to be the agency that big brands always turn to, and so it has been.
Kanika also started Passion Peers with her personal savings and hasn’t sought any external funding so far.
“Passion Peers is completely bootstrapped. I started it in March 2016 with my savings of $10,000 (SGD), and told myself that if I didn’t start making revenue by December 2016, I would move on to something new. But thankfully, Passion Peers has worked wonders,” says Kanika.
Hitting the home run
Passion Peers’ first client was luxury beauty brand Estée Lauder. How did this brand new digital media agency achieve such a feat, right off the bat? Kanika admits it was initially tough, but because she had previously trained employees in digital marketing, word about Passion Peers got around. She was then introduced to the marketing brand manager of Estée Lauder, and was given the brand’s requirements.
“My strategy is to have a motivated, innovative and hardworking team on board. In a service-based industry, talent matters a lot, and I am fortunate to have people who are ready to hustle with me to achieve milestones. I have always been prepared to scale at any given point in time,” says Kanika.
As with any road to success, Kanika’s came with many challenges. These included managing client expectations and balancing employee motivation, maintaining a positive work culture, and giving importance to human resources.
Despite these challenges, Kanika stays motivated. She says that the impact her team makes every day, and the fact that she is building a legacy through entrepreneurship keeps her on her toes even on days she feels like giving it all up.
Kanika Agarwal receiving Asia One's '40 Most Influential Asians Under 40' award in 2018
The journey ahead
Kanika’s goal for Passion Peers is for the company to be acquired by a multi-national and operate as its digital wing. For Fem Peers, Kanika is still figuring out the right direction to expand in India. Kanika’s goal for Mind Peers is to introduce strong policies about mental health across India, to destigmatise and reduce the statistical rates of depression among Indians, and to work with relevant organisations to define parameters for clinical certification of mental health professionals.
For budding entrepreneurs who may need a little encouragement, Kanika says,
"Always be true to yourself and your values, because entrepreneurship will throw many battles at you. If you're dealing with mental illnesses, know that you're not alone. You might be afraid or ashamed, but self-acceptance is the start of recovery. Seek professional help, it will definitely steer you in the right direction. And the amount of strength you can give to others by just sharing your story when you're ready, is immense."