How ex-Amazon employee Samyuktha Vijayan is giving back to the transgender community through her startup
Earlier an employee of Amazon, trans woman Samyuktha Vijayan is helping other trans women start new and independent lives through creative expression, with her boutique startup TouteStudio.
In India, there is serious stigma surrounding people from the transgender community. Many are abandoned by families, not given a fair chance to pursue academics, and are turned away from mainstream jobs. Trans people are subjected to discrimination and violence, and are shunned from society because they don’t fit rigid gender norms.
But when trans people have their families’ unconditional support, they are better-enabled to succeed, make an impact and give back to their community. Such is the story of 34-year-old trans woman Samyuktha Vijayan, an ex-Amazon employee, who hails from Coimbatore.
Setting up the studio
When Samyuktha Vijayan was working in the United States with Amazon, she had a wonderful support group of trans women at the workplace, and was able to fit in without a struggle. However, she realised that the situation for the trans community back in India was far from ideal. She then decided quit her job with Amazon and return to India, to help her community lead better lives.
In February this year, Samyuktha started TouteStudio - a Bengaluru-based Indian-wear fashion boutique. TouteStudio specialises in wedding attire that is designed by Samyuktha herself, and stitched from scratch by a team of around fifteen in-house karigars.
The clothes are all either silk or cotton-based, and use real silver for embroidery and embellishments. One of the many things that sets TouteStudio apart, is that it only offers its collections on rent, unlike most other boutiques who focus on selling.
On why she made this decision, Samyuktha brings in an important and interesting perspective:
“A lot of people spend their money buying clothes for special events, and end up either not using the outfits again, or simply throwing them away after wearing them a couple of times. What they don’t realise is that they are creating a huge environmental mess. I want people to start thinking about what happens to their clothes after they are done with them.”
In the US, brands like Rent The Runway are promoting the practice of circular fashion, where people share clothing and reduce the amount of fabric waste going to landfills everyday. Samyuktha says that the concept is quite unheard of in India, and that many Indians would be hesitant to wear something that someone else has worn before, but aims to change mindsets through TouteStudio.
Life in transition
“I always knew I was a girl. And my parents never imposed any particular gender roles on me,” says Samyuktha.
“I never had to suppress any feelings about my being a girl, because I was allowed to wear makeup and dress the way I wanted. Throughout my childhood, I was free to be myself.”
Samyuktha also recalls learning Bharatanatyam and being encouraged to dress up in traditionally feminine costumes. Her parents never objected, and were proud of her.
Samyuktha says that the strong support she got from her parents allowed her to focus on her academics and extracurriculars, and not be bothered by the occasional snide remarks from peers or relatives.
Eventually, she graduated at the top of her school and earned a spot in a reputed private engineering university. Four years went by, and she secured one of the highest-paying jobs the university offered.
Soon after, she joined Amazon in India, and in 2012, moved to Luxembourg on the job. She travelled to the UK in 2014, and the US in 2015.
In early 2016, when Samyuktha was in Seattle, she decided to transition medically. With the immense support of other trans women at Amazon, she was able to make a smooth recovery.
“The most important thing about going around the world for me is that I got to see how people from the LGBTQ+ community have an open space to be who they are. While enjoying the benefits of a supportive environment in a financially stable position, I began thinking about what I could do to give back to society,” she says.
So how is Samyuktha helping the transgender community in India through TouteStudio? Take a look:
Samyuktha also says that transgender customers feel safe at the boutique, and like to express themselves through photoshoots.
HerStory spoke with the trans women employed at TouteStudio, to understand how their lives have changed since joining the startup.
Employment is power
When Rosa Felicia, 29, who now manages the store and interacts with customers, first came out in 2016, her parents didn’t take it well and left her on her own. Rosa had a group of people to help her survive, but she remained unemployed until she found her job at TouteStudio. Rosa has also been able to start transitioning because of the financial stability she has gained through her job at the boutique.
On the way society perceives trans people, she says:
“There is a lot of stigma around trans people who beg or do sex work, but people fail to acknowledge that there are cisgender men and women who earn their livelihoods in these ways, too. I know I can’t change the way society thinks, but I’m not going to change myself for the comfort of cisgender people. By deciding to take a step ahead and move forward with my life, I am on track to achieve my goals”
Rosa also says that her name is inspired by Rosa Parks, the American civil rights activist who is best known for refusing to give up her seat on a bus for white passengers when she was ordered to.
Turning dreams into reality
Vyga, 26, is a designer at TouteStudio. Determined to live her truth, she reached out to Samyuktha through a friend. She now believes that her job at the boutique gives her the perfect platform to be herself.
“I’m always happy. I radiate positive energy. I dream about pursuing music, dance, modelling and acting professionally some day, and I also want to get married and raise children. Although I am very cheerful most of the time, I am straightforward too. If someone bothers me, I know when to put my foot down and dismiss them,” says Vyga.
Vyga chose her name because in German, it means ‘fighter.’
Transgender people deserve to be respected and given equal opportunities at life. With the right support and encouragement, they can scale great heights with their innovative and impactful ideas.
Through TouteStudio, Samyuktha aims to make life better for as many trans people as she can. To fulfill this aim, she is running a crowdfunding campaign.