A simple sharing of the start up journey and experiences of three womenRanjani Santhanam
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
said Robert Frost.
Every so often, we find ourselves staring at crossroads, having to make decisions to choose
that one path among them . I found myself at crossroads three years ago, at the peak of a long stint in the IT world. I had to choose between the trodden, worn-out path or choose to walk down the one less traveled by. Not being a risk-taker, the trodden path called out to me. Friends and relatives were shocked that I chose to leave a flourishing, high paying career suddenly. Yes, suddenly!! I was left wondering why I had to tell all and sundry, in advance, about my career plans. Stereotypes were hurled at me
“Oh but why leave such a good job?”
“What do you mean taking a break? In our times we worked for 40 years in one company and retired”
“My God, you are single and have no backup bank balance – I mean a husband. What will you do if you don’t find another job?”
“You won’t get the perks of PF, medical insurance and job security if you start something on your own”
“I don’t think you have business knack. Better to be in a secure job”
And positive comments like
“Ah, looks like you saved up a lot of money to pay your bills”
“Wish I could also quit my job. Good, as long as you know what you are doing”
“Need any monetary help, let me know”
And I knew, I had to take the “road not taken”- a road not taken by me before. The journey beckoned and I walked on.
I founded Palindrome Concepts and Solutions LLP with my sisters, who had by then started exploring their own “not taken before” roads. Thankfully, our roads converged and the rest is “his-story”, rather “our-story”.
We are currently in the third year of operations, and have worked with some of the biggest names in various sectors. We take pride in the fact that we have not only bagged continued projects with big names but they were based purely on word-of-mouth. The journey may have just begun but it has taught us a lot of lessons we would love to share with others. I hope this write-up motivates and encourages more women to walk the untrodden path.
Choosing the untrodden path means to take risks, to be willing to face uncertainty, to be able to break the norm and not regret having made the choice to take that path. The biggest hurdle – stereotypes.
The stereotype: Women don’t take enough risks. They like to have safety nets around them
Shattering the stereotype: One of the biggest risks women in India have taken, for centuries now, is “Arranged marriage”. There is risk involved for both the man and the woman in an arranged marriage since they do not even know each other. But the greater risk women take is to trust a complete stranger and leave behind, the familiar comfort zone of their own homes. She would leave her parents behind and be willing to move into a new home, perhaps in a new city, state or even a new country. She would start from scratch and build something new that would last a lifetime. She would then be willing to risk her life, her body, her health and her career in order to bear a child.
So, we are risk-takers, aren’t we? Looks like we have cleared the first hurdle to take on that adventurous new journey.
The Palindrome story: When we decided to start our own venture, we were faced with the same thing. “It is risky to start your own venture. Especially with no business background in the family and all of you being women”, “Your sisters are married, they have their spouses for support, what will you do?” “What did your respective spouses say, were they okay that you quit such good jobs?”
Sounded very familiar and clichéd to us. We had decided to quit our jobs and follow our passion.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” we asked ourselves. We would admit defeat. We would then go back to finding jobs that we were already good at and had done for more than a decade.
So, we decided to start a venture whose investment was going to be our passion, our skills and our time. We created a facebook page (no investing on a website yet), put together our ideas and we were on a roll. We made no fancy posters, no great power point presentations or clichéd visiting cards. Our clarity, our unique ideas and our passion won us our first project. Who we are today is a reflection of how well some of the men treated us when we started our journey.
Taking a RISK paid off and paid well too.
Several people say that women are see in the board rooms only when they inherit family owned businesses. That does not take away from their risk-taking abilities. It puts more pressure on them to maintain a name that is already established. It may take them to the top role easily but to stay there needs grit and determination. More and more women are starting their own ventures, following their passion and dreams. All that is possible only because they were willing to take a risk.
The secret ingredient:
Be willing to take a risk, to take that leap of faith. The worst that can happen is, you will go back to where you already were.
We are conditioned to believe that saying NO is a sign of being rude, rebellious, negative or self-destructive. To take that untrodden path, sometimes takes a whole lot of NOs even when you are on the verge of saying YES. Friends, ex-colleagues, family members would whizz past, seemingly certain of their bright future, while you stand there looking at a hazy picture. There will be a hundred odd faces with “I told you so” written all over. We have to admit, we all like to be liked and saying a NO may just dim our chances to be liked. And so, the mind wavers and you want to give in. The NO is stuck in your throat, the YES is ready to be said. Wait, don’t say YES yet
On the other hand, we hesitate to take the leap of faith and say YES to something we really want to do. We let opportunities slip by because saying YES would mean getting a NO from so many we know. What would the world think of me if I said YES? An opportunist? Wait, don’t say NO yet.
The Stereotype: (The extremes)
Women are not assertive or She is so aggressive, can you believe she just said NO?
Shattering the Stereotype:
Yet again, the classic example comes from everyday interactions. Whether we are parents or teachers or guardians, we know when to say NO to discipline a child. However reasonable the demands of a child, however strong the tantrums or however cute a baby face may be, we often find ourselves easily saying NO. We don’t think about our popularity ratings in the eyes of the child. We just know when to say no. We, in fact, teach our children to say NO to strangers, for their own good.
The other end of this spectrum is saying YES. We easily say yes to more responsibilities, to multitasking and taking on something extra without batting an eyelid. We say yes to social obligations and to friends/family.
So, there we are already well on our way, knowing we are risk-takers and we know our YES and NO really well.
The Palindrome story:
When we started our journey, I remember noting down on a tissue paper, the challenges the client had. She asked me “Do you think you can address these challenges through your work? If yes, you have my buy-in for this project.” Without a thought, I clutched the piece of paper and said “Yes we can”. It was a roaring success. She has always given us interesting challenges that we have enjoyed worked on. Our next project was a really big one. We weren’t sure we could pull it off with a three member team. We wanted to say YES but we were on the brink of saying NO. My sister was convinced we could do it. A few phone calls, a few discussions later, we said YES. It has been the best project of our journey so far.
It would be a surprise if we did not encounter stereotypes along the way. We were called for a demo in a well-known healthcare company. We were collaborating with another firm whose clients wanted to see the demo. It was very well received and the clients decided they wanted to work with us. As we ended the discussion, the client (two women) said that while it was fine for us women to do a gamut of workshops, only for the assertiveness module, we had to take a man along. A grey-haired, experienced looking man. He didn’t have to facilitate but he just had to be present to convince the participants of the immense knowledge we had for a topic like assertiveness. The man who was collaborating was gracious enough to offer to be our mascot. The money was big, the project seemed prestigious. But we said NO. If we couldn’t say NO to an assertiveness module with unfair demands, it would be the greatest irony. It was important at that point to establish the values and strengths of Palindrome. We could not be denied an opportunity even though we were good, just because we were women. We did not regret saying NO. The nice man who collaborated this did not object to our NO. He was very respectful of our decision. There have been a few projects we have said NO to, because our heart was not in it and did not align with the values we set for ourselves on the journey. There will be several such instances when we will have to pick the difficult option but it will be well worth it in the end.
The secret ingredient:
To say YES or NO is not the hard part but to say NO when you want to say NO and to say YES when you really want to say YES is key.
Both of these again tie up with the first aspect – the aspect of risk taking. How willing are we to take a risk and say yes to an opportunity or no to an opportunity, is imperative to be on the untrodden path.
Last but most important factor is being “authentic”. This cannot be overemphasized more. What will keep us going far on the untrodden path is being ourselves. When we are not trying too hard to be someone else, we have enough time to ideate, create, build, innovate and also be ourselves. Playing ourselves is far easier than trying to fit in and be someone else. Creativity and innovation can be the greatest strengths we can build on. These go hand-in-hand with originality and authenticity. A great idea does not see the gender of the person who comes up with it.
Women just fake it like the make-up they wear to conceal their real selves.
Shattering the Stereotype:
We always have that one/two friends with who we feel that we are ourselves. Don’t we feel happiest when we are with them? Don’t we say that they bring out the best in us? The best in us is our authentic self. How often we try to dress uniquely just so we don’t end up looking exactly like someone else at the party. We make a conscious effort not to repeat our clothes but we need to apply it to our repeating patterns as well. Often we reinvent our looks and sometimes we feel so uncomfortable because it is just “so not us”. If change makes us comfortable, makes us feel real, that’s a change we need to embrace. The authentic self here means who we really are, it does not mean that we stop learning new things or building new skills. We grow with our experiences and our journey teaches us to change our perspectives but it does not have to take away our real self. When we try hard to balance the real self with the ideal self, we start to falter. Just the way we find innovative ways to convince our family/friends, the way we balance work and life, the way we reinvent how we cook and how we look on an everyday basis, we need to find ways to do that at the workplace.
So, we do know when we are far from our real selves and how that makes us feel. Sometimes, all we need to do is celebrate being a woman without having to worry about what the world thinks of it. We need not back off for the fear of coming across as a feminist, a narcissist, an opportunist – the labels are limitless.
The Palindrome story has been built on the authenticity we bring to the work we do. We have built long term relationships with our clients because of the originality we bring to our work, our ideas and our style. We have not compromised on our value systems because then we would cease to be who we are. When we use expressive arts as the base of the work, it comes from the heart – spontaneously and with authenticity. The content for each program is varied even for the same brand we work with, to suit the audience and the work they do. At Palindrome, we create bespoke programs designed using games, art, theater, movement and music. We add a touch of originality and freshness to the programs we run.
When we initially started, we wanted someone to design our logo and waited for long. With no revert, I picked up a paper and drew what came from my heart. I took a picture of it, and shared it with my sisters. They gave their nod. That became our official logo and has been loved by everyone who has seen it. I realized no one else could have interpreted what we wanted to convey about us, better than us. And, we saved money too.
The secret ingredient: I love the part in Kung Fu Panda, where Po opens the scroll and sees it is blank. He then exclaims “There is no secret ingredient, it’s just you” That is so true for us women, who want to venture out and make that impact on society. There is no secret ingredient- it is just you. Nothing can stop you, except you.
The question here is not “how do we bring more women to the boardrooms, for societal impact or to decision making roles?” It is about how to stop denying the opportunities to reach the boardroom or roles of societal impact, to some people, just because they are women. We succeeded in establishing Palindrome as a unique, experiential learning venture because of the differentiating work we did. It wasn’t because we were three women. What makes our story worth sharing, is that, though we were three women, limited by several stereotypes that society hurled at us, we still succeeded. We shattered wrong perceptions, broke the chains that bound us to gender stereotyping and succeeded as individuals.We were able to do what we set out to, because we believed in ourselves and in each other.If we naturally are able to take risks, decide for ourselves, know when to say our “YES please” and “NO, thanks”, are authentic, we are already on the adventure-laden, untrodden path.
And so befitting to end it with the last stanza of the same poem:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Dare to do things differently- differently from what you normally do. It may not create history, or HerStory but it sure will create YourStory- a story that you will be proud of. #ichange