Leeya Mehta: Finding Balance through Poetry and Prose

Courtesy of Carl Bower
Courtesy of Carl Bower

It’s funny how life circles back on itself, offering us a second chance to grab hold of a skill or interest we had as a child but abandoned like a forgotten toy as we transitioned to adulthood and got overwhelmed by work and raising families. When struggling with what we are meant to do or what would make us most happy, we often revisit a younger, more carefree and rootless version of ourselves. Leeya Mehta is no different from many of us in this respect except that she has decided to take the leap. Stepping off the conventional career path, the former international development specialist has thrown herself full-time into writing: “When I write, I feel incredibly happy. It’s remarkably satisfying. I don’t find that any part of my life is missing, which is what I used to feel before I became a writer.”

Born and raised in Mumbai, India, Mehta grew up in an open household highly appreciative of culture and the arts. Her mother, an English Literature teacher, writer, and journalist placed few constraints on her only daughter and encouraged her from an early age to express her feelings through writing, acting and directing.

Despite her relatively Bohemian youth, Mehta’s sensible side propelled her onto a more conventional path and she enrolled in Mumbai University’s St Xavier’s College, where she studied economics and math. Surrounded by theories and algorithms, Mehta found reprieve and inspiration in poet and novelist Eunice de Souza, head of the English Department at her college. She also acted in a major role in a unique production of The Crucible by candlelight and started writing a young adult novel when she was nineteen, thinking that somehow she would be able to simultaneously pursue her multiple interests.

Awarded a Chevening scholarship, the British Foreign Office’s equivalent of a Rhodes Scholarship, Mehta did a Master’s in economics and politics at Oxford University in the UK. On returning to Mumbai at the height of the tech boom, she was recruited to run a legal services internet start-up, Legal Pundits, launched by family friends. She did the job for two years before moving on.

“I had started a young adult, semi-fantasy novel that I wanted to finish. I was young and adventurous so I quit my job.” Mehta lived at home with her mother and grandparents, as is the norm for single adults in India. But she was disciplined, writing every day from 7am to 5pm, and doing some consulting in international development on the side.

“This was a wonderful period! My poems and short stories were published and I wrote for newspapers. I was invited to read my work in New York and at the University of Michigan. Because of my private sector experience, consulting seemed the best way to earn a living and allow me the time to write, and I was trying to figure out how to do both when an exciting opportunity took me on a UN University (UNU) fellowship to Tokyo.” At the UNU Mehta researched and wrote a paper on how to make a profit from environmental stewardship. Her experience in Tokyo led to a series of poems set in Japan, but also strengthened her resolve to balance a career in international development with her writing.

Around this time, Mehta’s mother, who had remarried and moved to the US, became quite ill. Wanting to be closer to her, Mehta enrolled in Georgetown University’s Public Policy Master’s Program to study energy and environmental policy as her goal was to work for an international NGO. She was editor of the Public Policy Review, and, during her first year, she signed up with the World Bank as a consultant on energy and carbon finance projects in the Africa region.

Marrying a fellow Georgetown graduate, Mehta soon found herself with two small children, a busy job, and little time to write. It gnawed at her. “There was always the sense that I was missing something fundamental. I knew what it was. I had already had a test run, I knew what it felt like. I wanted to go back to it but, with a young family and work, it was hard.”

Mehta stayed with the international institution but took on a new position after a few years as an independent evaluator of the Bank’s gender mainstreaming policy in the poverty and gender group. “I had a great gig with two phenomenal managers. They allowed me to work from home and I had a lot of flexibility to operate,” she recalls.

At the end of 2012, Mehta took advantage of the flexible work hours and moved to an as-when-needed basis. She did some projects on the side but for the most part immersed herself in a new novel about three generations of women in an Indian family and how each one responds internally to violence in the home, how their own rage has unintended consequences.

And then, with her manuscript coming together, tragedy struck.

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What remained of Mehta’s home after the devastating fire

The family home caught fire in the middle of the night. “It was a full blown crazy fire. It was providential that I woke up in time for us to escape being trapped and we were able to walk away with our lives. But we lost everything. Absolutely everything. And we had very little insurance. It took a couple of months to get back on our feet. We stayed with friends during that period. We had to start over completely.”

While Mehta’s husband’s computer had melted and fused to the kitchen table, her own Toshiba, although burned, had the hard drive intact. She brought it to local consumer electronics firm, Best Buy, to back up the drive. Incredibly they lost the drive and it only turned up after several weeks of hounding them. Staying with friends at the time, a somewhat distracted Mehta unfortunately placed the back-up and original together in a box, which was promptly lost along with three other boxes and her husband’s tennis rackets when they moved into their current apartment.

“It was as if everything was conspiring to get rid of that book! January was very hard for me. The thought of starting the book again was depressing. I kept getting pains in my chest. I even went to the doctor for a stress test but she laughed me off. I knew I should not let this kind of stress get to me but it wasn’t that easy. Yet I knew where my contentment lay, and that I had to be tenacious; I set myself a goal to write every day and hit a certain word count. It was just a matter of getting started and then it felt so easy.”

Like a fairytale, occasion followed calamity. Mehta’s mother stepped forward, offering to cover childcare and other expenses so her daughter could focus more intensely on writing. “It’s the most amazing thing she’s ever done. She sat me and my husband down and said, ‘You’ve been through a really traumatic experience. I’m going to give you what you need to make this happen. I want you to get back your emotional and physical health. I want you to write your book because that’s what you want to do. I don’t want you to worry about money, and so for two years, you can count on my support. What are my savings for if not to help you?’”

And so she began again, this time without worrying about money and investing more time in her health and wellbeing.

In addition to completing her novel, the 38-year-old Mehta continues to write poetry and is invited to read and speak on panels. “The poetry was always easier to take off. Being featured in publications like The Beloit Poetry Journal has opened many doors and I have found that poetry publishing is a nurturing world. I’m driven to write fiction but I’m drawn to the creative process of both. I do one and come up for air and then I do the other.”

And if she is not successful with her novel? “I’m just going to write the next one. I’ve made up my mind. My mother’s two-year cushion is coming to a close but we’ll adapt to the situation. This is what I was meant to do. I’ve got to write.”

Leeya Mehta’s Tips for pursuing your passion

  • It’s hard to have every box checked off if you want to pursue something other than your job. It’s difficult to take care of yourself, your family, and find the time to focus. If you can, invest in help around the house, invest in exercise, sanity, nutrition…get help where you can.
  • I would encourage young people to stick with one thing if you can. It’s nice to have something you can develop, and get better and better at. Even if it’s a hobby on the side, be it technical or creative, one must be single-minded
  • Have confidence and be optimistic. Have the stamina to pursue what you are doing without getting bitter
  • Build a community around yourself, that enriches you and celebrates you and makes you feel secure

You can read some of Mehta’s poetry here. Below is one she selected for Career 2.0

 

David and the Hummingbird

For Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

 

Joyce tells a story of the day

the bird flew into the shed

and would not leave;

it beat its wings until it fell

exhausted to the floor.

 

But it didn’t end like that,

nor was this the beginning—

 

The morning of the Kill,

the hummingbird flew through the open door

and circled round and round the blood

“It was not interested to feed,” she said,

but just to see and understand.

 

It went up into the rafters

and then down again

towards the cement floor.

Its blues and greens dancing in

the light and dark;

the corners hiding it and then

like magic, letting it be seen.

 

David tried to make it leave;

first, sugar feeders lured it outside;

then, when it was noon, the

darkest noon they’d ever seen,

the thunder began.

He set the sugar water inside the garage door

“It must not starve,” he said.

 

The day was hurried, like the

wings—it beat and beat.

The world grew still behind the

murmur of the bird

as if to move, to breathe, would be too much.

 

The rain was sheets of ice;

it pierced the ground, it tore into the hillside’s heart

forcing the mountains to slide and the roads to close.

At dusk the rain stopped, bringing on a night that had not known a day.

The sky cleared and that was when she said she knew

the bird’s heart had begun to burst,

“You could hear it banging in your ears.”

 

The small buzzing body lifted up to the

ceiling one last time and dropped.

From where it lay the stag’s head was a foot away;

the eyes of the beast, strained and dead;

the bullet hole straight through its neck

revealed the moon in the night sky which shone

like a polished coin.

 

He picked it up to rest it for the night

in a shoebox with soft muslin cloth.

She said, “Its eyes brimmed with tears.”

Was it fear? It did not tremble.

Was it relief? Did it not know it was only David?

And he said, “It is bereft. It must be saved.”

 

Then began the longest night.

He left the bird to sleep beneath

the stars. It did not know

the inside of their house.

It could get disoriented in that space.

 

He lay beside her in

their bed, his ever faithful

heart racing beneath her hand.

Kindness cannot be measured by a single good deed—

a few here, a few there, some withheld.

Love measured out in spoons

as if it were a finite bucket of gold dust.

 

He would not sleep—

he tore the covers off

and shot down the stairs—

It would be cold, the raccoons might overturn the box.

The bird twitched and murmured in its sleep,

he put it on the garden table and

covered its feet.

 

Back in bed he tossed and turned—the coyotes would not spare its life

One a.m. and out he went again.

Carrying the box in, he saw its

eyes open and look at him.

What a strange look it gave, as if

there was no meaning there—

a still hard look, but liquid eyes,

as if it was not a bird to

speak of anything—

its mystery not a mystery at all

for it hid nothing

and revealed nothing both at once.

 

He sat beside it in the hall

he wrung his hands

he stood up

and paced and breathed

he towered over it, afraid of it

and yet he had to watch it once again.

It had been resting while he paced

now it turned its head

a movement so small an immeasurable dot in space

and looked up at him.

They stared into each other’s eyes

this grown man and this miniature creature of the flower world

Decades he had lived so well

this small bird seemed to know it too.

 

“What is the meaning of it all?” he asked aloud

The hummingbird closed its eyes and went to sleep.

He sat down again and prayed a while

As the bird’s breast rose and fell;

the morning light would bring it back;

he dreamed of it in his garden years from now.

 

As the sun came fiercely into the room

it was not clear any more who slept and who kept vigil—

the bird watched him as he slept

but closed its eyes again when he began to stir.

The hummingbird stayed with David until

the stag was gone, a day late, in the butcher’s van.

Their friends who’d shot the beast would send them some to taste.

 

David’s heart leapt with joy,

the sun was hot and the

little one was gathering its body and

shaking the sleep away.

He tried to catch its eye again but it did not look at him,

and then, as if the night was no time to go,

as if it had tried for David’s sake alone,

it died under a blazing morning sun at eleven o’clock.

 

There are many sorts of men—

some of them are cruel to humans

and rescue animals; they are kind to dogs.

“Some men are good for all to see,

Some men are always good,” Joyce said to me.

 

 

 

 

 

Trusha Patel: Swapping Commodities for Cumin Seeds

Trusha Patel
Trusha on location in India with ginger farmers

Trusha Patel has a passion for spice and finding just that right flavor as she cooks has always offered her sanctuary from the stressful life of corporate law. And now she has made it her mission to bring those high quality ingredients from the farms of India and Europe to your table, helping you transform all kinds of dishes in ways you could never have imagined. “A simple thing like adding a little ginger and cinnamon to smoothies or even black pepper to orange juice can turn good into exceptional.”

Born in Kenya to Indian parents, Patel moved to the UK as a child. Fulfilling her childhood dream, she studied law at the University of Manchester and, after training and qualifying with Linklaters, she moved to Credit Suisse First Boston as an Associate specialized in banking transactions. After one year, she was recruited to Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) in London where she spent the next 8 years as a front office derivatives lawyer.

“It was a trading floor position. Basically I sat among the traders and marketing guys, working with them on the transactions. I got a lot of exposure as to how things are really done. The trend at that time was very much on credit derivatives and everything that basically triggered the economic crisis. That’s what was driving the volumes, driving the revenue for the bank, all these high-end, multi-million-dollar transactions.”

It was a lucrative career, but it all started to come apart in 2008 with the lack of liquidity in the market. “It was all about cheap credit, cheap loans, and the bigger corporations leveraging off that to make money.  I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was ten. I was pretty senior and successful, and at the time it was everything I had dreamed of,” she recalls.

Once the crisis took hold, CIBC’s focus was to mitigate its risk. It was not going to be easy as – of all Canadian banks – it had the greatest exposure to these types of transactions. Patel’s job centered around managing the losses and reducing inventory, essentially deconstructing all that had come before.

Two years earlier, after a trip to Canada, Patel and her husband had applied for permanent residency under the Canadian Federal Skilled Workers Program. “We were looking for a lifestyle change and wanted to open some options for our future. Since I was working for a Canadian bank, it seemed like a good idea.”

So it was providential timing that the residency applications were approved around the same time CIBC started cutting jobs and repatriating staff.

At the end of 2009, the couple relocated to Canmore, about 1 hour outside of Calgary, Alberta. Unable to practice law without retraining, she carried on working for CIBC but on a consultancy basis. Her husband was less fortunate and found it very difficult to find work. Reluctantly, he returned to the UK to work for a British bank. “We were having this long distance marriage, which was not in the plans, but we had to adjust to the situation. He was doing months there and a few weeks off in Canada. It was a very difficult time.”

Patel speaks openly about how she wanted to make the transition from the banking sector. “I felt pretty toxic about what was going on and really wanted to break free from it. I was on the lookout for something else.” Cooking had always been her passion, an escape. “I would lose myself in it without thinking too much, it would take me away from my long, long days in the office.” She had a special affinity for Northern Indian cooking as it recalled days spent in her mother’s kitchen.

Initially she thought she could open a modern Indian restaurant and catering business and conducted some marketing research but quickly it became apparent that “Canmore was not ready for that. There were people who didn’t even know what a samosa was!” But even aside from that small issue, Patel found she was having to adapt the ingredients of her favorite dishes to what was available locally. The quality of spices was particularly disappointing, “The dishes I made in the UK always needed additional seasoning. Even switching to more organic sources was not doing it for me, they just weren’t delivering the same flavor profile.”

Taking things into her own hands, she begin experimenting with her own blends and, encouraged by her husband, decided to sell them at a local Trusha Patel cinnamonmarket stall with tasting notes and advice on spice pairings. When they were quickly snapped up, Patel knew she was on to something. She began researching different spices and the buyers from whom they could be sourced. She was particularly interested in understanding the relationship with the farmers and how the spices were harvested and processed.

It took a further eight months to get all her suppliers on board, but the real challenge was establishing the business and dealing with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). “It was a completely new industry and new country for me. All the labelling rules, the bureaucracy involved in setting up the business, getting my organic certification, understanding what could be said and not said according to the CFIA, the little nuances or things that may be misinterpreted by the consumer… it all took me more time than finding the people I wanted to work with,” Patels explains.

There were other hurdles too. She learned a hard lesson by spending a lot of marketing dollars early on at a trade show. While interest at the show was high, the sales conversion was not great and the expected orders did not materialize for months. “After that, I just got on the phone and started cold calling. It was difficult. I’m not a salesperson. I’m pretty reserved. I took the rejection so personally. My husband was my savior because he coached me on how to respond to people and we even did some mind-mapping to help with my response to people’s feedback.”

But after a slow start, the Spice Sanctuary emerged undeterred. The production line was launched, the website was live with an online store, and bloggers started to mention her range. By the end of 2013 Patel was listed with 50 outlets and had built up a relationship with wholesalers. “Purveyors of Fine Quality Spices and Seasonings”, the Spice Sanctuary imports an exclusive range of premium grade organic spices, blends and rubs as well as Pukka-branded teas.

The best news came when her husband landed a job in Calgary and the couple was “finally able to have a normal life”. They celebrated by traveling to India to meet her suppliers and the farmers. “I came back recharged and in full-speed-ahead mode.”

Trusha Patel“We got a gelato company on board, a popcorn manufacturer, executive chefs, and even a brewery uses our spices. Sales have doubled. Right now we are listed with 75 stores but my target is 100 by the end of this year. Being featured on The Marilyn Denis Show was especially fun.”

Does she ever miss law? The 40-year-old spice guru’s response is swift and unequivocal “No! It’s been tough to wait two-and-a-half years to see success and get buzz around the products, but it’s finally coming and I know I am on the right track. I have full job satisfaction in what I do right now.”

 

Tips from Trusha Patel
  • Always give things in life your best shot. As long as you know you have done your best, that’s what matters.
  • Make sure you have a support network (family or friends), someone who can give you perspective. Someone who knows you and gets you back on the right track.
  • Travel and see the world. It will enrich you in more ways than you might think possible
  • Life is too short so don’t be afraid to laugh, cry, believe and feel the beauty around you as much as possible!

Sonal Gerten: Making a Business of Being Playful

KFP_6974_v2 (1)Over the sound of her baby’s gurgles and giddy shrieks, Sonal Gerten acknowledges she never expected to be an entrepreneur. Even today, three years into her Indian-inspired, vibrant play-friendly kids’ clothing line, the Pittsburgh native and mother-of-two is surprised at how far she’s come. “I’m risk averse and not adventurous by nature, so starting my own business was not something I remotely considered …  Even today, it still feels very overwhelming to call myself an entrepreneur,” she laughs.

So, how did she end up here? At the start of her career, Gerten had two great passions: marketing, which tapped into her creative side, and education, which fulfilled her love of working with and improving the lives of children. A graduate of Johns Hopkins who had tutored young children during and after college, Gerten initially followed the education path and moved to Arizona where she was involved in the establishment of charter schools. From there, she went to Los Angeles to do an MBA at UCLA. Specializing in marketing, Gerten lent her skills over the summer to Head Start, the early childhood education program, “I loved contributing to their work. The fact that I was applying my business school skills to helping children was a great motivator for me.”

The experience was so fulfilling in fact that she found herself at a crossroads after graduation, still torn between marketing and education. But love stepped in to offer some guidance, and Gerten followed her now husband, Allen, to Minneapolis where they both took up positions at General Mills. Working as a marketing manager for three years, Gerten learned the nuts and bolts of the business, but felt something was missing.

She welcomed a second chance to return to the education field when an opportunity popped up to work for Teach for America managing a team that focused on recruitment partnerships. “It felt like I was making a big leap from corporate America to non-profit, not only a different career trajectory but a financial one too. But it seemed like the right opportunity at the right time, especially working with an organization that aims to close the achievement gap.”

While Gerten loved her time at Teach for America, she found that period of her life challenging. “I had my son, Deven, then and found it increasingly difficult to be ‘in the moment’. I was so wrapped up in work and thinking about the future and then this little person came along who taught me how to be playful again.” Her new role of mother provided lots of food for thought about her lifestyle and more generally how to “let go” more in the parent-child interaction, she wondered if there was an opportunity there somewhere.

The busy new mom started looking into ways to integrate spontaneous play into family life and, driven by her interest in education, did some research on the benefits of unstructured play. As her own mindset about having a more open and playful parenting style evolved, Gerten had her eureka moment while out shopping for baby clothes one day. She found the clothes so dull and traditional and couldn’t find any organic fabrics or unique designs. “It was kind of disappointing. Shopping for clothes adds to the fun quotient of having a small baby and I couldn’t find anything that I loved. Organic clothes that would let my son crawl and move around unhindered. I knew there was a niche there, I just needed some time to figure it out.”

In the last year of the three she spent with Teach for America, Gerten mulled over the idea of starting an eco- and child-friendly clothing line. She held back and forth conversations with herself and discussed her idea at length with her husband, friends and even colleagues.

Her ideas and vision came together slowly. “I wanted to merge the concept of a clothing business with unrestricted playfulness. The clothes should facilitate movement and freedom, be comfortable, organic, colorful and easy to wash.”

She found a creative designer, a friend of a friend, who helped visualize her thoughts. She hired a graphic designer to create the logo and branding elements, but mostly she turned to people she trusted. “One of the best things I ever did was to enlist my family and friends. For my first kick off meeting, I invited my ten closest friends for Indian food and a brainstorming session. It served as a way for others to get invested and for me to get inspired and motivated but more importantly it made me feel accountable … I had a deadline to work towards.” Assembling a bunch of magazines, they talked about the name and vision of living in the moment and celebrating the joys of parenthood.

And so Tumblewalla  (Hindi for “the one who tumbles”) was born.

Hedgehog_revisedThe feedback from her friends was so positive, it gave her the confidence she needed to move forward. “That was the springboard. I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to do this. I can do this.’” Gerten recalls.

Within a few months, then 34-year-old Gerten left Teach for America to focus 100% on the business. Despite claiming to be risk adverse, the decision was not an uncomplicated one: “You know, it’s so easy to get comfortable. If we don’t challenge ourselves, we never know what our potential is. I don’t want to have that regret. I finally got comfortable with the idea that if I failed, it would be OK. It gave me the freedom to say, ‘I can do this now. What’s the worse than can happen?’”

After six months working on Tumblewalla, Gerten was taken aback by how much capital and time was needed. Having invested her own money and taken bank loans, she decided to return to the job market to bring in more funds. She took a marketing position at Activision, a video-game firm, figuring she could work on her clothing line at night, but after one year she realized the impossibility of the situation. “I had ordered my first inventory from India but quickly saw I didn’t have the capacity to build my fan base, call on boutiques, or go to events. So all my inventory was literally sitting in my basement. I just had time to maintain the website and answer emails but I was clearly not moving forward.”

Becoming increasingly frustrated, Gerten finally understood that if Tumblewalla was going to succeed as a business she would have to devote herself 100%. “Starting a business is so challenging. I understand why I did things the way I did and to some extent I’m even glad. It’s like dipping your toe in the water to make sure the temperature is right and this is what you really want to do. But there is no way I could have gotten to the point where I am today if I was still working. If I was ready before, after one year of holding down a full-time job and trying to run my business, I knew I was really, really ready,” she laughs.

Gerten worked out of her home in the beginning but as the inventory took over the house and the line between work and family time became blurred, she decided to rent a space in Minneapolis’ art district with some other artists. Now she works with a Minneapolis-based designer and hires interns from the Apparel Design program at the University of Minnesota. It works so well that Gerten hired her first intern as her creative manager and right-hand help. “Working with interns has been a great asset and wonderful discovery. They bring passion and fresh perspective. They are very familiar with the industry and even teach me about new stiches, cuts, and trends. We are building this business together.”

Sonal Gerten -- Amelie2
Here’s a sneak peak from Tumblewalla’s new Fall collection which features more traditional Indian-inspired prints and recalls the flavors of an Indian bazaar … paprika, nutmeg, mango.

And she has been resourceful in growing the business in other ways too. Last Fall, she reached out to MoolaHoop, a crowdfunding platform by and for women, to help produce her Spring line which had to be pre-ordered and paid for before it was sold. Moolahoop were great in coaching her through the process, and Gerten not only exceeded her $9000 funding goal but also got the word out about her business.

The design-for-play Tumblewalla is not just about creating joyful clothing for kids. Gerten and her team work with non-profit partners to eradicate what they call “the play deficit” globally, 5% of sales goes directly to these projects. They also develop free parent resources and offer easy playtime activities and tips for parents. This includes workshops on why play is critical to a baby’s growth and development. And the company is committed to sustainability. Gerten sources her organic cotton-based materials from a supplier in India and works only with small manufacturers to produce the garments. Her family in India found an intermediary who serves as Tumblewalla’s advocate. This woman ensures all suppliers meet high the company’s standards in terms of quality and employee working conditions. “There’s been a lot of trial and error, but I think we finally got it right,” Gerten admits.

Three years in and Tumblewalla continues to blossom. Orders and sales are increasing each season and while there is always more she wants to achieve, Gerten acknowledges she feels excited “about what we’ve accomplished so far. I say ‘We’ because it’s not just me. We are a team. I might be the one carrying the risk but together we carry the business.”

Sonal Gerten’s Tips to Starting Your Own Business:

  • Understand your strengths but more importantly your weaknesses and find people to fill that gap. Enlist people who can offer good ideas because you’ll never have all the answers
  • Be prepared for the highs and lows. They are so much more extreme than in the corporate world because they are personal.
  • You are going to make mistakes, there are never enough hours in the day. You need to know where your priorities are. Don’t forget your family. You will regret the cost in the long run. You don’t have to run on a treadmill and work yourself crazy to be successful.

Have we tickled your fancy? Check out Tumblewalla’s Fall catalog.

Srirupa Dasgupta: Giving the Gift of Work, Food, and a Little Perspective

SrirupaDasguptaSrirupa Dasgupta admits she rarely listens to other people. Well, to be fair, she listens to what other people say and then makes her own decisions. The Bengali Indian is a doer, that much is clear. But her story is not what you expect. The force behind this tenacious woman who has sported many career hats is a desire to live her values and invest in her beliefs. For Dasgupta, working with and developing people is her life’s goal, and she is prepared to sacrifice more than most of us to make this a reality.

Born in Calcutta, India, Dasgupta first came to the United States to study at Smith College, with only an aunt to her name far away in California. She double-majored in computer science and studio art, two seemingly unrelated fields. “Being Indian, I was told I need to do something practical and majoring arts was not going to cut it so I did computer science, which was up and coming. But really it made sense, I was drawn to the problem solving and elegant algorithms.”

Fresh out of college she became a programmer analyst for a decision-support software provider for the healthcare industry. After four years and looking for something more interesting, she moved from application and systems development to a management role. For the next 15 years, Dasgupta held various management positions in the software industry, rotating from managing R&D teams and call centers, to developing strategic partnerships and consulting services for different blue-chip companies in Massachusetts and California.

In the lead up to the tech bubble burst, Dasgupta started thinking about changing careers. “I had worked the entire lifecycle of the software product, done the whole rotation. I wanted to do something new and fresh.” With much foresight, she launched into a 1-year Integral Coach® training and certification program while still working at Lucent Technologies. “In all of my management positions, what I loved best was working with people, setting a vision and creating opportunities for them to excel and advance in their career … coaching seemed like a good fit.”

In a-not-unwelcome turn-of-events, Dasgupta was laid off from her job in 2002. Well prepared when she got the news, she put all her energies into finishing the coaching certification program. “The training was really aligned with my interests. The methodology takes an integrated approach to the multi-dimensional individual, we looked at the whole person, cognitive, and physical, and the cultural, social and environmental context in which they find themselves. All of these are critical components of coaching, the end goal of which is not to solve the problem, but rather develop the person.”

She started her own coaching practice shortly thereafter. “Even though I had a lot of experience in business, being a small business owner was really different … the first year was a lot of learning-by-doing. I found it difficult to promote myself, attending events and generating leads was challenging.” But not one to shy away from a challenge and noticing she was not alone in her discomfort for business networking, she started a blog to coach herself and others, which led to a book on the subject entitled Effortless Networking.

In fact these evolving career transitions have become a theme and pattern in Dasgupta’s life. As she explains: “Most of us set a goal and move towards it. It’s a linear task. But training as a coach introduced me to another option … it’s called improvisation. You have a map, you know how you will get there, but on route life throws you curveballs. I try to keep my goal in focus but adapt along the way. Coaching has taught me to look at the opportunities that arise and use them to propel me towards my objective rather than seeing them as a distraction.”

After the birth of her second child in 2006, she decided to put her practice on hold as the family relocated to Ohio and finally Pennsylvania for work. For about two years, Dasgupta didn’t actively seek out clients. When she began to think about working again, she found herself at a crossroads. “Should I restart my business? Do something different? Take a salaried position?” she wondered. While thinking about all the possible options, a digital communications and marketing position opened up at nearby Franklin & Marshall College. Although she has been working there for six years and it’s interesting work, Dasgupta admits, her passion lies in working with people.

And so comes the next transition or, more precisely, expression of who she is. Attending an event where Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, was speaking, Dasgupta was intrigued by the idea that one can create a for-profit business with the intention of solving a social problem. As an entrepreneur, her interest was piqued and she started to look around for inspiration while doing her day job at F&M.

upohar2Dasgupta learned about the refugee population in Lancaster City and felt a connection. Her own family had been refugees from Bangladesh and she had grown up with stories about how difficult it was to start over in India. At the height of the economic crisis, it was tough for refugees to find work. For the women, it was close to impossible. Thinking about how she could create jobs for these Bhutanese, Iraqi and other female refugees, Dasgupta hit upon the idea of  starting a catering business. “These women may not be able to speak English but they can cook!” she realized.

She found a commercial kitchen that rented space on an hourly basis and worked with about four women, who – for practical, mostly language, reasons – cooked what they knew. The enterprising Dasgupta launched the ethnic catering business as a proof-of-concept to see whether she could use a for-profit business model to hire women who otherwise could not find a job, whether the women could do the work, and whether she could pay a living wage.

“All of this was hypothetical. On paper, everything looked great but usually the problems you anticipate are not the ones that show up,” she recalls. “During the first year, I learned all kinds of things and hurdles emerged where I never expected them.”

Apart from the language barrier, a key issue was that the refugees are on welfare. When they get a job, their benefits are cut. But as the catering upohar3business is erratic … one day they may get a gig, the next day not. So the irregularity of income wreaked havoc with the calculation of women’s welfare benefits. “Sometimes they had cash, sometimes they didn’t. It was almost easier not to work!” Dasgupta stopped hiring new employees and tried to stabilize the hours of those she already worked with but the problem persisted.

And so, making a decision that no one in their right mind facing a similar challenge would make, this past March, after three years of solely catering, she opened a restaurant. Entirely self-funded and managed all while still working a full-time job in F&M, this remarkable woman is determined to make a go of it. Upohar (which translates to gift in Bengali) opened its doors for lunch and takeout only and offers catering services. Dasgupta’s right-hand man, Stephen, does the deliveries, inventory, and shopping and her staff of five cook and run the show. Dasgupta breaks even but pays for the advertising and marketing campaigns out of her own pocket. She has yet to give herself a paycheck. She is hoping each month she will generate enough revenue to pay her staff and the rent for the following month. So far, so good!

Why all the risk and stress? “I was called to do it. It was the only way I could generate steady employment for these women. Upohar was conceived as a gift for employees, who get the opportunity to work, a gift to the community to try all these new different foods, and a gift to myself. Through working with these women who are starting over, working hard to rebuild their lives from scratch, I have been given the gift of perspective. My problems don’t seem that big anymore.”

And so Dasgupta takes it one day at a time. She now hires not just refugees but also disadvantaged women from shelters. She is hopeful that Upohar will become a place where people come not only come to enjoy the food but also to appreciate all that they have by meeting those who make the food and who have overcome great challenges.

If you are ever in Lancaster City, Pennsylvania, explore the world through food and visit Upohar.

Believe in Srirupa Dasgupta’s work and want to support her efforts? You can make a donation at http://www.upoharethniccuisines.com/contact-us/support-us/

Srirupa Dasgupta’s Tips for Success:

  • Ask for help. No one does anything alone. Acknowledge your strengths and find help in areas that are not part of your skillset.
  • Pay attention to your gut reactions and your behavior (what you actually do, versus what you think you do or want to do) – to different situations, events, and people – and use this information in your decision-making process.
  • Know your limits so you can set and maintain your boundaries. This can help you focus on what matters most and avoid over-extending yourself.

Discussion

Have you ever considered putting your career where your heart is by creating a social enterprise?