Diversity has been stealing the scene and the headlines – thanks to a certain president-elect and his band of ill-informed merry men – for the past two years. Personally I’m not done talking about it, and KING&why is nowhere near tired of giving kudos to the people fighting for it. Case in point, Smriti Nagpal breaking bad misconceptions surrounding deaf people and deaf culture with her non-profit Atulyakala. Sparking conversations with campaigns like #deafandawesome, the bad-ass ladyboss and Forbes ’30 under 30′ lister is definitely one to emulate. MC, editor
You started Atulyakala at the age of 22, after years of working as an interpreter. Tell us a little about what it took to eventually launch it.
One day, while shopping with my sister, I met a deaf artist who was selling products in an exhibition. When he saw me signing with my sister, he came over and introduced himself. He had a Master’s in Art and was working in an NGO as a manual labourer. He asked if I could help him find a better job. I assured him that I would find a better place for his work, though I was honestly clueless about how I would do it!
I was still figuring out what I wanted to do in life. But his question made me brainstorm and think of a common solution. Something that would bring together my love for the deaf community, my business mind and a sustainable model.
Of course, it was hard to balance all those elements. Building a business model wasn’t easy and separating my company from NGOs was another struggle.
I got lucky though. My team was built very quickly; things just fell into place. And I kickstarted Atulyakala with some money that I bootstrapped. We started with a one-room office and a team of four.
And what does your workspace look like now?
We’re located in a very busy area, with colourful yet subtle artwork to tell everyone where we are in the lane. We don’t believe in cubicles, so the office has a huge central table where our designers work. Products are packaged in a separate area. On another floor, we run our training centre where team members give classes.
Our office is a sign language friendly space, making it peaceful and calm. (But yes, we can shout just by signing too!) You can see our artists sketching pretty artwork and there’s always the sweet smell of coffee in the air.
Atulyakala is as much about showcasing creativity as it is about empowering the deaf community. What would you say is the most memorable/inspiring story you’ve witnessed as a result of the work that you do?
I’m very fortunate to have been part of some wonderful stories. I remember when I saw one of our team members standing on the stage and delivering his first ever talk. His passion is photography but, before Atulyakala, he’d never had a chance to be recognised for it. With us, he practiced his skills and went on to have his first ever photography exhibition. That really showed me how hard work can result in something beautiful.
Generally people tend to avoid the ‘F’ word (failure), yet without it success wouldn’t exist. What are some of your most memorable setbacks since starting Atulyakala and what did they teach you?
Well, success is very short-lived and, as a super-ambitious person, I know that failure can never be ignored. I’ve had my share of it! There was a time when we weren’t able to make enough sales, and then on top of that, we lost a major project. This resulted in huge financial pressure; I even thought about giving up.
I told my team that we might not continue Atulyakala and the senior deaf artist came to me, asking where would he go after this? That was a huge question to answer; it made me realise that this business wasn’t just mine, I had a lot of people with me and I couldn’t accept failure. When we bring change, we take our failures as a lesson. I did that too.
The BBC listed you as one of 100 inspirational women to watch, while Forbes magazine featured you in their renowned ‘30 under 30’ segment. Did you ever anticipate this level of recognition for your work?
I was in Sweden, attending a fellowship, when I received an email from the BBC. I still wasn’t sure how huge this could be until one day, my father woke me up with a newspaper in his hand and showed me my photograph on the front page with some very famous Indian celebrities. He then got every newspaper he could and kept all the cuttings from them.
Forbes was my dream. I remember aspiring to be on the list when I was 20. Yet all this seems like a dream to me.
These awards are not just the result of my hard work but also my team, who believed in me and supported every silly idea I had.
Do you then feel the pressure to keep setting the bar high, to keep exceeding yourself? If so, how do you work through that?
Now, this I would call my ongoing issue; my mind never stops planning and creating which results in more and more work. After all the recognition, the biggest task was to keep the bar high and continue to prove ourselves. Success comes with a million other invisible things attached. I love to fly high and not confine myself, but as the work grows life starts changing. I can’t deny that this has changed my social life; the work has become my first love. But when I put all my thoughts and time into creating something and finally the end product comes out, that moment is enough to justify everything that went into its creation.
Who would you say has influenced you the most during your career, and why?
My father! I want to be like him. Since my teenage years, I’ve wanted him to be proud of me and I’ve wanted my parents to be happy because of me. My father has always helped me push my boundaries. My mother too is a source of courage for me. I guess these two people top my list!
And what would you say are three key traits every social entrepreneur should possess?
Passion, Innovation and Leadership.
“I never want to do things impulsively that have no meaning or intent.” – Willow Smith. Any words of wisdom on how to get clear on a vision and make a living from doing something fulfilling?
Ask yourself what’s the one thing you can do for the next few years, with the same level of passion. It could be anything, anything that you love! And follow your gut! It’s absolutely essential to be crazy about the work you do, nurture it with your ideas and passion and trust me, the results will surprise you.
A beautiful life is made up of dreams that we realise and things that we check off our bucket list. You are the only one who can shape your life.
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