Meet Mithula Naik: Feminist Designer, Latent Entrepreneur

“Growing up I believed it was, in fact, harder to get a corporate job than start a business.”

Mithula Naik

Mithula Naik was studying industrial design in Chennai, India, a city of eight million, when she observed that women roaring around town on motorcycles and scooters were wearing bulky, ill-fitting helmets. As the daughter of entrepreneurs, she immediately saw an opportunity to capitalize on her interest in gender and design. “I didn’t just want to take a pink-and-shrink approach to designing a new helmet line for women,” says the now 26-year-old. “I wanted to see how I could enable a better riding experience by designing a better fit. So I researched the particulars of how a woman’s head shape and size is different from a man’s and came up with a better helmet that is ergonomically suited.”

Convincing manufacturers to buy into her idea was not easy. “I had to go to several manufacturers. At first they didn’t think a different helmet for women was necessary, let alone sell,” she says. Eventually, India’s Vega Helmets decided to give the idea—and Naik—a try. And the product took off, launching in 2014.

Naik identifies as a feminist and a feminist designer. LiisBeth recently interviewed her to chat about growing up in India, feminism and how we can redefine entrepreneurship:

LiisBeth: What did your father and mother do for a living?

Naik: Both my parents are entrepreneurs. Both of them work in business. My mother runs a primary school and day care centre. It is based on a Montessori model of education, and goes from preschool/day care through to the fourth grade. Her school is now 35 years in operation. It’s not a large school; it has about 100 students. She prioritizes maintaining quality instead of franchising and expanding the school. My father runs a business for flooring and interiors, so he does granite, marble and interior-related work.

LiisBeth: As a person who’s growing up in an entrepreneurial family, what’s your perception of how entrepreneurship is viewed in India in general?

Naik: Entrepreneurship is understood in two very different ways in India. Firstly, there’s micro and small businesses, the mom-and-pop-shop kind. This kind isn’t considered so special and is often taken for granted because it’s what everyone does. It’s mainstream. A lot of people are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial because they have to be. It’s needs based and a well-known way of life.

The second kind is medium to large businesses. More recently, with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promoting “Make in India,” there came a new kind of entrepreneur. FlipKart’s largest ecommerce chain competes with Amazon. Ola Cabs, India’s very own online cab aggregator, competes with Uber. These are the newer more aggressive and high-growth-oriented entrepreneurship ventures.

But back to the small business world, the influence of family expectations plays a big role in how young people consider entrepreneurship as a career. Your grandfather had a shop. Your father expanded it to two shops, and now as the next in line, you’re taking it to the next level, either developing a third shop or looking to expand internationally with a higher growth mindset. This is the mindset maintained by many of my friends from India. Many go abroad, get international business degrees and then come back to manage and grow their family businesses.

Growing up I believed it was, in fact, harder to get a corporate job than start a business. The entrepreneurial family and the life that goes with it were familiar enough to me that I didn’t really think of it as a desirable career option. There was a certain amount of predictability to it. Also, there is a profound sense of responsibility of a different kind, in that you have to carry the foundations of what your parents have persevered for. I feel extremely fortunate because my parents never placed any expectations on my brother and me to take their businesses forward. They wanted us to dream our own dreams.

LiisBeth: I want to explore this idea a little bit more because I find it intriguing. You grew up in an entrepreneurial family, in an entrepreneurial culture, yet you thought a job would be a great idea.

Naik: Yes.

LiisBeth: [Stunned] Why is that?

Because entrepreneurship, as any career would, comes with its constraints. Just because you are the CEO doesn’t necessarily mean you will be making as much money as you could be working for someone else. A lot of Indians return to India after spending time in the west earning more working at a job than their families ever did owning a small business in India. But this is common as well, immigrating to the west for a higher socio-economic standard. Entrepreneurship is also a deep commitment and responsibility like I mentioned. Personally, I couldn’t see myself putting all my energy in my early 20s in building one business, in the same city I grew up in and having to stay on to build it for the rest of my life. And although that is an equally joyful and challenging journey I personally wanted to travel and experience what was out there, and I was very fortunate to be able to. The world is a smaller place these days.

My core skill is design, and I need to grow as a designer. I thought I could best accomplish this by working with a large company where I would have the opportunity to collaborate with talented people from multidisciplinary fields. Working in an organization and in teams to solve problems seemed to me to be a more attractive idea than jumping on one “big idea” I might have as an entrepreneur.

LiisBeth: Are women entrepreneurs respected in India?        

Naik: I’d say the idea of women entrepreneurs who are in business for themselves in India is not as common as it is in North America. A lot of Indian women pursue business training (MBA) but then are weighed down by family expectations to work in their family’s business or join the corporate workforce. The idea of an Indian woman having her own business where she has 100 per cent autonomy is something rather recent. However, the stereotype of Indian women entrepreneurs being married women who work alongside their husbands, or daughters working with their fathers, is slowly changing.

The changing scenario can be seen by looking at the many young Indian women today using the internet and social media platforms to start their own autonomous businesses. Facebook for Business, particularly for small and medium enterprises, I believe is thriving in India. Start-ups from women entrepreneurs seem to be currently concentrated in traditionally women-led industries such as cosmetics, accessories, fashion and confectionery, but I definitely see that women in India are waking up to starting their own enterprises in other areas.

LiisBeth: Are you a feminist?

Naik: I would surely consider myself a feminist.

LiisBeth: What does that mean to you?

Naik: I guess it’s just the radical idea that women and men are equal! [Laughs.] But seriously, if you have a belief in fundamental human rights, you need to be a feminist. I really loved this new idea I read about, where we should stop asking people if they are feminists. We should ask instead if they’re sexist because really, you’re sexist if you’re not a feminist. Unfortunately, people, including many women, don’t understand the true meaning of feminism. There are too many negative connotations people associate with it, which takes away the basic meaning of feminism.

LiisBeth: Tell us about your final master’s major research project.

Naik: My project is titled “Beyond the Economic: The Influence of Women Entrepreneurs in Canada.” In an exploration of women’s entrepreneurship in Canada, my project seeks to re-examine the stereotype of the male as the prime entrepreneurial role model. It does this by uncovering the distinct experiences of women entrepreneurs for the expansion of both economic growth and social impact.

LiisBeth: What did you find out?

Naik: My research shows that Canadian women entrepreneurs have a lot of experience negotiating between the two complex entrepreneurial systems of for-profit entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship to reveal a middle ground. As a result, they are quicker to adopt a vision of Canadian society wherein businesses do not act in conflict with the good of the people, but rather alongside it. Think, hybrid enterprises. However, my study calls for more research in the subject, as there’s still a lack of available data on women’s entrepreneurship when compared to men.

LiisBeth: Why study women entrepreneurs in Canada?

Naik: Initially, I wanted to learn about how women entrepreneurs work in a first world country like Canada compared to a developing country like India. I thought I might come away with a sense of the ideal Canadian woman entrepreneur archetype that might be useful, motivating and instructional when comparing them to other women entrepreneurs in other countries. Instead, I came away with a much more interesting finding. It turns out Canadian women entrepreneurs have had a long history of fusing social benefit with business—a little known fact from what I could see. That experience and knowledge seems to be highly undervalued here. They could serve as a role model to so many others around the world.

LiisBeth: Can you discuss one of your project’s recommendations?

Naik: My first recommendation is that we begin to understand “impact” in more ways than merely financial and fully value the contributions made by women-led ventures. Many of their ventures not only contribute to the economy in the form of jobs created and supplies purchased, they also lead the way in running enterprises that measurably improve society and the environment. More progressive enterprise valuation formulas based on a broader definition of economic contribution could lead to new funding mechanisms and unleash a horde of financially oppressed but growth-minded women entrepreneurs.

LiisBeth: Any ideas on how to measure the value of social and environmental contributions?

Naik: Sure. We can start by carrying over new and now generally accepted “social impact metrics” and put a dollar value to social benefit outcomes. The social finance space is pioneering new ways of measuring social value. And the non-profit sector has also developed many new methods for assessing social impact and converting them into monetary terms. All we have to do is carry this concept over into the for-profit, commercial-lending and investment spaces so that a blended value enterprise can gain access to higher levels of funding since their balance sheet would include these other assets. I think government banks like BDC (Business Development Bank of Canada) could play a lead role in this.

LiisBeth: Being new to Toronto, and Canada, what strikes you as the one thing that sets us apart from other countries?

Naik: Inclusivity. I know diversity is emphasized in many places, but you can be in a highly diverse space that is largely segregated and less inclusive. From what I have experienced, Canada as a country emphasizes inclusivity to a great extent. It allows people from all over the world to come together to produce great things regardless of their differences. This has surprised me on many occasions. In my experience so far, Canada looks at people’s inherent capacities, what they bring to the table and not the colour of their skin or where they come from.

LiisBeth: What’s next for Mithula?

Naik: I have been working with the Central Innovation Hub at the Privy Council Office and definitely looking forward to working on many more exciting projects. I’m using the tools of design thinking and social innovation to solve policy and service delivery challenges in the public sector. Can’t wait!

 

5 Responses to Meet Mithula Naik: Feminist Designer, Latent Entrepreneur

  1. Enjoyed the thinking process that Mithula has displayed–from an existing opportunity of entrepreneurship to catapult herself into the pen sky and land herself where she is today is the foundation guts of exploration that an entrepreneur must have in plenty. She has traversed that spectrum even before she has had a really-o-truly launch into a career! Bravo
    Padma Srinath

  2. A great example of combining adherence to human rights values of equality and keen enterpreuneurship skills and prédispositions! Nice story to share.

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