Hi friends! Welcome to the Episode 2: of 5 Questions with The Loveliest. An Honest Discussion with my friend Veda Sankaran from Jalsa Spices. I have the joy of having an honest discussion with her about how she, as a women entrepreneurs sets aside her doubts and fears and stepped into who she was really meant to be!
When you were a little girl what did you want to be when you grew up? I come from a family of teachers and I always wanted to become a teacher of some kind. At first, it was an elementary school teacher. Then, I thought I would become an English literature professor. In the end, I became an English as a Second Language adjunct!
What was your first paying job? (like when you were a teenager..) My parents were very traditional Indian parents who didn't allow me to work as a teenager because they said my job was to focus on studying. At the time, I was upset as most of my friends had after-school jobs. But looking back, it was a gift to have that time to just be a teenager and not worry about money. Other than babysitting, my first real paying job wasn't until after college, when I worked in a preschool/daycare center.
Did you go to college? What Did you study and what were you wanting to be? I went to a small all women's college here in Pittsburgh, Chatham College (now Chatham University.) I always loved to read, so I became an English major. At the time I graduated, I thought I wanted to get my Ph.D. and become a literature professor. I learned very quickly after joining a master's program that I was mistaken. There were several years after I withdrew from the program where I floundered trying to find my path. After volunteering tutoring ESL students in DC and spending time teaching a bit of English to villagers in Indonesia during a study abroad experience, I found my calling and eventually went back to school to get a Masters in Education with a TESOL certificate (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages.)
What made you want to start your own business? I had been teaching for almost 10 years and though I loved my job and my students, I started to feel a little dissatisfied, as if there was something else I wanted to do. I've always been a creative person and have found various outlets for that creativity over the years. At the time, I had a feeling inside- almost a craving to do something different, though I didn't have an idea as to what it could be. The more I pondered and self-reflected, I realized that I was ready to take the leap and decided to hold Indian cooking parties in people's homes, a kind of a mash-up of a cooking class and a cocktail party with friends. Though that initial idea eventually morphed into a completely different business, it was the starting point. There have been a few times in my life that I've felt what they call "gut instinct" and when I recognized that feeling again, I knew I had to listen to my inner compass.
What did your life look like at the time (kids, single, married)? The timing was actually just right for me. I know many many women who are incredible at juggling young kids, careers, and homes, but I know for myself that I could never have done this at that stage in my life. My eldest daughter was in college and my younger one was about to graduate high school, so I didn't have childcare responsibilities. As my husband's career provided for us, I was lucky to have some freedom from the fear of losing financial security when thinking about starting my business. In addition, I was older and more confident in myself and my abilities.
Once you decided to make your dream a reality what did the path look like to start your own business? Were you scared? Did you dive in or take baby steps? I was of course very scared to start a venture so outside my comfort zone. To ease some of that fear, I told myself, that I would be very cautious in the money I'd invest and take the process slowly. Before making the business official, I spent almost a year testing out the idea and exploring opportunities that came my way. Once I felt confident enough, I became an LLC, set up a business bank account, and started a business Instagram account. I let the process guide my next steps, the people I networked with, and the opportunities that arose from those interactions.
How did you learn how to open or start your business? What were some of the curveballs along the way? Were you always good at it? I knew essentially nothing about starting a business, especially in a completely new field! It was and still is a steep learning curve. Every step of the way, I would read and research everything from how to get a google domain name to how to become a certified food safety manager. I would ask questions to anyone and everyone who I thought would be more knowledgeable than me. One of my initial hurdles was finding a commercial kitchen to rent hourly that wasn't exorbitantly priced in a city that didn't have very many options. Despite the process being long and frustrating, I eventually did find one. There were aspects of starting a business that I was good at and others that I wasn't. I think it's important to know your own strengths and weaknesses before starting a business, so you can get help from others for those parts that are more difficult for you. I think my personality and age were helpful in that I am an outgoing person who truly enjoys connecting with others and people can sense sincerity and are more likely to be helpful when they do. Relationships are crucial in building a business and though every encounter may not result in an immediate result, if you are patient, it might sometime later. The older I get, the bolder and more confident I've become, which has helped in reaching out to others and asking for chances. I've been able to have amazing opportunities, by simply blind emailing someone and simply asking.
What are some of the early memories of total flops or failures? Well, the first is when I realized that my initial business idea of the cooking parties was not a financially feasible option. I was crushed and felt like I was back to the drawing board. I didn't have an idea of what direction I should take. That was when I decided to try doing pop-up events around town. This new idea came with all new things I had to learn. Just as I was having some initial success, I found out that I didn't have the license I needed and had to stop. The process of getting the license didn't have a return on investment, so once again, it was back to the drawing board. Having said all this, even failures are not meaningless. I learned from each mistake and even found hidden opportunities. The owner of the local coffee shop where I did a pop-up happened to be there that day, liked what he saw, and has ever since been a great supporter offering me opportunities that I would never have had otherwise. So, try to find the positive even in your flops and failures.
"...failures are not meaningless. I learned from each mistake and even found hidden opportunities...Try to find the positive even in your flops and failures."
What was a BIG win early on? I would say, getting the opportunity to connect with a local restaurant and doing my first pop-up dinner. It allowed me to get some local press, get experience in a commercial kitchen, and make a connection with the chef-owner that has led to many more exciting events, like the Western PA Lamb Cook-Off. This then led to my doing recipe development work for the sponsoring lamb company, which then led to the current focus of my business, which is recipe development, and my role as the newest contributor to TABLE magazine.
What’s a mistake you made that in the long run was a blessing because it led you to something bigger and better? I think it's what I mentioned earlier about not knowing to get the right license for the pop-ups. Though it halted my progress for a moment, in the end, it directed me towards other more fruitful opportunities. Sometimes, things like that happen so that you have a second to think about the direction you are heading.
When did you figure out how to stop listening to others and fully invest in your dreams? When I recognized the joy I was feeling as I kept doing what I loved was when I decided to keep going and invest myself fully. My business may not be hugely profitable yet, but it brings me joy and as long as it does, I'll keep growing and changing with it.
"When I recognized the joy I was feeling as I kept doing what I loved was when I decided to keep going and invest myself fully. "
How do you support other business entrepreneurs in your industry and in general? I think it's so important to support other entrepreneurs, especially other women and BIPOC businesses. I try to do so by buying and promoting their products and services, collaborating on joint events, and recommending their products and services especially to people looking to hire them. I have been extremely lucky in the people I've met who have unabashedly supported me and given me opportunities and I want to do that for other entrepreneurs too.
Lots of my followers want to know how do you know if an idea is the RIGHT idea? OR when to take the leap? That is a difficult question to answer, as it is a personal one depending on each person's circumstances. if you feel it is the right idea or the right time to take a leap in your gut and the financial circumstances allow you to try, then I would say that's the time. As I mentioned earlier, my circumstances didn't allow me to start a business when my children were young, even though so many women are able to do so. So, there isn't one right time- listen to your instincts and if the urge is greater than your fear, take the leap!
What advice would you give your younger self? I would say, be confident in your abilities. My younger self was always doubting her capabilities. I would say don't limit yourself based only on what you think you might be good at because you might surprise yourself. I would say, don't let fear guide you as it can keep you from amazing experiences.
What’s the future of your business look like? Since my business keeps morphing, I'm not certain what it will look like exactly, but I hope to keep growing and working more with amazingly talented people in the field of food. I hope to have more opportunities for recipe development on the national level, perhaps get on Food Network, and grow the product side of the business with my signature spice mix.
How do you balance the financial risk for new opportunities with financial security? That's also a question that is grounded in personal circumstances. You have to assess for yourself and your family what is an acceptable level of financial risk. For myself, I knew that I wanted to only use funds that I had set aside from my teaching job and not touch our family account at all. I was willing to grow slowly and not take on too much financial risk. But if you have big dreams and are more of a risk-taker, then you should plan accordingly.
Where can people find you and support you? (Instagram, website physical address) Instagram: @jalsabyveda
Anything else you'd want to add to help women on their journey? I think if you are curious and are asking questions about starting a business, then that means you've already started the first step. I would reiterate that you should do some self-reflecting and gut checking before moving on to the next step. Will your business idea bring you joy and will that joy be enough to counterbalance the struggles? Then, think critically about your circumstances - family, job, finances, etc and assess your risk level as this will determine many of the decisions you will have to make initially. Find or create a support structure for yourself of people who will be your cheerleaders as well as advisors. Trust me, it's essential to have people to lean on as you go through the ups and downs of starting a business. And lastly, be open to learning, learning, and more learning! Even women entrepreneurs I've met who have MBA backgrounds, still say they had so much to learn once they started their businesses. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. One woman MBA I met was great when it came to the business marketing end of things, but not so great at creating content, while I was the opposite. So, enter the journey knowing that you will have to be willing and open to learning.