NAMITA MOOLANI MEHRA
Writer & Food Entrepreneur
You’ve taken your passion for food and given it so many dimensions. What all are you up to?
I’m still a sole proprietor which is kind of crazy considering that I’m selling multiple products in multiple countries and multiple stores, teaching cooking classes, and doing trade events, pop ups and exhibitions. I have published a children's book and have ideas for several more. I’m also a freelance writer. It’s quite a lot in terms of the number of things I’m doing at the same time. I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked.
How do you manage all of this creative energy?
I’ve always struggled with structure - with being at my desk at 9am and working within fixed hours. The creative side of me is rebellious and free-spirited! To utilize my brain for optimal results happens when I'm inspired and in a high-performing zone. This requires some flexibility and that is what working for myself primarily allows. Working from home, and running my own business these past few years, I've become pretty organized. I have a good routine going now.
I make an effort to work in some daily habits while allowing for plenty of flexibility and creative chaos. The fluidity of my life suits the way I think. I can really crank when I’m fired up.
What is motivating all of your ideas?
People’s impression that most Indian food is unhealthy really upsets me. I want them to realize that one, Indian food is not greasy takeout. Two, that it’s not unhealthy and three, it’s not hard to make. I want to bust all those myths and make Indian cooking more accessible for people. This is something that I’ve been passionate about for years.
Where does your passion for Indian food come from?
I’ve been reading cookbooks cover to cover since the age of five and was always in the kitchen with my mom. When I moved to America for grad school, I was eating so much rubbish and buying cheap food. I struggled with my weight and started having health issues. I really wanted to get back to the food that I grew up eating because I felt good eating it and it was good for me.
Then in 2004, when I was working in New York and newly married, my husband would want to eat Indian food every day. His mom and my mom are amazing cooks. I knew it wasn’t possible to cook Indian food all the time but I could do at least one meal a day. I had to fit in the cooking with my leaving home at 8am and getting home at 8pm. I had to figure out the shortcuts for making things simple and easy.
You’ve spent much of your adult life abroad. How do you stay so connected to India?
My company is called Indian Spicebox. I still have my Indian passport. I was born in Nigeria, I grew up in the UK, I lived in India for ten years, and then I moved to the U.S. for grad school when I was just twenty-one. When I was in the U.S., I felt disconnected from India because I didn’t go there often. Moving to Singapore has made me more Indian than I’ve ever been. And every second person here is a third culture kid. That’s the nature of this place. It’s so diverse.
From New York to Singapore, Facebook was a big part of your journey. What was it like to work at Facebook in its early days?
I had the opportunity to watch Facebook grow into an amazing product and platform. They took care of us so well - the highest caliber of people that I’ve ever worked with. It was early days for advertising and marketing so Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg would come to meetings with us. Sheryl Sandberg once told me at the beginning of an important client meeting, "This is your meeting right? Come sit at the table!" Just like she said in her book. The energy was phenomenal.
Wow. But then why did you choose to leave it all?
Leaving Facebook was probably the toughest decision I have ever had to make. On a personal level, I was trying to have a baby in New York but was traveling most of the time. Plus, that city can be stressful. With the change of lifestyle in Singapore, I got pregnant, took maternity leave and then after five months, went back to work. But going back didn’t really feel like a true choice. Client budgets were primarily outside of Singapore - in India, Korea, Japan.
I was really struggling to get back on a plane with a little one at home. When you are in a startup so early, you get burnt out much faster. I really wanted to give my baby one hundred percent.
That ending was the beginning of so much more!
When you leave Facebook, there is a certain standard of what else to do that’s as amazing. People become writers, or teachers, or even open an ice cream shop. I always wanted to do something of my own. When I was on maternity leave, I wrote two business plans. I shared them with a VC and was offered a job. I got to work with young startups, look at pitch proposals, and meet founders. My takeaway was, “If they can do it, I can do it too.” It gave me the courage to just go forth.
How would you describe your actual occupation today?
Self-employed. That’s my new favorite thing… I’m the boss of me! When people ask what I do, I try on different titles. I tried the whole writer thing when my children’s book came out. That would make me giggle because I’ve been a strategist my whole career. When I tell people that I’m a strategist, they ask what I’m “strategising” on. When I say I’m an entrepreneur or use that awful term, “mompreneur,” they ask whether I’m funded. I do like “sole proprietor” but that sounds a bit sad and lonely so I never say that.
Just how do you handle being a sole proprietor?
My husband has been so supportive, it’s unbelievable. He’s patient, encouraging and super proud of everything I’ve done. He says, “I could not do what you do. I could not stay at home all the time.” One of the hardest things for me is not having a team or lots of people to interact with. A founder at the VC once told me that being an entrepreneur is a very lonely journey. I didn’t understand that then.
I’ve also been really blessed to have a professional coach in my life. She’s been instrumental in my founding Indian Spicebox and creating a product. I’m also really fortunate that there are a lot of phenomenal women doing similar things in Singapore. I meet them at events and exchange ideas. For writing, I have a writer’s group. I’m also part of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Does climbing the success ladder mean much to you?
More than a ladder, it’s like that Maslow’s pyramid. It’s about getting to self-actualization. How do I get to that part of the pyramid where I’m leading a more purpose-driven life and actually making a difference?
The other aspect of success is finding balance between the personal and professional, and enjoying time with your family… enjoying life. What brings me a lot of joy is that I am here for my son. I loved that about my mom. When I was growing up she was always there for us. I’ve figured out how to get stuff done even when Dora is blaring on TV. I also travel every other month. I just went to Jaipur to source products for my business. It’s so amazing and so enriching to have that flexibility, that opportunity, that balance.
What inspires you today?
India inspires me a lot. The rawness of it. Every time I’m in India, I’m so fired up. I don’t know what it is about India but it massively brings out my creative side. There’s so much that stimulates you in the chaos of it.
What would you say is your purpose?
I don't have it all quite figured out just yet but I want to use my abilities and skills in a way that can impact those who are less fortunate. Indian Spicebox is not a money-making business. What I am doing with Indian Spicebox is at a small scale but it’s a step in the right direction because we are feeding hungry kids.
Coming from a country like India, growing up there, living there - there are a lot of people who are immune to it but I’ve never been that person. I want to do so much more and that’s the direction I’m going in.
Have you ever encountered a feeling of failure?
Absolutely. I’m failing right now. I’m having big challenges with the business. For a few months, I literally couldn’t sleep. I’m now in a weird peaceful place. I’m embracing that this is just part of business and I will learn from it. One Facebook motto was, “Don’t be afraid to fail.” The other was, “Even if it’s not perfect, ship it.” I realize the difference between an idea and execution is the inability to get things off the ground. I think that has always been a fear for me. Now that I’m doing it, I want to do more but I’m going to have to make some decisions about where I’m going next.
What kinds of decisions?
There’s a struggle in my head. One side of me is super creative and the other side is running a business involving physical things, storage, logistics, design and people. These two sides are often a bit grumpy with each other. I’ve recently realized that at my core, I am a writer. I’ve been a writer since I was four. I wrote a column for a college newspaper distributed all over India called Jam. I interviewed Lucky Ali when I was nineteen. When blogging had just come out, I would blog every day. I absolutely love writing and feel at my best when I’m doing it. Getting positive feedback and engaging in a dialog with readers is extremely fulfilling and meaningful.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
My writing career has only just begun and I feel quite excited about that journey. I can see myself as an old lady writing in my pied-a-terre in Central Park West or maybe in Goa.
I really feel that there has been a special sort of force pulling me and guiding me along. When I put my energy and passion and my mind to stuff, it happens.
I also have incredible support from my family, my husband, great help at home, and amazing friends who are all cheering me on, encouraging and enabling me to do more. It takes a village...I feel extremely fortunate, grateful and blessed.