Forbes W-Power Trailblazer Shikha Mittal On The Objective Utility Of Art, And Merging Social Impact With Profit
- IWB Post
- June 7, 2019
It takes a different kind of strength to venture into uncharted terrains and create an all-new space for yourself in a territory that you were scarcely admitted to in the first place. However, that’s exactly what Shikha Mittal of Be.artsy and some other women trailblazers from the country, who recently featured on Forbes India W-Power Trailblazers 2019 list, have been doing.
As mentioned on their website, “The Forbes India W-Power Trailblazers issue celebrates women who have bent norms, fought stereotypes and cemented their space in male-dominated fields.”
However, by creating a mainstream niche for a career in arts in a country that doesn’t even regard it as a career option, Shikha has been doing something way beyond that with her venture Be.artsy.
Like she shares, “We, as a company, design awareness programmes using the power of survey, finding out the gaps, and then filling those gaps by using relevant artsy tools that have a human touch. Nukkad Natak is one of the key performing art medium that we have been using. We have used it across corporates, rural and urban-rural areas across the country in more than 14 languages.”
She adds, “We basically use various artistic tools to decode complex topics and to spread awareness on various burning social issues of the country, which include financial literacy among one of the top issues that we address, followed by prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace and Inclusion and Diversity. We have recently started doing awareness projects on road safety and emotional intelligence for corporates.”
In a recent interaction that I had with Shikha, she told me about her earliest memories of being “artsy,” the objective utility of art, and how to go for-profit and yet stay social as an entrepreneur.
Here are the excerpts:
Please share with us one of your earliest memories of being “artsy.”
I think it started somewhere around the age of 5 or 6, but if I really have to go back to being completely artsy it was during my college days because that’s when I was really exploring arts deeply. I was a performer in my college and that’s when I started dancing professionally as well. So I’d call the years between 2000 -2004 the most “artsy” in a personal capacity.
Could you please tell us about that moment of epiphany when you decided that social entrepreneurship was your calling and decided to leave your lucrative corporate career?
So, you know, social entrepreneurship didn’t happen out of any kind of planning in my life. However, I’d like to confess that there was a eureka moment which happened sometime in the mid of 2009. I was working with the last employer of mine back then. I think an artist while working in the corporate setup, has to go through a lot of non-creative and claustrophobic feeling.
I think sometime in the mid of 2009 I really decided that I have to use arts for business because nobody around me during my corporate stint gave arts, creativity or out of the box thinking much importance. Nobody gave weightage to the emotional intelligence and artsy side of life. I think I sort of had a “halo moment” I’d say (laughs) that made me realise that I wanted to explore the collaboration between art and business, and that’s how it just happened.
I started on 20th February, 2010, and I precisely know the date because, on 19th February, 2010, I came back from a short vacation from London where I had gone to explore arts for its objective utility and I quit my job the same night that I got back.
And what exactly do you mean when you talk about the objective utility of art?
Specifically, in the Indian context, whenever people refer to the word art, they largely talk about or mean a painting or something to do with a canvas, but what people miss out on is that the idea of arts is not just about the visual aspect of it. But it is also about literary and performing arts.
Arts has never been taken very seriously as a career option, especially in India, because it is a developing country. Therefore, the objectivity of art basically means that I can use arts to develop their functionality.
For instance, if I make a showpiece, which is just that and nothing else, then it lacks objectivity and is just a piece of art. However, as soon as I put that design to use and, say, make a chair out of it, that is when I am really objectifying the subjective art form. So, basically, I started my journey to find objectivity in art and how it will also one day give mainstream a career option to people so that they can earn as much as an MBA student would earn. That’s my real desire.
Of late, while a lot of conversation is developing around social responsibility, how much do you think corporate companies can really be held responsible here? According to you, what does it take for these companies to make a real social impact?
We have been working with the Corporate Social Responsibility departments and helping them design their communication to reach the target audience. Trust me when I say this, corporates have all the power to make a real social impact and if they take their social responsibility seriously, I think India’s development pace would change in less than half a decade. They have the power to change India’s face from what it is right now to what it should be.
And how can it be done? Can you give examples?
Okay, consider a power distribution company. If it starts educating people on how power theft is taking away a lot of lives and educate them on how to use electricity in the most effective way, it will help a lot of people in saving on their electricity bills, it will stop power theft, and save so many lives. This is a small example.
I will give you a bigger one. Road accidents are one of the pressing concerns in our country as of now. We are working with a not for profit organization on road safety awareness programmes. Now, you’d be really amazed to know that in India, road accidents kill more people than murder, riots, and terrorism combined.
There are so many automobile and tyre companies who are directly linked to the issue of road safety, and if all these organizations can adopt one road each and start a drive to make Indian roads safer for commuters, we can save almost 400 plus people dying every day in the country due to road accidents. So when it comes to the role of a corporate, it is endless.
Okay, so now let’s talk about what you are doing at Be.artsy. While serving as the CEO, how much are you involved with the ground-level activities of the organisation.
Oh, I am completely involved with all of the groundwork. I am somebody who has risen from the ashes. So, I started in 2010 and I started this organisation all alone. To this date, whenever any of my projects start I go there by myself, there are so many on-ground programmes that I conduct as a facilitator even today, and everything that goes out of my company has at least some bit of my intervention and I know exactly what is happening. I don’t leave a single stone unturned when it comes to my company’s operations.
Let’s talk about sexual harassment at the workplace. Despite the law and all the official committees and prerequisites being in place, there has not been much change in how the corporate organisations deal with instances of workplace sexual harassment. A lot of it has to do with the internal politics and not much will change until steps are taken to mitigate it. How do you think this internal politics and sexism can be de-rooted?
Honestly, this whole sexism can only be dealt with when we recognise that all the organisations have policies free of any loopholes and they should be equally applicable to both the genders.
To deal with sexism, companies need to sensitise all their employees in different kinds of stereotypes, biases, and unconscious prejudices. However, the biggest challenge for them remains the leadership bind. So for step one, the leaders should take this particular topic of inclusion and diversity more seriously and should allocate dedicated budgets. The leaders should assign a particular champion who would drive the programme with clear objectives and outcomes.
Fortunately, #MeTooIndia has impacted a big conversation on workplace sexual harassment. Has Be.artsy initiated any projects to further increase the impact?
If you have read my interview with Forbes, my article is being run with the name of a campaign called “It’s Not Okay.” #MeTooIndia is all about a conversation where everyone who is saying #MeToo is a victim. Through my campaign “It’s Not Okay,” I want victims to turn themselves from victims to crusaders, like I turned myself from a victim to a crusader, and that is the reason why I have designed the campaign.
It is a rather herculean task to be a for-profit yet social organization. What would be your advice for others who want to do the same?
If somebody has gone through multiple experiences and taken them very seriously, had decided to not let that happen to others, then only they can be a social entrepreneur. At the same time, they must understand the power of money.
Not that I have not attempted a not-for-profit. I, in fact, started my career with one and I failed. But it was during that journey that I realised that I should be paid for doing good work. It’s something that I didn’t get in the initial stages of my entrepreneurial journey and that’s when I decided very affirmatively that I want to make a billion-pound company now while doing social work and social impact. When will I be able to reach there, I don’t know, but yeah, that’s what I am working on. I am going to make a billion-pound company! And the idea is not just to make money but make money so that I can impact socially.
Again, social entrepreneurship is never a cakewalk. Let’s wrap up with some advice for all the newbies who are thinking of getting into the sector. What does it take to become a successful social entrepreneur?
I think it is all about two things: what is your intention and what is your purpose. So if your intention is clear then only you will be able to arrive at a purpose. And your purpose has to be selfless, I cannot be thinking of my own self when I am trying to become a social entrepreneur. My purpose also needs to be directed to a bigger chunk of people, it has to make a mass impact. It is the only way one can make it in the social sector.