Founder Priyanka Ganjoo: "What I wish I knew about career-building at age 22"

Kulfi Founder Priyanka Ganjoo wearing lavender

After graduating college, I didn’t know that I could start my own thing. 

By Priyanka Ganjoo, Founder 

We often hear that our university years can be the most life-changing years of our lives. At the same time, I’ve been reflecting on how much happens during our first years of post-graduate life: wading into the “real world” knee-deep in expectations and navigating the little and big things that make up adulting. As a founder of a beauty brand launching soon, so many things have led up to this moment. I wanted to share some key reflections about my pathway and advice for those who are figuring out career-building for the first time. 

How I navigated the expectation to have a linear career path right after university. 

Honestly, I had no clue what I wanted to do when I was 22. I was a Computer Engineering major with very little interest in the space. When I graduated from college, financial independence was most important to me so I could support myself. I’d taken a few business classes in school which I’d enjoyed. Indra Nooyi had been named PepsiCo’s CEO around that time, which was inspiring. So, I decided to follow her footsteps and pursue a career in consulting. 

But I always felt like I was missing my bigger calling. 

I decided to pursue an MBA to get more exposure to different careers in business. That was the turning point where I was introduced to entrepreneurship. Listening to stories of people who built businesses that changed the world made me feel I could do the same. I’d have ideas but nothing that I felt deeply about. I was fascinated by how quickly the beauty & fashion industry was changing; these were the early days of DTC brands and influencer marketing. So, I slowly found my way into the space, first in corporate and then at a startup. The desire to create stayed with me. 

When I finally found a problem I couldn’t stop thinking about for years, I decided to take the leap into entrepreneurship. 

At 22, I didn’t even know what entrepreneurship was. Sure, I had heard of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but they were mythical creatures who were not at all relatable. Even now when you Google ‘Business Entrepreneur,’ this is what shows up.

So, how is a young Indian girl supposed to even dream that she can be an entrepreneur? 

When I was in business school, I started listening to stories of hundreds of entrepreneurs. Some were taught in class. Some were my classmates. That’s when I started connecting the dots. The number of BIWOC entrepreneurs is still marginal, but here’s the magic of entrepreneurship: 

You have this wild belief that you can create the change you wish to see. 

As Women of Color, we need to be more vocal about our workplace experiences. 

I wish I could say: bring your full self to work and be as vocal as you want to be. I’ve faced pushback when I’ve done that. I’ve been told I’m too “passionate,” not in a way that felt complimentary. But, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. 

My advice would be to put yourself and your goals first. Figure out how you can achieve them in the workplace by finding allies within the company. Pick which battles to fight: the ones that serve your most important goals. The best resource is observing people in the company and analyzing why they are perceived the way they are. Different workplaces have different cultural codes. 

Finally, trust your gut. Be proactive in standing up for yourself if you feel things are off. 

I once worked in an environment where I felt tangible yet invisible pressure. My manager would say “I hate how Indian food stinks” when our shared cab rides would be driven by someone of South Asian origin. I didn’t say anything. And then one day, during my official review she said, “You don’t take ownership. People from Asian countries don’t know how to take ownership because you come from hierarchical cultures.” I was shocked. I didn’t know how to react. I brought it up to an authority figure and didn’t see any action taken.

There were more subtle ways in which I felt that I couldn’t bring my whole self to work. While a white male peer could make sarcastic remarks and elicit laughter from our boss, when I made similar comments I was met with a blank stare. Later, I was told I had a bad attitude: I guess I wasn’t always smiling? My white male peer was praised for making the team more “light hearted.” One of the ways he did that was by joking about my relationship: “But don’t all Indian women have arranged marriages?” 

I was able to extricate myself from these situations and find better work environments. But I didn’t speak up. I didn’t want to “play the victim,” and my experiences didn’t feel like a “big deal.” If I’m being honest, I felt uncomfortable about it. A friend told me that someone with my background could not possibly face discrimination. 

But here I am, writing this years later. 

I’ve learnt that we need to be vocal about our experiences because it may provide someone else solidarity and affirmation. 

I’m optimistic that if more of us speak out we can be part of a dialogue and drive real change in workplaces.

An FAQ Guide: The advice I would give myself at age 22

Q1: What happens when you’re working in a job that you like but it’s not bringing you joy or challenging you? 

I have been in situations like that. I try to find opportunities and projects within the company that would change that feeling. But it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes your goals change, and the things that used to bring you joy or challenge you don’t do that anymore. I’ve switched jobs as my career goals evolved. Every time I changed jobs, many people advised me not to because I always left for a riskier path. Even so,

I’m glad I followed my gut. It’s brought me to where I am. 

I think every job comes with its frustrations and low points, especially if you are pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. I don’t believe in the notion that “I found what I loved, and I didn’t have to work another day in my life.” You have to ask yourself if the upside is worth it for you. You also have to reflect on why you are not happy and make changes that address the root cause, not the symptom. 

Q2: What did you wish you knew about taking care of yourself while still being your best self at work? 

I’m still figuring this out! I don’t feel my best self when I don’t take care of myself. In 2020, my routines went out of the window: I barely saw my friends, I stopped exercising, I didn’t take care of myself the way I used to. I was stressed about work. 

It's essential to prioritize your mental and physical health and cultivate ways to disconnect from work. Even from a practical standpoint, your career is a marathon, and you don’t want to lose steam a year in. I’m trying to slowly reset my routines. I’ve been incorporating small activities I enjoy in the moment: cooking a simple meal, doing my makeup and hair, going for walks. You have to be intentional about it; it doesn’t magically happen, especially if you are someone who tends to want to be productive all the time. 

Q3: What advice do you have for seeking mentorship and finding the right mentor?  

I feel that women don’t need any more mentorship. We need sponsors. 

Sponsors use their political capital and credibility to advocate for you. It can be a game-changer. This Ted Talk by Carla Harris, a senior executive at Morgan Stanley, explains why sponsorship is so important. One of Kulfi’s advisors called her contacts in the beauty investing space, and I had 3 meetings lined up with relevant funds. She even joined an investor meeting to show her support. For the first time, I felt like I had someone pulling me up rather than me climbing on my own. I hope one day I can do the same for young people in my network. 

At 22, I didn’t feel like I had mentors or sponsors. I was kind of winging it. But I did build relationships with people I worked with. It’s been fascinating to see how some of the people I worked with 10 years ago are now supporting Kulfi based on those early relationships. That’s the part about finding sponsors I wish I knew: sometimes it’s not about what this person can do for you in the moment. Find people who align with your values and who care enough to support you over time. Their impact will compound over time. Also: just ask, especially when you have specific things you need help with. Sometimes sponsorship can come from unexpected sources. 

If you told me one day I would start a beauty brand, I would have laughed at the idea. 

I didn’t even wear makeup at that time! So the TLDR version is: 

Your career evolves as you grow and your motivations, interests, and priorities change. 

When you are 22, it's hard to see your career as a 40-50 year arc. But over time, you realize that no path is final. If you are cultivating your curiosity, learning, and feeling supported by the people around you, you are in the right place. And if you feel differently, you can start again. In my twenties, I compared myself to my peers. I now realize: you have to create your own path that brings you fulfillment. 

 

As told to: Samia Abbasi, Editor

Cover photo credit: Badal Patel, @bybadal


Read more

On Traveling: How India has strengthened my sense of self

PCOS & Beauty: Women’s Republic founder Sai Seshadri on embracing what you can control

2 Affordable Asian-owned brands for Glossier fans


Comments
Be the first to comment.
All comments are moderated before being published.