How a new generation of South Asian entrepreneurs seeks and builds community
In conversation with Alak of PODI life & Sarah of Lilith NYC.
By Priyanka Ganjoo, Founder
As we’re nearing the end of 2021, I’ve been reflecting on how much my definition of community has expanded while building Kulfi. A few weeks ago, Alak Nanda (founder of South Indian flavor brand PODI life) and I were taking a long meandering walk through the streets of New York, when she said something that made me pause:
“Perhaps we are building businesses centered around identity and community because we never found ourselves fitting in.”
This single thought made me question my own motivations for building community at Kulfi.
On the surface, it may seem that the common characteristic of the community we are building is that we identify as South Asian. However, one of the foundational ideas of Kulfi is that we, as South Asians, are diverse and not a monolith. Many people who identify with our brand are not South Asian. In digging deeper, I realized what actually connects us is that many of us haven’t felt like we belong in the dominant narrative.
It also explains why the work Sarah Sukumaran is doing with her footwear brand Lilith NYC and Alak with PODI life excites me so much. South Asian and Women of Color entrepreneurs are building brands that intrinsically encompass the imagination of their communities, as well as lived experiences. In them, we feel seen.
I was curious to know how Sarah and Alak make sense of community and their role in it. Here are 3 things I learned.
We’re creating communities our younger selves needed.
The communities we build are often a reflection of what our younger selves needed when we were growing up. More often than not, we haven’t seen our specific experiences and needs centered in popular brands. At Kulfi, we observed that personal experience is such a powerful catalyst for community building.
When you candidly share your story as a founder, it becomes a touchpoint for your community to feel seen and heard.
This idea also resonates with Sarah and Alak. Sarah’s love for sneakers was influenced by the importance of sneaker culture in Queens. Growing up, she began to notice that sneaker culture was dominated by boys. She says, “It was definitely the guys who would show up and flex with their kicks in the schoolyard, especially if they played sports. I was a bit of tomboy growing up, and in hindsight, I believe my style evolved partly because I wanted to fit in with the boys. It wouldn’t be until my late teens and 20s that I began to question why I was even shopping in the boy’s/men’s section! So, it was really then that I began to question:
Why does the sneaker community not look like me?
Why don’t women get the same sneakers as men (especially in the same colorways)?"
photo credit: Kathryn Page
While creating Lilith NYC, she explains, “We had to be very intentional about showing up for this community of women and femmes but also folks from Black and brown communities that are often overlooked as consumers with a lot of purchasing power.”
Alak shares that growing up, she never saw herself in mainstream South Asian pop culture. She adds, “Not even in South Indian pop culture — whether it be my feminism, love for my deeply melanated skin, my disregard for eurocentric beauty standards or apathy for puritanical, societal constructs like heteronormativity.” This experience funneled into the inclusive brand that PODI life is today, represented by their mascot PEEKU and community.
photo credit: PODI life / PEEKU illustration by: Aaryama Somayaji
Alak explains, “PEEKU is a beautifully melanated, care-free, farm and freedom-loving, gender-fluid person who really honors the point of origin of the ingredients we use in our PODIs. Spaces like PODI life help create a safe haven to embrace sides that we are shunning and I am grateful to have the opportunity to gather a group of people that inspires us, as a collective, to live with ease.”
Seeking community as a Woman of Color entrepreneur is a work in progress.
Someone recently asked me, “How is being a loud and proud South Asian brand working out for you?” Honestly, it’s working out great. It gives me purpose, so in challenging times I always have my north star in the messages I receive (and save!) sharing how Kulfi has impacted someone positively. If there is a downside, it is that I put too much pressure on myself to do right by the community. I’ve grown to realize that I can only put my best intentions into action.
When it comes to understanding her sense of community, Alak reflects, “Frankly I am still getting a hang of it. I find that it helps a lot to surround myself with other founders who are doing similar unapologetic work. On a day-to-day basis, I hold onto delightful DMs I get from our community. For example, I was incredibly touched when I got a message once, from a 2nd-generation biracial American with South Indian heritage and they told me their grandma used to endearingly call them 'popu' (the word for 'tadka' in Telugu), what a cute anecdote to share with me.” She adds:
“Language is powerful and we make sure to bring it into our discussions often.”
Sarah’s relationship to community reflects her identity as a Tamil woman growing up in Queens. She recalls, “[As a teenager,] I was feeling a bit lost and realizing that I wasn’t ‘South Asian’ or ‘Desi’ as so many others had identified. South Asian identity in the states is very much rooted in North Indian hegemony. Being Tamil was always looked down upon by the broader South Asian diaspora. Tamil meant being dark-skinned which played right into all racism and colorism from the SA diaspora.” She found community with the Queens West Indian and Indo-Caribbean communities who accept her for who she is.
In her own understanding of community today, Sarah says, “If I’m being honest, I’m still navigating South Asian spaces with much caution today. Being Tamil and more radically left in my politics, I still feel like an outsider. I don’t think most folks take the time to genuinely learn about cultures and politics outside of their own. I didn’t grow up watching Bollywood films or listening to Hindi music or celebrating certain festivals yet today, in 2021, South Asians and non-South Asians alike, will make the assumption that those are my shared experiences.”
photo credit: Kathryn Page
Infusing specific identities into brands creates stories & products we haven’t seen before.
Building a brand that centers a particular identity is relatively new across different industries. Even within these last two years, we’ve seen brands that address specific needs that are not often prioritized in their space. As a founder of color, you have the unique challenge of representing your community in a way that allows them to truly feel seen. That doesn’t always mirror popular or mainstream depictions of your identity.
Alak loves having conversations with her mother & co-founder Vasavi about intentional representation and how that translates into their work with PODI life.
photo credit: PODI life
She adds, “Oftentimes, I find that as immigrants and third culture kids, we go through many years of black-and-white thinking during our years of identity exploration and we feel compelled to pick sides. This internal crisis distracts us from self-actualization and from creating true impact in the world. Personally, internalizing the idea that identities are constantly evolving has helped me. I am so happy with whatever shade of Indian/South Indian/American I am now. I have found my cultural anchoring in food, and that is enough.”
In the process of discovery and creation, founders of color are approaching conversations about identity in unique ways that translate into vibrant products, storytelling, and branding. Sarah reflects, “In building Lilith,
It was really the first time I could explore identity (beyond Queens) and heritage in a creative manner — something I hadn’t done before.
So, as we were exploring the divine feminine, I found myself tying a lot of threads and stories back to my family's Tamil roots in Nainativu. I’ve always wanted folks to walk away ‘feeling seen’ by our brand and it’s my hope that we can achieve this by amplifying the voices that haven’t been center-stage for so long.”
Sarah and Alak’s candid stories and experiences provide affirmation to me, and all of us who are still finding our place in the world.
About PODI life and Lilith NYC.
Making South Indian flavors accessible with PODI life. PODI life, founded by mother-daughter duo Vasavi and Alak, creates heirloom South Indian PODIs (dry-sauce mixtures). From tangy rasam, to hearty sambar, their PODIs are made with high quality spices, lentils, and herbs.
Alak says, “In an ideal world without biases, if you are gluten intolerant or eat gluten-free and love flavorful, light, vegetable-forward, vegan cuisine, then South Indian cuisine should be your best friend! These are all such contemporary food trends and yet South Indian food is not as popular or well-known as it should be. I think it helps a lot to understand why South Indian food is under-represented in the US or UK. It is a reflection of immigration patterns, but also there is a lack of aspirational representation in pop culture. There is this idea that food is also aspirational, besides being nourishment and a vehicle for culture."
photo credit: PODI life
"I detest how Bollywood often derides South Indian culture and this influences perception of all things South Indian, including food. At PODI life, we encourage people to recognize and acknowledge that South India is truly an agricultural gift to the world. South India is a river-fed, fertile plateau between two ghats/mountain ranges. This creates a biodiverse ecosystem that grows some of the subcontinent's best turmeric, pepper and a wide range of spices, chillies, rice, millets etc. South Indian cuisine is a beautiful reflection of everything that is grown in the region by a toiling vast majority of the population engaged in agriculture.”
Centering inclusive storytelling in the sneaker space with Lilith NYC. Lilith NYC is a brand for women, femmes, and all underrepresented folks in the sneaker world. They celebrate the complexity in each of us by creating sneakers rooted in performance, beautiful design, confidence, and functionality.
Sarah says, “I think more so now than ever, people are becoming more intentional with their purchases and they want to be able to connect to a story before taking a leap to support a brand. So we’ve weaved storytelling into every aspect of our brand experience with the goal of it being very immersive. Our gorgeous shoe boxes tell our divine feminine story, our sneaker colorways and their names have a backstory, the talent we casted for our Queens shoot are all from Queens and they all have beautiful origin stories, and as of late we’re developing content that goes deeper on various brand themes."
photo credit: Ryan Wijayaratne & Jonathan Wijayaratne
"I personally love long(er)-form content and tend to share a lot about brand inspiration and all the symbolism that has shaped the brand ethos. I’ve always considered myself a lifelong student so I love sharing everything I’ve learned along the way back to the community.”