Looking back on what I wanted to be when I grew up. Trust me, you should do it too.
If you trace your journey, like I did, you’re bound to be surprised at how far you’ve come. I am the co-founder of Dysco, a professional networking platform and community, trying to bring creative and non-creative individuals, businesses, brands, and agencies together for conversations, collaborations and work opportunities. I focus on strategy, product, content and marketing in particular. And this is my story.
I recently watched writer and artist Emily Wapnick’s TED talk, called ‘Why some of us don’t have one true calling’ and it resonated so much with me, I watched it over and over again, and I seemed to get more and more clarity as I analysed the different things she was saying. It explained why I struggled to make choices at different points in my life, from my education, to hobbies, creative pursuits and most importantly, my career choices.
“I’ve never been able to answer the question, what do you want to be when you grow up’” says Emilie. The notion that we were all born with one thing that we were meant to do, or one skill that we can excel at, is something that I couldn’t ever wrap my head around either. Emilie describes multipotentialites as people who have multiple passions and interests, often taking the form of multiple creative pursuits. I wish I knew this was a thing a long time ago, it would have saved me a lot of deliberation and self-doubt!
As a kid, my first answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up, was ‘a businessman’ (not entrepreneur or businesswoman, but businessman because that’s what my Dad was). Then I wanted to be a teacher, because I enjoyed sharing knowledge and getting people excited about new things. That soon faded, and I went from wanting to be a truck driver so I could travel, to an astronaut so I could explore space, to a poet because I enjoyed writing and so on. Of course, the actual skills necessary to pursue these careers wasn’t a big consideration, and the viability of making enough money wasn’t a factor either.
Because I was a bright student, somewhat a high achiever, I believed all avenues were open to me — with good grades in most subjects, I didn’t really find myself leaning in any particular direction. I excelled in English, Biology, and Commercial Applications, but couldn’t confidently say I want to be a journalist, biochemist, or investment banker, and that left me even more perplexed at where life would take me.
When I got accepted for my undergraduate programme at UC Berkeley, I went in with a newfound love for my childhood dream — to get into the prestigious Haas Business School and make it as an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, my hate-hate relationship with numbers quickly derailed that plan. I desperately wanted to make an impact in the world, not just one industry or one vertical. And that brought me to trying to pursue Economics so I could work at the World Bank, or the UN or some other economic development organisation. Yet again, a prerequisite was high grades in Statistics — I took the class twice and got the same unacceptable grades and went devastated back to the drawing board. What now? I so badly wanted to be all these things and make a big difference but my innate abilities were stopping me. I was also running out of time — with just one year left to complete my degree, and no idea what I was majoring in, let alone where my career was headed, I was completely lost.
That’s when I discovered a new department and potential major at Berkeley — Political Economy, a course which combined my interest in economics, politics, society, people and cultures without too much math! I declared my major in my last semester, taking 5 classes (when 4 was standard practice) because I was out of time and didn’t really have a choice. I went from a 2.7 in my most number-heavy and traumatising semester in my second year, to a solid 4.0 in my last term. It was a big accomplishment for me, and more importantly, a moment of realisation — I was being held back by forcing myself to do what I wasn’t inherently good at, but believed I had to do. I told myself I wouldn’t make that mistake again (I definitely did make it again and again, and am still learning how not to!) I graduated with a major in Political Economy and a minor in Italian Studies, complemented by a study abroad stint in Rome.
Successfully completing my degree didn’t offer me much clarity or abate my career confusion; from America to the UK I hit dead ends at every front. I volunteered at a community development initiative in Costa Rica, building a road and water tank, but felt like too small a part of the effort. I interned at Human Rights Watch in San Francisco for 6 months, but the work I was doing was mostly administrative and outreach focused. I interned at Democracy Now! an independent news company in New York, as well as GUIDE, a political public affairs company in London and hit the same roadblocks there. Of course, getting paid for this work was also out of the question, which didn’t improve my prospects.
Once I completed my Masters in Social Policy and Development at the London School of Economics, I started looking for full time jobs to apply for in the development sector. I didn’t get very far because I didn’t have a law degree and wasn’t skilled in data analytics or statistics. I was reluctant to move back home to India, because I felt compelled to keep exploring the world and seeing what was out there for me.
I was also simultaneously conflicted by my other interests and passions — media, communication, marketing and advertising. I loved the idea of working in a creative field, but I had dedicated my professional life in a completely different direction so had no experience, skills or portfolio to speak of. Yet, I applied to multiple positions in media companies, across multiple countries — WPP, Ogilvy, Grey, Disney and at least 50 others. I either got rejected, got told I didn’t hold an appropriate visa or just didn’t hear back. Naturally, I assumed a creative career wasn’t made for me — or rather, I wasn’t made for a creative career.
What good are two degrees from top-tier universities if I couldn’t figure out what to do with them? That’s when I considered management consulting, which the best firms (McKinsey, Bain, Booz etc.) described as a career for people with diverse interests, problem-solving skills and a desire to work in multiple industries. The perfect job for a multipotentialite! A year into being an Technology Analyst at Accenture in London, and I was unhappy, frustrated and dejected. I had been placed on three different projects, and didn’t feel like I was making any visible or tangible impact in the world. More than that, I just wasn’t very good at it. I had another realisation then, that for me to feel fulfilled and motivated, I needed to see and feel the impact my work was having, I needed to interact with likeminded people and I needed to work on something that I was naturally good at doing.
Which finally brought me to a full circle. The more time I spent being unhappy at my consulting job, the more I started brainstorming ideas for what I loved doing — meeting fascinating people, seeing interesting places and sharing inspiring stories. In my free time, I began drawing out ideas for a platform to facilitate exactly that, taking inspiration from AirBnb, Instagram, and even Tinder. Discussing these nascent ideas with my brother, Mishal, who was in India, was thrilling and exciting — a feeling I had almost forgotten. I was faced with a long list of tough choices to make and things to consider — Should I quit a stable job at a reputed company for something much less structured? Is it possible for me to pursue entrepreneurship in a foreign country? What do I really know about technology, platforms and business? Is this going to end in failure? I didn’t find answers to these questions then, and I don’t have them now.
All I could do was trust my gut instinct, and decide to make a change — because I literally wasn’t getting any happier or any further being miserable. If not now, then when? So I moved back home, to Mumbai, after 9 years. And we began meeting people, discussing ideas, researching concepts and mapping out plans. We wanted to build a platform that would help people meet others while traveling, or even people in their own city. People who were creative and had diverse passions could show others around their city, helping them discover new things, places and people, based on matching interests. You could have a hip-hop artist take you to the best studios and gigs in Paris. A nature photographer could help you experience local hidden spots in Koh Samui. The list was endless.. of course, we soon realised we weren’t the first ones to think of the idea — there were plenty of others building and scaling similar and much better platforms than what we were planning (AirBnB Experiences actually released soon after..)
Our time working on Captimate wasn’t entirely futile though, because it opened our eyes to the fact that people don’t just want to find cool people to show them around a city, what they needed much more urgently, was a way to find interesting and talented people to work with. Moving back to Bombay, and trying to build a professional network that extended beyond my friends and schoolmates, was like moving to a new city and starting over. With little to no experience in the tech space or in startup life, we had no idea where to start. We were looking for people to give us advice on tech and entrepreneurship, we needed to find app developers and designers, we wanted to find digital marketing and PR agencies too. But where should we begin?
The more people we spoke to and the more networking platforms and search engines we used, the more we realised the enormity and ubiquity of the problem, and the lack of an effective existing solution. Everyone was looking to discover or be discovered, across creative and non creative industries. People wanted to meet, chat, collaborate and share ideas all around us. And that was the beginning of Dysco — short for discover, a professional networking community and platform, for people, businesses, brands and agencies to find each other and work together.
Dysco allowed me to find and celebrate other people with multiple talents or specialties, and identify innovative brands and unique concepts. I get to share their work, help connect professionals with each other and see amazing collaborations come to life. I get to explore and share the incredible work of founders, photographers, artists, communities, writers, and all sorts of extraordinary people. We’re living in the age of collaboration, where people and careers aren’t linear anymore and they’re eager to pursue their diverse interests and passions. And with Dysco, we’re able to bring such people together so they can build their careers in new and exciting ways. If I couldn’t be everything, and try and excel at all careers, I feel like I’ve been given a chance to put myself in so many shoes, and learn from some of the most inspiring and accomplished people across industries and professions.
Almost on its own, Dysco has grown to include elements of technology, media, advertising, content, social development, and entrepreneurship. I haven’t figured it all out, I don’t yet how to make it work perfectly, and I’m not entirely sure what this will become. But in her talk, Emily said, “embrace your many passions” and “explore your intersections,” and that’s what I found myself doing. And suddenly I realized, here I am, after all my meandering, I’m finally my own strange version of a businesswoman. I suppose it’s appropriate to say thank you Dysco, for helping me discover myself.