Weaving Wonders: What it means to believe in your craft

Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka is well known for being a surfer’s paradise. But that wasn’t our reason for being there.

Travel off the beaten path in the Ampara District and you will reach Kalmunai, a charming city in the Eastern Province and the one and only Muslim-majority municipality in the country.

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The drive was picturesque. Patches of green paddy fields, sparkles of ocean which burst forth from the mess of other colors flashing by, and my black Nikon hanging its tongue out the window like a dog, greedily lapping up all of the beautiful still images it could get in their perfectly untampered state. When we pulled up alongside a small shop in town, our guide jumped in the car and we began making our way to the village where we would meet them: the weavers.

Handloom cloth is a hallmark of Sri Lankan culture, the rich, beautiful textured fabric coming together thread by thread like the workmanship, skill, and devotion that goes into its creation. When we walked into the first small brown house–a warmly dilapidated structure–we were struck by the sight of two women at work at the loom, peddling furiously with their feet while their mouths engaged in chatter and their eyes glanced at the foreigners who made no attempt to hide the wonderment on their faces. This was true craftsmanship. This–at once a livelihood and an art–struck me as one of the most beautiful ways that I had seen man and machine work together, almost as if the rough, weathered feet of the women had someone extended into the creased brown legs of the loom, whirring in one consistent, inseparable rhythm.

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The handloom industry is one that is, sadly, in decline in Sri Lanka. Handlooms have given way to factories and products manufactured at a speed which with those weathered, rough feet can’t compete. But I would argue that while the quality remains high, the craftsmanship is just not the same–the consequence being that an art and a livelihood are squandered at once by the single emotionless whir of a stainless steel machine. And yet, there is a reason to have hope for the future of the handloom.

Sri Lanka has seen the incipient growth of companies and individual entrepreneurs who are helping these handloom weavers sustain a treasured part of Sri Lanka’s culture by buying their cloth and making new products. This enables them to both support their families and invest in the future growth of their communities. It is yet another lesson in the way that purchasing power can be used for good.

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I left the homes of the weavers we met in that small community in Kalmunai feeling like I had heard so many stories. Using languages far deeper than those that bounce on the human tongue, the flow of newly sewn cloth emerged like a triumphant river from the women’s efforts–the child of her strength and a loom which conferred life to the threads it cradled, one artful step at a time.

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Ultimately, whether you are a weaver or a student or an aspiring careerwoman or man to be, you must believe in your craft–and the pursuit of that belief, while aided by mentors, friends and family, is at its heart, an individual one.

Even though we as humans converge in large religious groups such as the millions of Hindus who attended the Kumbh Mela festival this past month in India, or as citizens of a nation who believe in one constitution and a set of inalienable rights–ultimately, truly believing in that cause that brings unity is something that each individual member of a group must realize for himself. That day in Kalmunai, I could feel myself believing in what these women were doing, no matter what economists or marketers or consumers in the big city might say.

Maybe the prospect of seeing these incredible women at work weaving cloth at a handloom doesn’t seem especially remarkable to the casual visitor (or reader, as the case may be). But even in my short time standing in the weavers’ presence, I felt that I could appreciate the rarity of their craft in a way that is hard to convey with words–though I have ventured an attempt :)

As we left those small, warmly dilapidated houses and the city of Kulmanai behind, I couldn’t help but ponder a thought that had stayed with me throughout the day:

seeing can often mean believing, but it is far less commonly the equivalent of appreciating.

To do that, it helps to tell a story.

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Let’s talk. My Sri Lanka lessons: on teamwork, frustration, and sisterhood

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School, after all, is a selfish endeavor.

Recently, I watched Eat, Pray, Love for the first time, the fan working furiously above my head all the while as it circulated the hot Sri Lankan air. The movie was good, but god, how I love the sound of that fan. It reminds me of being here, which is really fascinating if you think about it–because, after all, I’m still here.

But I’m saving the sound of that fan and the feeling of all that it circulates, and I’ll take it with me for when I’m far away from here and need it most.

My uncle, aunt, Inesha, and I all went out to dinner the other night at the Dutch Hospital here in Colombo. Fantastic name for a place that was transformed from a historic hospital into a light, ebullient, warm-weather dinner arena. We enjoyed Indonesian Nasi goreng, a roasted chicken sandwich, Chinese spring roles, and baby back ribs. And we talked. We are all travelers who are at parellel stages in our life, and we sat around a table and shared experiences as diverse as the food upon it. It was also the first frank look that Inesha and I had taken at our relationship in a long time–as seen by two older, wiser family members who had observed us for a short time in our 19-year-old states.

You see, I realized that this relationship has changed. This bond between Inesha and I had shifted, and negatively so. We’d been fighting more and worrying our parents more and really just doing everything bad for this relationship, more.

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School, after all, is a selfish endeavor.

But motherhood is not.

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Inesha and I are still students, certainly, but I had given up on being her sister and decided to be her mother of late. Being here in Sri Lanka has been as much of a team effort as a test of individual follow through and dedication, but working on GrowLanka has also given me a chance to learn something about what it means to work on a team and see your teammates as just that–people whom you can trust and whom you hold accountable.

Both Inesha and I have our faults, but for me, it was that dinner conversation with my uncle and aunt that made me realize that there are different kinds of teamwork. There’s the teamwork that two sisters share as they travel to foreign countries and leave home for college in a community foreign to their own, and then there’s the teamwork that colleagues share when they have to be able to wholly and unequivocally rely on one another.

I learned many valuable things during my time in Sri Lanka. But I also learned that I can’t be Inesha’s mother when I have been her sister since I was born. I can’t tell her what to do when there is so much that she can do on her own. I have to trust her and remember that there’s nothing wrong with a healthy amount of doubt–that way, you’re ready to let the other person surprise you :)

One day when we enter the workforce, Inesha, myself, and most of our friends will have to shift our mentality from “me-centered student life” to become a part of a team that is working for and towards something other than ourselves. This was one of the insights that Inesha shared with me since finishing her internship at the White House, and I think its a valuable realization for all of us who have been so consumed in the pursuit of knowledge for so long.

I can’t help but feel that the day when I stop checking the “student” box on all those federal forms is still a long way off. But still, I think it’s valuable to prepare myself for what that shift might be like whenever it does happen. I hope to never stop learning, but I do believe that there is a day when I will stop being simply, a student. Working with Inesha has helped open my eyes to the possibilities of service for others and made me appreciate just how fulfilling it is. In working with Inesha, I have to stumble, fall, scream, and smile my way to the compromises that colleagues might work out in half the time that it takes two sisters who decided to join the same team. But we’re working on it and part of that process has to begin with me stepping back, and realizing that I shouldn’t and can’t tell her what to do. Anyway, with time I know we’ll get there–I’ll let you know how it goes :)

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School, after all, is a selfish endeavor.

But sisterhood is not–most of the time.

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Being a sister means caring for the people who call you sister, but it also means caring for yourself.


Good luck to everyone who is heading back to school or may already have started their spring semesters! Inesha and I are leaving Sri Lanka soon and will be back stateside before we know it :)

what strong looks like.

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We met her a week ago today. It was striking really, how scared she looked. Thin and frail she sat across from us in a foldable chair trying to make herself as small as possible. Wearing a blue MAS Intimates shirt and a long brown skirt, her hair swept up in a bun with a trademark red bindhi on her forehead, she was classic Sri Lankan. But I couldn’t help looking at her and feeling like a cat somehow encroaching on a mouse, a big person sitting down with a very, very tiny one.

She trembled at first as she answered our questions, not sure at first why exactly we were there, worried that the three of us might just make more trouble for her. But with our smiles and reassurance, gentle prodding and simple questions, she slowly grew a little more comfortable, understanding with time that we were merely there to listen to her, to learn her story. How strange that must of felt. Still, I can’t say that she walked away trusting us in the end. Then again, I can’t say that a woman like her who had seen so very much could really ever trust again.

Her name was Anjali and she was a Sri Lankan war widow. Ishani, another one of our classmates, and I went to a Killinochchi MAS factory to interview her and learn of her challenges. Anjali had one son and her mother and father to support; she had lost her husband, an LTTE fighter, to the war. Why and how exactly, she did’t readily disclose; then again, we didn’t exactly want to push the point either. More tangible really than any of her answers was the fear she spoke with. She never lost that look of terror, of fear when she talked to us. Her’s was a story that reminded us of how very lucky we are to live in a place and a society where trust is inherently given with a ‘hello’ and is something we offer automatically at the table, only to retract if necessary later. But for Anjali, trust was not inherent, her interactions waged from a place of paralyzing, mind-numbing fear instead.

The stories of these war widows are not ones we hear of often. Although that in itself is not really a bad thing; these women prefer privacy and modesty over all else. They do not need to air their troubles out in public. But these women… they need help. There are more than 90,000 of these widows in northern Sri Lanka, women who have lived in bunkers and who have heard the ringing of gunshots far too often. Unlike most other wars, these women were not just on the ‘homefront,’ but too were recruited to serve. The LTTE created a breed of strong female soldiers that was rare throughout most of the South Asian world.If not recruited, many of these women were forced into hiding or early marriage to escape military service.  Their stories are far more complex than we might ever imagine. They have seen their brothers and fathers and sons ripped away, they have seen the destruction of the only land they know and the end of a war they knew too well. I am by no means qualified to tell their stories, but if you are to leave this post remembering anything at all, let it be this:  regardless of sector or experience or position in the war, people here in Sri Lanka universally tell us that no one deserves our help or needs it more than these women.

Scenes from Killinochchi & Vavuniya

Development and infrastructure have now returned to the North. There are new roads that stretch for miles (a highway, even!) and new government buildings. Memorials have been raised to the soldiers lost and bridges are slowly being built– the physical kind and the less tangible kind too. These are helping to bridge the gulf between groups that found themselves at odds during the war and may still be struggling with residual tension. Today,  some scenes from our drive through Killinochchi and Vavuniya and tomorrow a telling of the war widow we met and the impression she left on us.

The sight of deminers from the road
The sight of deminers from the road
War memorial
War memorial
A water tower that the LTTE blew up to keep the opposition from accessing a clean water supply. Unfortunately, this meant that tens of thousands of civilians too would have to go without clean water.
A water tower that the LTTE blew up to keep the opposition from accessing a clean water supply. Unfortunately, this meant that tens of thousands of civilians too would have to go without clean water.
Army tank from the civil war
Army tank from the civil war
Flowers rest on a war memorial
Flowers rest on a war memorial
While destruction from the recent civil war is still visible on the streets of Killinochchi, you can't miss the development that has happened in the area. New roads, new buildings, new houses. It's not perfect but they're getting there...
While destruction from the recent civil war is still visible on the streets of Killinochchi, you can’t miss the development that has happened in the area. New roads, new buildings, new houses. It’s certainly a promising sight.

Lessons Learned.

It's not about you

This list is by no means comprehensive but I wanted to sum up for you in some way the lessons I learned in DC while interning at the White House. This list is one I think I’ll be referring back to in the future, especially as I select future internships and decide what exactly I want to do next. So, I hope that even if in the smallest of ways, something on this list resonates with you. Have a great weekend. Ishani and I will be back with more from Vavuniya and our trip to the Eastern part of Sri Lanka soon! xo Inesha

1. So often people ask you what success means to you. I still don’t quite know the answer. But I did learn in DC what failure looks like to me: Forgetting where I come from, losing humility.

2. On using your voice (from an exchange with one of my colleagues):

“Don’t you ever just think, ‘well who am I to demand anything– the universe doesn’t owe me!'”

“But why should the universe give you anything if you don’t demand it?”

3. “Don’t be a timid professional– be bold.

4. Keep your head down and do good work. Gain some credit. And then make some asks, however small. But gain that hard workreputation first.

5. Be there. Be accountable.

6. Keep a diary. You’ll want the memories later.

7. Double and triple check your work. Be a 120%er.

8. Know what you need from your job, what you’re not willing to sacrifice. I need a sense of autonomy, an ability to create. I need the ability to get to know everyone from the janitor to the principal. To me, these things… they matter.

9. “You have three priorities– and one of them is your personal health.” Ruthlessly prioritize.

10. Pack your own lunch. It’s healthier (and cheaper.)

11. Put others first. Even in the simple things.

12. Once a week, try and do something for someone else– or something that helps or in some way improves the office you work for.

13. Be humble and confident. Use your voice. Remember what you bring to the table. And in this way, make yourself indispensable to the people you serve.

14. Observe. Look to the people around you. If you find yourself saying ‘wow, that person is really successful’ or ‘wow, she really knows what she’s doing’ or anything along those lines, take note. Pausing and figuring out how exactly that person gives off the sense of authority they do will help you, even subtly, develop your own leadership and management style.

From one of my colleagues– “Just do you– whatever that is.”

15. Timeliness means a lot. Don’t be late. Marine One

16. Keep a clean desk. It’s helpful :)

17. What are you learning from your job? If you can’t answer that, maybe it’s time to try your hand at something different… either way, know why you do the job you do and be intentional about the steps you take, the time you spend.

18. Read the news. Be in the know. Easy ways to do this are to use the flipboard app or to subscribe to daily email newsletters– such as those from the New York Times or the Economist (my personal faves!) Subscribing to your hometown newspaper is also a good thing to do– you’ll want to know what’s going on back home.

19. I struggle with this. There are certain people you will come across– be it a politician you’ve always admired or a local hometown hero– that will leave you starstruck. But move beyond startruckness and humanize the relationships you might have with these people. Stand in admiration and respect of what they’ve done but don’t be so starstruck that you can’t question your heroes or strike a conversation with them.

20. Seek out advice and career guidance. The people a few steps ahead of you were you not so long ago. And when you do leave your post, keep in touch with those people– they’ll take care of you in more ways than you know.

21. Pay attention to detail.heartland

22. Smile.

23. Don’t just go along with what everyone else says or does. Where necessary, push back. Don’t settle.

24. The government as big and as bureaucratic as it may be– it works. Things get done. The American people are responded to. And that– that is not something every citizen across this planet can say is true for them.

25. Important: Persistence, discipline, focus.

26. “It’s not about you.” Focus on the mission of the place you work for. Know what the impact you want to achieve is– and know what it looks like, how you will measure it. And when the going gets tough– remember those metrics. Don’t let the politics or the little things get in the way of letting you serve the people you’re there to serve.

27. As one of my colleagues put it, when we elect a president, we don’t often realize it but we’re also electing the administration he or she will put into place. Along that vein, when you choose a job, think strongly about the person you will be working directly for and about the people you will be surrounded by. Will those people inspire you?

28. Prioritize not just getting things done– but getting things done the right way.

29. The emotion we perhaps lack most nowadays: empathy.

30. Progress… Change… is really slow. Just keep going.

Public service

Hitting Pause: What I learned in DC

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During these first few days in 2013, I’ve found myself mulling over the last few days and months of 2012, months that had Ishani back at Cambridge struggle-busing her way through a full load of classes and plenty of other things and had me a good 12-hour car ride away in Washington, D.C., taking on my first stateside internship at the White House. All in all, the year had us traveling… a lot. And oh the stories we will have to share when we look back on this year: the chorus of Holocaust survivors I encountered in Argentina, the dala-dala ride Ishani took with a roost of chickens, the time we sat in on conversations or speaker series with Aun San Suu Kyi or Samantha Power or the First Lady.

The point is, 2012 had the two of us crossing the globe a lot, whether with our words or feet or hearts. It meant trying new things. There were tough days, hurried days, and days when we didn’t quite know what we were doing and missed home more than we could say. But those days too flew by. And somehow we made it.

And so as I flip through the posts we’ve shared and as we look to blog more in 2013– starting with right here from Sri Lanka– I can’t help but want to push the pause button just once. The truth is that as much as we’ve documented the last few months on this blog, we’ve fallen off the radar a few times. Granted, Ishani’s organic chemistry isn’t exaclty bloggable material ;) And with the election and Christmas and the fiscal cliff happening right outside my window, I can’t say that I was always the best at keeping you sweet readers updated on the things I was learning and the events and history I was watching unfold. And so take this blog post as a last minute pause. It’s a little late but it’s a reflection on what exactly D.C. taught me. Be sure to check back soon to learn about more of the hard lessons I learned this past semester. Here’s to 2013!

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When I was in DC this past semester,  there was this one day— 9/11 to be exact— that I was running late to work. I remember thinking to myself that when I was little I always wanted to ‘make it big’—make it big meaning I wanted to become a ballerina or the next Mother Teresa or just someone who made the world hurt just a little bit less. When I got to Harvard, it was about making it happen. Because school can be a strugglebus (maybe that’s just a Harvard expression?! can’t be sure) and sometimes producing those papers really is the best I can do. But on that morning on that struggle(late)bus to work, it was just about making it. And I remember looking around me and realizing that in college, in school, we get to do so much more than just make it. We get to build things and dream up things and create stories with our words and open doors in our minds. But in the real world…

Everyday I boarded the late bus home, angry and frustrated that all of my friends would waltz away to their Capitol Hill apartments while I had to make the long (2+ hour) trek home. It just wasn’t fair I would think. I left at 9 and got home at 11 and had to be up by 6 the next morning. Those were days when I didn’t talk much to anyone. They were hard. I was working in the glorious White House but each day was a strugglebus of work, work, bus, bus, bus, sleep. I felt for a while that I fell off the planet, outside the real world and I was for the first time not running away from its harsh realities but struggling just to keep up with it.

But then there was that moment, sitting at the bus stop in Vienna, Virginia when I realized so acutely what economic inequality means in our country– how 2 hours is a big deal to a working mom, a waitressing dad, a community college student trying to get out of that neighborhood the rest of us call ‘the ghetto.’ Time is so very precious and wasting it like that killed me. But those moments gave my mind time to wander, to stick my headphones in and to observe. The people I encountered at 6 am and 6 pm and 10 pm were all different. There was I’m-too-busy-for-you, smartphone talking professionals and busy working moms and kids who were glued to their iPhones.

And then there was this one Korean lady. Every night I would board the second bus home from the Vienna Metro Station to my house. At the second stop on the route would hop on this one elderly, frail South Korean woman. Everyday without fail she would smile this toothless smile and tell the bus driver a hearty and innocent hello.  She was always so happy. One night she sat next to me. Naturally, we started talking. She told me that she worked Tuesday-Sunday from 6 am to 9 pm and then walked to the bus stop, got home, fed her kids, and went to bed. She said it was tough running a Korean restaurant because she never quite knew if enough customers would come in.

And yet, she never ever stopped smiling.

She, arguably, taught me the most about grace and happiness in this world that doesn’t always do the best job of telling you that it actually does care about you and will take care of you. I went whole days with supervisors and fellow interns who were struggling to figure out their new jobs and roles; any one of them could’ve smiled, reassured, affirmed the struggling sophomore that I was and still very much am. Not out of obligation but out of oneness, commonness. And yet it was this Korean woman, this complete stranger who I did not know that did that each and every night, smiling her signature toothless smile and waving me over when she boarded the bus a little after 9. For her, I could not be more grateful.

In this way, D.C. taught me a lot. I can’t say I picked up much of the facts or philosophies or intellectual knowledge I’ve been filling my brain with these past few years.  On the job, I learned that more than anything I require a sense of autonomy and substance from the work I do, a capacity to have impact, to change and meld and create. And my job, quite frankly, taught me how to not suck so bad at something I’m not automatically the best at. It taught me patience and reminded me once more of the value of believing the best in people even when you know their motives are more than just political and their actions not entirely genuine. I realize I am sounding a bit vague here without meaning to be. There are stories behind these lessons that I can’t entirely share. Still, I hope you understand that these lessons were more often than not the products of moments I couldn’t quite capture– gradual and yet sudden realizations, fruits of my labor that were realized not with effort but with time.  And yet taken together these moments and stories had me doing one thing towards the end of my internship: plastering on the wall perhaps the one single quote that rang the most true for me throughout the internship: “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” — Plato

I learned the importance of this quote on my first job, volunteering in a hospital. But it’s one that transcends environment and timing. You should never stop smiling. In our world there are few gestures that are so effortless and yet so telling and comforting. The White House is and was for me a pressure cooker, a place where things have to be done precisely and perfectly and efficiently. It’s not alway the easiest ask. But a comforting smile, a knowing nod– they are sometimes the only means we have to acknowledge the struggles and challenges and triumphs we all face.

A smile, you see, is more than just the parting of the lips, the widening of the jaw, the slight gritting of your teeth. It is a gesture that repeated and doled out with care is perhaps our only surest way of letting those we work with know that we really do have their back and that in this crazy world that spins oh so fast, when they need us most, we will be there.

“The White House, with all its pressures, intrigues, triumphs, betrayals, joys and disappointments, is the most special place you ever will work. Look out the gates at the people who slow their gait as they pass, trying to get a glimpse of someone—anyone. They know what you’re likely to forget. You’re blessed… Leave no room for regrets—for someday, in the not-so-distant future, you will be back where you started: On the sidewalk with the other folks, gawking at that grand, glorious, mysterious place—where Lincoln walks at night, and our highest hopes and dreams reside.”

– Tony Snow, White House Press Secretary and Assistant to President George W. Bush

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me and my mommy ;)

Combining passions: Entrepreneurship & Fashion. Meet fsense co-founders Dilani & Poornima

Over here at Seeing i-to-i, we’re excited to kick off the New Year with a new Friday series of posts meant to highlight the work, ideas, and achievements of incredible women—be it here at home, on the world stage, or on a college campus somewhere across the USA. We’ve met some incredible women while doing this blog and we can’t wait to share with you all that they’ve been up to.

 This week, we’re spotlighting the work of fsense, a fashion startup cofounded by Dilani, Danny, and Poornima. They are building an online fashion network that allows users and stylists to create looks using a Pinterest style pin-board system and  request style help from stylists. As long as you have a good eye for fashion, you can be a stylist on fsense!

Below you will find our interview with fsense’s Poornima and Dilani. Enjoy!

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I&I: What are your backgrounds?

Dilani_Kahawala

Dilani: It might sound strange but I have always had an interest in both physics and fashion. I completed my undergrad in
Australia at Monash University doing Physics and Electrical Engineering. Now I am in my final year at Harvard where I am pursuing a PhD in theoretical particle physics.

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Poornima: I have always been interested in technical fields, and currently work as a product development engineer for Saint Gobain. I studied theoretical mathematics and environmental economics at UC Berkeley and then finished a Master of Engineering degree in Materials Science & Engineering at Boston University.

I&I: What challenges do you face as an entrepreneur?

Dilani: The main challenge for me is the pace, and juggling a startup with finishing my PhD. We also have to make sure we communicate well among the three of us so there are a large number of emails that get exchanged. Still, it’s exciting to work with a great team of people who is just as dedicated as you are to seeing the idea flourish.

Poornima: Starting a company is different in that you have to wear all hats and play all positions. Challenges also lie in the fact that you have to come up with several full-proof strategies to have your business succeed–this is difficult to do for any business, but especially a startup. You also don’t have someone spot-checking your every move to tell you if you are doing it right.

I&I: What’s it like to do a fashion startup without having any formal background in fashion or business?

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Dilani: There are pros and cons. Running a startup is very different from running a business at least in the early stages. We don’t have to worry about revenue or making projections, and many of the principles that apply to large businesses just don’t work for startups. For us, it’s all about building a great product and getting other people excited about it. The pros of not having a business or fashion background is that I can think outside the box and my technical background definitely helps me see patterns and solve problems. Having said that, I do spend a lot of time reading fashion blogs, shopping online and thinking about style.

Poornima: I have had some exposure to both, actually. I worked for BCBG as an undergrad and have always loved being fashionable. As for business, I have a lot of coursework experience, and most of the internships I did over summers were in consulting and/or business. That being said, I think that having a variety of skills is useful in any startup and it’s definitely not necessary to have any particular background to join one.

I&I: What do you have to say to women who are worried about choosing the “wrong” academic path now and wonder about their ability to pivot in career decisions later on?

Dilani: My guide to figuring out if I am doing the right thing is seeing if I  feel excited to start work and learn new things at my job every morning when I wake up. Pivoting is not easy and you might have to take a few steps back to learn some of the basics, but it can definitely be done and often your ability to view things from a different perspective can be a huge advantage. If you are going to pivot, be strategic about it. Try to find natural pivot points like the end of your undergrad or the end of your PhD. Make sure you have a solid plan B.

Poornima: I would tell them that there is nothing like the “wrong” path, and I am a perfect example of it. I spend a lot of time working on fsense, which is a sign that this is what I am meant to do. Just because I studied science or math does not mean that I have to do that for the rest of my life. I really think it’s important to explore options and various fields.

You can check out fsense for yourself on their website and facebook page.