Find yourself first, then find the right idea to work on

Swathi Paturi is an entrepreneur who lived and studied in USA, New Zealand and Singapore. She enjoys learning about different cultures, people and strongly believes in the power of love to change the world. Her motto is to make a positive impact on the world through entrepreneurship and leave a legacy that can inspire future generations. She is a foodie and loves cooking for loved ones.

Marialyce Mutcher: Tell me a little bit about yourself; where you grew up. You’ve traveled a lot, and it is very interesting.

Swathi Paturi: I was born and raised in India. I decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in the United States and did that for 2 years. I wanted to do an exchange program, so I went back to India. My initial plan was to go back to the US and finish my courses, but my student visa was rejected unexpectedly. I had to look for a different option, and I ended up in Singapore. I really enjoy it here. It’s very diverse and racially inclusive.

Can you tell us more about this inclusiveness factor?

India is a very inclusive culture; all of the holidays are celebrated together regardless of what tradition you belong to. In the US, many of these holidays are not celebrated. Singapore is also very inclusive. With 4 official languages, they celebrate multiple holidays and traditions. They recognize all religions. We celebrate Diwali here, as well as Christmas. They are very accepting and are used to seeing people from all nations. I really like it and feel at home. 

I also want to talk about Singapore’s entrepreneurial culture.  The pace is very different from the US. When I presented here, I was like everybody else. I felt very comfortable. And there is no difference between women and men. In Silicon Valley, you see a lot of “unspoken rules” that you do not have here.

You came from a very different culture to the US and now you are in  Singapore; it takes a certain nimbleness in your ability to go with the flow and adjust to where you are at and also retain who you are. I would love to hear about your experience in that. In both, coming to the US, and ending up in Singapore. What did you learn about yourself in this process?

Acceptance. Things get easier as you start accepting them. If you go to some place expecting something and having certain expectations, you will get really hurt because things are not going to meet your expectations. I learned to stop expecting anything to be like I know it. I learned to keep an open mind and accept things as they are.

And another thing that I’ve learned about myself is resilience. I wanted to give up many times. Eventually I started accepting things as they are, and the more I accepted things, the more patience I had and the less frustration I had. I then could keep the things going for a few months  and then see if I really wanted to give it up or not. This applies also to my business.

The biggest culture shock wasn’t when I came to the US, because I was already expecting a very different world; But when I went from the US to New Zealand, I expected similar cultures since they are both developed countries. I thought that since the US is a developed country and New Zealand is a developed country they are 2 similar worlds. And this is where I got my culture shock. Because people in NZ are very relaxed. And I thought to myself “how can people be so relaxed and not worried about life?” This is where I got my culture shock. 

In the US, I felt this hyper energy, and in NZ people were laid back and didn’t seem under pressure. When working on projects I would try to be on top of it, and when 6 months later things haven’t moved an inch and people are still relaxed, I kept wondering how things worked here.

What has been the most difficult thing of leaving India and being away from your country?

Comfort zone; staying in my comfort zone. Also being away from the family and traditions. I haven’t been home for Diwali for the past 5 years. I promised myself I will be home for my next Diwali.

One thing I know in the back of my mind, even when I travel for long periods of time, is that eventually I will go home. That is fixed for me. I am going to settle down in India by 2021, so it is a couple of years from now. This is my bigger plan. 

You’ve mentioned that you are finishing up your studies in mechanical engineering earlier on, and in addition to being a student you are also an entrepreneur. I would like to hear how being a student and starting your own business works for you; how do you do all of that?

Entrepreneurship has been something that has been always on the back of my mind. It is something that drives me. If I have no ideas that keep me going, then I have to start something, I have to find a problem to solve. I think, “maybe there are other people that have this problem.” 

Whenever you are starting something, start small. Entrepreneurship is very tough, because you still have to take care of all of the housework, cooking, studies. But also it is the force that keeps you going. 

Can you tell us about ideas you’ve tried to work on? What worked and what didn’t? 

My first idea was to work with the finance companies when I was an international student in the US. My university had about 3,000 international students and none of us were financially stable, including me. Loan interest rates for us were like 25-30%. It was very high. My American classmates had loans with interest rates of only 6 to 8%. It was very low compared to what we were offered. 

I had this idea of getting some local insurance companies to support loans with very low interest rates by using as collateral students’ properties that they had back home. I found out that it was possible, but that you need a cosigner who is a US citizen. When you have just come to the US, it is very hard to have somebody who would sign the loan on your behalf. I also learned that there are many laws and regulations around it and I realized that it was too much for me to take on at the age of 17.

My next idea was around food. All my professors were very interested in the food I brought from home. We had a small brainstorming session and my idea was to create a subscription box of snacks from different countries. I thought it was a great idea, but for some reason it didn’t work. I tried FB advertisement, instagram, linkedin and nobody ever bought anything. In all this time we only made one sale. Our box was priced at $35 and you got a few packets of chips and chocolates from different countries around the world. It was a different country every month. I don’t know why it didn’t take off. We sent boxes to some Youtubers, these videos exist, they are still on Youtube, but nobody is interested. It was 4 years ago, and may be the market wasn’t mature enough.

My third startup was a quilt business. The quilts were handmade by indian women from one small village and it was a family type of thing. The quilts were very beautiful and based on sustainable and fair trade. My mom helped me a lot. She was doing big part of work; she was travelling 5 hours each way to collect the quilts. It is a very niche market, and the products had style and were well-made, but after a year of low sales I questioned myself if I was going the right way. And I realized that fashion and textiles are not really my cup of tea. 

A meal by Swathi

What was then? And the answer came readily to mind: food. I cook every day, food relaxes me; every time there is a house party I cook, the food is my thing. And I love healthy food. 

I have found that it is very hard to find “elite” cookies in the supermarkets. All cookies have white flour and even if they are gluten free, they are made of rice flour and it is not good for digestion. So I thought about what my mom used to cook. She used a traditional indian food, a grain called millet.

Fast forwarding the story: right now, I am working on cookies based on millet. I want to develop something like the Oreo brand, but healthy. No white flour, vegan, low sugars. And I also want to do energy bars in the future. When I did the mixture for cookies it was perfect, it had everything. I got the taste and texture as I wanted it. As for the bars, the packaging and the recipe are not perfect yet. I would like to sell it in the stores and maybe also online or by subscription. 

What have you learnt so far in your journey as an entrepreneur? What takeaways would you highlight?

The first thing is that I found myself. In the last five years, all of the ideas that I worked on were not just business projects; they were all part of a “find myself” project. It took me some time and some experimentation to realize that food is my passion. Food is what I want to do. 

My other passion is psychology, developing a stress management app for a school project. So my two passions are health and food. 

And I’ve also learned that I am not going to give up on these ideas like I gave up on the previous ones. I gave up on the other ones because I couldn’t picture myself doing them long term. I did have a vision, but after three years I would say “Okay, I achieved that. I got so far. And this is enough.”  

But I can clearly see that I could be selling cookies after 3 years. I think with all my ideas I have had some struggles to face. And it’s been a satisfying process to find what I really wanted to do. 

What do you see as your next step? 

I want to launch my food business. And I also want to work on a stress management app. I am not sure where it is going. I just had this idea and I have a feeling that I would like to help heal others; but I don’t know if I can execute it as a business project. It is a school project and I am testing it for now. After a few months I will see if I want to continue the work on it and take it to the next level. 

It is different with the food idea: I want to pursue it for the next 10 years. I have always liked farms, and maybe after I move back to India I can grow some food on my ancestors farm. 

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about trying to start their own business?

Try to find yourself in this process first. When you find yourself, eventually you will find the right idea for you. There are so many right ideas that might work, but they might not be the right idea for you. Or maybe you are not the right person to execute it. 

So try to find yourself, and try to determine if you can see yourself working on this idea for the next 10 years. If you can be confident that you are not going to give up in the next 10 years, then it is going to work out eventually. You will pivot, you will change it from one thing to another, but eventually this is where you find yourself and it will work. If you heart and soul are not there, then it is not your path and it is not going to work. 

You are a student; and you are an entrepreneur and it sounds like your lifestyle is pretty busy and you really have a passion for cooking what else do you like to do? Do you have a typical student lifestyle? 

Right now, I play badminton every day after school. I have found that whenever I play sports, my productivity rises and my competitive drive grows stronger. I would also like to learn archery. It improves your focus a lot. I am also interested in horseback riding, but I am a bit nervous about it. 

What sportswear do you use? Any favorite brands? Go-to items?

Actually I don’t wear any athletic brands.  I see people who are thin and in shape wearing them  and I tell myself, I don’t look like that. So I don’t want to wear it. The other reason is that in school, no one is dressed in athletic wear. You are dressed for class. 

If you saw more people that looked like you would that make you change your mind?

Yes, definitely. If something is worn by someone who looks like me, and I can relate to it, then I would feel comfortable wearing it. I have the same problem when I wear swimwear. I don’t like to wear swimsuits. But recently in Singapore I am finding I have found more swimwear options than I found in the US. There are more modest swimwear choices available because of the large Muslim and Malasian populations You would think the US would have all the options, but it is not the case.

What does your regular day look like?

I wake up, make breakfast for my brother and myself, I pack my lunch, and I go to class. After class, I play badminton. After that, I talk to my mom. I come home and I work on my assignments and on my business ideas. I cook dinner. And sometimes I watch a movie before I sleep. Then I sleep.

Do you have a role model? Is there a woman or person that inspires you and motivates you?

My mom. She is very driven. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get an education. She got married and had kids. She is 58, and with every business idea I have, she asks me “Okay, what can I do for you?” I talk to my mom like 3 times a day and she helps me in everything. She is supportive. She is my role model. 

What is one thing you carry in your purse?

My phone! And medicines. I try to carry with me my basic meds, so I can always take care of myself. Sometimes I can forget my phone, but my medicines I will never forget. 

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