As part of our pandemic entrepreneur series, today we meet a Vermonter who closed one business in order to start a new one, with the goal of teaching children new languages and breaking down stereotypes.
Akshata Nayak grew up in Bangalore, India. But for nearly two decades she’s lived in New England, including in Maine and in upstate New York where she received two different master’s degrees – one in biochemistry and one in nutrition. For the last decade, she's been in Jericho with her family. During that time, she’s created three different businesses, including a well-known line of vegan skincare products called The Orange Owl.
But when the pandemic hit, Nayak says supply chain issues, coupled with retail uncertainty, signaled that it might be time to close the business.
“I also at that time, I had a two-year-old daughter; she's three now. And she was home from daycare as well,” Nayak says. “So, combining that with all the back orders for everything, stores not knowing if they'll order, needing to cancel orders … just the combination of everything and the overwhelming stress of not exactly knowing what was happening, and the uncertainty of everything, just made it really difficult.”
Nayak and her husband also paused most of the operations of the Alternative Roots Wellness Center in Essex Junction, which they operate.
Like a lot of parents last year, she found herself with a lot more time at home with her young daughter, whose vocabulary was exploding.
“And I realized that I would speak to her in my native language of Konkani, and she would understand it, but she would reply to me in English, and I just didn't know how exactly to address that,” she says. “And I realized that English was the default at home for us, because my husband's American. And so, I realized if she had to learn it, that they both had to learn it so that it would be something that she is surrounded by, rather than something she only hears from me. So, I started out to make one single book for her, and just, it just snowballed into what it is right now."
The "it" she refers to is Little Patakha, a new company that's in the process of self-publishing two picture books that use phonetic cues and illustrations to teach new languages and cultures to children and adults.
One book teaches Hindi, and another teaches Nayak’s native language of Konkani. The books feature illustrations of a whimsical cartoon animals with its Konkani name and the phonetic pronunciation.
Nayak says she hopes to expand from the two current books that are in the works to five or six uncommon languages and create introductory world-building books and original content. She also has plans to introduce little readers to traditional folktales. The fingerprints of 2020 – from the pandemic to the country’s reckoning with racial injustice – can be found in other ideas that Nayak has for Little Patakha.
“The next few products are going to deal more with promoting diversity and opening up cultures in other ways, not just language," Nayak says. "And so, our next idea is to create a puzzle where we show kids that there should be no racial, gender or any other stereotypes when it comes to professions that they can think of when they grow up. Because I feel like in a lot of ways, things get divided into blue and pink. You know, literally when they're little babies, and then figuratively as they grow up, there are expectations of what they can and cannot do. And so, we want to sort of shatter that.”
She adds: “And then I also want to highlight stories of regular people doing their regular things, but also being inspirational at the same time. Because I think we've seen, especially over the last year, that if nothing else, people have just stood up and done their jobs and helped us get through things.”
To raise the money for the first two books, Nayak raised money using the crowdsourcing platform, Kickstarter. Withing five days of launching, Little Patakha reached its $10,000 goal. In total, the company, which includes illustrator Yogita Chawdhary and designer Anushree Chokappa, raised more than $16,000.
Nayak says launching yet another business, this time during a global pandemic, was unexpected. Spending time with her daughter, Ava, and wanting to share her native language was the spark, one she might not have had without lockdown.
"If I had another business that was continuing through the pandemic, then I don't know if I would have had the bandwidth to sort of extend myself into this whole new realm,” she says. “I would have probably, you know, made a book for Ava and that would have been it, but the fact that I had the ability, the time, to think about this and expand it beyond just the original idea of creating a book to teach her a language and expanding it into what it actually is now, I don’t think would have happened if The Orange Owl was still going."
Stay tuned for one more installment coming in this series: A couple in Grand Isle shifted from selling their produce at farmer's markets to opening a brick-and-mortar store.
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