There’s something so empowering about reading a founder’s story. The guts it took to just start, the glory, the challenges, the success. Vayshali began her business from the murky unknown, where from the shadows of the unfamiliar she launched a brand celebrating inclusivity and strength. We sat down with the branding and marketing expert to get the story on all things anEK, her new line of handbags and soon, accessories.
Can you share your founder’s story? When did you first realize you wanted to start your own business and what was the journey like from that moment until now?
My parents owned their own business since the day I was born and growing up working for yourself was the mantra I was surrounded with. I find myself lucky that my parents understood the idea of taking a risk at the chance of success. Of course, they also wanted the “American dream” for their first-generation born daughters and pushed us to focus on education and landing a good job, which we all did.
I found myself becoming more and more interested in fabric, sewing, and designing out of college, especially in the form of bags, but I pushed that “hobby” to the side to focus on my marketing career.
I’ve been extremely successful in my professional life, working on branding and marketing for Southwest Airlines, Hilton Hotels, Mattel and Disney. With every promotion, raise, new job or high-visibility project, I pushed the idea of launching my own handbag line to the back. Until I was furloughed in March 2020. With no income coming in, no indication of a return date and no idea on my career path, I decided to double down on me and start anEK.
Where did the name “anEK” come from?
The literal transition of “anek” is many or crowd but note the capitalized “EK,” which means one. For this brand, anEK means be the one among the crowd.
You are that one.
We are surrounded by many who will influence us, change us, and mold us to become more of them. However, you should be you. Be different. Be unique. Be You.
The name resonates for me and others like me who have spent parts of their life trying to blend in with their surroundings. They spend time changing and oftentimes, lose their identity. We’ve all been there: peer pressure from school cliques, social obligations with our community or professional settings with coworkers. At some point, we’ve wanted to hide our true self to fit in. anEK is focused on being happy with being different.
You recently posted on your IG about the fulfilling experience of meeting other founders. How specifically does being among a community of entrepreneurs and small businesses help motivate your dreams?
Imagine taking a difficult first step on a path that is unknown. Now imagine entering onto that path with an entire cheering section encouraging and motivating you. That is the benefit I’ve experienced surrounding myself with other small business founders. Every interaction I have with an entrepreneur or founder, I approach it as a mini-mentoring session. Regardless of their line of business, the challenges and opportunities essentially look the same for us. I’ve strategically used every interaction as a learning opportunity for myself and anEK. As an entrepreneur, you spend a lot of time in your head, so it’s important to take that thinking and share with others like you.
What IS your dream with anEK? If all goes according to plan (ha, we all know that never happens but let’s just imagine), where is anEK at this very same time next year?
I love manifesting! Here I go:
One year from now as I’m celebrating my one-year anniversary, my DTC business will broaden from 5 products to 25+ handbag SKUs, and I’ll be designing an expanded line of accessory products that will follow the ethos of anEK.
We’ll just be launching our improved plan to be even more sustainable and ethical with manufacturing and production.
My consumers are gifting and making repeat purchases of anEK handbags given the quality and uniqueness of the bags
As a founder, I will be mentoring other female/WOC-owned small businesses by opening my “office” hours for real-talk positive conversations about identities, being yourself and being an entrepreneur.
I’m in! And I love the real-talk conversations. Because being an entrepreneur is hard. Like really, really hard. What’s one instance of a tough obstacle you faced and how did you overcome it?
Entrepreneurship alone has obstacles, but when you are venturing into an industry outside of your skill set, you are setting yourself up for double the challenges. My background is not in technical design and production of handbags, but I had to quickly understand the basics to execute my vision. I hired an amazing consultant who stood by my side and explained every step during pre- and post-production. She enlightened me on production in the U.S. vs. overseas, importance of quality hardware, sourcing materials and retail pricing strategy.
My lack of handbag production knowledge was my obstacle, and I quickly came to terms that certain parts of the business require delegation to experts. With a demanding day job, two kids and everything else that 2020 was throwing our way, I needed to bring on someone who could aid me in my journey to launch anEK.
I saw you answered our IG question sticker about reading “How I Built This.” Cool! What other books are you reading and do you recommend?
1) “What Do You Do With an Idea?” By Kobi Yamada. Warning it’s a children’s book but one that entrepreneurs should read as a reminder to themselves to keep working on their idea, and to bring it to life. The simple storyline is relevant to me because I’ve been holding onto my handbag idea for years and that dream followed me around until I finally acted on it last year.
2) “How the World Sees You” by Sally Hogshead As a full-time marketing director and entrepreneur, I found this book influential in understanding the power of leveraging my strengths and creating a brand story that lets the world see the value I add. The key is understanding your personality, and then focusing on your dominant advantages to excel.
3) I can’t believe I’m going to admit this, but I have been reading Nicholas Spark books for years, so will occasionally pick up “A Walk to Remember” and re-read.
Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a good romance! And to an entrepreneur reading this interview on the brink of starting a business, what one thing would you say to them to inspire their start?
Take that first step, small as it may be, and just start. Buy that URL, secure your social media handles, contact manufacturers or retailers, just a small step at a time. Running a business can absolutely feel overwhelming, but if you can agree with yourself that you will move at your own pace, then you will eliminate the pressure of timelines, deadlines and all the business elements that turn people off from starting. My favorite quote is: “If you don’t change anything, nothing will change.”
You hold the ability to make a change.
I love that we connected through the FFC. Don’t you think support, especially as you’re just starting up, is so pivotal to success?
I would love to say it’s truly “community over competition” but let’s be real, it’s not always that way. Having a community of like minded entrepreneurs like the Female Founders Collective gives you the support, broad thinking and crowd-style motivation and accountability needed when on this entrepreneurial journey. The idea of “give and get” is pivotal with a group of founders you are looking to learn from. What can you give in terms of knowledge and skills to other founders, and what type of support would you like to get? With this approach, you are likely to connect with more supporters.
Can you talk a bit more about your educational and professional background? How did it influence your business?
My education and professional experience is in developing branding and marketing strategies for brands such as Disney, Hilton, Mattel and Southwest Airlines and a few smaller regional brands. Professional experience with larger brands has taught me the benefit of blue-sky thinking, financial models, and long term roadmapping, while my experience at smaller companies has trained me to be agile and scrappy and gain a “figure it out” attitude.
Tell us about your product! What makes your handbags unique?
My handbags are a representation of two cultures merged together to create a beautiful and unique accessory for all those special moments in your life.
I utilize upcycled Indian fabric in my pieces which makes every bag unique in its own way. The handbags are made in small batches in Los Angeles by a women-owned manufacturing team.
Your colors are SO beautiful! Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
anEK is focused on creating a bridge between the Indian and American cultures with the use of Indian fabric. Utilizing beautiful Indian fabric was a critical element because of the deep love I have for the colors, layers, and intricate details traditionally seen on formal Indian attire. These bags, however, are not solely for South Asians. The use of certain fabrics and colors were designed to be open to formal and non-formal events and for anybody who is looking for a “head-turning” accessory!
The source of my design inspiration comes from the idea of movement and change. Similar to how we are constantly in motion, every design of anEK bags will have an element of movement incorporated – from pleats to full wrap trims to latkhans (tassels).
Also, you’ll find layering as an element of design used often in my bags to represent the complex and unique layers we all have.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your business that you know (and has helped you) now?
The start-up will be a rocky road but when you weather out the storm, it will lead to an extreme amount of fulfillment.
In the beginning, you will have hiccups and failures as you are developing the details of your business idea. Don’t let those small failures prevent you from moving toward your goal. And let’s be honest, you will often come across challenges.
One thing nobody knows about you that you can reveal exclusively in this interview?
I don’t talk about this often, but it a core reason for creating an Indian-American fusion brand: Growing up as a 1st generation born Indian, it was difficult to fit it into the American culture; honestly it was a massive barrier for me. I loved my Indian culture but hid most parts of it to my non-Indian friends. At the same time, I tried to be what my perception of “American” was; however, I did not look or feel the part. Years later, when I learned to be confident in my own skin did I realize the true privilege I had of having both my Indian and American cultures shape me into who I am.
Sum up your style in three words.