Sangeetha Kowsik was born in Fremont, CA, a Parsons grad, is an NYC-based designer, interfaith chaplain, educator, and established gallery artist. The only person in the world doing this: A Hindu, Indian American woman who’s an Islamic/Arabic calligrapher. She’s the Hindu Chaplain/Spiritual Advisor of NYU/Columbia Universities, awarded “Chaplain of the Year” for her interfaith initiatives by Chelsea Clinton. She’s the former head designer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has worked extensively in fashion, beauty, luxury, museums, and has a deep love and appreciation for all world cultures, religions, and art history.
Her brand IhsanIshan Design works for religious, cultural, and ethnic unity by connecting across global cultures through design, told through the art of Arabic Calligraphy (tradition meets modern).
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Table of Contents
Thank you for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers. They want to know you, some of the background story to bring some context to your interview.
Sangeetha Kowsik: Hello, My name is Sangeetha Kowsik. I’m Hindu, Indian American, and an Islamic/ Arabic Calligrapher! Wait what why? I’ll explain. I am the ONLY person in the world like this: A Hindu, Indian American woman creating Islamic/Arabic Art! My brand has never been done before. Why? To make a difference in this world. My award-winning brand IhsanIshan Design is an award-winning fine arts/design studio inspiring peace, understanding, change, by bringing the world together through timeless, distinctive, unique designs. Products include textiles, accessories, + custom design & commissions, all of which have a meaningful and powerful message/concept behind them that changes one’s thinking, fights negative stereotypes/biases, and makes a difference in one’s life.
The brand’s mission is Faith. Fashion. Design. Education. Activism. Told through the art of traditional Arabic Calligraphy (with a modern twist). My mission is to engage all people/communities interested in knowing about the diversity of this world with products that include textiles, accessories, + custom design & commissions, all of which have a thought-provoking, meaningful, and powerful message/concept behind them to educate, start conversations, fight negative stereotypes, end racism by showcasing unique, positive/interconnected/uplifting stories, highlighting shared traditions, to build a more understanding, harmonious, compassionate, just world and global change in thinking. I’m a Parsons School of Design Graduate, have worked extensively in the world of fashion, beauty, luxury skateboarding, streetwear, and museums.
I was the head product designer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Museums tend to be very “white”, misrepresent a lot of global cultures and religions. I’m the Hindu Chaplain of NYU/Columbia Universities and participate in initiatives to empower women and minority communities. I won the chaplain of the Year (2018) an award for my interfaith work, given to me by Chelsea Clinton. Horrified by the animosity/negative perceptions as seen on media and that plague South Asian Hindu and Muslim communities, IhsanIshan was initially launched to celebrate both faiths, its shared traditions, educate, and bring about peace and understanding and to remind the world that India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, parts of Iran were all one landmass before colonization/partition, we share more than differ!
The brand has evolved to celebrate and make a difference for other minority communities including Black Lives Matter, the Amazigh (indigenous) peoples of North Africa, partnering with numerous charities. My Black Lives Matter Design is a recipient of numerous awards for social justice, interfaith, and activism. I believe in amplifying positive unique interconnected stories, celebrating diversity and global cultures to fight negative biases. I combined all my unique life experiences to launch the brand, calling it the American Silk Road: cross-cultural dialogues told through calligraphy.
The impact I wish for my work to have it for the world to change their negative perceptions leading to friendship, understanding, change, an open mind. Educating about diversity, cultures, traditions through innovative design is what leads to a more unified, harmonious, beautiful world.
If you were asked to describe yourself as an entrepreneur in a few words, what would you say?
Sangeetha Kowsik: I am compassionate, determined, unique, creative, and looking to inspire a global shift in thinking!
You are a successful entrepreneur, so we’d like your view point, do you believe entrepreneurs are born or made? Explain.
Sangeetha Kowsik: Entrepreneurs are made. I believe it’s one’s life experiences that lead one on a path of being an entrepreneur! There are some folks who enjoy working in a company, being part of a team, and living their lives that way. There are others who do enjoy being on a team but prefer making their own rules and trailblazing.
This is what I view as being an entrepreneur. For example, children might see their parents owning their own business, and growing up perhaps that’s what they felt was the right path and might grow up to be entrepreneurs. Others might have seen their parents working corporate jobs and seeing that as the traditional path and striving for that. Then others who have perhaps had unique life experiences of never having a steady stable job, or been laid off from companies, may feel the need to become an entrepreneur. I feel it really depends on the individual and how their mindset is. Being an entrepreneur is not easy, and one needs discipline in order to succeed.
Tell us about what your company does and how did it change over the years?
Sangeetha Kowsik: Horrified by the animosity/negative perceptions as seen on media and that plague South Asian Hindu and Muslim communities, IhsanIshan was initially launched to celebrate both faiths, their shared traditions, educate, and bring about peace and understanding, and to remind the world that India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, parts of Iran were all one landmass before colonization/partition, we share more than differ!
The brand now includes Black Lives Matter (a recipient of numerous awards for social justice, interfaith, and global change initiatives) and the Amazigh peoples of North Africa. I have over 20+ years of experience working in the world of fashion, beauty, luxury, streetwear, museums, (I was the former head designer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and am the Hindu Chaplain of NYU/Columbia Universities, one of the very few Hindu Chaplains in the world. I have witnessed the misrepresentation and cultural appropriation of global cultures, traditions, and faiths throughout and felt the need to launch my own brand (combining my design skills, experience in product development, and interfaith work) to inspire peace, understanding, knowledge, change, and bring the world together!
I use the art of traditional Arabic Calligraphy (with a modern twist) to create compelling, thought-provoking, innovative, unique designs. I create timeless, distinctive, unisex designs that appeal to a wide customer base, eliminating the term “fast fashion”. The products tell a unique meaningful story that changes one’s thinking, fights negative stereotypes/biases, and makes a difference in one’s life.
The concept/meaning of each design is even printed on the back of the garment! All products are eco-friendly, eco-conscious, and a part of the proceeds of every sale are given to a charity that works with the culture/community the design was inspired by. I believe that art and design are the way to bring together diverse communities. It is a way to heal past traumas, phobias, fight stereotypes, etc. I believe in amplifying positive interconnected stories between global cultures.
My mission is to engage all people/communities interested in knowing about the diversity of this world with products that include textiles, accessories, + custom design & commissions, all of which have a meaningful and powerful message/concept behind them to educate, start conversations, fight negative stereotypes, end racism by showcasing unique, positive/interconnected/uplifting stories, highlighting shared traditions, to build a more understanding, harmonious, compassionate, just world and global change in thinking.
Thank you for all that. Now for the main focus of this interview. With close to 11.000 new businesses registered daily in the US, what must an entrepreneur assume when starting a business?
Sangeetha Kowsik: That the path ahead is not straight. There will be setbacks and challenges that one must be prepared for. Also, the business that you initially started might evolve into something entirely new, so one must keep faith and an open mind! There will always be someone who might be doing the same thing as you, no need to be jealous, or have anxiety. One can always learn from their competitors but follow your own path.
Did you make any wrong assumptions before starting a business that you ended up paying dearly for?
Sangeetha Kowsik: I knew I would ruffle some feathers by trying to bring Hindus and Muslims together by starting my business. I have had challenges with Muslims saying that drawing Arabic Calligraphy on musical instruments is wrong. BUT I have responded by saying some of the most famous musicians in the world are Muslim. I also thought I would have support from my own Hindu community and Indian Americans, but it is not as much as I would have liked or anticipated. But I have had a lot of successes and breakthroughs. My company has won multiple awards for activism, design, philanthropy, and interfaith initiatives.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what advice would you give yourself and why? Explain.
Sangeetha Kowsik: I would say to take my time. I would have liked to research more fabrications and factories before I started the company. But my circumstances were different back then. I had to launch my business alongside my interfaith Arabic Calligraphy Art Exhibition titled “Allah Swami” up at NYU in a very short period of time.
What is the worst advice you received regarding running a business and what lesson would you like others to learn from your experience?
Sangeetha Kowsik: The worst piece of advice I received was “define your target audience, curate your social media feed”. Though this advice has some truth to it, in my experience ( I have done numerous showcases, exhibitions, and popup shops to showcase my work), I have been pleasantly surprised to see how many diverse groups of people have responded positively to my work! My “target market” has grown tremendously! Businesses evolve and grow. I don’t think there is any right or wrong way to grow your audience!
In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business? What hasn’t changed?
Sangeetha Kowsik: Yes, definitely Covid 19 has impacted starting a business. The pandemic has changed how in-person gatherings occur. If you are planning a big event or showcases to reach new audiences, it will take planning and keeping an eye on the news to make sure that the event is possible or not. Entrepreneurs should adjust to a new digital world and realize that it is of paramount importance to navigate the digital space and get accustomed to it. What hasn’t changed is that the world still needs your entrepreneurship and the services/goods you provide. It’s about engaging them in new creative digital ways!
What is a common myth about entrepreneurship that aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be business owners believe in? What advice would you give them?
Sangeetha Kowsik: That success is instantaneous. This is not true, for some perhaps. In the world of social media, it is difficult to not get anxious or compare your success/failures with others. One has to have a strong mindset to overcome this. It takes resilience, patience, and hard work to run a company. Breakthroughs happen on their own time. There is no need to get anxious or frustrated. Work hard and do what you can in your power.
What traits, qualities, and assumptions do you believe are most important to have before starting a business?
Sangeetha Kowsik: Compassion, Kindness, Empathy, Organization. Patience. Accountability. Strong Will. Resilience.
How can aspiring leaders prepare themselves for the future challenges of entrepreneurship? Are there any books, websites, or even movies to learn from?
Sangeetha Kowsik: Ifundwomen.com is a great resource.
You have shared quite a bit of your wisdom and our readers thank you for your generosity but would also love to know: If you could choose any job other than being an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Sangeetha Kowsik: I am doing what I love, designing, creating, and running my own company. I also educate and give lectures about faith, equality, the beauty of Arabic Calligraphy, Hinduism, etc. I am living my dream and only wish to make my company a global one!
Thank you so much for your time, I believe I speak for all of our readers when I say that this has been incredibly insightful. We do have one more question: If you could add anyone to Mount Rushmore, but not a politician, who would it be; why?
Sangeetha Kowsik: Shiridi Sai Baba. The great Indian spiritual teacher. He was a Muslim saint but beloved and worshipped by Hindus. He was born to unify the world and stamp out hate. I love what he stands for.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Sangeetha Kowsik for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Sangeetha Kowsik or her company, you can do it through her – Instagram
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