Jugaad in the Times of Coronavirus
Can you wring success out of failure? Can you salvage businesses and lives when the pandemic has devastated everything we knew to be normal? You can, as these stories of resilience prove. Difficult times seem to bring out hidden strengths.
Before Covid-19 hit, it was a world of meetings and greetings in the flesh. Handshakes and hugs were mandatory, and getting close to family and friends was taken for granted. In this grim new world, isolation and quarantine have become the new realities and where these are not enforced, the virus is triumphant.
For the last six months, we have been attacked by this invisible destroyer that has claimed thousands of lives and countless livelihoods. Just before we learnt the new word ‘coronavirus’, we inhabited what now seems like a very sheltered, child-like world where Corona was simply the name of a beer! In six short months—which now seem like a lifetime—the world has mutated in pace with the virus, and we seem to be trapped in a scary carnival house’s room of mirrors where everything is distorted to be a strange new reality. This is our new normal.
So how do you fight back against the havoc caused by this invisible enemy? The human spirit manages to survive and sometimes even thrive in such times of duress. The very Indian spirit of jugaad—the homespun word for innovation and inventiveness —is in our DNA. Here we share the stories of some inspiring Indian- Americans who have managed to create new success stories out of the ashes of the pandemic.
Vikas Khanna: Chef of the world
Perhaps no one has been hit harder by the pandemic than those working in the restaurant industry. Several have had to shut down businesses and a number of them have had to reinvent themselves. While a lot of them received some federal assistance, many of the smaller ones fell through the cracks.
Food insecurity is a major issue across continents, and more so at this time. Celebrated Chef, Vikas Khanna, turned his attention to the rising food inequity in India during the pandemic. Sequestered in his Manhattan apartment as the pandemic raged, he thought of those who had nothing. New York at least has food kitchens and pantries, but in many parts of India there was no recourse. The lockdown caused many migrants in India to be on the road without access to food and water.
[Top] Thanks to the prolific efforts of Chef Vikas Khanna, over the course of six months of quarantine, 40 million meals and dry rations have been served to the neediest in diverse parts of India.
He decided to use his huge presence on social media—2.3 million followers on Twitter, and one million on Instagram—to get results. Khanna managed to turn his cellphone into a powerful tool for change even as he operated from his apartment. Using his enormous network, he came up with a brilliant idea—galvanizing food suppliers and manufacturers as sponsors and getting the food to those most in need with the support of the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF), Indian Government’s multi-disciplinary high tech specialist force with 12 battalions trained to respond to disasters.
[Right Top] Khanna partnered with India’s National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) to mobilize his massive effort. [Bottom] Through the pandemic, Khanna also collaborated on a new restaurant “Ellora” in Dubai, working out menus and instructing staff through video conferencing.
Thanks to his prolific efforts, over the course of six months of quarantine, 40 million meals and dry rations have been served to the neediest in diverse parts of India. It proved to be a win-win for all—for the hungry masses as well as for the big brands which got a chance to do good and feel good.
Khanna even managed to finish a film during this time of quarantine, relying upon zoom calls, texts, and emails. It stars the well-known actress, Shabana Azmi, and has been shot in Amritsar and New York. As a chef, he also collaborated on a new restaurant “Ellora” in Dubai, working out menus and instructing staff through video conferencing.
Khanna who has faced adversity as a child, being born with a clubfoot, has always persisted and tried to find solutions to problems. He is someone who has lived in a homeless shelter as a new immigrant, worked and washed dishes in kitchens, and yet has risen to be a much-awarded Michelin star chef. A judge for Master Chef, the top cooking show in India, he has also been presented at the White House, cooked for Obamas, and met the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Persistence and innovation seem to be his winning mantra in difficult situations. In fact, news has just come in of Asia Society honoring him with 2020 Asia Game Changer Awards.
Sree Sreenivasan: Connecting during the pandemic
Sree Sreenivasan is no stranger to adversity—he has held high profile positions as first digital officer at the Columbia University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and then moving on to become the chief digital officer for the City of New York. With the vagaries of the changing job market, each of these positions vanished. Yet, Sree’s resilience did not.
[Left] Sree Sreenivasan, a resilient mentor and leader in the digital world.[Right Bottom]What started out as a grassroots effort from his living room to get people together in lockdown and share expertise, has now completed over 184 daily shows on social media and clocked in over a million viewers and millions of social impressions, with people joining the chats from global locations.
Marshall Loeb Visiting Professor of digital innovation at the Stony Brook School of Journalism in New York, Sree soon started a new social media company, Digimentors Consultancy, using his power-ful know-how in social media to create branding for his clients. And when the pandemic hit, he took this to a whole different level.
At a time of crisis, there is an urge for solutions for the common good, for answers from experts. Sreenivasan saw the fear, the misinformation, and the lack of voices in the Indian-American community. He started “Sree’s Global Voices,” a daily talk show using social media platforms to inform, educate, and entertain.
In this age of self-quarantine, the shows originate from Sreenivasan’s apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. What started out as a grassroots effort from his living room to get people together in lockdown and share expertise, has now completed over 184 daily shows on social media and clocked in over a million viewers and millions of social impressions, with people joining the chats from global locations. These daily conversations with a known and friendly voice interacting with experts, shed new light on the crises America is facing simultaneously—the health crisis, the financial crisis, and the racial inequality crisis. He has had high-powered guests from the top scientists at W.H.O to Ambassador Richard Verma, and Christiane Amanpour to Sushma Raman of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
[Left] When Bollywood actor Manisha Koirala (center) told him she'd like to meet some interesting New Yorkers, he invited several movers and shakers to have dinner with her in his home. (Photo: Jay Mandal/On Assignment)
Sree has now partnered with the popular online magazine, Scroll.in to ensure the show is simulcast to a global audience through all its social media networks. Ever the diehard tech entrepreneur, he proves that a business can be started and be successful even in a pandemic as the show has attracted sponsors and advertisers—always a challenge task.
“It’s always worth pushing and trying new things,” he says. “I’ve been telling everyone I meet to work on something—you never know what will happen if you put in the work and have some luck. Be bold, be experimental! People are willing to forgive anything in this time of crisis.” Passion is a necessary ingredient, he emphasizes. “For passion projects, if you aren’t willing to do them for no audience and no money, you won’t be able to do it for all the audience and all the money in the world,” he concludes.
Surbhi Sahni: Home-cooked food and stories
Surbhi Sahni is a chef and a restaurateur who took the challenge of the Covid crisis to reinvent her business and give her patrons something new. At the height of the crisis, she converted “Tagmo,” her sweets business, into a home delivery business serving home-cooked regional cuisine with innovative menus. This is proving to be a boon to families struggling to come up with daily meals, and nervous about ordering them from outside. Sahni employs immigrant women, and donates meals to healthcare workers and the needy.
[Left] At the height of the crisis, she converted “Tagmo,” her sweets business, into a home delivery business serving home-cooked regional cuisine with innovative menus.
Sahni cooks from a commercial kitchen but her recipes have the clarity and simplicity of home-cooked food—be it from Rajasthan, Kashmir, or Bengal. You may have never been to Mathura, Lord Krishna’s haunt, or eaten the simple aloo dish which housewives cook there. But now you can, thanks to Sahni. One of her regular clients told her, “We are getting to eat the entire cuisine of India, because of you—something we just don't get to do, especially in the U.S.”
Sahni’s love affair with the food of her childhood shows in the weekly treats she whips up and in the special newsletter which she sends out with delicious literary details. One could call it a love letter to Indian food. A very innovative cook, she creates meals almost like stories, recalling the special dishes of her parents and neighbors, and many clients order these meals from her on a weekly basis.
[Right] A Kashmiri meal, one of the many diverse cuisines of India, offered by “Tagmo”.
“We are now in the 25th or 26th week of the business, and we have not repeated a dish yet,” says Sahni. “That tells you a lot about Indian food and the diversity of food that's available. We have not even yet repeated a lentil dish because there are at least 30,000 ways of making even rajma—you know that's the beauty of Indian food!”
Talking about her initiative, she says: “It’s been an amazing journey! Covid has been life changing for me. I had been thinking about doing these home cooked meals for many years now. From the day I started cooking in restaurants, I used to think, why don’t we make ghar ka khana (home-cooked food)? I am a chef but I'm also learning when I'm making these meals.”
Indeed, to not leave your kitchen table and take a culinary trip across India during this Covid crisis is an adventurous journey for diners. She also has a repertoire of home-made Indian sweets, especially attractive to the homebound during Diwali.
Reena Ninan: A good company
Reena Ninan is a television journalist who has worked as a White House correspondent, foreign reporter, and news anchor for CBS, ABC, and Fox News. Ninan began her reporting career in Baghdad in 2005 after her hotel was car bombed by militants and has since then reported from India to Indonesia, Libya to Lebanon. She was anchor and correspondent for CBS when the virus struck, and unfortunately it struck at her job too, just as it did for so many other Americans. Ninan had become part of the story she was reporting every day.
[Top] Reena Ninan as a news anchor in Benghazi.
“Layoffs have been a significant part of the Covid story,” says Ninan. “Forty-three million plus Americans are now unemployed. When I was laid off, there was an odd sense of relief. Not a normal reaction, I know. For eighteen months, I had wanted to start my own company. As it turned out, now I had been given an unexpected window to really push towards that dream.”
So how did she shape that new identity and what was her solution in the time of Covid? “There are so many story traditions that legacy media doesn’t have the space or the bandwidth to cover. The news is coming at such a frantic pace!” says Ninan. “I founded Good Trouble Productions. ‘Good trouble’ is a phrase that came from someone I deeply admire—Congressman and Civil Rights activist John Lewis—with the hope of creating content with a distinct purpose that hopefully motivates people to take action. This fall we will be launching “The Rebound” on YouTube. The show will focus on individual stories of how people came out of their darkest moments.”
[Right] The pandemic inspired Ninan to start her own production company called “Good Trouble.” “‘Good trouble’ is a phrase that came from someone I deeply admire—Congressman and Civil Rights activist John Lewis—with the hope of creating content with a distinct purpose that hopefully motivates people to take action.”
Indeed, understanding the needs of people and providing solutions is the key to any successful business. Her company’s first venture is a podcast with psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour called “Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting,” available on Spotify and Apple. As she says, “Parenting during a pandemic has proven to be so difficult. We can all use the extra advice from a real expert.”
Ask Ninan for her tips for those facing changes during this difficult time, and she says, “Look at this as an opportunity to hit the reset button. Sometimes in the worst adversity, you’re able to look at a problem or life in a different way. I try not to resist the change and see what flows from it all.”
DJ Sharad: Entertainment on wheels
What can you do if the music has left your world? What can you do if you’re a party DJ, and the landscape has dried out with no parties and no gatherings around you? How do you deejay when there are no live celebrations at all?
DJ Sharad, who owns the popular DJUSA with his partner DJ Juicy and has thrown lively parties in New York, says, “We do hundreds of parties a year and our whole business is based on people coming together. So, when the pandemic hit, we started getting a lot of cancellation and postponement calls. About $3 million of business was just completely taken away! So we said, let's think of ideas that will help people come together safely. And we came up with almost twenty different ideas, most of them virtual ones.”
Scenes from the Safe & Sound Mobile Theater Experience
But within a few months, people were zoomed out and as online fatigue set in, DJ Sharad realized that nothing matched the in-person live events. He recalls: “I assured our team and my family that no matter what happens, we will not allow Covid-19 to shut down our creative spirit.”
Soon they launched “Safe & Sound Mobile Theater Experience,” a mobile pop-up consumer event bringing film, music, food, culture, and community together in a safe and sound environment with social distancing. He says a lot of research went into it. “We got a 3D rendering company to draw out our idea on paper. We then physically went to parking lots along with the 3D company and a drone. We then took our idea to every business on those lots and any potential sponsors. And for every yes we got, we got about 30 to 40 no’s. It was such a deflating tough experience that most people would have folded up.”
DJ Sharad knew the American market was saturated with drive-in events, so he reached out to the less tapped hip hop market and the totally untapped Indian desi community. Soon they were all set to show Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham on the big screen. But that’s when Sushant Singh Rajput passed away suddenly, and they changed the film to ‘MS Dhoni’ as a tribute to him. “It was unbelievable. I mean we got blessed with great weather. We got blessed with a full house sold out,” recalls DJ Sharad.
Since then, they’ve had good sponsors and audiences, making these shows a profitable venture. What makes the events unique is their special strength in music which draws the young crowds in. “For the first 90 minutes leading up to the movie while the sun sets, we have a roster of the best DJs and food vendors. So now we're able to help other people monetize besides ourselves.”
Scenes from the Safe & Sound Mobile Theater Experience
Even as summer ends, this outdoor experience has really caught on with audiences, and DJ Sharad says they are already getting calls for entire parking lot takeovers for the next summer.
As he says, “The service we offered is musical entertainment which wasn't required at the time of Covid. So, what were we going to do for a year? Just fold up or take a vacation? I think for those who are looking to keep working and growing, you have to be able to pivot in a time of undesirable circumstance.”
Each of these stories carries a lesson for all of us as we innovate and reinvent our lifestyles during this Covid crisis.
Lavina Melwani is a journalist for several international publications and blogs at Lassi with Lavina.
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