Sushmitha Pidatala always had a passion for design, but it took her years to work up the courage to leave her day job and take the plunge to pursue her creative passion full time. Today that passion is her business, Arjuna, an online lifestyle and home décor boutique focused on the South Asian inspired designs. Pidatala is proud to have created an affordable option that fills a gap in the market, by showcasing the works of artisans from around the world, that are modern and elegant. Today the Potomac, Maryland-based entrepreneur is laser focused on growth; from learning new skillsets, to successfully navigating pandemic shipping, to letting go of being a perfectionist.
Pidatala‘s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
What was your reason for starting your business?
I took the biggest leap of faith in my professional life by founding this company. And I did so because I could no longer ignore that gnawing inner desire, increasingly pushing me to indulge my creative juices and embrace my passion of creating beautiful (and functional!) home decor goods and accessories for modern, worldly consumers like me. I’ve always been mission-driven, and for me Arjuna has been a vehicle for my mission to merge the classic South Asian aesthetic with contemporary designs and to then introduce this hybrid to the mainstream market. What Arjuna has been successful in accomplishing is a remarkable feat because it’s filling a void in the market while also employing the handiwork and craftsmanship of countless artisans in India whose artistry is finally getting the exposure that it deserves.
How do you define success?
For me, success is two-pronged: reaching a place where one is content — but never satisfied. Meaning, reaching a professional or personal plane in life where one is doing meaningful work that touches upon a passion and somehow works to elevate others. I’m lucky to have climbed this peak. This equates to contentment. And that contentment is the impetus to do more. To create, to produce, to enhance. That never-ending drive is what I mean when I refer to being unsatisfied. It’s about the avoidance of complacency.
Tell us about your biggest success to date
Professionally, one of my biggest successes was creating one of Arjuna’s sleeper hits — The Lotus Masala Dabba! It has become a globally recognized, marquee item of ours. A true brand ambassador piece.
The designs, patterns, specs, were all my collective brainchild. I took that overall vision and brought it to life by working with a South Asia-based manufacturer who employs underprivileged artisans and laborers, thus directly implementing the uplifting mission of the Arjuna platform.
The Lotus Masala Dabba has struck a nerve, with customers from all over the world — and from all walks of life — clamoring for it. And this buzz was created organically with little to no formal marketing efforts. For someone with no background or training in sales or retail or marketing, I am proud of being able to bring to market a successful and original new product that fills a market void and is the ideal standard-bearer of Arjuna’s ethos: to promote the classic South Asian aesthetic to contemporary consumers in the mainstream.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
My biggest challenge has been absorbing new bodies of knowledge – quickly and practically. Global retail is couched in a marketplace that is frenetic, fast-paced and fickle. So, like many entrepreneurs, I haven’t had the luxury of time. Of being able to immerse myself in a new subject matter to slowly learn its nuances and intricacies. Instead, I’ve had to skill up fast. And in a way that’s accessible, and efficient. And measurable. A perfect example is having to learn the ropes of global logistics (in a pandemic world where the rules and regulations are constantly shifting). I’m actively overcoming these challenges by learning to let go of being a perfectionist and accepting that practical knowledge that just gets the job done properly and pointedly is what I need to keep my machine running. I learn in the trenches, negotiating directly with counter parties, reviewing precedent contracts, talking to brokers. It can get messy. And there are a lot of hiccups (for me) along the way, but in the end, I almost always come out stronger, many steps closer to actually checking that day’s box and moving on to the next task at hand.
Have you experienced any significant personal situations that have affected your business decisions?
Relocating to a different country for personal reasons has most certainly affected how I do business on the day-to-day. Being in a new jurisdiction has pushed me to explore new markets, utilize resources closer to me and to re-calibrate my operational behaviors. For example, navigating time zones is now more of a thoughtful exercise. My company’s marketing efforts have to cast a wider net and be more expansive.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
My biggest tip for others starting out on their journey is to be radically open — from the early stages — to the idea that your company’s growth hinges on the idea of assembling the right team. Cultivating this team mentality is critical because it will force you to constantly re-evaluate yourself and your skill set. Thus pushing you to outsource that which you aren’t capable of handling. This mindset is the diametric opposite of the view that you should be a perfectionist, someone who masters each domain and eventually has control over every moving piece of your business growth. The latter is not only impractical and time consuming, but acutely stressful and ultimately yields a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none result. Seeking advice, being vulnerable, openly admitting knowledge gaps — all these things ingratiate you to others who may be the subject matter experts (SMEs) your company needs. At the very least, bringing these SMEs into the fold builds your brand and puts you in a position where you are exposed to areas outside of your comfort zone.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
I find inspiration by reading the testimonials of others like me — female founders, POCs, global e-tailers — who have set out on their own entrepreneurial journeys. Some have succeeded. Many have failed. And still many are in the trenches, fighting to stay afloat. Each story is nuanced, gritty, self-reflective and, ultimately authentic.
I don’t compare myself to others. But I am humble (and savvy) enough to learn from others’ mistakes and to seize upon the commonalities in the success stories. Absorbing these stories always reminds me that perseverance pays off and that almost every founder out there had to encounter obstacles of some kind. This is inspirational. This is what keeps me going.
Who is your most important role model?
My most important role model was (and still is!) my late big brother, Ashok. He was the consummate multi-tasker, confidently balancing his full-time jobs as a medical doctor and a US Air Force officer and reservist. He showed me the power of mental and physical discipline, of focusing on the task at hand with pin-point precision, but still being flexible enough to pivot. He never let obstructions or disappointments defeat him. He taught me that if you demonize obstacles, then they result in paralysis and stagnation. But if you see them for what they are – guideposts, warnings, self-checks, harbingers – then you’re compelled to move forward no matter what it takes. He was pro-active, not re-active. His ethos permeates everything I do with Arjuna and is a silent way I pay everlasting homage to him. ◼