3 Lessons from my 1st Year of Social Entrepreneurship
Last year, when I set out on this mission to change the attitudes of individuals and communities in India, of course I knew it wasn’t going to be easy or fast. Of course, I knew I couldn’t overturn years of conditioning and stigma overnight. Of course, I knew not everyone would understand or appreciate the absolute agony and struggle of someone with an Eating Disorder. And yet, of course, I fell into the trap of wanting to do everything yesterday and being disappointed with our pace, anyway! Before I begin, I must acknowledge the humbling gratitude that has filled my heart today, and every day of this journey! I have so much appreciation for internal and external champions of our cause, our partners, our donors, all the teammates/ Freed family members, people using our services, and for everyone else this journey has led me to. Each one of them is an intrinsic part of Freed and everything we stand for. And as I sat down to reflect on my first year as a social entrepreneur, I decided that besides communicating my appreciation for a lot of things, it might also be interesting for some people out there to hear about the things I learnt along the way, what stumped me and what motivated me to strive harder. So here are 3 (of many) lessons I learned this year… Number 1: That thick skin everyone tells you about – find it, fast! Any kind of entrepreneurial endeavor includes several ups and downs – often, a lot more downs than ups! But when these endeavors involve long standing cultural and systematic problems in the social sector, for a faint-hearted cheeseball like me – thick skin isn’t enough. You need something more like “crocodile skin with a hard turtle shell outside”. Having worked on spreading our message, building an engaged community, and attempting to create safe spaces of communication, I might have oversimplified the problem in my head. People suffering, those at risk and others around them, continue to avoid conversation and proper intervention due to 1. lack of understanding of EDs, 2. massive stigma around mental illnesses in India, and 3. the scarcity of credible resources for support. Day after day, I struggle to get people to take us seriously, to not let social media “likes” and “follows” be our measure of impact, to get people to open up about their struggles with food and body image – and on some days (well, A LOT of days), I question if I’m fighting a losing battle. In moments like those, I find it crucial to use my small failures as motivation, and my hard turtle shell as a shield of optimism, that allow me to remember what’s important and keep chugging along. Number 2: Suffering may be subjective, but it’s always relevant! If I had a Rupee for every time someone asked me why I chose such a “niche” problem to solve instead of something more “meaningful” or “widespread” and “problematic”, fundraising for Freed would be cake walk My immediate response is that Eating Disorders very much are a “meaningful” problem, and people who reached out to us this past year, with loved ones who have been driven to fatal circumstances due to EDs, would agree. But that’s not even the point I’m trying to make here. In a country where millions of people still continue to struggle with extreme food insecurity and malnutrition, Eating Disorders can seem like a problem of the privileged few. The numbers are definitely true, and lop-sided. While I accept that, I also firmly believe that suffering, no matter how big or little, entirely fills the human mind and soul. From the loss of a loved one to being bullied in school for being overweight. From getting fired at a job to feeling completely alone in your struggle with food and body image – suffering can take different forms. To some, this is an absurd comparison. They would argue that each of these can be objectively tagged as better or worse than the other. Sure – but for someone dealing with any of the above, their suffering entirely takes over their life. As someone who has spent many months with Anorexia and witnessed first-hand (during this past year) the various forms of suffering caused by Eating Disorders in India, I can tell you now with full confidence that our cause is an important one to fight for. Number 3: We, as social entrepreneurs, have no choice but to take risks and be “truth-tellers”! I once read somewhere – “If you want to create large-scale impact, don’t change a thing. Change everything”. And as I set out to find my path towards creating impact, I quickly realized how much it requires me to take on the role of the “truth-teller”. Take it from me, as someone who has avoided any confrontational situation for years, this can be HARD. There are so many things we casually say, especially in Indian culture, that have been normalized and conditioned into our brains, but can be extremely damaging for someone struggling with body image/ self-esteem/ disordered eating concerns. Let’s take an example – a lot of my family members, with varied degrees of exposure to social media, make comments about my appearance as soon as they see me at a social gathering. For many years, at the risk of sounding impolite in front of my elders, I would quietly accept anything they said. But now that I have taken on this responsibility of helping people be more aware of the effects of their words on others, I feel hypocritical if I don’t call out my own family and friends. Of course, I’m often met with confused looks when I ask people to stop complimenting my weight loss, or stop mocking my skinny face, or stop using fat-phobic language, and start looking beyond someone’s appearance. Not to mention, the uncomfortable awkward silences amidst conversations, when I ask someone to reflect on the problematic nature of their “funny” comments. Do I worry about society questioning my parents’ parenting style, or my manners and respect for elders/ others around me? Sure, I do! But that’s the risk I must take to start seeing small changes in the way we think about our bodies and appearances, and the liberties we take with our words and opinions without accounting for the effect they have on others. As social entrepreneurs, we must get used to this discomfort and risk getting pushback in order to truly shake up the system and bring about the change we wish to see in the world. The lessons I’ve learned this year are fuel for Freed’s mission. As we head into 2022, I’m filled with optimism and excitement for everything that awaits us, even amidst all this uncertainty. Thank you for all the support and cheerleading each of you has graciously given me – I take this responsibility very seriously, and am confident that Freed will fulfill its vision in the time to come!