Hi, I’m Nilima Achwal.
I’m uncommonly brave, dedicated, and selfless.
Wait….did I just say that out loud?
Yes I did. And, so are many other women leaders, founders, and visionaries.
You see…it all started in India. Talking about sex. To startup bros.
Yup. INDIA, sex, and startups. You know this story is going to be good.
I overcame 3,000 years of taboos and stigmas, to make comprehensive sex education available to half a million middle schoolers across India.
It was by no means an easy journey. I was tackling
one of the most complex social issues (rape culture),
at a sensitive time (right after the highly-publicized Delhi rape case),
in a highly traditional and patriarchal culture where no one ever said “sex”, let alone proposed teaching children about it.
Not only that. I was also
starting from scratch in a foreign country (I’m American, I moved there just to start a social venture),
with all the technological and logistical constraints of a developing country,
which has also been ranked as one of the most difficult countries in which to conduct business (due to an enormous bureaucracy.)
With no capital. And a team of two other people.
So, how in the universe did I achieve what I set out to achieve?
First of all, I will admit that I was a regular on startup circuit. I went to every conference, gave talks on innovation and product-market fit to everyone from India’s equivalent of Fortune 500 CEOs to their equivalent of Harvard students (IIT-Bombay). At one point, I even starred on an entire season of a reality TV show about social entrepreneurs, which was a mix between The Apprentice (minus Donald Trump) and Shark Tank, which allowed me to deliver my taboo-breaking message out to 10 million unsuspecting viewers.
But, things always felt just a tad out of alignment.
I did not feel heard or understood in the male-dominated startup ecosystem. I went though several accelerators, alongside mainstream apps and tech products. When I pitched my product, I often faced at best, a pat on the back (with no real investment or commitment), or at worst, dazed faces. No one was willing to place a bet on bringing sex ed to India.
I felt demoralized and exhausted. I had to keep up a “perfect” leader face to my teammates, who were counting on me to lead. And despite having been through so many accelerators, I didn’t have a mentor or a coach whom I could relate to or be vulnerable with. I didn’t know a single person who had started a world-changing venture and lived to tell the tale, and who also had time to nurture and support me. I felt completely alone.
What I didn’t understand at the time, was that the factors that drove me to start my world-changing venture, were the same ones that had me feeling so isolated.
I was a woman.
Like any good founder, I was building a product based on my lived experience. This means that the pain points and needs that I was addressing (talking to girls about the magic of their menstrual cycles, for example) would be best understood by someone like me.
I was creative and spiritual - my vision and guidance primarily came from within.
My way of being in the world was fundamentally at odds with the frenetic energy of the startup ecosystem, where preaching multi-million dollar valuations was expected from the get-go, and workaholism was a badge of honor. I always felt pulled in two directions whenever I had to make strategic decisions, manage my team, or manage my time. Did I follow my gut and personal experience about how things work for me, or did I follow conventional wisdom?
I started to realize that it was precisely my feminine wisdom that had led me to heal and empower the youth through my venture. I learned to trust myself, and consequently, trust feminine energy itself.
Once I started to make decisions based on my vision, values, and methods, I started to get results. I scored a partnership with Tata, the largest corporation in India. They trusted my vision and values, and have been a wonderful distribution partner, bringing my curriculum into 15,000 classrooms across every single region of India.