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Dancing her way into corporate life

Mrinalika Vats is a perfect example of balancing her passion and profession. A practising Kathak dancer, she has her career too with astuteness and vigour. Mrinalika has joined Airtel Payments Bank in its Corporate Business Alliance department.

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I was brought up in a protected household where my parents always knew what would be the best decision for me. Now that I am 23, I see how the world around me is changing and people are experiencing a paradigm shift. But, when I was a child everything in a student’s life was about their academics. For some of the students, studying and learning new concepts was a matter of growth but for the majority it was about competition, getting awards and having a bright future.

Ever since I was 7 years old, I have had major self-esteem issues. I was never an outstanding student academically and there were subjects that I never scored much in. My parents noticed how this took a toll on my personal development and how it led to me withdrawing into a shell. Trying to look for a solution for it, they made me join Kathak classes. From what they knew best, extracurricular activities always shape you better as a person.

As I grew up, I saw most of my friends in dance class leaving because the pressure of studies increased and they couldn’t give the classes more of their time and effort. Since the classes were also on the weekends, many parents believed that it took the child’s family time away. My parents were also concerned if I was able to cope up with the increasing pressure or not. Even though it was a little hard for me too, I remember telling them that I want to continue. I had no explanation of it back then but today I know that it was the only thing around me which wasn’t a rat race. I wasn’t learning the dance form because I wanted recognition and awards, I danced because it liberated my mind from a lot of things that I felt were wrong around me. I remember multiple occasions where I had to miss birthday parties, family outings and functions because it clashed with my class timings. Regardless of that I never regretted making that choice. Soon, I polished my dance skills and got my senior diploma in Kathak in the 10th standard. I also managed to get a good GPA in my 10th standard boards.

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I was at a crossroad again when I had to make a decision of what subject I want to pursue for the next two years. I was inclined towards Science but most people around me believe that with my average academic performance it was best that I choose Arts. I was baffled again because on a personal level, I felt Arts was much harder for me than Science. My parents gave me advice but this was the point from where I was asked to make choices and take decisions on my own. After a thorough understanding of what I was signing up for and with a rough idea that I might struggle a lot for two years, I ended up taking Science with Psychology. Despite low self-esteem, there was one thing I was always confident about; there was no substitute for hard work and dedication and I had both.

The next two years were rough in every way possible. I wasn’t able to understand the subjects, flunking every physics paper for two years and taking three home-tuitions one after the other. I had no time for myself which is why I had to stop with my Kathak classes. It was hard for me but I did understand how important these years are for my career ahead. My hard work paid off when I scored 92% on 12th boards leaving my friends, family and teachers surprised. As one would think that scoring high opens a lot of doors for a person, I had a different perception. I already had a plan of applying for a degree examination in Kathak and teaching soon after. But, now with my high scores, people saw potential in me that they never did before. When you step into the real world for the first time, you are naive and believe what people have to say. Coincidentally around the same time Delhi University declared cut-offs for all its colleges and I was lucky enough to get into one of the most prestigious girls college, IP College for Women. I opted for Political Science as my major.

It was an enriching experience in every possible way. In these three years, I had the opportunity to explore all my interests and find my strengths. I was a field investigator for projects funded by ICSSR and UNESCO, which were the two biggest names when it came to research and innovation. I was made to go to the field, talk to people and conduct primary research. While working on these projects, I noticed that despite having a fear of public speaking I had a gift of instantly building credibility with someone. I was also a part of the Discussion Forum of my college which helped me conduct various public lectures and manage these event. In this process of recognizing my strengths, I was able to take it all back to my dance and how can I start something of my own. So, I took a leap of faith and attained Vishahrat (Bachelor's Degree) in Kathak Nritya in 2015. Having a degree in the dance form gave me the liberty to teach it to people. Despite having everything in place, I still waited for the right time to open my own dance studio. I think as an aspiring entrepreneur that is the biggest mistake that many of us commit. Waiting for the right opportunity and pushing your dreams farther.

In my final year of college, the question of “what comes next?” came again. Only this time people convinced me to take up a job or sit for an MBA entrance exam. The only difference about this time was that I wasn’t the naive, young girl anymore. I thought about it for some weeks only to realize that the reason I kept pushing the idea of opening my own dance school was because of the fear of failing. There was a cloud of questions inside my head; Will the kids want to learn classical dance? What would make my school different? What should be the fees? How will I manage the other expenses that come with it?

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I remember speaking to my best friend around the same time and asking them about whether I should or not. Amidst all the confusion, it took me only one question from him to be onboard; In 10 years when I am well settled in life, will I look back and regret not believing in myself and my potential? With that, I started “Neel Padam Kathak Kendra” in the hope that maybe dancing will liberate some of my students from this rat race we all are constantly running in. My Zumba Instructor and friend, Mrs. Tamanna Kanojia helped me create a batch of seven students and was also kind enough to give me the space to teach these students. I taught these students 3 days a week after I came back from college. I had often heard that “Your work speaks for you”. I was lucky enough to experience it when looking at those 7 students and the quality of training they received, other parents started sending their kids too.

As I went forward with it, I took a year off after graduation to pursue this full-time. With the little savings I was able to make in 3-4 months, I decided to rent my own space. The number of students started increasing and I had to split them into two batches. It was surprising to see many parents like my own, who wanted their kids to learn a classical dance form and did not just take it as another recreational activity for their children. The dance school that I started was a result of my passion for dancing but after I took it as a full-time practice, I realized that I am also running a business. The underlying principle for running any business is to make profits. My dance school was business with a cause but soon I realized that I needed to make it sustainable because of which I had to offer something to my students that other dance schools weren’t offering. After giving it a lot of thought and time, I realized that a major reason why people who are passionate about dancing don’t take it up as a full-time job was due to lack of opportunities for them as artists. Once you learn a dance form, you also start looking for platforms to show people your skill as a dancer. Most artists struggle to get such platforms. My business then changed a little when I started talking to different people to get performance opportunities for my students.

Unfortunately, even when I had the idea I was not able to execute everything properly. As more and more students started coming in, the space seemed small. Since I was also networking, I was unable to teach them properly as a teacher. I realized that the position that my dance school had reached, I was also understaffed. All these problems seemed too much for me to process as I had no solution for it. It was then I realized that I needed to study management in order to have a better idea of how to make your business more sustainable. I still wasn’t sure what kind of management school I would want to go into.

I remember the day I was casually talking to someone about wanting to study management and they suggested The Vedica Scholars Programme for Women. It was not like a traditional MBA. It had four tracks; Management, Liberal Arts, Communication and Personal Growth. It was an all women’s course because the programme strongly believed that when it comes to corporates, women are lacking in the senior management sphere. As women in business, we also have an additional set of personal responsibilities because of which most of us leave our jobs in our mid-30s. The course had so much to offer and it was exactly what I wanted to learn. I couldn’t manage my dance school with my management studies, so I had to close my dance school.

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My 18 months at Vedica was the best time of my life. Along with learning a different set of managerial skills, I was able to polish my soft skills too. Way early in the course I realized that not being able to speak in front of an audience acted as a hindrance to my personal growth. With the one-on-one attention that I received from the programme team at Vedica, I started polishing my communication skills. With the various entrepreneurship courses that Vedica offered, I started understanding the technicalities of how to run a business and to scale it up effectively. I started understanding these concepts in terms of my dance school to have a better understanding of where it went wrong and how I can rectify it.

I had multiple opportunities at Vedica to showcase my talent as a dancer. I also took up some wedding-choreography projects when I had some time in my hand to stay in touch with my dance. I also started making small Kathak choreography videos and uploading it on my Instagram page. All the appreciation that I received from the people around me kept me going.

In June last year, I went to Johannesburg, South Africa for my summer internship. I personally felt that it was the right opportunity to check my communication and networking skills. My boss took me to various meetings and social events where I had to make an effort to go talk to people who were big names in their respective fields but surprisingly, it didn’t seem that hard for me anymore. I learnt to take charge of my conversations and lead them in the right direction. I was able to connect with a lot of these people. My mentor in my office felt like my confidence and the way I carry myself was one of the most important things that sets me apart from many people my age. My time there was memorable and I knew then that I had transformed into the person that I wanted to be.

After coming back to India, when I sat for my placements I never felt nervous before the interviews. I was well aware of the skills I had and what company would I nicely fit in. In October, I got placed with Airtel Payments Bank in their Corporate Business Alliance department. The department drives partnerships for the company. From the feedback that I received from the recruiters was that my ability to take risk very early in life by choosing to pursue my passion for dancing and having the resilience to rise above my failures is what they want from an employee in their company. When I met the CEO of the company when I joined it, he especially told me that the company stands for the spirit of entrepreneurship in each employee and that they were happy to have me on board.

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A question that I am often asked is why I took up a job with a corporate instead of going back to my love for Kathak and dancing. Well, from where I look at it I am still in touch with my roots. I still practise for hours every weekend. It’s just that now I have bigger dreams for myself and for the dance of my soul. I have the confidence that I have it in me to create a space for artists where they wouldn’t have to compromise with their choices due to lack of opportunities. I am still learning about how to bring that change every day and I will continue to do so in future as well

I plan to apply to the Choreomundus Programme for dancers in near future to continue learning about the origins of Kathak and teaching Kathak as I go.

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