Over the last decade, Miki and Radha Agrawal have launched more ventures than most people do in a lifetime. The twin sisters have started everything from a gluten-free, farm-to-table pizza restaurant to an underwear line, all with purpose at the core of each venture. We spoke with these serial social entrepreneurs about diving in head-first, finding the right investors, and what the next generation is truly searching for.
It’s one thing to have an idea; it’s another thing to take action on it. What gave you the courage to actually start your first ventures instead of just thinking about them?
Radha Agrawal: I‘ve always said that I’m unemployable [laughter]. I’m joking, but I think it starts with questioning everything. Like Steve Jobs said so beautifully, “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.” Once you understand that, the world becomes possible — anything becomes possible. When I learned that concept, that laws and rules are just made by people, it gave me the courage to be able to take action. I think also having the twin sister who’s always “yessing” your ideas and telling you how amazing your ideas are gives you a lot of courage as well.
The first question I always ask myself is “What sucks in my world?” and then “Does it suck for a lot of people?” Then I ask, “Can I be passionate about this issue, cause, or community for a very long time?” Since birth, Miki and I have talked ad nauseam about, “What are the problems that exist in the world and how can we be agents for change?”
Miki Agrawal: Necessity is the mother of invention, right? I would say necessity — personal necessity. I love pizza and I couldn’t eat pizza anymore because of recurring stomachaches, so I started a restaurant.
What do you look for in your work?
MA: I want to be a creative “one of one,” which means I don’t want to be one of many, I want to be one of one from a creative perspective. Concept-wise, we were the first farm-to-table, organic, gluten-free pizza concept in New York City, and I definitely loved that idea! I also look for creative artfulness. Business concepts have to be thoughtful, with design considered across every touch-point.
RA: I’ve spent the last few years thinking about my “why.” I don’t know if you’ve ever done that, but I find that we don’t spend enough time digging into ourselves and ask[ing] “What is my why?” For me, my “why?” is belonging, and my “how?” is community, wellness, and fun.
If I were to draw a Venn diagram, there’d be three circles: one circle would say community, one circle would say wellness, and one circle would say fun. At the center of those circles is me, but that kernel of me is the cognitive belonging.
I have been obsessed with community for a very long time. My entire life, I have been organizing communities, whether it was my birthday party or going to the soup kitchens as a kid. And what is community? Community is belonging. I’ve really become obsessed with the concept of belonging, and I think that is really the lens through which I look at all my projects.
DAYBREAKER, my urban morning dance experience, is very much about belonging: finding a place to go to dance your face off, to feel free, to feel totally expressed, and to feel safe in all these cities around the world where you often feel alone. DAYBREAKER fits perfectly in the world of wellness, because it is about dancing and sweating; community, because it brings people together; and fun, because it is a dance party.
And the same is true with THINX, the underwear company that Miki and I started together. Miki is shepherding that forward as I build DAYBREAKER. THINX really started when Miki and I were commiserating how, as women, we don’t talk about menstruation and the embarrassing moments that happen. Menstruation is very much about wellness; it’s about hygiene, feminine hygiene. It is also about empowerment and about community. We are building a feminist community and empowering ourselves to have a voice. And it’s fun because it’s underwear, it’s fashion — the voice of the brand is fun.
I am working on a new project right now. We are buying 100 acres of land in upstate New York where we are building tiny homes and really bringing the concept of community, wellness, and fun all together into a community land project. We are going to start in upstate New York and then New York City and then expand to San Francisco and California, and then hopefully all over the world.
I am also writing a book about belonging, actually, called, “BELONG: Make Friends, Build Community, and Change the World.” I’ve bought every single book I could find on community-building and there isn’t really much out there. The ones that are out there are pretty hard to read — they’re slogs, and they’re usually written a long time ago by old white men. There hasn’t really been a book about community-building and belonging through the lens of the digital age.
The book is really helping me understand the context that I’ve been working on for the last decade of my career. I really believe that community comes first and the brand is second. Often people will build the brand first and then try to build a community around the brand, but unless you can build community around the brand, you will never build a brand that is meaningful.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who are seeking outside capital or are bringing in investors?
RA: Early on, I was like, “Oh, my God! Someone wrote me a check for several million dollars — I’m going to take it!” not even realizing that I was signing my controlling interest of my company away, that I was basically signing my rights away and my freedom away. I took on some really old- school, traditional investors who didn’t understand the concept of a social entrepreneur. We talk about conscious capitalism, and conscious capitalism requires someone who understands the need for both consciousness and capitalism. Some investors don’t understand that one has to be patient to see real change, because change doesn’t happen overnight. They need to understand that to really build the movement, to really change a multi-billion-person world, it’s necessary to move slowly, carefully, strategically, and thoughtfully. So I learned a major lesson when I took a lot of money from really traditional investors, but honestly, it wasn’t their fault, and it wasn’t my fault. I was just naive. I didn’t realize what I was doing, and they didn’t realize that they were investing in a company that was going to require more than two years to exit or more than two years to start turning a pro t. It was a misalignment on both of our parts and I take responsibility, as well.
MA: I’d say you have to be in a place where you are fully your authentic self. You should really feel confident in your idea, and you can’t just try to fake being confident.
Also, hustle — you’ve just got to get out there and do it. It’s a numbers game at the end of the day. You have to make calls, you have to have your first meeting and screw up. Then you have your second and maybe your third meeting and you screw up. Then you finally figure out what not to say, you go to your fourth meeting, and you slowly go from there.
What advice do you have for creating a board of directors, and what characteristics do you look for in board members?
MA: It’s important to have people that you really respect, and that will have mutual respect for one another. It’s not a popularity contest. You need people who can help you grow your business.
RA: Yeah, to build the best board, you really want to find experts in the eld that you want to build your idea around. Let’s take DAYBREAKER — it is around the event space, so I am going to want a top exec in the music industry, a top exec in the events industry, I want someone who is a community-builder, someone from the world of wellness, maybe someone who works in nutrition. This allows you to really see holistically how you are building your brand. I think your board should hold you accountable to think about building your brand and be the right leader through a number of different lenses.
I always say, as someone who feels very strongly about my ideas, that your board members should also be cheerleaders of yours who want the best for you. That way, when they do come at you with some advice or maybe give you constructive feedback or disagree with your ideas, you will listen to them because you know that inherently they are a cheerleader.
I think often people think, “I want this person on my board because they are the most powerful CEO or the most powerful leader in the space of music or festivals or events,” but they might not necessarily know you, be an ally to you, or be your friend. You want to have a rapport with your board members, to know them as human beings and trust them to have your best interest at heart.
What characteristics do you think are common denominators across the Millennial generation? What are they looking for out of work, and what engages them?
RA: I actually just started an agency under DAYBREAKER. We’re calling it Mischief, and it is a Millennial experience-design and community-building agency. The reason why I am starting this as a side project amongst all these different things I am working on is because I really believe Millennials have a very specific voice and they have a very specific attitude and specific interests.
Millennials are idealists. Because information is at our fingertips, because we have the opportunity to start a business just by clicking a button on our computer, because we can design our own brand in Photoshop — because all sorts of tools are available to design things, to advertise, to buy ads on Facebook, to share with our friends — the barriers to entry to build a business are lower than ever. Because the possibilities are endless, Millennials are very idealistic.
I think the other issue, though, is that because there is so much opportunity and because you can go in any direction, Millennials are often searching. A huge part of my community, of my friends who are Millennials, in general are searching, which is why the world of free- lance is also skyrocketing. These Millennials are dipping their toes in a lot of different things and trying to figure out, “What can I be passionate about for a long time? What can I dive fully into, head-first? I don’t want to commit to anything fully right now because I am still discovering myself, because there are so many opportunities available to me.” So there is a level of idealism and also a level of confusion, of “Who am I?”
Also, religion is on a major decline. Millennials are no longer religious, but are spiritual. They are flocking to meditation, to yoga, to dance parties, to feminist communities like THINX. There is a very deep interest in spirituality and connection. While social media is taking over our world, I also believe that there is a deeper interest in how we can connect as humans with all five senses.
Experiences are the new luxury for Millennials. Gone are the days of big houses and Lamborghinis and Rolex watches — we don’t care about that stuff at all. We care about going to Tibet, going to early morning dance parties, going to music festivals — all of that is because Millennials are deeply interested in experiences and not at all as interested in possessions.
The last thing is, our attention span is eight seconds or less, which is less than a gold sh. Which is a funny stat I love to say. I think be- cause of the amount of inputs that we are getting every single day from social networks and a million other different inputs in our lives, we are lacking focus. I think that is a peril of being a Millennial. We have a hard time going really deep, and so those who succeed in the Millennial space are those who are willing and able to go deep.
Do you have any predictions about how the business world is going to evolve in the future?
RA: No one wants to work in the office nine-to-five in a cubicle anymore — nobody. Nobody is interested in being locked up. Right now, I am working on the rooftop in my building. And my DAYBREAKER team, we now work on my rooftop or out of our community business centers because we don’t want to be relegated to an office every day. The future of business is going to be very much remote. I do believe, though, that the best businesses are the ones in which the teams are together every day, but I think that there is a level of autonomy and freedom that Millennials want. We are having to really think about how to relate to each other in this new digital age. How can we connect? How can we get team members who don’t live in New York to buy into our vision in the same passionate way that we do every day in the office? It’s tricky, but it’s ex- citing. I think the world of business is drastically changing in terms of the way people want to work.
I also feel like there is a level of opportunity that women are seeing to be able to build businesses unlike ever before. Five hundred thousand businesses are being started every year by women, which is actually more than men now, so that is going to change the face of business, too, in my opinion. In fact, I know when there is more feminine energy in the world of business, we are going to see a lot more empathy, a lot more opportunity for different kinds of businesses to grow and thrive.
As an aside, I’ve actually got a word for the men that we work with. The women are powerful, amazing women, and the men that we work with are what I call SNAGs, which stands for sensitive, new-age gentlemen. I think if you can ll your business with women and SNAGs, you’re golden!
MA: I think the future of entrepreneurship is social entrepreneurship. I think all businesses will have to be conscious businesses. I just joined the Conscious Capitalism board as one of 18 members. The whole idea is that business will elevate humanity — not philanthropy, not charity, not corporate social responsibility, but conscious business. I think businesses in the future won’t thrive unless they have a mission.
What is giving you hope for the future?
MA: Conscious Capitalism is what is giving me hope for the future.
RA: I think the younger generation below us is growing up without sexism being part of their vocabulary. That’s what really gives me hope for the future. Every young man that I meet sees me as completely equal, whereas two or three years ago, and I am not even joking about this, I would be sitting in a meeting and my investors would sit around the table with other male businessmen — around my company that I started and founded by myself — and they’d say, “Radha, you stay here. Boys, let’s go outside and talk business.” In front of me! These were men in their sixties who didn’t even realize what they were doing. When I confronted my investor, literally with tears of anger, he was like, “Oh my God! I didn’t even think about it.” He was oblivious to it. That is how ingrained it is in society: he didn’t even realize he was hurting my feelings and doing something wrong. But young men and young women don’t see each other that way anymore. There is this sense of, “I’m me, you’re you, we’re equals. That’s all there is to it.” That gives me a lot of hope.