DCF: Who Are You?
I am Shreya. I grew up in India, in an upper middle-class family. However, many around me struggled to make ends meet. This income inequality always gave me a deep sense of discomfort. That is why I decided to study Economics at Brown University. After graduating from Brown, I moved to D.C. to work for an economic consulting firm. Last year, for my personal fulfillment, I started volunteering at a homeless shelter.
At the shelter, I heard the stories of the homeless and, I was compelled to do something that could enrich and impact on their lives and also eventually help them out of homelessness. With that in mind a year ago, I started District Mugs, a nonprofit that introduces entrepreneurship to the homeless, teaching them how to run a business painting, marketing, and selling coffee mugs.
I have been able to help almost 20 homeless men and women to date and it continues to be an incredibly rewarding though tough journey where I have collaborated with other nonprofits, involved fiscal sponsors, roped in the Brown University faculty and networks, and become an entrepreneur myself.
DCF: Why do you love what you do? What makes you funemployed?
SB: Being able to see the impact of what I do is what keeps me going. The fact that District Mugs is able to provide a space that is welcoming to the homeless community is enough to make all my work for District Mugs worthwhile.
DCF: Who was your first mentor and how did you find them?
SB: My first mentor was my Entrepreneurship professor from college. I had taken a class with him and knew that he would be supportive of my idea and provide all the guidance I need.
DCF: What’s your happy place?
SB: My happy place is spending time with family and friends. With my full-time job and managing District Mugs, I have had to cut-down a little in time for friends, but I have learned to appreciate whatever time I have with my friends more.
DCF: Where do you get your energy?
SB: Every week attending the District Mugs workshop and interacting with the homeless participants keeps me going. When I conduct the monthly interviews with the participants and learn about their lives and how District Mugs is helping them, that’s what keeps me going!
DCF: What does balance mean to you and how do find it?
SB: Balance to me means using my time in most efficient manner. I make a checklist of tasks I need to finish and plan my day accordingly in order to make the most of my time.
DCF: What sacrifices did you have to make to get here?
SB: Working for District Mugs in addition to my full-time job has definitely left me with lesser time to have fun outings with friends or visit my family in India. But, my passion for the cause makes it all worthwhile.
DCF: What struggles have you faced as a woman in your industry?
SB: What I have struggled with most is my age – I’m 24.
The way District Mugs operates is that we conduct 2-hour long weekly workshops at the offices of nonprofit organizations such as Thrive DC. In the first hour, our participants learn formal business lessons. In the second hour, participants are taught how to paint the coffee mugs. The mugs are then sold at pop-ups where our participants have the opportunity to learn how to market and sell their mugs.
In order to scale up and include as many homeless people as possible in the District Mugs program, we are trying to partner with more organizations such as Thrive DC. When I try to interact with nonprofit organizations to see if they would be interested in adopting the District Mugs workshops, I have had a difficult time with people taking me seriously primarily because of my age.
DCF: What is the early advice you didn’t listen to that you wish you had?
SB: Growing up, I lacked in self-confidence. Even though my parents always encouraged me to believe in myself, I never did. But, when I moved to the U.S. for college and had to live by myself, the importance of believing in myself became very important as I tried to find a job or take leadership roles in college clubs. Slowly, friends in college helped me develop that confidence.
DCF: What was your greatest failure and what did you learn from it?
SB: Two months after I started District Mugs, I recruited a volunteer without much vetting, someone simply not up for the task and who treated responsibilities haphazardly. This put me in the difficult situation of delicately approaching them about their attitude and contributions. I had to get a handle on this situation, no matter how difficult before moving onto any other initiative, and before recruiting any more volunteers. I did not want a bad apple to spoil the bunch by setting a lousy precedent. I called a time out, then had a sit-down meeting with the colleague, gauging the level of genuine interest. We both agreed it was not a good fit, and amicably parted. This cleared my plate allowing me to focus on defining more clearly who would be a good fit. Subsequently, I was much more selective and strategic in who I brought on board.
DCF: What was your proudest moment to date?
SB: My biggest achievement was an admissions letter from the University of DC, which was sent to our 56-year-old participant Sheila. When Sheila started attending District Mugs workshops, she had recently become homeless after her apartment was flooded. The income she received from selling mugs through District Mugs was very helpful to Sheila as she struggled to adapt to her current situation. While assisting our volunteers in taking pictures of District Mugs’ mugs, she incidentally discovered a passion for photography. With the help of the District Mugs team, Sheila managed to apply to UDC and is now majoring in business and photography.
DCF: What are you Currently Conquering?
SB: Team District Mugs has been a low-cost nonprofit organization for the last one year. But, we are now trying to grow and need more funds for that. We have recently started Sip & Paint events where we go into offices of corporate organizations and teach employees how to paint coffee mugs. At the end of the event, employees can either donate the mugs back to District Mugs for our fundraising purposes or take their mugs home after making a suggested donation of $5 to District Mugs.