I was on a call with my mum a few days back and she recollected, “Anu, while you were in college you gave me ulcers in my stomach. You hardly focused on your studies, you were so deeply involved in AIESEC.” We laughed as we recollected this. This was all way back in the late ’90s. Little did we know that some of the life skills I picked up during my years spent volunteering for AIESEC in Delhi Uni, would stay with me for life and more so this year.
AIESEC initially started off as a platform to make friends, collaborate, pick organisational skills, work cohesively, and an excuse for me to stay away from my boring lectures. As a young 18-year old, the fun part always came first. But in hindsight, every experience and skill I picked up, was preparing me for life ahead. I recollect having a frank chat with my parents while in my final year of University, telling them that I don’t wish to pursue further studies and wish to go off overseas on a year-long International Traineeship Programme, an opportunity that AIESEC was offering me for my contribution to the organisation. It could have been easily dismissed by my parents. I was young, immature, I needed a loan from my dad and the bigger question what after that. Yet they agreed.
I chose to go to Germany just when I was 21, a country where I had no family or friends, didn’t speak the language, had a meager monthly stipend. Let me share a little story that deeply impacted my life. On landing on my first day at work in a small event-management firm in this little town called Mainz, I was informed by my employer that my German is not proficient enough, so sadly he needs to cancel the Internship. A bit hard to think now after all these years what this moment must have felt like- all alone, first time away from home, no mobile phones to call home, no friends. I had two options in front of me- head back home or stay on and find another internship. I chose the latter. Rest is history.
To date I tell my fast-growing girls, given a second chance, I wouldn’t have had my life take a different turn. What started off as a fun adventure, turned out to be the biggest lesson of hardship, independence, willpower, emotional intelligence, patience, mental strength, and much more that I could have garnered in a lifetime. Traits I have carried with me as I moved countries, jobs, and became a mother.
As 2020 unfolded, it was time to again remember all those learnings and put them to practice. I made a conscious effort to surround myself with people who have faith, confidence, belief in me and will be my anchor as much as I could be theirs. On the personal front, it was my blanket of friends, family, and our kids who saw many moments of stress and worries. Being honest with them helped. The kids would politely leave me in a room to handle my own emotions, nudge me for a game of Nintendo, or let me just sleep in.
I embarked on the path of entrepreneurship when I was fairly young. Again this decision was taken without much thinking. Needless to say, I made many mistakes, but the thrill never went away. A few years ago at the brink of 40, when sitting at home and being around for my girls should have been my conclusive option, I set out again. As my dear husband once told me, “There is a highway or my way, so go ahead and pick your choice.”
We stepped into Singapore’s burgeoning startup ecosystem way back when most Public Relations firms in this region had chosen to watch from far. Once again, I had no friends, supporters, and mentors to show me the path ahead. In 2017, I started to build a team that was fairly young, had faith in everything I said, and was as optimistic as me. Being part of Singapore’s largest public relations firm had a huge onus on us, to pick and choose the right startups. As much as we were building their credibility, we couldn’t tarnish our reputation built over the last 24 years.
Today this ecosystem has given me way more than expected. I have been lucky to have met and worked with change-makers, Founders who have gone onto build firms that are today category leaders in Southeast Asia, venture capitalists who have worked hard to make this region attractive for the rest of the world, some brilliant talent who opted to set foot into this emerging industry, a large media network that has grown as this ecosystem grew. Every opportunity we had working with these people was a perfect way for us to learn too. We adapted skills that we saw in our clients, that existed in the DNA of a startup.
During the pandemic year once again I had two paths to choose from- move away from the risk of working with a sector that now looks flaky, the short-term view made it unattractive, chances of crossing paths with unstable firms would be common or take a firm stand, give back, support existing clients, reengineer ourself based on all the learnings, face the crisis and look ahead. We chose the latter.
We got challenged to do probably our most interesting work during the year. I was lucky to have built by now an inner circle of supporters who had faith in us and our work. It was a great test to see how far we had come, built our capabilities, and how much further we need to go. It was truly a year to value and seal relationships. I leaned on mentors, friends, Founders, media for every bit of inspiration and guidance. They didn’t fail me. I do believe our own startup/Founder mentality that we practice within our firm also had a large role to play in us being able to navigate through the year. It empowered me and my partners to make decisions quickly, independently, and do what we believe was right for us and our teams.
Though the last year now seems like a blur, not a day goes by when I don’t reflect on what I learned. As much as there is a part of me that is sad, missing family and being together, I am thankful to end the year on a high. A year I survived because of everyone around me who more than made up for the lows. The eternal optimist in me looks ahead to a brighter year with happier and prouder moments to come.
Anu Gupta is Director at Asia PR Werkz. She leads a team that works with startups and tech firms and has played a key role in building and driving the communication strategies for several of Singapore’s fastest-growing startups across industries such as Travel & Hospitality, Food & Beverage, FinTech, SaaS, E-Commerce, AgriTech and more – many of which are regional category leaders today. She has spent the last 23 years in the area of Public Relations having lived in India, Dubai and now Singapore. She loves to write and her thoughts can be found on her personal Medium page.
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