Please tell us briefly about yourself: your childhood, upbringing, schooling and the place where you belong?
I grew up in a suburb for Mumbai, Malad in a middle-class nuclear family. I specifically call out Malad, because that was my world back then. My school was within our residential complex, my engineering college where I did my BE in IT was in Malad and so was my B-school where I did my MBA in outskirts of Malad. Infact I had traded a medical seat in Vardha, in Maharastra a good medical school, to be in an engineering college in Malad. My most family vacations were also staycations where I used to write or paint or visit temples, not very far. Even when I was looking for jobs, the real reason I joined my company was because they had an office in Malad and I could come home for lunch. However, destiny had other things stored for me. I was posted to Chennai for work, where I now live. Today, as head of a start-up within a reputed IT company for artificial intelligence- based products for Fashion and groceries, with my work I travel several times up to 20-25 days a month in over 15+ countries. This transformation was not easy, I had spent many nights crying and eating ice-creams facing the pains of growing up, constantly telling myself “All is well” .Now, I have been through various travel situations such as missed flight as I was sleeping at the boarding gate, got deboarded, lost in a different country, boarded a cab without money, landed up in a different place than intended, thought I was having a heart attack, figuring out where to live and what to eat (before all the travel apps were there) and many more such adventures. With this over time have learnt to be relaxed about living in a suitcase and sometimes look forward to these mini adventures, these are what makes life interesting.
Exclusive Interview With Shilpa Rao
Being an only child, my parents bought me up to be independent as they believed I had to be strong myself to deal with anything in the world. My dad always encouraged me to participate in everything he believed “Standing at the foothills gazing up the sky, you will not get out there if you do not try”. He believed that participating is half winning. So, most of the school and college life was spent juggling between various classes and competitions. This helped me to get exposure to variety of things. Some I did well and some I was really bad at. But this participation spirit has helped me to win several awards. More recently, we won at AIconics held in San Francisco, which is the Oscars in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) world.
I spent my summer vacations mostly in drawing classes and writing novels. At that time, Nancy Drew and famous five were quite a cool thing and I had my own series called fabulous seven, a mix of adventure, mystery and horror. I still continue perusing these hobbies some of my canvas paintings have adorned people’s walls and offices and have written over 5 personalized novels which have helped bring smile to people’s faces.
Exclusive Interview With Shilpa Rao
Talking about smile, that’s the one I can attribute to my mother. She was a very fun person, always smiling. We were a happy family with our own set of trials and tribulations and then our world turned upside down when I was in my tenth standard in school and my mom was diagnosed with leukaemia. I still remember the day she was been taken to the hospital for her second round of chemo, she was very weak, frail and barely could walk. All this while I had put up a brave face since I was both my parents’ strength. They were worried that it was my 10th and If I didn’t do well then, my whole career would be ruined. Just before going to the hospital we three (I, my mom and my dad) got in a group hug, knowing that this might be probably the last time we would see my mom again alive in the house. I was fighting back my tears so hard, but they did escape my eyes. My mom who had taken even cancer in her stride, and smiled her way through the pain of the chemo said to me at that time ” promise me, whatever the situation is, you will always take it with a smile.” That promise is what I can attribute my smile to.
How did beauty Pageant happen to you? Did you always wish to participate in beauty pageants?
I was a complete tom boy growing up. All my friends called me “Bhai” (brother), I challenged my male friends in arm wrestling, I had short hair and I could beat up any guy in public if somebody mis-behaved (not that I’m proud of beating up men). So, a beauty pageant never crossed my mind. In fact, I was a complete opposite of what a typical beauty queen would look like (at least externally).
Then my work changed my perspective towards fashion. When I got to work closely with the leading fashion retailers. To give a background, I’m currently heading a start-up within a reputed IT company for artificial intelligence- based products for Fashion and groceries. My role is similar to that of a CEO of the startup- responsible right from conceptualisation of the product to implementation for customers and to drive the revenue targets. We have over 25+ patents applied for the product. I’m co-inventor of many. Growing it from a mere concept to a Rs.500 crore business, it has been an enriching journey for me. My role often requires me to travel worldwide, meet CXOs of grocery and fashion retail and help them understand how our AI powered software product can help them in their strategic decision- making to drive sales growth and margins. This gave me a deeper understanding of their business and processes and the industry in general. The attention to detail in Fashion and the whole creative process of getting the best piece of fashion out there for the season really fascinates me. I find the entire process creatively motivating.
After several years, achieving personal and professional success, I felt, I can do more and I’m ready to start giving back to the larger community. Water has been a perennial problem in Tamil Nadu and many states of India. This is something which affects all of us. I can choose to feel sorry about it or do something about it and I choose the latter. While I’m part of smaller initiatives such as planting trees and cleaning the areas as part of various groups, the rate at which the lakes are disappearing, the impact of these initiatives though very positive, is not enough. That’s where the thought of competing in a pageant came to my mind. I saw beauty pageant winners such as Marushi Chillar and others getting great momentum for their cause. I would like to garner similar or greater attention for this cause, because it impacts all of us.
When I was researching beauty pageants, I came across Haut Monde Mrs. India Worldwide through an Instagram advertisement. I recollected that one of my colleague’s wife had participated, so I knew it was genuine. I researched past winners and discovered that they had succeeded in their respective fields. Moreover, the transformation that they had gone through was mind boggling — improved communication, confidence and a platform which gave voice to your vision. The pageant was International with celebrity groomers and the quality of the output was phenomenal. I talked myself into enrolling for it. 15 thousand women from 15 countries participated and after the auditions, I’m selected as a finalist to compete at the Grand Finale to be held in Greece in October.
How supportive were your parents, especially your in-laws regarding your decision to participate in a beauty pageant?
Well, I broke the news at home after the auditions, when I was selected, I was not sure how everyone will take it. Luckily, my family was thrilled. Both my husband and father are supportive and in fact they have turned into Instagram husband and father- helping to click pictures and videos for my online profiles. My in-laws were super excited and are very supportive, liking and sharing my social media posts. I have two canine daughters and they are with me through the process; you can see them in some of my videos online. As a married woman when you participate in such a pageant, it’s not just you who participates, it’s your family, friends and social circle which participates. I’m really grateful to all of them for so much love and support.
Do you think marriage as an institution gives more impetus to women to chase her dreams or it bogs her down with more responsibilities? Please share with us your experience
Well, as marriage increases your “things to do list”, it also gives you more helping hands. Chasing your dreams is a personal choice which every woman has to make, with or without marriage. I feel, I had always chosen a path of perusing my dreams, but sometimes you get bogged down with unnecessary noise in your life. I think marriage has given me a sounding board, to spring me back up faster than I would I have before.
Do you think married women are now more empowered than before? If so, how and why?
Yes, I feel women in general are more empowered than before, taking up non -traditional roles in society and pursuing career options that were previously male dominated. I would attribute it to education, awareness and access to information. I feel parents play a big role in shaping their daughter’s future, giving her the right exposure to be able to pursue her dreams. I also feel, the whole digital revolution has provided access to information and services which were not so handy before. For example, my company is working on a project to provide financial freedom to rural women, helping them to design, create and sell their merchandise with phone and internet without ever leaving their homes. Similarly, for those who want to learn a new skill or art or complete their degrees, there are so many options available online, that you do not have to leave your home or your other responsibilities.
And then, the greatest example is Haut Monde Mrs. India Worldwide, a beauty pageant which provides a platform to married women to showcase their talent and give a voice to their vision.
Tell us about your preparation process before entering in the pageant. How did you balance your professional and personal life?
When I participated in the auditions, I was 73 kgs, about 20 kgs over the ideal body weight. While height is not a criterion for selection, the pageant does encourage a healthy fit body. This was also my motivation to get healthy. I’m a hardcore foodie and staying away from the food I like makes me hun-angry. So, losing weight had always been a challenge!! The Haut Monde team provided us with a personalised celebrity nutritionist – Dr. Ruchika Sodhi and we have a weekly healthy and easy meal plan. She does not starve us and in fact recommends parantha with a dollop of butter on it! I’m already almost half way to the ideal weight journey in about four months.
We had a three- day orientation program in Agra in April where we underwent rigorous training on ramp walk, posing for the camera, make up and beauty tips, verbal and non- verbal communication, nutrition, health and fitness, meditation, inner beauty, social media presence and more. From April till October, we have been given daily tasks which are pushing us to practice what we learnt at the orientation. I’m already experiencing a lot of changes in myself. Including a more confident, positive outlook. I’m doing so many new exciting things which I’ve never done before, despite a busy schedule and travel. I believe that when you truly enjoy doing something, you will always find time for the same. It’s an amazing journey. I’m truly loving it.
What does fashion mean to you?
Fashion means to me creatively express who you are and be comfortable with it.
In your opinion which is the one dress that can never go out of fashion?
Little black dress
What beauty/fitness regime would you suggest for our readers?
Find creative ways to enjoy your workout (you can check out some of my quirky fitness routines in the videos on my Instagram and Facebook links), eat healthy, sleep well, stress less and smile all day long
Where is your favourite place to travel?
Well, with work I travel around the globe. But for now, my favourite place is Thaiyur Lake- a 466-acre lake near my house which has completely dried up and needs rejuvenation. I go there every morning and it inspires me, challenges me and gives me a reason to look forward to the day.
What is your all-time favourite movie and why?
In recent times, its “Hitchki”. It’s about a woman with Tourette’s syndrome (which causes difficultly in her speech) and how she turns her this weakness into her greatest strength. I find the movie truly inspiring.
Which do you prefer, Heels or Sneakers?
Heels when I have to look taller and sneakers when I have to walk far
Who is your favourite fashion designer?
Zac Posen- he works with leading edge technology and creates master pieces. He has done 3D printed dresses, fibre optic dresses and designed many for many International as well as Indian celebrities. He is not afraid of taking risks and creatively expressing himself.
Describe your sense of style in 3 words.
Avant Garde (style that uses fashion as an extension of your creativity), simple, chic
What is that favourite accessory that you cannot leave the house without?
My smile 😊
Apart from fashion, what other things do you have great interest in?
Painting, creative writing, gift making, poetry and now making videos
Where can we follow you?
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