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Smiling all through her Life: The Story of Shilpa Rao

I grew up in a suburb of 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. In fact I had traded a medical seat in Vardha, in Maharashtra 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, which were not very far. Even when I was looking for job, 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 in store 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, de-boarded, 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 I have learnt to be relaxed about living in a suitcase and sometimes look forward to these mini adventures, these are what make life interesting.

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. At some I did well but at some I was really bad. But this participation spirit has helped me to win several awards. More recently, we won at AIconics held in San Francisco, which are 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 was 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 many faces.

Talking about smile, that’s the one I 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 leukemia. 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 the strength of both my parents. 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 (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 told me 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. 

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 misbehaved (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 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 conceptualization 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 and that’s how I got hooked on to fashion.

As a start-up within the company we had to always find creative ways of doing things.  When we started, we didn’t have a lot of funding for operations, let alone marketing. CXO in a multi-billion dollar US retailer is not easy. We did not have a budget for a sales team. We just knew we have to sell our innovation; else we had to shut down. While researching the retailer we came across a hackathon that retailer was conducting and it had audiences from the departments we were trying to reach. We worked day and night to get the best version of the product out and were successful at the event, which led us to the meeting with the CXO we were targeting. This meeting helped us crack our first deal. Since then we have constantly identified creative ways of making our product better and reaching out to clients. My professional experience has taught me that with vision, belief, focus and action, great things are possible. I want to apply this experience to do greater things. If we, as resourceful citizens, don’t take up the causes that impact us, then who will?

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 Manushi Chhillar 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 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 is 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.

Journey after the Auditions 

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After the auditions, we had our Orientation in Agra, 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. 

For instance, I had stopped posting my pictures on social media since many years for the fear of being judged. But the first task – #BeautifulInMyFlaws – helped me to muster courage and showcase my real self with flaws and all. I felt so emancipated, so liberated. It was as if I was telling the world “This is me…the way I am.. Like it or hate it.. This is me!” I realized that people’s judgement about me does not change my reality.

Then the task on #unitedforequality where we talked about how men also suffer abuse and violence (not just women). As women we often talk about women, but there are men who suffer too. It helped me to empathize better and imbibe the true meaning of equality.

And then the one on #LahuSeKaisiSharm where we talked openly about menstrual hygiene. It was a personal milestone for me since I actually was quite embarrassed and shy to even saying the word “periods”. Talking to so many people about it so openly really helped me to break down the taboos that I had subconsciously adopted. These tasks not only helped me to hone my social skills but also helping me to do fun things at home and bond better. I did a dance number with my dad for the task #MyFamilyMyPride which helped me to bond with my father in ways we had never before, sharing fun father-daughter moment.

As my job requires me to travel constantly, these tasks are encouraging me to think of creative ways to find time for them and are also pushing my limits to help me find a better me. I love the experience of making videos and I’m seeing my transformation day by day. I have lost over 10 kgs from the auditions following healthy diet from our dietician.  I never knew I could do so many things that I’m doing now…balancing work and home and the tasks. I’m enjoying the journey thoroughly. It has given my life a whole new meaning.