Female Entrepreneurs in Kashmir

Updated: Mar 11, 2019

Manejeh Yaqub of Revive Kashmir sat down to interview Roohi Nazki, the founder and brains behind Chai Jai, a local cafe in Kashmir that has become an iconic tourist destination and local favorite.

1. How did the idea of Chai-Jai come about, and what was your life

like before Chai-Jai? I am a professional learning designer specializing in online

course design and development for universities and corporations. As much as I enjoyed my work and the travel it involved, like many other professionals the dream was to set up my own boutique company. Maintaining a work-life balance and having a flexible work schedule has always been an aspiration. And the only answer to that was, of course, to start my own venture.I quit my job with Tata Interactive Systems back in 2006 to start a small business called 'Kasheer'. At Kasheer, the idea was to give Kashmiri crafts a contemporary look and feel. I was able to run the business for three years but had to eventually sunset operations when resources ran dry.

I learned my lesson but did not really give up on the idea of having my own venture.

To minimise risks, in 2015 I set up my own enterprise in the domain of my expertise, eLearning. The fact that I could work from anywhere also facilitated a temporary move back to Kashmir. Or so I thought. Going back 'home' after two decades was indeed a happy event in more ways than one. But with it also came the realization that finding the right people and the required infrastructure for my eLearning initiative was not going to be possible in Kashmir. While I was still grappling with these issues, one morning a lovely chance meeting with Mr. Jagdish Mehta, of Mahattas Studio, completely changed the direction of my course. A casual observation that a tearoom on the lines of English tearooms would be an ideal thing to have on the Bund, struck a chord with him. He agreed to give me the space on top of his 100 year old studio. And there began the Chia Jaai journey.

2. What challenges did you face while setting up the business? It was incredibly challenging to find talent that possessed a solid work ethic, clear consciousness, and unwavering commitment. No doubt there are some pockets of excellence but these are often occupied by individual ventures run by highly motivated and dedicated people. The vast majority of people seem to have lost the will to excel. The will to produce something of quality these days is missing. This is particularly distressing given the wild success Kashmiris attain through many professional pursuits. I take great pride in being Kashmiri. The whole concept of ChaiJaai was really an expression of that identity and ethos. Our craftsmanship and our sensibility, is to my mind, one of the best. And here I was in Kashmir faced with an almost total lack of it. What I did realise however is that the turmoil of the last three decades has put most Kashmiris in a 'survival mode' mindset. They have receded into their comfort zones simply to be able to survive. And one can't blame them. The level of uncertainty that one deals with in Kashmir on a daily basis is simply numbing. This realization and the empathy it generated is what kept me going. This gave me the patience\ to deal with the challenges I faced. We completed the project in a matter of eight months. Today what is most satisfying is the restoration of my faith. We do possess the work ethic. We just need to clear the dust that has settled on it.

3. How did you overcome challenges you faced? My stubbornness to not accept the absence of a will to excel in Kashmir. My training as a specialized designer of quality learning products determined my approach and perspective to work at CJ: developing a consistent, sustainable quality product. Except that in this case I was creating an experience of having tea in a cultural context. The excruciating high standards of quality learned in the TATA

environment were too ingrained for me to accept anything but the best. Needless to say that it was the toughest assignment of my career. However the people I met and worked with made all the difference. Suhail Naqshbandi, graphics artist, cartoonist and painter, created

the brand identity for CJ. He has also worked in the eLearning industry. So having him on board was the biggest plus. Sajad, my Manager; Mubashir whose company took the contract; and Maqbool and his team of artisans all worked tirelessly. After the initial

hiccups, they started enjoying and owning the project. It was completely different from anything they had done before. And they liked the feeling. Once that transition happened, things became smoother. I liked the challenge of doing something that I had never done before.

4. What in your opinion limits local Kashmiri talent to take on such entrepreneurial activities like you did? Lack of financial resources coupled with the outdated hankering after government jobs are the key impediments. There is an obsession with securing government jobs. People don't want to work outside the government. It is an intriguing phenomenon. It is no doubt related to the conflict situation going on for the last three decades. But it is

eating into something vital in the society.

5. Tell us whether you faced any gender driven challenge or favor being a woman entrepreneur? Do you think it was any different for you given that you are a female?

No favours, for sure. A lot of pushback, yes. And the usual biases against women. Taking orders from a woman is never easy for men. So there were never exceptions in that. The funny thing though was that many people referred to CJ as my 'hobby'. They didn't see this as my 'work'. They would say things like 'busy rehney key liyay' and 'shauq hai'. It took some degree of self control to suffer through people like that.

6. If you had to go back and do this all over again, what would you do Differently?

I don't really think I would do anything differently. I do wish however that I had had more supportive people around me.


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