Shriya Sekhsaria of Lumhaa: “Community”

Community: Support artists by buying pieces, showing up to events, or even just sending them an appreciative message when you can. It’s easy to starve an industry of dreamers and talent by withholding appropriate recognition, especially when all art does is add beauty, meaning, and truth to our lives. As part of my series about young […]

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Community: Support artists by buying pieces, showing up to events, or even just sending them an appreciative message when you can. It’s easy to starve an industry of dreamers and talent by withholding appropriate recognition, especially when all art does is add beauty, meaning, and truth to our lives.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shriya Sekhsaria.

Shriya is Founder and CEO of Lumhaa: The Memory Jar Company, which helps groups create private websites and handmade products to save and share memories. She has won awards such as 2021 Superwoman of the Year (EduTalk in association with the Indian Ministry of SMEs) and 2020 Woman STEM Entrepreneur of the Year (AWIS). Shriya is also a bestselling novelist and 3x All East archer. She graduated from Princeton University (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa) with degrees in psychology, entrepreneurship, finance, and European cultural studies.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up in India. First in Bombay, then a small South Indian town, and then a boarding school in the hills. Some of my favorite childhood memories involve reading for hours at a stretch in my grandparents’ room, playing cricket with my family in our front yard, and coming up with endless life hacks in my boarding school!

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

My boarding school was fairly strict back in our day. It didn’t encourage romantic relationships. But I was in my first ever relationship, so finding a way to celebrate Valentine’s Day was all-consuming to me. Eventually, I came up with the idea of I Spread Love — an organization designed to “change what Valentine’s Day stands for by spreading love to people in need”. We convinced our school to let us sell stickers, roses, and song dedications to raise money for computers for children in our surrounding villages. Our school students loved it because we got to (secretly) celebrate Valentine’s Day by having access to “wooing materials” for crushes and significant others. The village around us loved it because it aided education and friendship between our students and those around. And I loved it because it taught me that win-wins are important. And that win wins are possible.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Making a difference to me is synonymous with being remembered. It could mean redefining an entire industry or helping someone achieve a goal or even just making someone smile. If you can look at something and say “I was there”, you’ve made a difference.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Sure! Lumhaa helps build memory jars, which are private websites and handmade products for groups to save and share memories. It’s meant to be the go-to place for group media sharing, from virtual group birthday cards to family trees to student portfolios.

Our vision is to change media sharing from individual broadcasts (i.e., one person posts and others simply react) to group conversations (i.e., everyone posts and reacts about celebrations and family traditions together). Our mission is threefold:

  1. Emotional: Even 10 minutes with our product makes people happy and self-fulfilled, amongst other psychological benefits (as shown in our award-winning psychology research from Princeton University)
  2. Economic: Our physical jars are handmade by artists from emerging communities and act as a source of dignified income + way to preserve their art forms
  3. Environmental: Our packing and product materials are made of cow dung, discarded tshirts, and marigold seeds, thereby helping reduce our carbon footprint

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

There are lots of moments that weave together to form Lumhaa’s backstory — mental health challenges, seeing artists dismissed from society, receiving calls from parents of terminally ill children about how our memory jars helped, and many more memories that will continue to be made. Personally, Lumhaa resonates with me because I was (am) terrible at defining myself. I was a number-crunching, stage-loving, novel-writing, seriously-geeky athlete. And I struggled with figuring out how to choose between these interests, and with how to get my theatre and sports and other friends to exist in the same space. Having a platform that let me keep all my separate identities in separate memory jars, while allowing me to invite the relevant friend circle into each identity, was life changing for me. And I think everyone deserves to have spaces they can bring all pieces of themselves to.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I was working on my senior thesis at Princeton, which was about the psychological benefits of memory jars. I really enjoyed listening to memories from World War II and Manhattan in the 50s while helping make the jars, but the final trigger was when I saw the results from my experiments. Memory jars were fun and improved psychological wellbeing. I knew I had to find a way to scale the experience.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I looked at my thesis results in a basement at Princeton. Memory jars made people happy. I thought it would be a fun thought experiment to design a business based on the concept. So I wrote a quick 150 word note about what Lumhaa could look like on a white board. It looked real. That’s when I decided to sanity check my idea (with some admittedly insane people) by sending them pictures of my whiteboard plan. They told me to explore the cliff. I jumped off it. The final step was asking myself if I would be happy to have done Lumhaa even if it failed. The answer was an easy yes. So, I incoporated a company while sitting in another meeting, sketched out app screenshots on post its, and hired a tech team to make them a reality. The rest is history.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I was touring Indian villages to meet with schools for Lumhaa when I saw some grown children learning how to read four-word sentences like “The cat is brown”. When I asked the teachers more about them, I learnt that those were 9th and 10th graders (high schoolers) who had to take crash courses in every subject before their imminent final exams. Their state government had made it illegal to fail students until 8th grade, so most students only attended their first day of school in 9th grade. I always knew that education systems were different everywhere, but seeing how different they were was incredibly eye opening. That day shaped a lot of Lumhaa’s future, ranging from our emphasis on involving families in student learning/portfolios early on to offering Lumhaa in more regional languages.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I did interviews in a language I didn’t know how to speak. It was in the middle of the press conference for Lumhaa’s launch, and I had no idea that we would have different regional language papers too. I knew a language similar to the one the reporters were using, but I was still confused by their questions. They were even more confused by my answers. And all that aired live on television. Always check the guest list and attendee organizations, kids.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Lumhaa would be nothing without a few people — the Big 7 (my parents, brother, and four grandparents). Our investors (especially Deborah Querub Benarroch, Andrew Rozov, and Justin Junge) who have believed in us since Day Negative Hundred. And our users who spend time with us, request features, report bugs, and send in ideas for more ways we can impact the world (see our Hall of Fame). The entire origin story of Lumhaa is a story of their influence.

I also want to give a special shoutout to Mr. Rajiv Podar, who has gone out of his way to guide us and help make connections for Lumhaa around the world. And to family friends such as Mr. Rajesh Govindarajulu, Mrs. Rachna Bhutoria, and Mr. Vikas Khandelwal for their generosity in not only opening up their networks and homes, but also treating Lumhaa like it was their own. My heart is forever full and grateful for each person who has been with us along the way.

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We’re fortunate to be in a win-win-win situation where we are fulfilled by making our users happy and supporting artists. For users, I’ll never forget the phone call I got in 2015 after sending out our first batch of memory jars. I had spent the entire summer with terminally ill children in Indian villages, documenting their stories for a book I was working on to raise money for their treatment. When a lot of them passed away, I filled their stories in glass memory jars and sent them out to their families. One day, I received a call from one of their Dads thanking me for “returning a piece of his daughter” and warming his heart by bringing her back for just a second. Unforgettable. For artists, we’ve seen jar orders pay for family members’ education, save lives by providing access to COVID treatment, and even give women financial independence to leave abusive homes. Our team has been impacted by these people much more than we could ever dream of impacting them.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

There are lots of things we can all do, but here are my top 3 requests:

  1. Community: Support artists by buying pieces, showing up to events, or even just sending them an appreciative message when you can. It’s easy to starve an industry of dreamers and talent by withholding appropriate recognition, especially when all art does is add beauty, meaning, and truth to our lives. Same goes for supporting entrepreneurs and anyone with the courage to follow their dreams — think of how much happier we would all be if we could be who we want to be, rather than who we should be
  2. Society: Think about the privacy your future self might want before you post. Especially when you post on social media about your children. Don’t take away their right to privacy before they are able to decide which parts of their lives they want on the internet forever
  3. Politicians: Advise schools to include a 10 minute journaling period at the end of each week for students to add in photos, videos, voice notes, or whatever they’d like to document their growth in the previous week. It cements their senses of self, gives teachers and parents an authentic look into their journey, and creates an invaluable resource for them to look back on and appreciate later

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?

I think of life in 5 buckets — mental, emotional, social, physical, and financial. When I first started Lumhaa, I wish someone had told me the importance of sometimes putting myself first in each area:

  1. Mental: Don’t take all the advice you get. More experience or confidence doesn’t mean better advice
  2. Emotional: Don’t feel pressured by people putting you on a pedestal. Take crying and cake breaks
  3. Social: Most people won’t understand or participate in your adventure. Value the ones who do
  4. Physical: Your body matters. Find exercise you’re excited about enough to pause work for a while
  5. Financial: Pay yourself. If you’re stressed about paying personal bills, you’ll make terrible business decisions

These are all important lessons because it’s easy to ignore our own needs as we work towards changing the world. Following these ideas early on can avoid a lot of bad decisions, burnout, and disillusionment with your mission — remember the adage of businesses being a marathon, not a sprint.

Video Response:

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

It’s impossible to not impact our environment or society, so may as well make your impact positive. Your “positive impact mission” also helps provide external motivation when you run out of intrinsic motivation. And it’s good — no, it’s required — for business.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Right now? Probably Meik Wiking. I respect his work at The Happiness Institute, especially with The Art of Making Memories.

How can our readers follow you online?

@LumhaaOfficial for Lumhaa. @ShriyaSekhsaria for me. Same handle on all social platforms. Or better yet, join us on Lumhaa’s app and website!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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