Friday Five with our Founder: Kajal

Read on to learn where our Founder, Kaj finds inspiration and happiness. Kaj grew up in New Delhi, India and continues to stay inspired by her home country while exploring the diverse cultures of Asia.

1/ Kaj, who or what inspires you on a regular basis?

I listen to a lot of podcast interviews. Debbie Millman’s Design Matters and Kirsty Young’s Desert Island Discs are two of my current favourites. I like to learn from the lives, journeys and lessons of people who have overcome adversity and gone on to do super cool things. Lately, I am inspired by Monica Grady - space scientist, Krista Tippett - the existentialist as well as early Nirvana albums (BTW, Kurt Cobain experimented with cultural immersion in his own way, taking to living in broken down motels later in his life in an attempt to regain inspiration)

In a nutshell - inspiration is everywhere and I’m always taking random photographs or making small notes for myself. Things connect in unexpected ways and I find being relentlessly curious about the world we live in makes us so much better at our jobs as design thinkers. And like scientists or architects - we designers too stand on the shoulders of giants. It helps to learn from the lives and lessons of others. Read, listen, travel, learn, ask lots of questions of yourself and those around you.

2/ We know you love Asia – do you have a favourite city or place?

That’s a hard one. I’ve been lucky enough to call New Delhi, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore home over the last decade. Each city inspires me in a different way. I am most at home in Hong Kong - the subcultures, the music and film legacies, the food and bar scene and that there is easy access to everything from beaches to hikes in the space of 20 minutes.

Back home in India, I often visit Rajasthan - a state famous for its camels, old forts, gypsies and colourful outfits. Think men in pink turbans and pretty women twirling in parrot green skirts.  

3/ And what about Singapore – what’s the best thing about living here?

Well, my friends! And my apartment with its overgrown plants. Seriously though - the start up ecosystem here is great. It’s a super easy place to do business and an energetic regional hub. The EDB and SG Design Council have both been very supportive and we have a tight design community here. Also I love where I live - Tiong Bahru. It’s a great mix of retired folks in HDBs and young creatives. It gets a bad rap for being too hipster, but dig below the surface for fantastic stories.

The best part of Tiong Bahru is its community feel- the florist at our local wet market, the barista at my favourite cafe, the aunty who makes the best wonton noodles and the shared ownership of gloriously overweight cats.

Singapore has become a much more vibrant place in the last few years. When I lived in Shanghai, and we’d come down for work - it felt too calm and sterile. But the creative scene and design community, while still small - are increasingly more active and vocal. It feels like there’s a lot more to do and explore here now - from bloc parties to art & film events.

4/ Is there any dream project on the horizon for you?

I’m committed to finding a way to design for better mental health. Specifically, I’d like to reduce the stigma around anxiety and depression. A lot of people in Asia simply don’t have access to this level of mental healthcare they need, and it’s a huge problem amongst young people here. There are many cultural barriers to speaking out about these issues, and I’d like to see that change.

Over the last year, we’ve been spending time in Singapore universities and  community centres to find opportunities for mental healthcare. There’s a real need for a platform and service system that allows more people to get the help they need, and we’d love to find a way to bring it to life.

5/ Lastly, what has been your greatest lesson from running Heist for 3 years now?

Just one? Wow, the last few years have taught me so much - equal parts exhausting and rewarding. My top 3 learnings so far:

1/ Build your tribe - Actively build and contribute to, not just find. It’s impossible to do this alone - running a startup, having a good life as an expat living away from home, finding the right balance. I’ve been super lucky - and while I do have a very supportive family, they’re back home in New Delhi. Here in Singapore - I have managed to surround myself with interesting and hyper motivated people who continue to inspire me. Reflecting on what it’s like to explore uncharted territory -- whether it’s a fresh idea, a new market, or a yet-to-be-designed service -- keeps my skills sharp and my thoughts fresh, and I couldn’t begin to process my thoughts on what it means to live and work in SouthEast Asia without my group of friends.

2/ Create a board of advisors: Having access to a global network of inspiring world class designers is something I missed from my time at frog. To help recreate some of that, I reached out to people I admire and want to learn from - across a range of disciplines and industries. I learnt that if you ask people for advice with humility and good intentions, most are willing to help. My board of advisors consists of 7 very smart people including a headhunter, an architect, an investor and two clients I trust immensely. Each of them challenges me and helps me in different ways.

3/ Take care of yourself - I don’t just mean this in a ‘self care and spa’ way. But to take ownership of your health and wellness - physically, emotionally and spiritually. I box at the gym 4 days a week and have a business coach to help me with the challenges of running a startup. As a team, we spend a lot of time on the road for design research - but we always try to make time for ourselves to recharge, meditate or squeeze in a quick workout wherever we are. Whether in Singapore or in one of our Pop-Up studios, you’ll always find good music, yoga mats, healthy snacks and a lot of laughter. This goes a long way in keeping us all happy and productive no matter the design challenge.