- Akshata Nayak
Born and raised in Bangalore, India, Akshata Nayak describes her journey to New England as "quite the equator-to-arctic story." It started when she relocated to Orono, Maine, 18 years ago to attend graduate school. Since moving to Vermont in 2010, the nutritionist has started several small businesses. But Nayak, who now lives in Jericho, has found ways to meld her heritage with her new home.
First, Nayak created the Orange Owl, a vegan skin-care line infused with Indian spices such as green cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and ginger. She sold her products at around 50 small stores and chains on the East Coast. But when COVID-19 hit, she made the tough decision to close the business because of supply chain problems and personal health issues. She quickly pivoted to a new side hustle: book publishing.
During the early days of the pandemic, Nayak was spending more time at home with her then-2-year-old daughter, Ava. Nayak noticed that when she spoke to Ava in her native language of Konkani, her daughter would understand her but reply in English. Nayak looked for books in the South Indian dialect but couldn't find any geared to young children. So the entrepreneurial mom decided to create her own.
That proved challenging; Konkani has been passed down mostly orally from generation to generation. Nayak ended up creating a book that used the Roman alphabet, along with phonetic spellings underneath, to teach Ava simple words in Konkani. She also developed audio files that captured the sound of each word. That initial project sparked a business idea: a series of books to introduce children to new cultures and languages. She dubbed it Little Patakha.
Patakha means "firecracker" in Hindi, a name Nayak says she chose in honor of her spitfire daughter. The first two products from the company are Planet Pichkari and Planet Pathrado — books in Hindi and Konkani, respectively, with cheerful digital illustrations. Nayak has several other products in the works, including games and puzzles that aim to dispel gender and racial stereotypes.
In April, Nayak created a Kickstarter campaign to raise $10,000 to print 1,000 copies of each book. In just a few weeks, she surpassed her goal.
"When you're within a country that is that culture, you don't think much about it," said Nayak, reflecting on her business ventures. "When you move away from it is when it really strikes you about the things that you miss. I miss my people; I miss my family, my friends and food and smells and language. This is the way I connect with them."
Last month, Nayak spoke with Kids VT about her new endeavor.
Kids VT: What has the past year been like for you?
Akshata Nayak: In a year, we have created a brand. We have defined it. We have pivoted — very oddly for me, personally — from a business about skin-care products into learning about children's games, puzzles, books, publishing, all of that. We've created two products, and we've launched a Kickstarter in the middle of all the crazy we've been surrounded by because of the pandemic.
KVT: Who is the target audience for these books?
AN: Because of the presence of the phonetics and the online audio files, I realized that this isn't catered only to Indian kids. This is open to anybody who wants to learn a language or be introduced to a new culture. People ask me, "Are you Indian?" and I say "Yes," but there's such a wide range of people just within that one country — that's what I want people to understand.
One of the languages is Hindi, which is a North Indian language. The other one is Konkani, which is a South Indian language. One of them didn't have a [consistent] script, and I created it. The other one is one of the oldest scripts in the world, and it's still being used and has been preserved through all of this time. So, there's so much difference within just these two books, even though the illustrations are the same.
KVT: Did anything you learned running the Orange Owl help you in starting Little Patakha?
AN: I'm a science geek. I have two master's of science degrees, in biochemistry and in applied clinical nutrition. Business was nowhere in that. I started the Orange Owl just as a trial, and it ran for 10 years and was successful. So a lot of it was learning on the go, and I just kind of did what felt right to me. And I have learned so much in terms of packaging and the marketing and branding. I feel like I'm on much more sure footing than I was when I started the Orange Owl.
KVT: How has your daughter responded to the books?
AN: We realized when I was working with my designers that we actually created her as a character. So that's what you see on the covers of the books and inside the books — the girl is my daughter. We got a handmade doll made for this Kickstarter campaign, so she has a mini Ava doll now. She absolutely loves the attention and just seeing herself in a book.
KVT: How was your childhood in Bangalore different from Ava's childhood in Vermont?
AN: For my daughter, I love Vermont just because it allows her the space and the calmness to be who she is. Her childhood is very different than mine. Mine was in a city — careful when you cross roads, always noisy, all of that. So, it blows my mind to see how she interacts with nature the way she does at this age. She's happiest when she's outdoors, just in a puddle splashing around or surrounded by bugs and worms.