You have a significant social media following, especially on Instagram - how did you go about building your following?
I didn't really set to "go about building my following" to be honest. I started on Instagram nearly a decade ago when my husband and I started a wedding photography business and Instagram was completely different then. This pre-dates things like IG Story or Lives or Reels or Highlights and so literally everything went on your feed - the tone of Instagram as we know it now was completely non-existent at that point. A few years in, I figured it was a good idea to separate business and personal and so I just started my own account. The other thing is that though an audience size like mine is more difficult to organically obtain now, it really wasn't so hard at that point. Before, the "algorithm" wasn't this mysterious beast that people were trying to figure out or one-up. People followed you, they saw every post you shared on your feed in a sequential order, and you could be seen on the Explorer page - it was very easy to grow quickly, even without going viral.
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I guess it was just a matter of time before you created a product or service with the community you’ve built - why did you choose to get into the personalized items business? How did you choose the name “Her Sun & Stars”?
I don't know if I would say it's a matter of time, as many content creators don't go on to make a business, and I certainly had no idea or intention that I would either - I would say that the idea came to me and I just ran with it. The reason I started is actually something one of my cousins said once. We were all at a cottage and someone spilled water. One cousin was like "oh, someone should get a sponge" and my other cousin responds with "why 'someone'? why not you?" And that always really stuck in my mind. So many times we think of something and say "someone should do that" rather than acting on it ourselves. Flashforward to a couple years later and I had a personalized blanket for my son and for my daughter that I purchased from a small business. I remember looking at it and being like man, I really wish they had this in a design that's more personal to me - like maybe a karthikaipoo or a Ganesh... and you could personalize it in Tamil instead of putting it in English. Damn, that's a really good idea, someone should do that. And there was that line again "someone should do that". I thought about what my cousin said and I got to work.
Here's the backstory of the name "Her Sun & Stars". My children have both English and Hindu names (Lucas Arjunan & Olivia Meenakshi), but the ones that we use at home are the Tamil ones. One of the most common questions I’ve gotten since our children were born is how we went about picking their names. This is one of my favourite questions to ask new parents as well – I love hearing the thought process to picking something so significant for a person. I wanted them to have strong names, so both of our children were given traditional Tamil names based on Hindu warriors (yes, Madurai Meenakshi is one of the few warrior goddesses).
Backtrack to when Arjuna was born, there were nights where he was absolutely inconsolable. I would try nursing him, rocking him, walking with him and (tragically, for him) singing a plethora of songs. The only one that worked on him was “You are My Sunshine”. After that, I would buy anything and everything that had a sun or the reference of “You Are My Sunshine” on it. And the name stuck, he is my sunshine, and the first portion of the company name.
Anyone who knows the language knows that Tamil is heart-wrenchingly poetic. One of my favourite terms is “விண்மீன்” (vinmeen – translating to “fish of the sky” aka, a star). The concept that the sky is a vast ocean and each star is a little fish is such beautiful imagery to me. This was another reason to name our daughter MEENakshi – she is my star. And together, they are My Sun & Stars. ...also I'm not gonna lie - bonus points that “Sun & Stars” is a Game of Thrones reference and a term frequently used by Daenarys Targaryen when speaking to the love of her life, Khal Drogo.
Is this something that you currently do full-time? If not - do you have plans to make this a full-time endeavour in the future? If not - why?
I currently work full-time as an advisor for the Government of Ontario and don't have plans to take HSAS on as full-time anywhere in the near future. This is mainly due to the fact that we are obviously in the midst of a global pandemic and there's uncertainty in everything in the foreseeable future. It just wouldn't make sense for me to leave a secure full-time job unless things drastically change.
What has the impact of social media been on your business?
Huge. All of my marketing is done through social media. Most of my business came because of my personal account and the audience I have there. I really do have the most amazing followers who are so supportive. They're not just the type of people who message me nice things, they put it all out there - they comment, they share to their stories, they send me screenshots of conversations with friends on WhatsApp where they gush about our products. I'm very grateful for my community.
Do you allow your kids to spend time on social media? Why or why not?
I show them on my own stories, but not as much now as I did before. There wasn't a real reason for that, it's just the natural shift and progression of things. When it was just Annu and me, I would story about us and working at weddings, then we got a dog and I'd show her all the time, then Arjun came it was all him, then Meena came, and now my newest baby is here and she's all I talk about. My social media basically focuses on whatever is taking up the biggest chunk of my life at that point in time lol. But if you're asking if THEY have an account or scroll through social media, then no, they don't. They'd much rather jump on the bed right now and I'm happy to oblige.
I personally view social media in a positive light. I see it as a tool that can be used for good or bad (similar to a car). Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
Absolutely - many things in life are just what you make of it. Social media can be a hateful, destructive, bullying place but it can also be insightful, entertaining, informative, motivation, and truly life-changing. If you are more of a follower then follow accounts that make you feel good, that promote happy thoughts or broaden your horizons or provide new perspectives. If you are a creator then try to build a space where people don't leave feeling crappy about themselves and try to create a space that creates a positive impact in the world. You don't have to have 1000 followers to be impactful.
How do you manage your time between being a mother of 2 kids and running your business?
It's also especially hard since my husband is also an entrepreneur with crazy hours and a demanding job but we do it with a LOT of help. We are extremely fortunate that both of our mothers basically raised our kids. I'm also lucky that my bosses have been flexible with permitting me to work on evenings/weekends to make up missed time since virtual school takes up so much energy during this pandemic. In a purely business sense, starting Her Sun & Stars during the pandemic worked out really well for the business launch. The pandemic caused a majority of weddings to be postponed until 2021 and my husband had a lot more time at home. I can't imagine having to launch with him having his normal crazy schedule.
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What’s one goal that, if you were to accomplish it over the next three months, would feel like a big win for you?
So right now, I'm looking for a Social Media Manager for my business. I think the fact that I'm looking for this is a huge win for me and I feel happy that I'm in a position to do so, even if it is for freelance work. If, in the next three months, I find enough incentive to hire someone permanently(even if it is part-time), that would be big. I am looking mainly to grow on platforms outside of Instagram and will probably have measures in place to determine success but I don't like to use these as hard rules. This is all new for me, and potentially for the candidate as well, so setting up goals at this point are for me to use as a guide rather than an objective measure of success. I have a LONG list of milestones for the business but no deadlines for them, the line left beside it is just to fill in when it gets completed rather than when it should be done.
How have your family and friends supported you through your journey? Did you have any doubters?
I probably had more doubters than supporters in the beginning. Some people didn't get it at all, some people didn't see this as something people would want/buy, some people told me to stray away from cultural/religious stuff because it's safer in the commercial sphere, and some people said it was great just to kinda be polite and never really followed up. But I had some real true supporters. There were people who helped me immensely along the way and more than my idea, they had faith in me. They said that it didn't matter whatever I was selling because as long as I was behind the brand, it would be successful. Sometimes, it's not about a lot of support but about the right kind of support.
Where do you see Her Suns & Stars in the next 3-5 years? Where do you see yourself in that same time period?
I'm sure there are business books that would say that I should have this planned out or mapped out to at least some degree but I don't. The whole idea of Her Sun & Stars was and is completely organic. That was partly why I named it Her Sun & Stars. Some people name their business with the actual product/service within the label - so as soon as you hear it, you know what it is. There is certainly a lot of merit and worth to that approach but I wanted the exact opposite. Since the idea (and many subsequent ones) came on a whim, I didn't want to box myself in and be forced to rebrand myself after a few years. I left it as open as the sky (hehe, I'm clever sometimes) and I'm glad I did because now I have blankets and art prints and cutting boards and baby blocks and so much more to come, all under one roof.
In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?
Legacy. What a heavy word. I don't know what I want to be remembered by but I know for the business I am happy to provide people with an option that speaks to them. I am doing South Asian designs right now but I would love to branch out, learn about other cultures, traditions and customs and really flesh out my designs. I am happy to have provided one less excuse for people not wanting to use an ethnic name because the world they lived in was not made for it. And we have a series called Shining Light where we create awareness about a cause through some of our products/designs and proceeds go towards a specific charity. We just came out with a lovely blanket and art print design that is made up of the flower "forget-me-not", the official flower of the Alzheimer's Society - a portion of the proceeds from that design will go to the Alzheimer's Society of Canada.
Who is one person from the global Tamil community and one person that isn’t Tamil that you admire and why?
One who is Tamil that I absolutely admire is Maitreyi Ramakrishnan - I mean, what a force. Leave her acting talent and delivery aside, she is not even 20 and is so strong, opinionated, and well-informed. She has used her platform on numerous occasions for the betterment of others, especially of our Eelam Tamil people and their struggle. Beyond that, she's pretty freaking funny.
Let me get back to you about the non-Tamil one.
What is a failure you’ve experienced in the last 5-10 years that you’ve learned the most from?
I've had some extremely difficult years over the past decade, much of which are too difficult for me to talk about even now. I'm strong on the outside but in many ways can be very soft on the inside.
What is a great business idea that you would be working on if you weren’t focused on your current business?
The funny thing is that I'm not the one that comes up with the business ideas but my husband is great at them. Over a decade ago, he was putting on a vetti to go to a function and was complaining about how it should have pockets and have velcro or belt loops at the top. Just a few years ago, my dad brought home a product called "Ottiko, Kattiko", or something like that - and it had exactly that! Another thing was also over ten years ago and we were at a reception with Tamils sweating all over the dance floor. My husband turns to me and was like "yo, screw these Zumba classes or whatever, they should have gaana workout classes." He even came up with a great name for it - Gaanaerobics! Haha! And lo and behold, some years ago there came a gaana workout class, I think it was called Gaana Groove? Something like that. I also had one idea that had to do with the inefficient manner in which we brush our teeth. Your toothbrush only covers a small area of your mouth while the rest of your teeth wait for their turn - you may be brushing your teeth for 3 minutes, but each tooth surface only gets a fraction of that time. I knew that there was a solution in there that had to do with bristles and a retainer - but I didn't really think about pursuing it as a business. A few years ago I came across a kickstarter from some engineers who did exactly that! Any other business ideas I have are for Her Sun & Stars and you're just going to have to wait for those haha.
What do you think you would tell 16-year Tanya looking back?
Don't get caught up with a timeline for your life - when to finish school or establish a career or get married or have kids or build a home. It'll happen when it happens and though it seems like the biggest deal ever on the way up, it's so insignificant when you look back. Chill.
Oh - and never say never. A lot can happen between now and never.
How would you describe your dream life?
A purpose-driven, impactful life with people that I love. And I want to raise good kids. Not just like good looking kids or scholarship kids (not that those things aren't nice), but are they the kind of kids who will stand up for someone when they are getting bullied? Are they the type of people who beg their grandmas to be flower girls at their weddings because it is so darn cute? Will they become the kind of partner who is fair and equitable in the household division of labour? Are they the kind of people who are aware of the suffering of others and of their privilege and their obligation to utilize that privilege to help others? (Also, are they the kind of people who call their Amma every-so-often to see how I'm doing?!) Yes, I hope to raise good kids and be happy.
.... and I want a silent exhaust fan and an island in my kitchen, please.
What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?
I know as an entrepreneur I should be listening to business podcasts and self-help books but books are my ESCAPE from reality. Unfortunately, I typically only read on my commute to and from my job since I can get a good two hours in a day, almost. Since we have the pandemic and I launched HSAS, I haven't prioritized the time to read. Before the lockdown happened, I was thoroughly enjoying A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin.
What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?
Learning to say no.
If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?
I would donate 75% to causes that had immediate need - humanitarian efforts that required funds immediately to save lives. The rest I would leave to grow. There are really smart people out there who know how to take money and grow it through stocks/investments. I am not one of these people but I would find one and give it to them because I would love to set up a relatively safe way to be able to continuously donate in perpetuity.
How would you describe the impact that the Tamil community in Toronto has had on your personally and your business?
Well Toronto is home to the largest Eelam Tamil disapora in the world. Considering all of the businesses, restaurants, cultural hot spots and festivals that are run by the Tamil community it is hard to deny its impact in Toronto. Personally, the Toronto Tamil community has basically made my business what it is today. They've supported me through word of mouth, on social media, and with their dollars when they purchase from my shop and I'm so grateful for this community.
What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?
This is my last supper: sorru, paruppu, beet root curry, keerai curry, meen poriyal, meen kuzambhu, carrot sambal, rasam. And it has to be made by my Amma.
What is your favourite Tamil movie?
Indian or Mudhalvan - both show the detriment of a corruptive government and society... For just a movie in general, I love Padayappa.
What does Tamil culture mean to you?
For better or worse, Tamil culture, and culture in general, is always evolving. What was once central to a culture may not be the case today. At the end of the day, I think the core values that many Tamil households hold dear is what I defines Tamil culture - family, a strong work ethic, perseverance, and community.
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