CUSummit Q&A: Student Entrepreneur, Roshni Mehta ’15, Going The Whole Nine Yards to Make the World Better, One Product at a Time
I met Roshni through AIESEC my freshman year so I was thrilled to see a familiar face at the Entrepreneurship Summit. The fact that one of my peers has started her own business is incredibly exciting! Finding a balance between academics, extracurriculars, and a social life is tough as it is; running a business on top of that is just another reason I respect Roshni that much more. She is not only personable, humble, and driven, but also entrepreneurial and inspirational. The more I learn about Roshni’s business, Nine Yards, the more I believe in its success. Find out why below!
Comments from Roshni Mehta, Economics and Anthropology, Business Minor ’15:
How did you feel about this year’s Entrepreneurship Summit?
This was the first time I attended CES – I didn’t realize how many people would be present – both undergrads and alums. I was pleasantly surprised at the mixture of attendees. At the same time, there was a very diverse set of speakers, all of whom highlighted different aspects of entrepreneurship. It provided us with a very holistic insight about what it means to be an entrepreneur.
What was your favorite take-away?
I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation on Women entrepreneurs and the final speaker, the CEO of Chobani. Both speeches were outstanding – while one was extremely motivating in changing the stereotypical image of men being pioneers of innovation, the other provided a very philosophical approach of attaining success. I felt inspired at the end of that segment.
Can you speak a little about your business, Nine Yards, and why you started it?
Nine Yards is a social enterprise that employs female acid attack survivors in India – we produce home decor and fashion products out of donated Indian saris.
- When I was 8 years old, my nanny in Bangladesh fell victim to these attacks. She was attacked by a man 10 years older to her who was pursuing her for marriage. Since then this has always been in my conscience. Growing up in Bangladesh made me aware of this form of violence from a very young age. As I grew up I understood that these attacks were solely fueled out of jealousy or revenge.
- Around 68 percent of acid attacks against women in South Asia occur due to refusal of marriage proposals, refusal of sexual advances or domestic violence. As a result acid-attacks are termed as “crimes of passion.” Perpetrators of this act throw acid on the victims’ faces, burning them, damaging skin and dissolving the bones, resulting in permanent disfiguration and often blindness.
- Once these women are disfigured, they don’t get married or employed and literally just live to breathe. This was the prime reason I chose to set up a social-enterprise over a charity. Employment not only allows these women to earn their living but also gives them a purpose in life.
- When I was a sophomore at Cornell I was titled one of the Red Idea Scholars – which is for students who propose to lead with creativity and innovation to improve the human condition. This platform allowed me to pitch my idea to the Cornell community and allowed me to garner so much support that it drove me to turn my idea into a reality. I founded Nine Yards that summer i.e. May 2013.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned so far?
Before you start out your venture – you will be surrounded by dozens of people giving you dozens of advice and suggestions of why the venture would be problematic. Don’t listen to them – you need to get your feet wet! It’s all about getting started – you will stumble upon problems, but if you don’t start you will never know. That is the key lesson of being an entrepreneurs – take on risks, we are young students, we have all the time in the world to make mistakes and learn from them.
What were the greatest challenges you faced and what would you have changed to overcome those challenges more easily?
- The greatest challenge is definitely managing this enterprise sitting here in the US and being a full time student. I trust my ladies a lot and have a very strong relationship with Pragya. I don’t think Nine Yards would be possible without her. But I find it difficult knowing that I can’t control every 100 percent of the time that is primarily why I have kept Nine Yards small and confined to only four women because this way I can manage it.
- At the same time, building the brand image has been challenging – I don’t have the money to promote Nine Yards instead I have been relying on social media and word of mouth – but eventually I need that marketing infrastructure to increase demand and that requires capital.
- I also want to expand Nine Yards into America – my main market is here! They will love the prints and materials of my products. However, as an international I cannot sell in the US. So that is an issue – but I am working on my Cornell network to mitigate this!
What experiences/skills/knowledge were you able to leverage in building Nine Yards?
- One of the key aspects of my life I have been able to leverage is my massive network of friends and peers across the world – given that I have lived in the UAE, Philippines and Bangladesh. I was able to reach out to friends at Parsons and Pratt to design the products for me (they volunteered for free)! I also have two volunteers who have helped me expand Nine Yards into the UK and Australia – Gen D’Souza and Amanda Kramer – both of these ladies are amazing! While Gene organized two exhibitions in England on behalf of Nine Yards, Amanda has assisted me open up Etsy Australia which is in business as we speak!
- Community involvement is key and extremely crucial for the success of this business – be it the donors who gave me their saris or the buyers who are supporting the business.
Where do you see your business in the next 3-5 years?
- I want to help as many women as possible – I am very eager to expand production to Bangladesh, as that is where I first witnessed these attacks.
- I want people to by Nine Yards because of the products – they should have quality and a style. If people only purchase the products out of sympathy then it won’t be a sustainable venture. This is why we have strict quality measures that are evident in the saaris we produce from and the production techniques we employ on all of our products.
- In order to help me with this expansion, I am in the midst of using my resources at Cornell to raise capital.
Do you have any words of wisdom to students aspiring to be entrepreneurs?
As mentioned above – get your feet wet! We are young and independent and should be ready to take on risks, make mistakes and learn from them! This has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my Cornell education.
About Nine Yards
Nine Yards empowers female victims of acid attacks. Our household and fashion products are made of vintage and colorfully designed Indian saris. This initiative was founded by Roshni Mehta a Junior at Cornell University. She is one of the Red Idea Scholars, a platform that recognizes students who propose to lead with creativity and innovation to improve the human condition.
Having lived in Bangladesh and India, Roshni has witnessed the brutalities of acid attack crimes on women. From a young age, she has always aspired to aid these women. She strongly believes that mere charity and money giving is only the first step towards a solution for this issue, as the acid attack crime leads to extreme social alienation of the victim. Most of these victimized women are deemed unfit for marriage or employment due to the permanent disfigurement of their faces. This social enterprise allows such victims the opportunity to not only earn their own livelihoods, but also to find and embrace their own sense of dignity and self-worth.