Social Designer

I am Ishita Yadav. I did my growing up in Saudi Arabia, where my father worked as an electrical engineer. I studied in the Indian Embassy school in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi lifestyle was good. I remember a lot of carpet shops on the ground floor of our building, which we kids used to roam around in the evenings. As kids, we also used to cycle a lot. Winters are enjoyable, as it rains then in Saudi. Was surrounded by a lot of Indian kids. Though my Indian friends came from different parts of India and spoke different languages at home, we associated with each other only as Indians. I also had Egyptian friends. Egypt shares a similar cultural background to India. I did not have too many Saudis as friends. 

The embassy school had separate divisions for boys and girls. Physical contact in Saudi is taboo. Girls have to be accompanied by their dads. For the younger kids, the abaya is not compulsory – but I had to start wearing one around the time I got into the 10th standard. Our years in Saudi kept extending, along with the employee benefits and salary of my father. Given a choice as an adult woman, I wouldn’t want to work & live in a country defined by oil and an oppressive Islamic regime. 

When I was younger, I was scared of meeting new people. I guess one picks up social skills from one’s friends. Found the right friends when I entered secondary school. And metamorphosed into a talkative student in secondary school from the shy, nervous, and lost kid that I had been in primary. My parents were keen that I get an ‘Indian’ education. My father, with hopes of seeing me become an Engineer like him, sent me to boarding school in India for my 12th boards. This forced me out of my cocoon of moderated temperatures and friends who did not know which caste they belonged to.

Coming back to India made me look at options other than science. I dreamed of flying, but I was apprehensive about sharing this dream with my parents. In hindsight, it would have been a good idea to share this desire. I was scared to sound stupid to my dad. Should have shed these inhibitions and discussed my dreams. Dad may have differed – but we could have come up with something. Anyways, life moved on, and my confusion grew. I was interested in many things, but excelled at nothing. A month before my 12th Board exams, my English teacher mentioned how excited her husband, who worked with Marks & Spencer, was for the Alumni meet being hosted by his alma mater – the National Institute of Fashion Technology.

I found out more about NIFT. I wrote the exam and got selected for the course of ‘Garment Technology’, which had bits of Fashion studies, Fabric Science, Production Engineering and Management. The results of NIFT entrance come out in April, while we are still filling forms for AIEEE. This gave me a mental safety net, and I did not bother too much about engineering thereafter. To be honest, I did not enter the fashion field because of passion, but more out of fascination. I look at my confusions as realignments rather than compromises. Interests can go on different tracks. To use music as a metaphor, if I like folk music – it doesn’t mean that I can’t listen to jazz. If you look at what you like about folk, maybe it’s the story, the simplicity. You can seek these themes out in other genres. Coldplay started off as an alternative rock band. Now it’s spread across genres. If Music can be exploratory, why not careers? The key is to narrow down your career choices based on your interests. This goes against the Indian mentality of broadening choices, because parental ambition for kids is limited to financial security.

My dad had not heard of NIFT. What helped convince him was the course had the name technology in it – and also the national in the institute name. We reached out to a few NIFT alumni – and after they talked to dad – he was then convinced. NIFT was a melting pot of different state cultures. We had limited but reputed faculty. My course – Garment Technology was different. It was impossible to explain to outsiders that I was not a Fashion designer, neither an engineer and nor an MBA. Fashion design graduates do end up in jobs in hospitality, accessories and home decor. Function wise we have specialisations in Production, Software and Retail. Retail is the biggest bubble – the one that generates revenues – and where most NIFT graduates end up getting jobs in.  

I was placed with a media firm in Mumbai, which had just started quirky merchandise offerings for their viewers. The first month in Mumbai was difficult. I came from a laid-back industrial city in Saudi, had enjoyed 2 years of hostel life in the outskirts of Delhi and then landed at the peaceful and green NIFT campus in Gandhinagar. In contrast, Mumbai locals were a nightmare. However, I was soon joined by my college mates who were placed in Mumbai and also made some great friends at office. At work, I learned about how the market worked and what consumers looked for in brands. After a year, I thought it was important to dive deeper into the Fashion Industry. I joined the Pantaloons division of Aditya Birla Group as an Assistant Sourcing Manager, for their ethnic brand called ‘Rangmanch’.

I had a career road map for my time at ABG, including at least the next 4 years of my life. By the end of 6 months, I was proficient with most of the tasks required at my level and was being considered for a promotion. Soon, I was looking forward to company training modules in software and management subjects. I had never enjoyed learning and studying so much. It was the right time for a PG. I considered options like a company sponsored MBA, Fashion Retail Management and Strategic Design Management at NID

But then this happened – India’s first female fighter pilots were selected and being trained. This news brought back all those desires I had of being able to fly. I found out that women could apply for the Air force after graduation as well. When I filled the form at the age of 22, my roommate thought I was out of my mind. I had made up my mind to choose Air Force, if I managed to get into both the airforce and NID. I got selected and went for the SSB twice for the airforce, in a period of 6 months, and came back disappointed both the times. 

Doing well in written exams ensures an interview call. But you can’t prepare for the SSB. It’s a gruelling process spread over 5 days. You can’t predict what they are trying to get from you. They are probably looking for a right fit. For example the cockpit dimensions determine the height range of pilots. If the criteria leak out, for example pilots need to be risk averse – then aspirants will start faking it. So many people are judging you – and all of them with veto power! A few days after my second failed attempt to join the Air Force, I got the news of selection for the NID interview phase. Love stories end always with the two happily living together. But real life does not work that way. It was the first time in my life that I was so clear of a choice, and failure had seemed as bitter as people said it was.

After this failure, to my surprise, I made it through the interview stage at NID and got the offer to join. NID Gandhinagar is a nice quiet place. At NID, I found a different meaning and understanding of design. This was beyond mere aesthetics, marketing and profits. It involved consideration for real problem solving, ethics, people & planet and most of all – a meaningful value addition via design. I did not start the course with high expectations. The focus at NID was on making us introspect. The NID faculty don’t perch on pedestals – they act like peers. Faculty has a learning mindset. Most students have some experience – so they have something to share with faculty. Live projects help. There are no subjects. There are 3 week modules. For example in the module on human behavior we did a project for the Ahmedabad traffic department – and worked on the real life pains of managing traffic – through the lens of human behaviour. We tried to explore why fines are not effective for changing behavior. Most of our exposure happens through these projects. We understand the relevance of what we study in the outside world. 

I have developed a keen interest in Sustainability, Social Innovation and Government Policy research. Climate change seems far away in an airconditioned room. I have recently started my Graduation Project with a sustainability consultancy based out of Ahmedabad. Sustain – means to retain at the same level. Sustainability begins with our own homes. Start with your dustbin. The first step is to be aware. How biodegradable are your dustbin’s contents? Why not send the vegetable waste to your balcony kitchen garden? Most of the other waste is plastic packaging. Ask yourself: could you have avoided eating that Maggi? Think of how much transportation and resources have gone into that one product that you have just consumed. Sustainability is misunderstood – we need to make a more selfish interpretation. The human species may die out, the planet will sustain.