In Conversation with Devika Malik: Forbes 30 Under 30 Entrepreneur

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Devika Malik who was recently featured in Forbes 30 Under 30 Entrepreneurs List, talks candidly with Kriti Gupta, correspondent at DU Beat, about her life struggles, her strategy behind success, business acumen, bravery and much more. Read on to know more.

Kriti: How do you feel Devika, having made to the under 30 social entrepreneurs list of Forbes, was that something you always sort of expected, when you started?

Devika: I feel great, it feels absolutely amazing to be a part of ‘Forbes’ and especially in the Social Entrepreneurs category. It wasn’t something I expected when I started but, fortunately there is a continuous series of recognitions since, the beginning. In 2015 I was awarded with ‘The Queen’s Young Leader Award’, which was presented at the ‘Bunkhingam Palace’. These sort of recognitions and honours helped in increasing the reach of our organisation and contributed in raising support and funds for our cause.  But, in the last one and two years I did think about ‘Forbes’ under 30 category and, luckily one of my mentors from United Kingdom along with one of the young leaders whom I worked with, during the Commonwealth nominated me for the same. Then, in January I received an email informing me that I was one of the semi-finalists but, being afraid about the uncertainity of making it to the final list I didn’t inform anyone about it. Then, when the final list, having my name was released in April it was then people got to know.

Kriti: How much do you believe in the power of youth? Is, being surrounded by a community of young people positive or negative for a social entrepreneur like you?

Devika: I very strongly believe in the power resident in the leadership of the younger generation. In fact, we have recently launched a network called ‘Commonwealth Youth and Children Disability Network’, which aims to connect all the organisations and youth lead intiatives, for the disable communities. The strong passion and commitment of the youth to make a positive difference in the community is really inspiring. Often, people talk about the millennials of being lazy and entitled but, my experience has been completely opposite to this, it has shown me how strongly willed and determined the youth is to help and make a change for the better.

Kriti: You are the co-founder of Wheeling happiness, which is a community promoting disability sports, inclusion, fundraising for women and for the aid of people going through physical and mental sufferings. So, what was that primary thing or idea which drove you to take out time from your routine of an athlete and invest in the organisation?

Devika: I have myself grown up with a disability. I was very young when I got into an accident and encountered Hemiplegia, affecting the entire left side of my body. My mother too has Paralysis which makes her entire body under the chest non-functional, and she has been in this condition for 21 years now. So, being a constant care giver to my mother and a having a personal experience of the disability community, many people going through similar conditions came to seek support and assistance from us. So, all the counselling sessions and support activities which we were doing at an individual level made us to come up with the idea of ‘Wheeling Happiness’, to help a larger group of similar people. Our goal is to not to tell what a disabled person can or can’t but, to support them with whatever goals they originally have.

Kriti: Who is that one person whom you can call as your biggest inspiration or support in your journey with ‘Wheeling Happiness’?

Devika: One year before beginning with ‘Wheeling Happiness’ I completed my masters in organisational behaviour from Delhi University, got a campus placement in a training development and consultancy firm and was simultaneously continuing with my athletics career. Amidst all this, when I told my mother about my ambition of becoming a social entrepreneur, she was very supportive and understanding of my emotions. She had a strong belief on our expertise to help and guide people especially in the rural and economically undeserved areas. Usually parents are sceptical of their children pursuing their careers in social entrepreneurship especially over the corporate industry, but my mother unlike the commons was 100% supportive of my idea. So, for me that one person whom I can call as my biggest inspiration and support will de definitely my mother.

Kriti: You were born with Hemiplegia, which is a condition causing paralysis to one side of the body. So, during that time was there a feeling of hopelessness or an emotion of being just a baggage to your parents? If yes, how did you cope up with it and what kept you going?

Devika: I was born in 1990 and my mother got paralysed in 1999 so, before that she was completely normal and made sure I attend all my physiotherapy and occupational therapy sessions. She took care that I don’t shy away from my disability and actively participate in sports and public speaking activities. When I was younger it was much more physically visible then its now, so she made sure that I was not bothered by the stares and remarks of people. Then later when she got paralysed we together took care of her disability sessions, after which she started with her sports career in 2006, she used to take me with her to practises and matches, that’s when I realised that even I can be a part of it. I never exactly felt a burden to my family but, there was always a conscious effort which I made to excel, as I was fully aware that my family is very fitness conscious and did everything with the utmost perfection, especially my mother who made national and international records in whatever she pursued. So, I always tried to give my 100%.

Kriti: You are also a psychological counsellor and have yourself been a victim of bullying in the past so, what all do you advise to the students who are being bullied or emotionally harassed for their physical features or other characteristic traits? 

Devika: I feel it has two aspects related to it, its just not about the student going through it, it is also about sensitising people at large that it not the right way to treat fellow humans, who look or behave different from you. I conduct various workshops and visit many schools and colleges where we teach students on how to be more inclusive in their mind sets and environment. However, the one thing which my personal experience taught me and is very important is self-acceptance. The moment you fall in love with yourself and start appreciating your work, it becomes very difficult for the people to look down upon you. When I was six or seven years old and my fellow students made fun of my disability, my parents told me to not to feel dejected about it but rather laugh along, as they thinking of making fun on your expanse will get confused from your reaction. So, taking that advise I always instead of feeling emotionally broken tried to explain to my peers that yes, I have a disability but apart from that there is lots more about me. Having a confidence and assurance about self is what makes the hierarchy of the bullies weaker.

Kriti: As we all know your mother is Rio Paralympic silver medallist and is also the current president of the Paralympic committee in India so, was it her influence that made you choose para athletes in the beginning or, was it solely your choice?

Devika: My mother never directly told me to come forward and participate in para athletes. It was me who decided that I wanted to competitively participate in sports, though seeing her perform inspired me and helped me to make up my mind for sports. It was after complete four years of her time in the field of sports that I decided to take a part as well. My frequent visits to her practise sessions and competitions made me realise that this is something even I can do. So, it was her influence that introduced me to the world of para athletics or disability sports but, I never faced any pressure or compulsion from her to be a part of it.

Kriti: You have represented India in the 100m and 200m sprints in T37 category. You have won eight national and and three international medals at World Para Athletics Grand Prix competition. So, Do you think having a mother from a sports background made you have an edge over the other players competing with you?

Devika: I don’t think so, there are many players and athletes who perform much better than me. What helped was having a sports and fitness culture in my house and that too I don’t feel provided me an edge over other players but, contributed in putting me in that mind set of sportsmanship. Just like any other player I felt pressurised when I performed in my first international event but, having a mother who herself is inclined towards the same field helped me a lot to deal and compete with it.

Kriti: As you have told in one of your previous interviews that you have been volunteering for the economically undeserved communities since the age of 12, and you are also an alumnus of Delhi university. So, is there any way you think your college or being a part of Delhi University helped you in your growth as a person or in providing a boost to your career?

Devika: Yes, it did contribute in a certain way, if I would not have been part of DU I would not have received the opportunity to work with the really wonderful training and consultancy firm, where I started working in after my masters. Being a part of the company gave me an exposure to design workshops and seminars, which later helped me in my own endeavour. Apart, from that Delhi university along the theoretical knowledge also provides you with very good transferable skills. Its culture of clubs, societies and volunteering among the students, especially the equal opportunity cell, I could see students volunteering as scribes for visually challenged students, all this did help in my growth and development. Another thing which is personally very valuable to me, during my time was the subject Indian psychology, taught by Mr. Sandeep Verma. The subject focused on the psychological prospective of Indian scriptures and ancient Indian writings on human psychology, doing a semester of that really made human psychology something spiritual for me and gave me beyond textbook experience, which I am really grateful about.

Kriti: Awards usually come along with responsibilities, and you have received several such honours including Queens young leader award. So, after such recognitions how did you deal with the expanded expectations from you? And was there an addition to you roles or work load after receiving the honour.

Devika: Absolutely, it does. After being awarded with the Queen’s Young Leader Award, three years later in 2018 I was invited back in Bukhingam Palace, to deliver a speech at the commonwealth heads of government meeting. The meeting hosted the entire royal family, the presidents and prime ministers of all the 54 commonwealth countries, including my own, the entire political spectrum of UK, and I was asked to speak for two and a half minutes about my work. Which I think was a big responsibility, I received because of the Queens Young Leader Award. As your name or your company’s name get associated with certain recognitions and awards it starts holding certain accountability, and it becomes even more important for it to have a specific integrity. After awards I will apart from the work am presenting the background paper work and maintenance of records become equally important.

Kriti: Being an entrepreneur yourself tell us about your thoughts on the impact of Corona virus on the global economy and will that have any long term results in the future?

Devika: It will definitely have long term impacts, especially for those who belong to the non-essential sectors, they will have to re strategize and come up with the plan to pick them up from their boot straps and maintain their relevance in post COVID world. When such a pandemic hits it definitely takes time for the world economy to revive, that will cause difficulty to start ups as well as properly established industries. But since, am in the non profit sector my concern is more around corporate performances, as we receive a large chunk of our funding from the corporate  groups, as their social responsibility aspect. My agenda is to use that money to aid the economically undeserved in post COVID situations as they would be those among the hardest hit. My concern would be on the leverage of this social  corporate responsibility and help the economically deprived sector. Many organisations including our have targeted certain areas, where we feed around 150 people on a daily basis. One of the key thing everyone should follow in the world after the pandemic is patience, one must not expect to bounce back where they were earlier in a period of three months, they should be understanding of the fact that it will take time.

Kriti: What is the message you would like to share with the world during these difficult times of quarantine and lock down.

Devika: I would like to share primarily two things, one to abide by all the protocols and preventive measures  as its for everyone’ health and safety, and second to identify what keeps you in good spirits. These are difficult times, as we are locked indoors, lost connections, so maintenance of a positive and healthy mind set is very important. For some taking longer naps than usual, or following a very strict routine, helps them feel better so, figuring out the activity which helps in keeping a good mental health is something I feel everyone should do. For me personally, when the lock down began I was extremely uneasy in the first couple of days, hearing the news about the migrant and daily wage labourers made me feel really uncomfortable, so thinking about a way to help them was necessary for my mental health. Similarly everyone should find their healthy activity and stay fit both physically as well as mentally.

Featured Image Credits: Devika Malik

Interviewed and Transcribed by Kriti Gupta for DU beat

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