Radha Agrawal had made it.
It was 2001, and after four years of study and 11 gruelling interviews, she had just started work as an analyst at a Wall Street investment bank. Her six-figure salary was quite a coup for a 22-year-old communications graduate just out of university. Then, two months later, 9/11 happened.
Like so many other people caught up in the aftermath of tragedy, Agrawal found herself re-examining her priorities. “It was in that moment that I realised that the mystery of life is you never know when it’s going to end,” she says. “And you have to pursue your passion now.”
I hated investment banking. It was the most harrowing experience of my entire life
Her experience on Wall Street was short lived. Six months after she started the high-pay, high-stress job, her whole team was laid off as a result of 9/11. But that was okay. “I hated investment banking. It was the most harrowing experience of my entire life,” says Agrawal, who had always wanted to work in the film and television industry. She got a break as an agent for TV commercials, which, she says, taught her how to sell and market products.
From there she became something of a serial social entrepreneur: her career has involved everything from bringing gluten-free pizza to the masses (long before being gluten-free was a thing) to creating vegetable superheroes designed to help tackle kids’ nutrition issues.
But Agrawal, who is still based in New York City, is probably best known for her latest creation: Daybreaker, early-morning community-building dance parties, which have caught on around the world. They’re now a regular fixture in 15 cities, from New York to Toronto and São Paulo. The newest location of the event, Hong Kong, will debut on October 16.
The New York nightclub scene of 2013 was too focused on alcohol and the latest designer drugs – and everyone was always on their mobile phones
Agrawal has always liked to let her hair down on the weekend and go out dancing. But not in the New York nightclub scene of 2013, which was too focused on alcohol and the latest designer drugs, she says, adding that everyone was always on their mobile phones.
Over late-night falafels, Agrawal and a friend, Matt Brimer, were commiserating over how they felt dancing was no longer the communal experience that it once was.
“So, what if we could just strip it all away and get back to basics with just dancing, community, and connection? What if we did it in the morning when everyone’s cup is full?”
It was in those moments that the idea of Daybreaker was conceived: an early-morning community dance party without any alcohol or drugs. Of 300 people invited to the first one in New York City, which was held on December 10, 2013, 180 showed up.
We look at it through the lens of ‘Does this suck for me?’ And then we ask ourselves, ‘Does it suck for a lot of people?’
Held in unique spaces, including nightclubs, cruise boats, parks, and even cathedrals, the events are two hours in length and start with an additional optional hour of yoga. In less than three years, membership has grown to 300,000 community members.
‘Does this suck for me?’
Whether it’s gluten-free pizza or daybreak dances, Agrawal says that everything she has done has stemmed from asking herself two questions: “Is this something I am passionate about?” and “Is this something people suffer from?” If the answer to those two questions is yes, then it is an idea she will consider pursuing. “Every single thing we build, we look at it through the lens of ‘Does this suck for me?’ And then we ask ourselves, ‘Does it suck for a lot of people?’”
When she talks about “we”, she means herself and the informal network of friends and family surrounding her, most notably her identical twin sister, Miki. Almost all of her business ventures have at some point involved both of them. “We’re twins, so we’re constantly inspiring each other,” says Miki Agrawal.
Much of the passion and need to build community ventures came from their parents who were both first-generation immigrants to Montreal, Canada, where the girls grew up with their older sister: their father from India, their mother from Japan. Their father always talked about the duty to give back as part of Hinduism and part of his culture, remembers Agrawal. “He constantly pushed us to prove to ourselves, to prove to him, to prove to each other, that we were serving the world,” she says. Social entrepreneurism was a natural extension of that.
Building a better slice
Agrawal’s first project, one she and Miki undertook together, didn’t come from need so much as desire: the desire to make better, healthier pizza in New York City. “The idea was to turn pizza on its head and add a gluten-free crust and organic toppings and sugar-free sauces,” says Agrawal.
People thought that organic meant it tasted like dirt
They started the restaurant Slice, The Perfect Food (it is now called WILD and has three NYC locations) more than a decade ago, and, at the time, most people had never even heard the term “gluten-free” or even understood what the word “organic” meant. “People thought that organic meant it tasted like dirt. So, there was a lot of education that had to happen there,” says Agrawal.
An unexpected piece of the pie
Another challenge turned out to be kids and their aversion to vegetables. Agrawal noticed that when kids would come into the restaurant, they would always order the same thing: plain cheese pizza. So she set about designing a kids’ menu for the restaurant that included vegetable superheroes like Brian Broccoli and Colby Carrot, whose strengths came from their particular nutritional value.
The new menu proved to be a hit, and kids started ordering pizza with vegetable toppings, “much to their parents’ surprise,” she says.
This sent Agrawal in a whole new direction. She turned the superheroes and their story into a kids’ multimedia company called Super Sprowtz and raised just under $5 million in private funding to build a children’s nutrition education programme reaching more than one million kids, many through school lunch offerings. These programmes have had the support of such notables as Michelle Obama and Shaquille O’Neal.
Never one to wait for one thing to finish before tackling something else, Agrawal was already at work with her sister and a mutual friend on a new product for women. “We were commiserating over how difficult it was being a female entrepreneur, because we had to jump out of meetings to change our tampons or pads. We would be rushing places and we would forget,” says Agrawal.
I always say I couldn’t have a boss. Entrepreneurism was really the only path for me
Out of those frustrations, they created period-proof underwear called Thinx. With the absorbent, washable and reusable underwear, there was no need for pads or tampons. In 2013, Thinx raised $65,000 on crowdfunding site Kickstarter and grew from there, raising additional funds from friends and family. Today, it is a global brand with 35 employees and has a partnership with Uganda-based AFRIPads, which makes reusable sanitary pads. Miki Agrawal is the CEO.
‘It’s not a perfect experience’
But despite Agrawal’s many successes, there have been some hiccups along the way. For instance, with Daybreaker, the balloon drop doesn’t fall perfectly every time and the confetti cannon can get clogged. But that’s okay, she says. “It’s not a perfect experience, but neither is community. It is ever-changing and ever-evolving. What we focus on is delivering a beautiful production that is really high energy.”
For Agrawal, it’s no surprise that she ended up an entrepreneur even after her stint in banking and her father’s insistence that she become a doctor (he has since come around). “I always say I couldn’t have a boss. Entrepreneurism was really the only path for me because I was never in a mould. I was always against a mould.”
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