“Parhe farsi, baicha tail – “studied Persian, selling oil.” That was my dad’s response when I first told him about the idea of drifting away from counseling to venture into social entrepreneurship. I planned to make lotay – portable bidets to help wash oneself with water after urination and defecation. The conversation left my parents appalled. South Asian families don’t usually talk about “bathroom stuff” in public, let alone design lotay. My father called for an emergency family conference in the bedroom to discuss my announcement—after all, we couldn’t very well talk about such an offensive topic at the kitchen table. And so we all huddled in the bedroom arguing, explaining and persuading.
My parents were devastated because I was about to abandon the career they had selected for me—a career that included a graduate degree and respectable job that guaranteed a secure future– to work on something that we, as community, haven’t yet embraced openly. My seven and eight-year old boys felt mortified that mommy was going into a business that involves peoples’ butts. I felt like a duck, staying calm on the surface, and paddling like hell underneath. Thankfully, my brother and husband, my two accomplices in this career-switch crime, defended my decision to the rest of my skeptical family. Needless to say, it was an emotional, somewhat angry, and tremendously insightful conversation among three generations.
For most of us who come from a South Asian background, the primary goal is to pursue an education. Our academic success defines us and if our grades are low, so too is our self-esteem. Life is goal-oriented all along. With time our goals become bigger, the bar sits higher, and the challenges become harder. In this marathon of chasing success and meeting expectations, we forget to sit back and enjoy our accomplishments. I was no different.
During our family meeting, dad proudly recalled the day I was selected to work with New York City police officers in the aftermath of 9/11. Mom reminded me of my acceptance into Princeton University hospital’s internship program. My research papers also came back to life all of a sudden, with both my parents fondly remembering how well-crafted each one had been. Clearly they felt insecure about my sudden career change and needed me to remain safely within society’s definition of respectable professions. I listened, and gave them time to grieve. And thus Aquabean was born.
So why did I want to make lotay? Cleaning oneself with water has been widely practiced for centuries in different parts of the world. Each culture and country that performs this cleansing ritual keeps a small, light-weight vessel containing water within arm’s reach of the toilet. Each nation has given this vessel a different name. For example, it is called tabo in Philippines, lota in Pakistan, tasa in Ethiopia, bodna in Bangladesh, gayung in Indonesia, and aftabeh in Iran. Immigrants brought the concept to the United States, but, as our research revealed, they could not find these portable bidets in U.S. stores and resorted to using watering cans or empty soda bottles instead. Both seem dated and foreign so I wanted to fill this gap between supply and demand by designing a vessel that was contemporary, sleek, and user-friendly. That’s all.
Once I had persuaded my family of this business plan, I thought it would be smooth sailing, but our work had just begun. My husband, brother and I churned out drawing after drawing to give a new look to the old vessel. We wanted to create a functional container with an American spin that would blend with modern-day, trendy bathroom décor. As we moved forward with producing prototypes, my parents and I talked about it here and there. One fine day in the process, I saw that my dad had liked the Aquabean Facebook page – I felt like I had won a gold medal. I also caught him sneakily checking how many other viewers had given a thumbs up to our product. My mom also became increasingly interested, suggesting we design something that could cater to “on the go” needs. Thus Travel Bean was born, with everyone onboard.
We are moving forward in baby steps, making mistakes as we find our footing and rectifying them as we learn. Working on the startup reminds me of electrocardiogram report. The confidence in entrepreneurial skills and likability of the product fluctuates at each step, but we forge ahead. The “what do you do” conversation is becoming easier now that we are all slowly letting go of our apprehension of the community’s response. My parents no longer worry as much about “log kya kahan gay- what will people say.” And I love that my risky career move teaches my kids to take calculated risks in life, and to find the fine balance between their goals and their parents’ dreams.
(Photo Source: Sonia Rehman)
Sonia Syed Rehman is Co-founder of Aquabean and mom to two hands-on boys- order of titles changes as the day progresses.