Helena Bajaj Larsen- Women Entrepreneurs #3

Meet Helena Bajaj Larsen, a passionate young designer who blurs the lines between art and fashion! Upon her graduation from Parsons School of Design, along with two other seniors, she was awarded a fellowship organized by Donna Karan’s brand Urban Zen and Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation. She launched her business shortly after completing her Bachelor’s degree at only 22 years old. The brand has been recognized and featured by several notable publications in the likes of Vogue, Forbes, Conde Nast Traveller, Elle..

How did you start your company? What motivated you to start it?

During the last year of Parsons, we had to develop a senior thesis, meaning we had to write proposals, create look books, photoshoots, digital portfolios… Everyone was free to choose their own topic and the thesis could take on any form. I approached the thesis as a 360degree brand proposal including essays, sketches, fabric developments, fully constructed garments, printed look-books, promo campaigns as well as an auxiliary jewelry collection.  

In those last few months at school, I was given the opportunity to participate in several competitions. I really enjoyed this process, the presenting, the feedback – interacting with judges. When you participate in competitions, you see if your idea becomes relevant in a real-life, post-academic setting as it is presented to industry professionals and no longer just your professors. Through this process, I got a lot of valuable advice and a comment I often received was that there was a very clear esthetic and design identity within my work. The people telling me this believed there was scope to venture out on my own following university and this is why I didn’t rush to find a job.  

I loved New York but I did not want to stay there just for the sake of being there (rent, visas, it is no easy feat!). The only person that I saw myself working for was Donna Karan as I thoroughly enjoyed the fellowship program. That year the company did not hire any of the participants and I took it as a sign that there was no reason to stay. Based on the feedback I got from judges, professors and other audiences in different competitions and panels, I felt ready to take a leap of faith and start working on my own brand.

The competition circuit which I got a taste of while in college, is the strategy I adopted once leaving the confines of school. In the fall following graduation, I applied to 4-5 competitions for emerging designers based in a variety of different countries. One of the competitions was Lakmé Fashion Week Gen Next. They take on 5 budding designers a season and I was lucky to have been selected for the February 2018 showcase. I made a whole new collection, had to look for suppliers, had to report back to an assigned mentor on a monthly basis.. Lakme as a platform is what whipped all my thoughts into shape and really provided structure for me to launch properly.

Did you attend any entrepreneurial training?

I really enjoyed my time at Parsons, and it was key in teaching me how to navigate working within the design industry: rendering ideas, networking, presenting to audiences, brand-image…. That being said, they mainly emphasize design thinking as well as technical making. The assumption perhaps being that most students will not be launching their company as fresh graduates and don’t urgently require any entrepreneurial training.  This means I basically learned on the go bit by bit, it was definitely a process and I still am in the midst of it. I am very fortunate that I am half-Indian. This gave me access to valuable production resources back in India – which allowed me to access the supplier end of things more easily.

What does success mean to you?

To me, success is not purely professional. Success is the ability to turn something that you truly love into a source of revenue. It is being financially comfortable and being able to pursue what brings you joy without the weight of constantly thinking about money. But it is also emotional stability: being surrounded by people who make you feel secure and supported and allow you to use your potential to its fullest. It is being with people who highlight the good in you and make you want to thrive for better at all times (as corny as this sounds haha).

There are multiple reasons why companies fail. What was your biggest struggle so far?

I think the biggest difficulty is knowing where you are supposed to spend your money and how much of it. As a young business owner, “how much do I spend on marketing”, “should I hire someone”, “do I need to pay an influencer and is it worth it?” are all questions buzzing in my head at all times. I personally opted for a less risk forward method, I do not do paid adverts, influencer campaigns… I have no one on payroll, everything is outsourced in limited quantities. Perhaps this is not the best strategy, perhaps it hinders exponential growth (as in gong viral) but in the end, I broke even in the first year and started being profitable in my second year. Perhaps I would have more followers if I paid 2k to a PR office each month or partnered with a celebrity for paid posts. I just felt that if I didn’t know the direct result of such investments, it was best to mainly pour the limited finances into production..  This is the biggest question.. You never know how much to invest when and where. Is it smart to be cautious? Is it smart to ride a wave fully and cash in all chips? Still unclear haha.

Did you have any particular difficulty because you are a woman entrepreneur?

The fashion space is a female-dominated and female-friendly space I would say, in that sense, no I have not. That being said, I have had horrendous experiences with production while dealing with certain suppliers. They were often Indian men who were older and did not necessary see a 22 year-old girl and take her work seriously. They probably assumed I was making pretty clothes as a hobby till I get married, which culturally makes sense for a lot of people in India. Often my deadlines, my quality control, my technical specifics were overlooked and I was told “yeah, yeah it’ll be done. Why are you so worked up?’. In those times I did wonder, perhaps they would have been more diligent with my work had I been a man.

Is there anything you would do differently, knowing what you know now?

Sometimes I do ask myself if I should have gotten a job for one year. But it is not because I was not ready to start my brand, it’s simply because when you start a company, everything goes really fast and it is easy to feel a slight burn out. 24 is a bit young to experience these feelings and that’s the only that makes me question it at times. Another downside of having your own business is that you are always reaching out to people and attempting to sell/pitch your work. It can get overwhelming at times. But honestly, looking back, I would not have done anything differently because I learned so much, and mostly things I believe I would not have been exposed to as an assistant designer in a big firm, or a grad school student.

What habits helped you succeed in the past 2 years?

I have been very hungry to meet the right people. I made a special effort in every competition to have short but meaningful interactions with the judges, try to find a way for them to remember my work/make an impression on them hopefully. For example, in November I had a full length feature in Vogue US and many people asked me how this came about assuming it was the result of a close contact or PR efforts. Truth is, it just began with meeting one judge at a Vogue Italia competition in Mumbai, who then was kind enough to meet me when I came back to NY for a visit and offered to introduce me to a web editor at Vogue the same week. People have a lot of opinions about networking and how it is artificial and what not; but to me, they are just a different kind of relationship. They don’t need to be fake if you do it the right way. I love meeting new people and have genuine interest in them when I do, I think this shows and perhaps helps me maintain the contacts long after.

Is there a woman who inspires you?

My mother. She is a professional in the creative field (well-known Indian abstract painter, Sujata Bajaj) She is relentless and very driven, socially brilliant and creatively unapologetic. She is fully responsible for the reason I am the way I am and subconsciously informs every decision I make in my work. It is very difficult to make a name for oneself in the Arts and growing up right next to a creative success story helps you keep that faith that things can turn out really well if you apply yourself.

If you would recommend one thing it can be a book/podcast/movie to our readers, what would it be?

The movie Frida and the book “Educated”. Both are inspiring stories about very strong women, one a painter and one a writer. Both creatives, both having overcome extremely difficult circumstances, their work coming out even brighter from it.

Imagine at this moment, you can send a message to all the women entrepreneurs who are trying to build their companies, what would you tell them?

Think about why you want to do it. Are you bringing something new to the world? Only start something if you feel you are either responding to an existing issue or adding value in some way. Are you creating something previously unheard of?