Exclusive interview with Amita Malhotra Lalwani, Founder of EqualiTee and Facilitator at Candidly
The EqualiTee store, based in New Delhi and owned by Candidly, features gender-cool merchandise that challenges gender stereotypes in India. The gender-neutral products include clothes for kids, Lottie dolls that were based on characters and were designed by kids, and other gender-neutral toys. We recently had the opportunity to interview the Founder of EqualiTee and Facilitator at Candidly: Amita Malhotra Lalwani.
The EqualiTee store produces gender-neutral merchandise for children, while Candidly acts as a platform for open conversations concerning gender. What drives you to run a gender-fluid business in India?
I was in college when I first learnt to think about gender and how it influences identity. When I became a mother, I found myself thinking deeply about what it means to raise our children as individuals, exploring who they are and what they wish to be - unshackled by rigid gender roles. The two came together for me when I joined hands with my college friend, a sexuality educator and a mother, Reema Ahmad, to co-found Candidly, a platform to facilitate candid conversations on topics of gender, sexuality, and media among children and young adults. Last year, I launched EqualiTee a gender-cool brand for kids to challenge gender stereotypes in early childhood through gender-neutral products and popular culture.
What does the word ‘purpose’ mean to you?
To me, ‘purpose’ is how one (individual or an organisation) engages with the world at large, adding meaning and value through their presence.
What kind of framework have you developed or adopted to help build a purpose-driven organisation?
I feel that purpose is completely organic to our being and not an outside layer. I seeded EqualiTee because I could see our children and us surrounded by gender stereotypes all around - in spaces of learning, play, entertainment, and in every point of self-expression, I could see we are being offered a very limited menu based on gender in popular culture. We were already leveraging an educational route to the problem through workshops and content at our parent company, Candidly. I felt that we needed a more creative route that could build awareness and also expand choices.
What would you say is the biggest lesson that you have learnt from running your business so far?
It’s been a rewarding as well as a gruelling journey in many ways. Unlike the West, where the conversation about gender-fluidity is mainstream, India still has a lot of ground to cover to change perceptions and bring behavioural change. We are at the acme of the consumerist wave, and as a business, I sometimes find myself on the wrong end of the value system. For example, the newest shiny object, high on a marketing gimmick that signals status and draws attention/awe is far more valuable than a more meaningful idea that challenges the status quo and is about making choices about your personhood, not your outer appearance. I have learnt if you are in the business of bringing behavioural change, you need to have a lot of patience.
What brands do you admire and why?
I think I have a strong preference for indie brands, I find them breaking new ground in every aspect – they are innovative, they are personal, they are purpose-driven, they have a strong design-consciousness, and they have compelling storytelling. I think small is beautiful and often more responsible.
Which thinkers, leaders, or entrepreneurs are an inspiration to you?
The set of people who pop into my head have no over the surface connection with my work, but below the surface, there is one common thread that ties all of them together - they are passionate and very smart individuals driving positive change in their respective work.
There is Tristan Harris, who is one of the leading voices in Silicon Valley with his work at the Center for Humane Technology, challenging human ‘downgrading’ by tech and sparking a conversation about the extractive attention economy (Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Netflix) that is keeping us, as individuals and as a society, from thinking clearly and from making right choices. My husband introduced me to Naval, and I quite enjoy his commentary and ideas on life/business choices. Finally, there is The Better India, which aggregates all that is good in the world and amplifies the work of individuals and organisations that bring positive change.
What short-term plans and long-term goals do you have in store for Candidly and EqualiTee?
Candidly is the educational arm of our organisation and EqualiTee is the product side. We want to strengthen our outreach at schools and corporates. We also want to bring the focus back to content and conversation and build a stronger context to the product, making sure that the core idea stays in focus.
For your next product, service or project, who would you like to collaborate with and why?
Lately, we have been getting several queries from customers and shop owners outside of India. I have always been amazed that despite diverse cultures and economies, the conversation about gender equality is so relevant universally. I feel there are fantastic stories that we can tell through cross-border collaborations so it would be exciting to co-build products with brands from other countries.
We would also love to collaborate with corporates who are upping the conversation around gender norms through their communication and messaging - it’s time to expand this to experiences and products that deepen the engagement on the issue.
What a thoughtful and inspirational journey. We thank you for taking the time to share your insights with us at Gender Jelly, Amita!