By Adelle Purdham
Reprinted from 3.21: Canada's Down Syndrome Magazine (Issue #7: The Teen Issue). Click here to download the full magazine.
"I’m boss lady," says Anasuya Sarma.
The fifteen-year-old with Down syndrome, who goes by Anu, has much to celebrate. This past year, she was hired for a Rogers commercial set to air shortly, and her artwork, a beautiful waterfall painting, was commissioned by a Ryerson University gallery.
Now, Anu is riding high from the recent launch of her latest project, an entrepreneurial enterprise called Lovebirds by Anu. Anu has been called a ‘lovebird’ as a term of endearment since she was born. She created the business with the help of her mom, Aryta Persaud, a former corporate businesswoman who changed career paths to pursue teaching following her daughter’s birth.
Lovebirds began as a single-product business. The Indian-inspired lip balms, reflective of Anu’s South Asian roots, come in a pouch with three tropical flavours: guava, cardamom and mango.
"It’s soft. Put it on your lips, like a shiny sun. Smells like summer and spring," says Anu.
Customers receive the lip balm trio in a pouch assembled by Anu for only $10. When asked how many pouches she thinks she’ll sell, Anu’s reply was confident. "Like, 400."
On launch day, Lovebirds sold out of stock within a few hours, and has a long waiting list of orders. "We’re completely overwhelmed by the support," says Aryta.Customers are impressed by Anu and vocal about wanting to support a young female entrepreneur.
Anu has plans to experiment with new flavours, perhaps chai, candy cane or lychee. She would also like to one day bake something as a business, "like cakes" she says, "or ice cream. But not hard ice cream—gelato."
With her outgoing personality, winning charm, and drive, Anu is likely to sell many more than 400 pouches—but that isn’t the point of the business, according to Anu’s mom. In her more than fourteen years of teaching business classes, Aryta has seen students from all walks of life—students who may not traditionally be considered high academic achievers— thrive and feel a sense of pride when given the opportunity to run something on their own.
Executing a business boosts self-confidence, but it also helps students to develop tangible skills. Aryta’s high school business students work on communication skills, collaboration skills, teamwork skills, negotiating, and perseverance. They must write, type, create, and present, as well as master the art of small talk, and the elevator pitch.
"These are all the same things that Anu needs to learn, just at a different level," says Aryta. Creating Lovebirds with Anu gave Aryta an authentic reason to be working on these skills at home with her daughter.
Aryta runs a special program in her school with her grade 12 business students that culminates in a TED Talks-style conference with invited speakers, and focuses on kindness, social justice, and social entrepreneurship. Students are required to create business plans and run events tied to the curriculum leading up to and during what she calls ‘Kindness Week,’ with an underlying theme of mental health. What makes the program unique is that many of the events involve a partnership between Aryta’s business students and the students in the Developmental Disabilities (DD) program.
Some of Aryta’s former students, now in their thirties, have come back to her and said that interacting with someone with a disability through her classes was one of the best experiences they’ve ever had. "It takes that scary feeling or that stigma away," explains Aryta. "Also, because they’re grade 12, the ‘big man on campus,’ the younger students in the school see that it’s okay."
While her students learn how to run an event, they’re also learning how to be inclusive. The spirit of collaboration and teamwork is in the details, from matching t-shirts to choreographed dances. High schoolers from both classrooms run events together, carrying out tasks such as collecting money at a photo booth during a Halloween dance, or even organizing puppy therapy.
As an educator, Aryta explains, "It’s a question of being creative. How can I make inclusion a priority? It takes a bit of time to think it through, but there is always a way."
A zest for entrepreneurship runs in the family. Aryta and her husband Raj both have experience in the corporate world. Anu’s older brother, Satya Sarma, created an app, ‘My New Friend,’ designed to help kids with disabilities find friends and set up playdates in their neighbourhood. Satya saw that his sister was sometimes lonely and wanted to make a difference. His app landed him in a commercial, and when he pitched the idea, Anu was there—as was a representative from Microsoft who asked her if she’d use her brother’s app. She said, "Of course!"
But Aryta points out, "I think the entrepreneurial spirit is there in all our kids. They can always find something that they’re able to monetize somehow."
Parents seeking business ideas for their child should ask themselves: What is my child naturally good at? What are they drawn to? What do they like to do?
"Anything these days can be turned into a business," Aryta points out. Anu has keen business acumen. Her family helped her set up a classic lemonade stand on their driveway. "I’ve never seen a kid get $10 for a glass of lemonade before," says Aryta with a smile.
Anu is also an expressive drama queen. Her parents knew she had it in her to perform and be the centre of attention. She likes to play teacher and show everyone what to do.
Last year, Aryta ran a fashion show at her high school to promote inclusion and body positivity, and Anu was one of the models. After that experience, Anu adopted the attitude of ‘Look at me, I’m famous!’ and that is when Aryta and Raj began submitting her photos for acting.
When it came time for casting calls, Anu was at ease. "Anu sees this as normal," says Aryta. "This is just what we do." Including Anu in all aspects of family life and exposing her to a variety of experiences has helped prepare her for opportunities in business and employment.
Anu herself has no interest in submitting to casting agencies. "I’m basically her secretary," says Aryta. It wasn’t that Anu explicitly said she wanted to be in a commercial, but her parents were seeing her personality and thought that might be something for her. After her experience working with Rogers, Anu regularly asks when she can do another one.
The exposure to different experiences led to employment and Anu’s first paycheck. Traditionally in her culture, the first paycheck goes to a parent or grandparent. When Anu decided to bring it to her grandfather and ask him to open it, Aryta was in tears. Anu just shook her head in typical teenager fashion. "Mom! So random."
Anu’s interest in art developed in a similarly organic way. Following Saturday morning art lessons where she learned to draw with crayons, pencil crayons, and use watercolours, Anu received an easel and paints for her birthday. She began experimenting by following step-by-step YouTube instructional videos.
Aryta posted one of Anu’s paintings, a waterfall, to social media, and reminiscent of The Hiring Chain phenomenon, where one person sees the abilities of an individual with Down syndrome and the message spreads from there, a former business student of Aryta’s organized Bodies in the Balance, an online art gallery dedicated to providing a platform for chronically ill, disabled, immunosuppressed and immunocompromised individuals. After seeing Aryta’s photo of Anu’s painting on social media, Anu received an official invitation from Aryta’s former student (who had partnered with disabled students in Aryta’s classroom) to the online gallery that included a stipend for her work, as well as the title of Ryerson University artist.
Starting a Business
When it comes to organizing a business, Aryta suggests starting small. What is manageable for you and your VIP? From there, break down tasks into steps and prepare beforehand. Give yourself extra time.
Aryta incorporated entrepreneurial skills into Anu’s every day life. She turned Anu’s interest in planning her outfits and lunches for the week into a lesson in how to use a spreadsheet. Now Anu knows how to input her orders for Lovebirds into Excel, "and when she’s adding the numbers of how much money she made, it’s more meaningful to her."
To create opportunities for a child to succeed, use their language. For example, in Anu’s Lovebirds spreadsheet, "sales revenue," which is a big fancy term, becomes "how much money?" "Quantity" is labelled, "how many?" That is Anu’s language. It’s a question of making the terms specific to the individual. These are the same concepts grade 11 entrepreneurship students are learning, just explained differently.
Anu and Aryta also practised how to write in a Word Document and prepare a PowerPoint presentation. Currently as a grade eight student, Anu gives oral presentations about her weekend every Monday.
To run a business successfully, an individual needs to know how to talk to people and make small talk, as well as how to follow directions. Aryta created conversation starters for Anu to rehearse at home. She breaks larger chunks of information down into manageable bits. Additional skills such as how to write things down, keep a list, prioritize, keep a schedule, and plan are important not just for running a business, but for living a full life. With Lovebirds, reading a script is part of Anu’s sales pitch to neighbours and friends, and in learning to memorize and practice her lines, she’s improving her memory and developing perseverance.
Whether or not your family wants to start your own company with your loved one with Down syndrome, developing the skills necessary to run a business overlap with the qualities of becoming a good employee. According to Ingrid Muschta from the Ontario Disability Employment network (ODEN), "Employers are looking for the same things they are looking for in other employees: dependability, reliability, and motivation. It’s not the hard skills, but rather the soft skills—any employer will train an employee on the technical parts of the job, but no employer is capable of teaching an employee to be motivated. Motivation comes from within and with years of developing that skill, and starts way, way early—before leaving elementary school."
Traditional education and rote learning is out of fashion these days. Kids want to know what can I get from this? How is this going to help me later in life? "That is where Lovebirds came from," Aryta explains. "This will help her in life." Maybe Anu will never sell lip balm again, but she knows how to input data into Excel. She knows how to make a presentation. She has acquired transferable skills. The idea of Lovebirds was to give Anu something of her own in which she could feel a sense of pride, confidence, and ownership; to tap into areas that are not necessarily academic and give her many more topics of conversation to bring into the world.
One thing that will never go out of style is kindness, and promoting inclusion in the classroom and beyond, out into the community. "It’s quite popular," Aryta acknowledges of her classes, which are usually full.
When asked if she thinks that other people with Down syndrome should start their own businesses, Anu’s answer was firm and resolute.
"Oh yeah," she said. "Definitely."
Follow Anu on Instagram @Lovebird_by_Anu and place your order by email: LovebirdByAnu@gmail.com.