How Sailaja Joshi Designed Her Small Business to Make a Big Social Impact

March 18, 2021
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Six years ago, I was pregnant with my first child, and, being a huge book lover, I was planning a library-themed baby shower. I envisioned filling my daughter’s bookshelf with beautiful books that celebrated our shared Indian culture and heritage. So imagine the deflation I felt when I realized that books that had people who looked like my daughter (and myself) on the cover didn’t exist—and what I did find was inappropriate for a child or, even worse, culturally insensitive.

Motherhood opened up my eyes. It opened up something inside of me that made me realize that I refused to live in a world where my daughter could not be her true, authentic self. While I’d grown up a voracious reader myself, the idea of raising my daughter in a world where she couldn’t envision herself as the hero in the books she read wasn’t acceptable to me. 

So I took matters into my own hands and started a publishing company. 

I’m not an author (yet). I don’t have a publishing background. But I saw something wrong with the world and I wanted to change it. A lot of people might dismiss the importance that children’s books have on the state of the world, but I’d strongly disagree. Kids are born open-minded. By creating a more diverse landscape of literature, we open up the world for them, encourage wonder and awe, and show children that diversity is the nature of humanity, not an initiative. 

Having an impact on the characters and stories portrayed in children’s literature is the opportunity to change a generation. I count myself and the authors and partners that we work with at Mango & Marigold Press among the many artists and activists who have worked to make diversity an asset. But it’s not an easy road. 

Mango & Marigold Press is a small, independent publisher in a land of behemoths–and beyond that, many might look at it as a minuscule drop in the bucket in the work that needs to be done around race and gender equity. This is a common feeling for entrepreneurs building mission-based business: the feeling that the impact we make, though it feels important, isn’t good enough. It can be discouraging and may result in us shelving our dreams for a better world with the belief that the difference we are making will never be enough.

But if you can move past those feelings, even the smallest (but mightiest) business can move the needle. Mango & Marigold just celebrated its sixth anniversary and announced its twentieth book—incidentally, the first picture book series featuring South Asian characters. Our #1001DiverseBooks initiative, which donates copies of our books to literacy nonprofits to help diversify their bookshelves, has donated more than 3,000 books. A few guiding principles have helped me make my way through the nay-saying and the self-doubt, to a place where I know that the work we do is making a true difference.

Don’t let perfection get in the way of progress. 

When I started Mango and Marigold Press (then Bharat Babies) I had $1,000, a rough business plan, a script for a book, and a vision. I’m SO glad I went and made our first book in six months and didn’t wait to do things “right” because, honestly, if I had, I’d still be trying to perfect that first book. 

Don’t be afraid to ask, then ask again. 

I have learned the art of asking lots and lots of questions and then asking the same questions twice. I realized that many folks (not all) are willing to share their lessons learned and there is such a gift in learning from other’s mistakes. 

When you open a door, bring others through. 

I am a massive believer in this. When I get a grant, I make sure to share the application with another small publisher and share out what types of information I gave that helped me to “get” the award. I share connections, names, contacts. I bring people with me on my journey of success because this is the only way we will break down systematic barriers. 

Yes, you can. Everyone will tell you that you can’t, but I’m telling you: Yes, you can. 

A mentor once told me that even if my company fails, its books would still be out in the world, and would touch so many people. Hearing that, early on in my journey, gave me the audacity to start and the strength to continue, book by book. If you’re starting a business, particularly one with a social impact mission, find your cheerleader. Find the person who will tell you that you can, that it’s possible, that there’s good to be had in the work you are doing. They will carry you through the difficult times of starting a business and the moments where you doubt whether your work is worthwhile.

Literacy is power, and breaking down the structural barriers that limit access to books and literature for communities of color is essential. We stand at a unique moment in history for an Indian American woman like me: the first female, Indian American vice president. That is a big moment for an entrepreneur with a mission to demonstrate that diversity is natural–not an initiative. 

But beyond a big moment like this is the day-to-day triumph. I’ve seen many kids delight in the fact that the character on the cover of their book looks just like them. I’ve worked with several authors who have expressed relief when I encourage them to inject their culture back into their stories after receiving rounds of notes from traditional publishers saying otherwise. Those smaller moments are the ones that keep me going.

About the author: Sailaja Joshi is the founder of Mango & Marigold Press, an award-winning independent publishing house that shares the sweet and savory stories of the South Asian experience. Mango & Marigold just announced its twentieth diverse book and has donated more than 3,000 books to literacy nonprofits as part of its #1001DiverseBooks campaign.

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