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Safest bet is to bet on yourself: 30-year-old CEO

Last updated on: September 20, 2012 08:35 IST
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Faisal Kidwai in Mumbai

The safest bet most people can make is to bet on themselves, says Raaja Nemani, the 30-year-old co-founder and chief executive officer of BucketFeet, a shoe company that sources its designs from street artists around the world, then pays those artists royalties on every sale.

Nemani says BucketFeet exists to make to make everyone's story more interesting and create connections in the physical world the same way many tech companies are trying to do so in the digital world.

I love Mumbai for its bustle and how it continues to drive business in India despite seemingly unorganised and too crazy, he tells Faisal Kidwai in an email interview.

Tell us about your childhood and India connections.

I was born and raised in West Lafayette, Indiana, a college town where Purdue University is located. My parents immigrated to the United States from Andhra Pradesh in the 1970s, and have been in the US ever since. My brother, sister and I were the only members of our very large extended families to be born in the United States - until recently, that is - with most of my cousins, aunts and uncles, etc, still living in Vishakapatnam.

I travel back to India almost every year or every other year, and am very close to many of my cousins. I also recently got married this year in Bengalore, where my wife's family lives.

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Image: Raaja Nemani, an Indian-American CEO of BucketFeet.
Photographs: Courtesy, Raaja Nemani

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Safest bet is to bet on yourself: 30-year-old CEO

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How did BucketFeet come about? What's the story behind the company?

In 2008, I met Aaron Firestein in a slum, where both of us were volunteering, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I had just started a year-long trip around the world when I met him and we instantly became close friends. He had begun drawing on canvas sneakers and posting pictures of his art to Facebook in 2007.

I left Argentina and Aaron stayed behind, but the two of us stayed in touch and constantly discussed our travels and Aaron's shoes, which began selling fast in South America.

In 2009, Aaron was invited to do a photo project in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he shadowed talented artists in the favelas (the term for shanty towns in Brazil) and then held a photo exhibit of their work in the more affluent part of the city. The whole idea was to connect two very different groups of people through art.

He told me about this project, and several months later both of us decided what we wanted to do in life. We quit our jobs to create a platform to connect artists to people around the world.

In 2011, BucketFeet was born.

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Image: Nemani met Aaron Firestein, pictured here, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Photographs: Aaron Firestein/Twitter

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Safest bet is to bet on yourself: 30-year-old CEO

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What do you think makes BucketFeet stand out from the crowd?

BucketFeet is the only footwear brand 100 per cent focused on collaboration. No other brand has made artist collaboration core to its mission. Not only do we source artwork from talented artists around the world, but we also bring artists to the forefront and tell their stories and create deep connections between BucketFeet the brand, our artists, and consumers.

We feel every person has a story, so does every artist, and thus every shoe. We exist to make everyone's story more interesting and create connections in the physical world the same way many tech companies are trying to do so in the digital world.

By the way, we're looking for Indian artists and hear there's a great street art scene in Mumbai.

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Image: BucketFeet is the only footwear brand 100 per cent focused on collaboration, says Nemani.
Photographs: Courtesy, BucketFeet
Related News: , CEO , Mumbai

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Safest bet is to bet on yourself: 30-year-old CEO

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You have said that if you were younger, you would live in Mumbai. Could you share some of your Mumbai memories?

I have several cousins in Mumbai and I love the city for how bustling it is and how it continues to drive business in India despite seemingly unorganised and too crazy - by American standards - at times.

I love the energy of the city and the people and I feel that every citizen of Mumbai is an entrepreneur in some way. I love big cities with exciting opportunities, and there are few comparisons to a city like Mumbai.

In terms of memories - I've recently been to Leopold's and many of the other areas that were struck by the (26/11) terror attacks. It's chilling to see the bullet holes still in the walls and how such a fun-loving place could be targeted by people with ill intentions.

I love just walking the streets, negotiating with vendors, eating street food, and trying to fit in, which is sometimes hard, because even though I look Indian, my lack of Marathi or Hindi and accent still gives me away.

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Image: There are few comparisons to a city like Mumbai, he says.
Photographs: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters
Related News: Mumbai , Leopold , CEO , India

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Safest bet is to bet on yourself: 30-year-old CEO

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You are 30 and are already running a company. So, what's your advice to young entrepreneurs, especially those of Indian origin?

It's sometimes tough being Indian and trying to start a business. Obviously, there are many much bigger and much more successful role models both in India and in the US now in a variety of industries, which is great.

I think our parents and our culture put a lot of pressure for Indians to go into traditional fields, such as engineering, doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc. My advice is to have confidence in yourself and to know that the worst thing that can happen is that you will fail.

But when you compare failure with things in the world that are much worse - for example, how most of India's population lives below the poverty line - then it's really not so bad. If you have an education then you can always get a job eventually, I think the safest bet most people can make is betting on themselves.

I'm sure my mother still worries about me from time to time, but as long as I'm learning, happy, and able to pay rent, I think she's cool.


Image: It is sometimes tough being Indian and trying to start a business, says Nemani. Children stand on 'The Ledge', a five-sided glass box 1,353 feet above the street in Chicago. The Ledge is part of Skydeck Chicago located on the 103rd floor of the Sears Tower.
Photographs: Frank Polich/Reuters
Related News: India , CEO , US

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