Nepal isnâ€™t the type of place that jumps to your mind when you think about entrepreneurship and work life. In addition to being one of the poorest countries in the world, it is still struggling to re-build its infrastructure post-earthquake and its political instability makes it a non-conducive environment to do business.
What consistently stood out during my three weeks of travelÂ Â through the country, however, are how kind and hard-working the Nepali people are.
Throughout my trip, I encountered a couple of millennial NepaliÂ entrepreneurs who truly blew me away with their work ethic and determination to build an impactful business in their country. One is a woman, and the other is a man who was deeply inspired by a woman.
Poonam Gupta is spearheading a community homestay in the beautiful village of Panauti, a project that is part of a largerÂ Community Homestay initiative run by Nepali company Royal Mountain Travel to empower women and improve the living conditions of local Nepali communities. Atulya Pandey, on the other hand, began his startup Pagevamp in New York City and expanded his team to Nepal to create opportunity in his home country.
I interviewed both of them to learn more about working life in Nepal, as well as what itâ€™s like for women there today:
Celinne Da Costa: Tell me a little about yourself and what you do.
Poonam Gupta: I am 22 years old and I was born in Panauti, a very beautiful and historical town about 32 km from Kathmandu. A Malla King [a Nepalese Royal Dynasty] gifted it to his daughter as dowry.
Iâ€™m currently studying commerce related to finance and business at university, while also helping my mother and aunt run the Panauti Community Homestay Project. This project is mainly run by women and was started by Royal Mountain Travel to improve living conditions of local Nepali villages, as well as to give women a chance to generate their own income, become more educated, and independent. My role is to educate foreign visitors about the homestay, Nepalese culture, and sustainable tourism in Nepal.
Atulya Pandey: I am 27 years old and originally from Kathmandu. I started Pagevamp a few years ago during my last year at University of Pennsylvania. Pagevamp aims to help businesses create websites easily from the content in theirÂ Facebook FB -2.43% page.
I decided to grow a team in Nepal because of how well I connect with the people here. We could have chosen a different country with better infrastructure when deciding to open a second office, but I chose to move my business back home because I understand the people. Despite the fact that Nepal isnâ€™t very primed for entrepreneurship â€“ the internet is unstable, there are constant power cuts, and the bureaucracy can be challenging â€“ itâ€™s worth the hassle when I weigh in the bond that I can make with my team.
Celinne Da Costa: Why did you decide to take part in this business?
Poonam Gupta: I am really passionate about participating in this project because of how it empowers women in these small communities to create their own income and independence. I donâ€™t know about the other villages, but for my village specifically, inviting foreign visitors into our homes was a really strange concept. Most of the women in the project are housewives and not educated. In the beginning, it was a bit difficult because many couldnâ€™t even speak English. I remember when we first started and we had our first guest, my mom basically pushed me to go talk to the tourists because she was so shy about interacting with them and speaking English. Now, everyone is so comfortable with it, and the women in the community are slowly but surely learning.
Atulya Pandey: I come from a Brahmin family [a caste in Hinduism which specialized as priests, teachers, and protectors of sacred learning across generations], which focuses on education and building a professional skillset. Not many Brahmins are businessmen â€“ it is uncommon. On my fatherâ€™s side, there are 17 grandchildren from seven kids, and of all of them, I am the only one pursuing entrepreneurship.
Many of my family members are highly regarded experts in their fields, but taking risks in terms of entrepreneurship is uncommon. Growing up, I learned to do the same â€“ my family wouldnâ€™t even let me ride my bicycle out in the street because it was considered risky. In my gap year between high school and college, I spent some time working at a cafÃ© with a man who ran a lot of businesses. I was exposed to several business start-ups and became fascinated to seeing how it all worked. I decided I wanted to do the same.
Celinne Da Costa: What has most inspired you in your work?
Poonam Gupta: Working on this project has been so satisfying because I first-hand got to witness how much women around me are growing. This project has tremendously helped women grow economically, across all participating villages. Almost every household that takes part in it is improving their living standard. For example, I was just able to purchase solar panels in my house to generate renewable electricity.
Many women in Nepal heavily depend on the males in their family for support, and now the women in the villages are gaining independence from their husbands. Before, they had to ask their husbands for money. Now, theyâ€™re even helping them financially!
In addition to learning English and generating some independent income, women are learning so much about sanitation and hygiene. For example, we have learned safe food practices, to recycle, and instead of using mineral water, we provide boiled water for plastic waste management. Also, with the income earned from the homestay, we were able to set up a fund to help low-income children in the village with their education.
Atulya Pandey: My mom is so efficient â€“ she can do in 15 minutes the same task that takes someone two hours. A few years ago, she and some other female teachers started a school in Kathmandu despite coming from a librarian background. I donâ€™t know how she did it, but she was given the opportunity to teach at a school, and she seized it. She was meant to be a teacher.
Iâ€™ve always been inspired by her, and how sheâ€™s been able to accomplish so much against the odds. Nepal is a very patriarchal society, which means there is little environment for women to grow â€“ they are simply not encouraged. Their career is their part time job, and taking care of the house is the primary. While my father is very supportive, we unfortunately live in a society where if he doesnâ€™t pull her up, she canâ€™t break free and go do what she wants.
I see a lot of awesome, married women that have so much potential, but there is no conducive environment for them to grow. Seeing my mom and her colleagues push those boundaries to start and run a school that in a few years is already considered one of the best schools in Nepal is very inspiring. It pushes me to achieve more.
Celinne Da Costa: What are your most meaningful insights from being an entrepreneur?
Poonam Gupta: Through participating in this project, Iâ€™ve realized that if women are independent, they will do everything well. In the past, women were regarded as being â€œbelowâ€ men â€“ even my mom wasnâ€™t allowed to go to school because she was a daughter, and people thought it was a better investment to educate the son.
In my generation, itâ€™s not like that anymore â€“ there is a strong movement towards equality. All my girl friends work, and we strive for independence.
Panauti is still a village and not nearly as developed as Kathmandu, so people still have some of that traditional mindset that women are less important. Thatâ€™s why I am really proud of myself for working on this business, because even up to a few years ago women my age did not really work. The average marriage age starts from 20, and almost every woman gets married by 25.
Being self-sufficient and having the means to help my family is a very happy feeling. Nowadays, more and more Nepali parents are providing education to their daughters so women are finally being treated more equally. My greatest insight is, keep your head up even when youâ€™re fighting against the odds. If you persevere, you can make a change.
Atulya Pandey: A lot of my work is relationship based. This past year of operating both a New York and Kathmandu office was a beautiful struggle of really understanding how to build strong relationships with people from drastically different cultures.
What you are doing with your project to couch-surf around the world through human connection is amazing just because of that: no matter the culture differences, we have to realize that at the end of the day, everyone is human. When you strip everything down, all you are left with is a strong human connection.
I would say my greatest insight is to stay aware of your relationships. Learn how to invest in them. How people interact with one another is heavily influenced by the way they were brought up, and that is a very crucial element that people need to understand.
For example, I find that sometimes people traveling to different countries feel that others need to change their ways to get along with them. That is, the other person needs to make all the compromises and be aware of the culture. Iâ€™m learning to be more aware of how people react to different situations: I cannot assume that if something is the case in the U.S., it will also be here in Nepal. I feel that I make better, long-lasting relationships when I donâ€™t intrude and am more respectful of how others were brought up. This creates comfort in relationships, which leads to better business partnerships. At the end of the day, we create products and services for people to use, so I believe learning how to invest in people and relationships is the most important skill for any entrepreneur.
ByÂ Celinne Da CostaÂ
The writer is a travel journalist and brand strategist currently couch surfing around the world via her social network. Follow her journey on TheNomadsOasis.com and social @TheNomadsOasis.