A Blueprint For How First-Generation Indian-Americans Succeed
Ani Sanyal is a first-generation Indian-American entrepreneur born and raised in Boston, MA. His roots trace back to Kolkata, India, the cultural capital of Eastern India. Although NYC is where he hustles, these three places played a pivotal role throughout his life. As the co-founder of Kolkata Chai Co. he and his brother Ayan are on a mission to bring authentic South Asian food to the western world.
I had the opportunity to interview Ani recently. Here are some of the highlights of that interview:
Jill Griffin: Who is Ani Sanyal?
Ani Sanyal: Before anything, I’m the eldest son of two immigrant parents from India. I’m also an entrepreneur that lives at the intersection of business and culture, where I build, grow and invest in brands. I’ve always been fascinated by how intertwined culture and business are, and I aim to bring both those worlds closer together through products and campaigns. I grew up involved in many aspects of culture before they became the mainstream staples they are today — from hip-hop music and early internet culture (ex: Myspace) to sneaker collecting — I’m a product of all of it.
Today, I own and operate a portfolio of companies which include a food & beverage brand (Kolkata Chai), a marketing agency (GRC), a real estate investment group (Sanyal Capital Group), and an angel investing syndicate (TASA Capital). I’ve also given a TEDx Talk, spoken around the world, and hosted a monthly workshop for entrepreneurs called Idea Exchange.
Growing up, I was always the “lemonade stand” kid, and my first real business venture was an independent record label I started in high school. At that time, Myspace was exploding, and artists had access to this incredibly engaged community where they could get feedback and traction and build a fanbase. I figured out a way to get our music distributed on iTunes in 2005, and I’ve been working on something of my own ever since.
My philosophy toward entrepreneurship has always been to build things that I wish existed. When you build a business from that angle, your perspective and culture become your competitive advantage, and that’s where my strengths lie.
I’m motivated to create a blueprint for other entrepreneurs, especially those from immigrant or minority backgrounds, on how to build wealth through value creation and ownership. I believe that capital is an instrument of change, and a lot of the inequities that exist in our communities, both economic and social, are a result of us not deploying capital and influence to disrupt the status quo. Naturally, it’s more complicated than that, but it’s my opinion that accumulating capital and culture cache are the building blocks for creating meaningful change.
Griffin: What made you choose this path?
Sanyal: From a very young age (9-10 years old), I recognized the inequities that many immigrants and minorities face when trying to establish a life and create wealth in this country. The struggles that I watched my parents go through left an indelible impact on me and I knew that I had to be in a position of ownership, regardless of what path I chose. I never wanted to be a doctor or lawyer, I saw absolutely no value in exchanging your time for money or working for someone else who could lay you off if it was beneficial for them. I watched my father go through that and that imbalance of power just made no sense to me.
That’s really what pushed me to be an entrepreneur — it wasn’t because it was on-trend the way it is today — it was out of an unrelenting hunger and desire to provide for the people I loved. The irony of that was that it took me years, maybe even a decade, to convince my immigrant parents that the path I took was ultimately the right one.
Griffin: How did Kolkata Chai come about?
Sanyal: Kolkata Chai was actually my younger brother’s idea, and we incubated it together within our marketing agency. With my brother as the head chef, I built our brand presence by leveraging social and storytelling to create an engaged community of people across the immigrant diaspora. We quickly realized that this demographic was ready to embrace a brand that spoke to them in an authentic way and our traction early on was stronger than anticipated.
For the first 18 months, we did farmer’s markets, food festivals, and pop-up shops, focusing our energy on deepening product-market fit and understanding our audience. Each time, the lines grew longer, our socials grew faster, and the brand love deepened. Word started traveling about us, and we found ourselves drinking chai with Questlove, Alexis Ohanian, and other pop culture icons.
Though opening a brick & mortar store wasn’t a core focus for us initially, the buzz around us got to a point where we had to really evaluate it. My brother and I had no previous restaurant experience and were very upfront about how much we didn’t know. We created proformas, decision matrices, and basic cash flow models to determine if we had a chance at surviving in a brutal commercial real estate market like NYC. The truth is, even after doing all of that, there wasn’t a clear-cut answer. After a lot of internal debate, we decided to jump off the cliff.
We opened our first location in NYC’s East Village in September 2019 with funds saved from running our agency business. Six months after opening, Covid-19 shut down NYC, and we were forced to navigate this black swan event as first-time restaurateurs. For whatever reason, my brother and I never panicked – being new and naive forced us to do any and everything to keep our lights on. We started accepting delivery orders via Instagram and Square and driving around the five boroughs for 8 hours a day, dropping off chai to our loyalists. We literally did whatever it took.
The following week, we launched an eCommerce business, shipping our dry spice and tea blend around the U.S and Canada, and it instantly caught on. We started doing more revenue through our eCommerce channel than the retail side, and it anchored our business over the past two years.
At the end of 2021, we raised capital for the first time, closing our pre-seed round of $1M, which we’re going to use to grow our eCommerce business, launch a retail CPG product and make key hires. Though my brother and I pride ourselves on being skilled operators, we knew that raising capital was necessary to accelerate our growth and achieve our goal of becoming the household name for chai.
It’s been a grueling journey, but to bring your culture and tradition to the masses is an incredible feeling, and we’re just getting started.
Griffin: What’s different about your entrepreneurial journey?
Sanyal: I really got it out of the mud, so to speak. I never had a cushy finance job or wealthy parents to provide a backdrop for my entrepreneurial endeavors. Being a hustler is all I’ve ever known. I went through a lot of lean years in my early and mid-20s, trying to figure out how I was going to live a life on my own terms. It took years of trial and failure before I finally found my niche in the digital, content, and brand space. I think my sense of resilience and optimism came out of those struggles I went through.
I think another key aspect of my journey is realizing that learning doesn’t always need to happen in a classroom. Whether I was in junior high or college, I really disliked the concept of formal education and constantly found ways to learn outside of the classroom. I’ll give you an example — in my junior year of college, I ended up working and touring with Wiz Khalifa for a brief period and missed all my classes for weeks. I think I ended up failing a few exams and whatnot, but the experience and real-life learning I got from my time on the road far outweighed anything I would’ve learned from a textbook. It’s an extreme example, but I always valued being close to the action.
Today, my focus is to be an example for immigrant and minority kids around the world that want to build something for themselves and live life on their own terms. It might take longer than you expect, it might get really dark at times, and it might push you to your absolute limit, but it’s possible. In my opinion, there’s nothing more powerful than that.
Griffin: What’s one piece of advice you would give to our audience?
Sanyal: Be careful who you take advice from because not everyone is qualified to give it. A lot of the time, people project their fears onto you and mask them as advice. In order to be a strong entrepreneur, you have to know how to filter out the noise and stay committed to the plans and visions you started with.
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