Growing up, Archana Athalye, our NJMOMpreneur of the Week, learned a valuable lesson from her mother—who went from investment banker to jewelry designer—you can always pivot. And when Archana, a media exec, was looking for a place for her son to learn Indian classical music, she took that lesson to heart. There weren’t any options in North Jersey, and with a growing Indian community and other parents looking for the same, she knew this was her time to follow her mother’s advice and make a change. Fourteen years ago, she opened Kulture Kool, a cultural center for performing arts studio in Rutherford, emphasizing Indian dance, languages, instrumental music, and cultural immersion programs, and has been passionately promoting cultural education and understanding to the kids who enter the doors ever since. We caught up with this Secaucus mom of two about the lesson one boy gave to others, the one thing she wishes she had known before starting Kulture Kool, and the bakery she says is a must for delicious cardamom rose coffee and rosemary biscuits.
Please tell us about your family. My husband, Rishi, and I have been married for 19 years. We knew each other from Mumbai, our hometown in India. When he first came to the US, we did the long-distance thing for a while and eventually married and settled in Secaucus with our two boys are Arjun (18) and Ameya (13). Arjun grew up with Kulture Kool programs and is now a professional actor, appearing on Nickelodeon and Disney. He’ll also be starting college on the west coast this fall. And Ameya will be starting high school and is a fabulous chef and very creative—he’s interested in and excels at animation and graphic design.
What were you doing before you launched Kulture Kool, and does that play a role in what you do now? My education is in communications, media, and entertainment. In India, I worked in music and then moved to artist management. When I moved here in 2002, it was tough to transition to a job because, in this field, you need to have experience in that specific market. I did media buying at an NYC ad agency and artist tour management. When Arjun was about four years old, I was looking for a place for him to learn Indian classical music, and there was nothing near me in Weehawken. At the same time, I saw a growing Indian community in North Jersey, and I spoke to some friends who also had babies and young children, and we decided that the time was right to do something about it. Originally I had two other partners, but they pulled out five years back to follow different interests, and I solely own and manage the company now.
What have you found the most rewarding and challenging things about running your business? A young student in our cultural immersion program wanted to change his name because he said no one could say it correctly and felt uncomfortable about it—he’d even started pronouncing it the way they did. I suggested he draw a painting about his name (which means success) and bring it to his teacher. She incorporated it into her lesson plan, which empowered him, educated his classmates, and taught everyone that it’s okay to be different, but it’s not okay to feel smaller because of it. Learning that we’re all different in various ways changes your outlook on the world and your part in the world. That’s been the most enriching part for me.
Also, getting validation from others has made me realize the importance of what we do. We do a student recital every year, and at one of them, there were two sets of grandparents for this one child. Though they’re originally from India, they live in America now. One of the grandmothers remarked how beautiful it was to see her granddaughter do a dance that she had learned as a child and that without my school, this would be lost. For me, it validated what I do and drove home the point that we make a difference.
Staying afloat during the pandemic has had to be the most challenging thing to date. Before the March 2020 lockdowns, I anticipated it would happen and had switched to online classes on March 13th. I underwent Zoom training and set things up for our 18 teachers to prep for it. I was fortunate that families were willing to attend their classes this way because it’s a very tech-friendly community, and it gave their kids some continuity. We even had a virtual recital that year because it’s such a big part of what we had an online summer camp, too. Without that quick pivot, I’m not sure we would have been able to survive.
What’s the best advice you ever received that you hope to pass on to your children? I learned from my mother that the effort you put out is always in your hand regarding school, career, and life in general, but the results are not. So regardless of what happens, it’s important to gain something valuable from it, whether knowledge, experience, or joy. Make it a point to work hard and keep at it consistently. I believe that if your work is always good, success will come, but if you work hard for a few days and then take it easy, expecting quick success, you won’t get the results you want. I believe my children know this from watching me—it took me longer than I expected, but I never gave up.
If you knew then what you know now, what might you have done differently at the start or in the early years of your business? I would have set it up as a non-profit instead of a corporation, which would have given us cultural grants and might have made the first few years a little less stressful.
Please share something that not many people know about you. We have traveled to all Seven Wonders of the World as a family. When Arjun was around 7, he was learning about them in school, and around that same time, we were going to be traveling to Australia to visit my husband’s family. Since we were flying through China, Arjun suggested we make a stop first to see the Great Wall of China, and we agreed. After doing it, we decided to start planning our holidays around visiting these Wonders. We finished our final one (Petra in Jordan) in 2019.
What are some of your favorite places to visit in NJ with your family? We love Grounds for Sculpture and could spend an entire day there—it’s where we take all of our visitors. We are also fond of Wildwood Crest, a beautiful seaside community where we’ve rented a summer house. And during the pandemic, we visited all the state parks in NJ, and a favorite is Hacklebarney, especially in the Fall and Spring. We hike and always pack a picnic to eat by the river there.
What are some of your favorite NJ businesses? Erie Coffeeshop & Bakery has the most fantastic cardamom rose coffee, rosemary biscuits, and other delectable treats. La Casa de los Tacos is an excellent home-style restaurant with the freshest and most authentic food I’ve tasted outside of Mexico–it’s our family’s favorite place to order from. The Cochinita Pibil Tacos are delicious. And Mitsuwa Marketplace has great little shops to eat in and has a grocery store to stock up on interesting veggies, meats, and snacks.
What is your best piece of advice for a mompreneur just starting? Jump in, modify as you go along, and build on it consistently, keeping your goal in mind. Don’t overthink it–go for it!