Happy Sunday everyone!
I have incredible selective hearing. I can tune out pretty much 100% of noise about shopping and fashion but my ears perk up from across the room when I hear “nonprofit.” That’s how I met Natasha.
Natasha and I were both at a screening of an incredible documentary about women entrepreneurs entitled Dream, Girl. I highly recommend it. We met as everybody was filing out of the theatre and she was sharing the story of the nonprofit she founded. We quickly exchanged information before heading our separate ways and a week later I was having a blast on a Skype call with Natasha, listening to her story. I could talk for hours about her infectious energy or tremendous passion, but instead, I’ll let her work do the talking.
Without further ado...
Liz: Let’s start in traditional Smile Project fashion: give me a “Happiness is!”
Natasha: Happiness is.. connection with other people.
Liz: Tell me a little bit about your organization.
Natasha: The organization started basically with $100 after the earthquake in Nepal in April 2015. It went from the goal of delivering relief supplies to a commitment to rebuild a whole village. It’s grown. At the start, there were 2 of us and $100. Now we’re ⅔ of the way through construction of the village. The fundraising is well over $100,000.
Now I have my own nonprofit - which I never thought I would start. It wasn’t even one of those things that was somehow in the back of my mind like “one day I’ll start a nonprofit” or something.
Liz: Why Nepal?
Natasha; I was a student of art at the College of Wisconsin Madison and went to Nepal for a year in the 1990s for a very intensive study abroad program. It focused on living in communities, working with people there, and integrating with Nepalese families. I developed a really deep connection and bond with the people there.
I decided to go back for another year as a Fulbright scholar. So I spent a year working in sculpture. I’m a jewelry designer - that’s my occupation (see her awesome handmade jewelry work here). I’m doing two very time intensive jobs at the same time.
Liz: So how did Sangsangai really form? How do you go from wanting to raise some money to help out, to filing for your nonprofit status?
Natasha: The exact thing that happened… Okay. So after the earthquake, my friend, a guy named Bibek Kumar Pandit was handing out supplies to the people of Rainaskot in the district of Lamjung. They were asking for help rebuilding.
It was the middle of the night here and we (Bibek and I) were writing back and forth and we started talking about doing more. I mean, he is studying human rights in India and i’m running a jewelry business in New York City. But we just started planning.
Pretty quickly, we realized that we’re going to need some architects and engineering support. So he found local Nepalese architects. We found sponsors here in America and Nepal to manage finances properly. We were ready to go.
The earthquake was on April 25th. We had the idea on May 7th. On June 5th, I had my first fundraiser.
In Nepal, Krishna Oliya, the man who runs the NGO there, had to apply for permits from the government. We found an engineering team. A really important part of the process is community meetings. The villagers are 100% involved in all of the conversations about it. Anything that involves how the houses are built or design, etc. even the logistics - we need their help so everything is done through the community and working with the community. They’re a very important part of the team.
Liz: What has this learning process been like for you?
Natasha: We started in September 2015. We had a ground breaking and supplies were starting to be brought up. Then we hit some roadblocks.
Challenge 1: Monsoon. We had to go 5,500 feet up a super rough dirt road. My friends went up in a jeep (you can’t even look at this narrow steep road). Getting the supplies up there was a task. We had to break them into small loads which took much longer.
Challenge 2: India had an undeclared economic blockade of Nepal. They basically closed the border. There was no fuel available. We weren’t able to get fuel to bring supplies to the construction site and we had to pay high costs for about six months because of this. It was a really huge blow for the entire country… especially for anyone who had to do any building because they just couldn’t get supplies.
Challenge 3: The water supply in the village dried up. There’s a dry season but it started early because the earthquake shifted the spring. Water is very important with construction (think about things like cement mixing). And the villagers were so important here. They went to negotiate a water rights agreement they had with a village 9 miles away. So they went every day 10 days in a row so they could get a supply so we could continue construction.
Now, the monsoon is over again so the road won’t be as bad and the blockade and water situation won’t happen again. But these are all the things you have to figure out.
On my side, this is my first time fundraising for any nonprofit so I had to figure out what that was going to mean.. I was really fortunate to meet some people from the Nepali community in the United States and some of them have funds left over that they raised after the earthquake. One of the communities in Jacksonville, Florida sent $25,000 of what they had raised because they were looking for someone to donate to.
The support of the Nepalese-Americans has been so helpful with whoever they have as contacts over there as well. Non-Nepalese people here have been so supportive as well. The villages on the ground in Nepal just all came together to create this whole project.
Liz: What is the driving force behind what you do?
Natasha: It’s really this special - I mean it’s a few different things - but it’s this special connection that I have to Nepal.
One of the things about the connection: I lost my father when I was 13 years old and it was a really tough time for me and the years after that. When something like that happens you wonder if you deserve good things in life like happiness and love.
When I was 19 and I went to Nepal, I had this experience and I was in this village study tour where I started out as a guest to Bibek’s family. My Nepali wasn’t very good. (Nepal has over 100 different languages and dialects with Nepali being the national language). It was my second month there. There was no electricity. There was no telephone service. If someone tried to find me right now, it’s impossible. I’d gone off the map out in this village.
Over time, they became so close to me and really treated me as a real family member. And for me, that really helped to heal a lot of those feelings I had of being unworthy or just the grief that I had. Some of that cloud lifted because of my experience there. So, the motivation is from a very deep place.
Another thing is that, though I’ve had a business for a long time, I was searching for some way that I could have more impact on the world. I know that my customers really like my jewelry and they treasure it a lot but there was something that was too solitary about it. There had to be something else out there for me to do. And this just sort of appeared, really. It just sort of came together.
I thought of starting some kind of art related project in Nepal but there was no concrete idea. This sort of coming my way just unfolding organically - it really seems like the thing that I was looking for. Because of my Nepali language skills, because of my connection with people there from all those years ago, because of my skills in marketing from running my business for so many years - it made me the right fit for what needed to be done.
And then, now, these villagers. The first time I came, it was very formal. I was the person from overseas who was helping to fund. Now i just go there and it’s like my own village. My commitment is to them and the relationship we have. I have a personal relationship with everyone in the village. (The village consists of fifteen houses and two community buildings that we’re building for the 100 person village).
Liz: What does “service” mean to you?
Natasha: I think it’s being available when there is something that needs done. Like I was just saying about my language skills, connections, and marketing skills, I can use that to help with fundraising. I just made myself available for what was needed.
I saw somebody writing something about how there are responsibilities all around waiting to be picked up by somebody. There are things to be done everywhere.
Service is you just saying “that’s mine” and “I’m going to pick that up” -- whatever that is. And it doesn’t have to be a whole village.
Liz: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Natasha: A few people have said this to me lately: to remember that you should just stop worrying so much about what other people are going to think.
Liz: How can people get involved?
Natasha: For New York City readers, we are having a launch party on November 17th at Juke Bar. (See image below for more details).
Also, check out Sangsangai on Facebook and Instagram to stay updated on all the latest news.
I had a great time connecting with Natasha for this interview. Not only does she fully embrace every opportunity that comes her way, but she approaches it with a gentle calm and true sincerity. My favorite thing about the interview? As I asked her to repeat the name of the organization, she matter of factly stated, “Sangsangai. It means ‘together’ in Nepali.”
We will always be better when we’re working together. Take some time to learn more about Natasha and her organization by visiting the website here.
As for me, I’ll see you next Sunday as I highlight another phenomenal example of humankind.
Looking to nominate an individual or organization that you know? Reach out to The Smile Project on social media or by filling out the contact form here.