In Focus: Pooja Pittie, Little GuruSkool

Wednesday, January 21, 2009
There are so many amazing South Asian women doing so many amazing things. I want to try to showcase some of them on this blog with this new feature: "In Focus."

My first interview is with Pooja Pittie, a mother of a 6 year old who lives in Chicago, loves to eat out, read and paint, sometimes dreams of going back to art school, and has authored and designed a series of beautifully illustrated books for Indian children. When Pooja couldn't find books and DVDs to introduce Indian culture to her son, she took the matter into her own hands and decided to make her own. Hence, Little GuruSkool was born. Heralded by many as "Baby Einstein for Indians," the 3 books and 3 DVDs currently available teach children about colors, music, and animals, in English and in Hindi, with an Indian backdrop of culture and music. The book on animals, for instance, takes children on a journey from the jungle to the farm to the ocean, highlighting the names of the animals in English and in Hindi. The book on musical instruments introduces kids to the strings of a sitar, the beats of a dholak and the melodies of a flute. And the accompanying DVDs visually and musically compliment the books.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Pooja about Little Guru Skool, how she got it off the ground, and where she sees it going. She and her books have recently been splashed around in the press and she has some great insight on the constant "balance" we all crave in parenting our children. Plus she's just a rockstar. LittleGuruSkool books and DVDs are available at LittleGuruSkool.com, as well as Amazon.com. Also, you can preview the DVDS or sample songs from the CDs at Pooja's site. Readers, meet Pooja:

Tell us about your inspiration to start Little GuruSkool.

Well, I am a first-generation Indian and I wanted to make sure my son was learning about India. I used to be very hesitant about letting him watch videos but then I came upon the "Baby Einstein" series and I really came to admire it. The reality is that, in this day and age, both parents are busy and kids are going to watch t.v. This is of course a deviation from the Indian mindset that somebody should always be taking care of a child so I had my own issues with it. But I found Baby Einstein to be interactive and definitely educational. When I tried to find something like the Baby Einstein series that was focused on Indians, I was surprised to see there really was nothing out there.

Why were you surprised?

You just never think that you have had the "big idea" so when I found myself really thinking that if I was going to find content I was going to have to write it myself, I found that surprising. Everything I found, here and in India, just didn't appeal to me in terms of quality, or wasn't age-appropriate. And when I started asking other Indian parents if they had had any luck in finding good, entertaining, educational books or DVDS about India, I was amazed by how eager they were to find the same sort of thing.

Lots of our readers grapple with the conundrum of exposing our kids to Indian culture. How do your books and DVDs do this?

I like to think the books and DVDs provide a good balance of Western and Indian culture. Which is really how I wanted my son to grow up. The material isn't "too ethnic" and the sensibility in terms of content and illustration is modern. It's different from other "Indian" products--it isn't designed to be any sort of language immersion. Instead, I hope the books and other materials subtly expose children to portions of what makes Indian culture great--the sights, the sounds, the music, the language.


What are the other ways you inject Indian culture into your lives?

Simple things. By traveling to India with my son as frequently as possible. He's 6 years old now and has been there about 6 times - I know it's difficult to travel there often, but children never forget that early exposure. Even at 5 years of age, Aarav talked about places and people he interacted with on his last trip when he was just 4!

By cooking Indian food for my son, teaching him the Hindi words as we go along, telling him anecdotes about my childhood &and food that I liked to eat when growing up.

By listening to Hindi music with him - I haven't exposed him to Bollywood movies but many songs--from old movies & new ones--are a great way to get children familiar with the sounds of Indian instruments and languages. And Aarav finds the big dance sequences highly amusing.

Do you worry about your son not being "Indian" enough?

You know, maybe I should but I don't. I moved here when I was 21 years old and see so much greatness in the Western culture. I think I would be doing my son an injustice to "make" him more Indian. I myself don't feel overly American and at the same time I don't feel overly Indian. I don't want to make my son feel out of place in this place that is his home. Of course I want him to be aware of his roots and be comfortable with his identity. But I think it should be done without too much force.

What were you doing before you launched Little GuruSkool?

I got my MBA from the University of Chicago Class of 2005 and upon graduation, I worked at Unilever on the Dove Hair brand in the U.S. for 1.5 yrs. Last year, I left Unilever to pursue Little GuruSkool full-time

Do you write the books and videos yourself?

I create all the concepts for the videos and books. I work with a film production studio in Bombay of course, but nothing goes forward without my input or approval. Based on the videos, I create the storyboard and illustrations for the books myself, but I have the illustrations professionally rendered afterwards.

Take us through "a day in the life" of Pooja...

A "day in the life" in terms of business could be - waking up at 4 am to talk to my web developers in India, creating a storyboard for one of the book titles, working with the graphics designer on the DVD packaging, meeting an Indian mom for coffee to get some ideas, spending an hour on the phone with customer service at Amex to make sure my website accepts their cards and at the end of the day, always evaluating my written plan and writing up a to-do list for the next day!

"Busy" doesn't do you justice--so tell us, what are your tips for the perpetual juggling we all do--of kids, family, work, pleasure?

I am not too rigid and disciplined about my work schedule - quite impulsive in fact and I think this allows me to juggle things better. I know that sounds contradictory, but since "pleasure" and "family" are part of the balancing act, it helps to be impulsive and flexible. It allows me to enjoy life a lot more. I'm good at taking breaks!

I've realized that I'm ambitious in all these areas of my life and wouldn't sacrifice one for the other, and so for me, it's all about balance. I am trying to accept that everything cannot be perfect and I shouldn't be too hard on myself! Starting a business in an area like this has been all-consuming but I try to have weekends where I take time off from even "thinking" about work. And, with my son, I try to involve him in as many things as I can - especially things that I enjoy doing - painting, cooking, listening to music

What are some of the other parenting sites/books/products you like?

Like I've said, I've admired and used a lot of Disney's Baby Einstein products. I think they've done an excellent job in developing a range of complementary products for pre-school children.

Believe it or not, I've never read a "parenting guide" really - I rely on my mum's anecdotes from our childhood to be my guide!

In terms of toys, I've found Magna tiles & Legos to be very effective in engaging my son for hours and at the same time, helping him think about building things

Last book you loved? Movie? TV show?

I love reading - last couple of books that I liked were "Shantaram"--was struck by an outsider's account of the city being something I could agree with!--and "Time Traveler's Wife." I'm reading "Three Cups of Tea" right now which is so inspiring

The last movie I loved? "Sex & the City"! Also liked "Sarkar." I know that's old but I'm not the biggest movie buff!

As for TV - I love Dragons' Den on BBC America.

Tell us the funny things your son is doing these days.

He's really into playing guessing games with people - whether it's humming a tune and having them guess the song or drawing out a house with a paper flap for a door and having people guess what's inside the house!

What are the weirdest/funniest/strangest reactions you've had to starting Little GuruSkool?

My family and friends were surprised that I was starting a media company without any prior media experience--my background is in Finance and Accounting!

Some people have asked if I was setting up an actual "school" for children because of the name. And a lot of people tease me about the spelling of "skool" - I chose that spelling because it's a play on the word "gurukul" and "kool" sounded a lot closer to that word.

Any advice for budding-entrepreneurs reading this?

I want to say "go for it" but with one caveat. You need to have a very clear vision of what you want to do before you just take the plunge. Without the vision, you will get side-tracked. For instance, with my books, I had to fight nearly daily for the sort of "less is more" illustration style. If I didn't stay firm in what I wanted it to be, my vision for the books would have gotten lost. But, I cannot even describe how happy I am that I left my old job to do this full time. If you are lucky enough to find something you really love and that really inspires you, take the plunge!

What's up next for Little GuruSkool?

I want Little GuruSkool to be a cultural "gurukul" for parents and children around the world. I plan to introduce new topics every few months and new products like toys, flash cards & coloring books. This is my plan but in the end, I am looking to all the parents out there who care about this to give me ideas and suggestions on how I could help them introduce their children to this vibrant culture.

Pooja would love to know what you guys think of her books, and what sorts of titles you would like to see. Please feel free to leave Pooja questions and comments here, or to email her directly at pooja.goel@littleguruskool.com.

Check out more of the books and DVDs here and here.
18 comments:
Shona said...

This is such a great idea! Are the books available at Borders etc.? Would love to check them out. My suggestions: recipes!

Tani said...

Hi Pooja! How funny, I just purchased some of these books as a gift. I love them. My suggestions would be to do even more focus on India, even if there is less focus on Hindi. I really want to expose my children to the culture more than the language.

Anna said...

Great idea to profile South Asian women! Can I suggest my friend Leena? She is starting a company of gyms focused at minority women?

Really like the idea behind these books and DVDs, had never heard of them before, thanks for pointing them out. Will look out for them at the bookstore!

Uma said...

Great profile and I am jealous I didn't think of doing this idea myself, I was always saying that there needs to be educational books for minority children!

I would suggest to go even more modern with the illustration. I like the minimalism but what about even more saturated colors, or even abstract art approach to indian illustration? would be really different.

Anonymous said...

What about a series about Diwali????

Anu said...

I love this idea. Just took a peak at the site and my only suggestion would be to maybe have some of the books with more of a story? My son is 3 and he recently is more and more into a narrative. Just my two cents! Good luck!

Aziza said...

These are great. Why not buy these instead of Baby Einstein?!? I would be interested in reading titles about Indian children living in America.

Priya said...

Like the idea and agree with the poster above that it would be nice to see Indian children featured prominently in stories. I think my kids would like to see kids that look like them in the books we read to them at night!

Jasmine said...

Beautiful illustrations, especially like the pink lotus one. Don't really have any suggestions, just wanted to say I appreciate your work!

Anonymous said...

Really like these books. If only I wasn't on a spending freeze in this down economy. Sigh.

Carmen of Baby Books Guide said...

What a fantastic idea. I love the way that you have taken what has proven to be a highly successful series...'Baby Einstein' and made the focus on Indian culture.

Anonymous said...

Check out www.kahani.com for stories with Indian kids growing up in America.

Anonymous said...

I have seen similar ideas by a company called MeeraMasi.com. I believe they have a diwali book and other stories on people and places in india.

Aneesha said...

I've also bought books from MeeraMasi.com and my kids love them. For those who commented on more storybooks and more of a focus on India, they have a series that features Indian kids as the main characters - Jay and Juhi who go to different Indian places. They are slightly on the longer side, but both my kids (3/5) almost always make it to the end and they love the pictures! We have all three. Oh, and they are bilingual for that person who said they wanted Hindi - I read it in English, but sometimes I pop in the Hindi CD for my kids to listen to because I'm not that comfortable reading in Hindi.

Kahani is also amazing. My friends kids who are 6-7 years old get it and I can't wait until next year when I can introduce it to my kids. I love that they tackle even the most sensitive topics in ways that kids can relate to.

From what I know both these companies have been around for a while, surprised that Pooja didn't know about them before she started her company. Well, I guess you can never have enough!

jesus said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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