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Published on: Jan. 25, 2021, 12:29 a.m.
Be. what you are
  • Be.artsy helps artistes to earn their livelihood doing what they love

By Sekhar Seshan. Consulting Editor, Business India

When mere survival and the rat race have run their course,

When changing lives, one by one, becomes your driving force,

When the message impacts both mind and heart,

When society improves because business embraces art....

This is the philosophy of Shikha Mittal, founder director of the Delhi-based Be.artsy, which she set up with the stated vision of performing, visual and literary art as a viable industry and a catalyst for social change, and a mission to meet the needs of society and business with high-impact solutions based on art and technology. Mittal, who describes herself as ‘a cross between a prophet and a drill sergeant’, decided to toss corporate sales after seven years in favour of making art commercially viable, so that people could be artsy. With enough clients now so enchanted by street theatre and other art-based solutions, her social enterprise has been growing exponentially since 2010 and has spread all over India. “The best buzz is knowing that you’ve changed someone's life for the better!” she says.

Like most starry-eyed newly minted graduates, says Mittal, she was “tossed into corporate life without any clue about how to conduct myself, handle my new money, how to assert my rights to a safe workplace, or any of the skills required to navigate the world of wolves.” Even her senior co-workers were of little help, as they were not trained to handle corporate competition, politics or harassment.

This lack of social awareness in the workplace led Mittal, now 37, to quit her ‘settled’ job, and set up a traditional not-for-profit organisation – but it ended in zero net worth early in 2010. Not one to give up, she restarted within a few months and set up Be.artsy as a for-profit business to create a viable business out of awareness programmes aimed at the corporate world. She has never looked back – the venture was profitable from year one. Today, she finds it ‘tremendously satisfying’ that at least 500,000 people have been touched by Be.artsy over the past 10 years.

Mittal’s art director Shilpa Dhere is ‘the Peter Parker of infographics, who leaps over tall buildings and spins a web of high art and design whenever her spider-sense tingles’ -- that grabs all viewers.

Be.artsy’s unique take on awareness programmes uses edutainment methods like street theatre, posters, and short videos to make complex or taboo topics simple and accessible. The sessions are engaging and interactive, making audience participation high and creating a significant, measurable, impact. Each session covers 40-200 people and is customised depending on the specific format, the topic and the needs of the audience.

In the beginning, they conducted awareness programmes covering a gamut of topics like financial inclusion, prevention of sexual harassment, health-related topics and the importance of paying utility bills on time. In the firm belief that youth can create change, they targeted a lot of colleges.

The programmes succeeded, attracting the attention of United Nations agencies like UNIC and UNV. This encouraged the team to start an annual street theatre festival, Be on the street, in which tens of colleges from major cities participated. This festival focusses on the UN Millennium Development Goals, now the Sustainable Development Goals. Along the way, these UN agencies also engaged the organisation for various programmes on health, like AIDS awareness and mental health, to engage Indian youth.

A major breakthrough came in 2013, when PepsiCo India hired Be.artsy to run a programme on preventing sexual harassment under the new law. “We conceptualised a campaign in nine languages called MindBugs, covering 9,000 PepsiCo employees in 14 locations,” Mittal explains. “Women employees, especially blue-collar workers, were in tears that someone had finally recognised their daily travails and the company was willing to do something about it.” The men, too, were relieved -- to have proper conduct guidelines. The phenomenal feedback, she says, was instrumental in the campaign winning the prestigious Harvey C. Russell Award for the PepsiCo HR team.

MindBugs, which they ran for nearly one-and-a-half years till April 2015, focussed on the ‘biases we all have’. Execution was kick-started by a nukkad natak in the local language. This was followed by interactive sessions between company associates, and legal team and HR, moderated by Be.artsy – which also made a short video on the rollout for showcasing it to other PepsiCo offices. PepsiCo is also extending the programme to other corporates.

MindBugs’ success gave rise to Be.artsy’s proprietary campaign, called ‘IT’S NOT OK’, which has so far covered 16,500 employees in companies including British Telecom, Mediatek, Tata Coffee, Yulu Bikes, Volvo Cars, and Sterling and Wilson. Other programmes that arose naturally out of extending the concept of workplace safety are gender sensitisation, diversity and inclusion, and safety on the roads. 

Other customers included ITZ Cash Card Ltd, for which the team ran a 15-month campaign promoting the ‘Freedom Card’ for financial inclusion of under-privileged people. This was done in two projects, targeted at under-privileged people, youth and migrant labour, who do not normally have access to formal banking channels. Be.artsy trained performers from the target strata themselves, to increase the connection with the audience and generate livelihoods as well.

The campaign consisted of 172 nukkad natak, performed over 82 days in jhuggi-jhopdi (JJ) clusters and other locations. Be.artsy will now launch in-house programmes on financial independence for women and youth, focussed on investor education, in association with BSE and SEBI.

Other projects included one to increase awareness among target beneficiaries of Tata Power Delhi Distribution Ltd’s CSR initiatives, where Be.artsy designed the Haath badata, haath bantata, hamesha aapka saath nibhata campaign involving 200 nukkad natak in 217 JJ clusters in north and north-west Delhi. Most of the 1,000 people surveyed later found the format entertaining and educational and said they would use the information and spread it further. 

It also worked on a two-month programme for the UN Task Team on Youth, the youth affairs ministry and Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development to increase awareness of mental health issues among youth as part of International Youth Day 2014 celebrations.

Besides all this, Be.artsy has a long-standing engagement with the SaveLife Foundation for road safety programmes and has also conducted sessions on behalf of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM). “One other aspect which really makes me so happy is that more than 800 street-theatre artistes, graphics designers, copywriters, script writers and trainers now have gainful employment while doing what they love: bringing social change in topics close to their hearts,” says Mittal. “Honestly, that was my main goal at the start of my entrepreneurial journey: to make arts as remunerative as, say an MBA. Surely, a stretch goal such as even my six years in sales never gave me!”

“At this age, Shikha is doing an amazing job,” says Be.artsy’s mentor Arun Arora. “She uses innovative media of street theatre to enhance awareness among corporate audiences.” Arora, according to the organisation’s website, “provides the oxygen of positivity and motivation and steers people to the most practical way of getting great things done”. 

“The journey has certainly not been easy,” she admits. Her experience made her realise the importance of controlling one’s finances, bringing up the idea that is now Be your own Lakshmi -- an umbrella covering basic financial literacy and advanced investment training as well as an entrepreneurship course for young women. The programme, targeted at increasing financial literacy in young Indian women, debuted in August 2020 and is now being aggressively promoted by the National Stock Exchange (NSE). Unlike most of the other programmes, this is attended by both corporate employees and individuals and has already covered more than 5,500 women, and was one of the highlights of the recent World Investor Week.

Be.artsy has been one of NSE’s national partners in investor awareness since 2016, running them in a way that actually made sense to the target audience and were also interesting enough to capture their attention. More than 117,000 people have been covered so far through 820 sessions in six languages.

Clients all over India are now enchanted by street theatre and the other art-based solutions offered by her start-up, which has spread. “Let me state right away that my dream is that no future Shikha, Muhammad, or Leslie in India should be dumped into working life without proper awareness on how to safeguard their money, rights and wellbeing,” Mittal declares. “Be.artsy has started seeing interest in view of its reach and impact. Our efforts have received recognition, including IIM Bangalore’s Alumni Achiever Award in 2019-20 for the impact category ‘Social’, being covered as a trailblazer in the Forbes India W-Power Trailblazers List 2019 and my being called by radio and TV channels as a panel expert on preventing sexual harassment, gender sensitisation, and financial literacy.”

“We are not quite there, but I feel that Be.artsy has certainly established social awareness as a viable business instead of an activity associated with non-profits dependent on charity funds,” she adds.

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