Shobhna S Kumar: Meet a female entrepreneur who can't think straight

In the middle of 2009, when the world was dealing with worst financial crisis since great depression, and same-sex marriage became legal in Sweden, back in India Shobhna S Kumar broke her ankle.

What's the big deal about a woman in India breaking an ankle, you may think. True, it is not. But, it is this broken ankle that eventually resulted in the setting up of India's first online queer (LGBT) bookstore,

And that is what happened in 2009.

"I was bed for over three months and wanted to read queer books, I realised there wasn't much material out there, even Amazon did not deliver due to customs restrictions," says Kumar, 46. She ideated with her partner and decided to invest an amount of Rs 10 lakh in the business or, as Kumar puts it, "empowered queer business".

Taking a chance - or going by her gut or intuition whatever you may call it - was nothing new to Kumar. She was studying in the US when she met her partner (who was in India) online. Within a few months Kumar took a chance for life and love, came to India and has been with her partner here ever since. It has been almost 12 years now.

"I call myself an accidental entrepreneur," says Kumar, who is trained as a community worker and studied spirituality in San Francisco.

Before Queer Ink came into existence, Kumar did consultancy work for several NGOs in India across several states. She played several roles, worked in the area of HIV-AIDS awareness and prevention, changes in the NGO policy and the like. Sometimes she was just an observer, sometimes a supervisor or reviewer of grassroots workers. Meeting several queer people and hearing their stories were part of her work life. She visited local bus stops, community toilets and such places to spread a word on safe sex practices and many related issues. "It was an interesting experience," she says. As someone who counsels queer community even today during spare time, she sure is a good listener.

But language was a big barrier in being a talker. "My Hindi sucked," she says. Her tone almost sounded like she wished she had a flair for several tongues - that way she could have done much more.

In these 7-8 years, she realised that India's queer community itself lacked awareness about queer literature. And even when people were aware, most queer material was very academic and there was always a reluctance to buy such books in retail bookstores.

The broken ankle surely nudged her to create a market for queer literature when none existed. "We wanted to create a space where books could reach people at the comfort of their homes and PCs." But, moving from a not-for-profit NGO mindset to a for-profit business mindset was not an easy process.

"Becoming a for-profit entrepreneur was a steep learning curve for me. I had to balance out my inner self from NGO perspective to for profit." That is where her partner, a corporate person, helps. She helps Kumar keep her focus on the bottom line. Several times during the conversation, Kumar unknowingly moved from "I" to "we", a clear sign that she acknowledges the fine balance her partner brings to her life.

But, she realised, changing the mindset was a minor challenge. Setting up an online portal was a task in itself. Talking to book distributors proved to be another - first and foremost, they had to be convinced that LGBT literature wasn't porn. For this, they had to be sensitised about LGBT issues and literature.

"These conversations were the hardest. Here I was a women talking to male distributors about LGBT issues, literature. I spoke to young men, old men, the moment they heard the word hijra, people used to close down. But, it was important to include the hijra community in the conversation. But that's when sensitisation happened and a relationship was built," Kumar says.

Setting the business from a legal point of view was the easy part. Kumar said in a self-reflective pose, as she spaced out for a moment of two, "I had to create a market, as I went along."

She started by actually buying Rs 8 lakhs worth of books (Indian and international) from distributors and stored them in her second bed room at the couple's suburban Mumbai flat. A mighty big risk, but then Kumar has always relied on her intuition and of course the solid research.

The website was launched in 2010, the first order came the same day the site was launched, she made a hand delivery, Kumar says with a warm smile. Within the first six months the website had started to get decent orders. By the third year, the site broke even. The Delhi high court judgement decriminalising Section 377 in 2009, sure did help pick up business. Today, the website has over 500 titles.

In fact, when Kumar started the site, she hardly knew that soon she would become an accidental publisher too. "Readers wanted to read Indian characters, Indian locations, Indian experiences, books in local languages, things that could relate and identify with."

That's when Kumar transitioned into a publisher and Queer-ink came out with its first publication Out!. Today, the site has 200 hits daily and more over the weekends.The publishing house is currently working on five manuscripts. They are on the verge of putting a new interactive website for LGBT community. Queer mela, queer book exhibitions as well as various workshops are a part of Queer Ink's culture, and the events are open for all - queer and straight people. Kumar has many firsts to her name, first queer online book store, first queer book publisher, she is also the founder of UMANG group for LBT women, which is now managed by Humsafar Trust.

This self-confessed introvert, lover of books, pours her heart out when it comes to work. But home is where she recharges her batteries. "I am not so much of a party person - neither a drinker nor a smoker, and I love spending time at home with my partner," says Kumar.

She believes in having a work-life balance and maintaining equilibrium. And even when she fumbled on the word "equilibrium" a couple of times, she finally put her head down, centred herself and said the word correctly. The easy with which Kumar centred herself was evident that very moment. She seems to be firm with herself and is someone who wouldn't take an excuse, even from herself. She is determined to keep Queer Ink's business profitable and also continue to give back to the LGBT community and bring LGBT issues to the mainstream. Kumar has managed to stay in the mainstream, and not make a bubble around LGBT, herself or her company. And so she is not looking for PE funding as of now. "...But we are open to being funded on project to project basis," she says. She does not want to dilute Queer Ink's vision because focus is very important for an entrepreneur.

"Stick to your path, because everything else will try and pull in different directions. But you be strong and stick to your path," is what she would tell women entrepreneurs in the country.

She does think, it is difficult to be a woman in this country. So, she says, "women need to learn negotiations skills, how do we as women; negotiate mainstream lives, mainstream expectations, expectations of families."

After the recent Supreme Court judgement that set aside the earlier order that decriminalised gay sex, the queer community in the country is facing challenging times. What this also means is the queer businesses will also have its own set of challenges. But for Kumar, who's committed to and focussed on the cause and its business, it's only a matter of time before the flywheel gains a momentum of its own.

Updated Date: Mar 08, 2014 15:58 PM