Austin-based social entrepreneur Miki Agrawal recently sat down with host Dan Murray to talk business, entrepreneurship, and becoming a boss on the Secret Leaders podcast. The podcast features thought leadership from innovators, taste-makers, and industry disruptors. No stranger to innovating traditionally antiquated industries, Miki Agrawal is a disrupt-her, and the force behind brands like Wild (farm-to-table gluten-free pizzaria), Thinx (period panties on a mission), and Tushy (bidet attachments for every toilet).
Below, read on for highlights from their conversation:
Dan Murray: Hello and welcome to Secret Leaders from Infamous Media. I’m your host, Dan Murray Serter, and this is the podcast where we find out what it’s really like to be a top entrepreneur and how to get there. Today, I’m talking to Miki Agrawal, a serial entrepreneur who’s tried everything, from professional football, restaurants, and period pants, to her most recent venture, Tushy, which is a pretty unusual product, and growing very fast.
Now, Tushy have developed a collection of bidets and other accessories to the bathroom are going to help you become more hygienic, less wasteful, and kinder to your backside. Miki and I talk about scaling, hiring, employee theft, and the four Ps, but you’re going to have to listen to find out more about what ones those are. They’re not the traditional ones. I’ll tell you that much. But first, let’s rewind. And like any good therapist ask our brilliant guests what their childhood was like.
How Childhood Shapes Entrepreneurial Spirits
Miki Agrawal: It was, honestly, amazing in that I grew up with a Japanese mother and an Indian father. My mom was from Japan, like off the boat from Japan, my dad is off the boat from India, and they met and fell in love. Within seven months, well, they had their first kid and within a year they had three kids. So, I’m an Irish triplet. Basically, I have an identical twin sister and I have a third sister who’s 11 months older than us. We grew up in the suburbs of Montreal, Canada. So French was actually our first language. And we grew up playing soccer. We went to school seven days a week, Monday to Friday, we had French school, Saturday Japanese school, and Sunday Hindi school. We played soccer and badminton and sports and just did the wholesome immigrant family thing.
Dan Murray: Yeah, the immigrant, learn everything just in case thing?
Miki Agrawal: Yeah. Basically
Dan Murray: Sunday’s not a rest day. Sunday is like you got to get ahead of the Westerner’s day.
Miki Agrawal: Yeah. In Japan, they go to school and work six days a week, which I think it’s not good. But I think when you’re a kid, it’s like, every day, if I can learn it, it’s kind of, yeah, I talk about brain care, it supports your brain. And I think as kids we’re just sponges, we just want to keep learning and growing and it’s the best time to do that.
Dan Murray: So, talking a little bit about where you got onto in life, how do you think that your childhood actually impacted your career at all? What does your sister do, for example, your identical twin sister?
The Entrepreneurial Family
Miki Agrawal: Yeah, she’s also entrepreneur. She started early morning dance movement called Day Breaker, which is in 30 cities around the world. Obviously pre-COVID and then during COVID they had to do a whole virtual dance thing. I would say the thing that really supported us from our upbringing was that our parents were always, we grew up, my dad came here with $5 in his pocket, truly from India, sounds pretty cliche, but it’s true. In one generation, they put three kids through Ivy League schools and built the American dream for us. On the sheer idea that if you see something that you don’t like, you question it. Ask those questions and you are as much as somebody to fix a problem that you see, even if you don’t have resources, you have no money.
My parents, when we were 11 years old, sat us down and taught us how to budget. What does budgeting look like? Spend less than you earn, we’re giving you allowance, here’s how you start saving. I think a lot of my entrepreneurial and creativity comes from my parents. Growing up, we had all kinds of games. During our birthdays, all of our friends had to come knowing their current events for the year. And then my parents made this game called Guess Know, and you had to have these flags. It was just super competitive mentally. And physically, we had all these sports things, and they were just very creative and inspiring in that way.
And without even very middle class, my father was an, an, an engineer, they managed to just somehow stretch every dollar and make them all count. So I think we really learned a lot about using creativity, questioning everything, not just looking at things from one perspective, Japanese, Indian, Canadian, French Canadian, looking at a problem or things from many perspectives, I think really led us to thinking about problems in new ways as we became entrepreneurs.
Dan Murray: I love that. And you said as we became entrepreneurs, so talk to us about the transition. What was education through too? Did you have a first job? Did you go straight into entrepreneurship? What was your journey?
From Employee to Entrepreneur
Miki Agrawal: Well, I was a terrible employee in general, a pretty unemployable and a very strict Indian.
Dan Murray: We all are to be fair. Entrepreneurs are such annoying employees.
Miki Agrawal: Yeah, I was the worst and I got fired from pretty much all of my jobs growing up because I just wasn’t listening or I was questioning or I was talking back or I was running in the hall or I was eating wild in the job or giving away smoothies to friends or whatever job I had, I did something wrong. I think entrepreneurship was one of the major options for me, because it was really the only option, I guess. No, I’m not, it’s actually not why I became, but I really wanted to find my way, my place, and I couldn’t find it. And my first job out of college was investment banking and I was the world’s worst investment banker of all time. And I just didn’t care. And I would sneak out of my investment banking job actually twice a week to try out for the New York magic soccer team that was holding tryouts in Brooklyn.
So I’d convinced our Deutsche bank driver, well, first of all, the guards to hold my soccer bag, which was against the rules of the bank for them to hold anything. But they kept my soccer bag under their security desk. Because I used to sneak them food all the time. And then they would bring my soccer bag to the car service guy of the bank. And the car service guy would take my soccer bag, drive it down one block, turn the corner, and I would leave the bank literally at five o’clock with a FedEx box under my arm as though I was going to FedEx to deliver some little documents for the bank. And then I would walk outside, turn the corner, jump in the car, and then we would drive to Brooklyn.
And this car service driver, he loved soccer, and so he wanted to support my dream to become a professional soccer player. And so he drove me to Brooklyn, stayed there for three hours during the tryouts and the training and the getting ready and all that. And then would drive me back to the bank at 10 o’clock at night, so I can finish my work. And I did that for almost two and a half to three months during tryouts. Twice a week I did that, snuck out. It was a whole plan, and I made the team and I made the starting lineup and it was like, I was all set to quit my job. But then I was like, let me play in the first game of the season. And the first game of the season, I tore my ACL in the first eight minutes of my game.
Dan Murray: Wow, what sliding doors moment. Could have had such a different life?
Could I Have Had A Different Life?
Miki Agrawal: I know. I know. And it was one of those… So I said, “Okay,” so I stayed in the bank for another year to get the best health insurance, the best physical therapy. And then I went out and tried again, the following season made the team again, made the starting lineup again, came back 110%, worked so hard, and then tore my other ACL in the semifinal. So, I was like, “Okay.”
Dan Murray: That really is divine plan. It’s like, “Hey, this is not for you. We tried to tell you you’re stubborn, but let me tell you again.”
Miki Agrawal: Yeah, so the universe was like, “You’re done.” And so I was like, “Ugh.” So I got the memo, and then my next thing on my list that I want. So the big story was, my first week on my job, investment banking, I got, 911 happened and it was the first day in my life that I slept through my alarm clock on that day. And it was like my big wake-up call, 700 people in my girlfriend’s office died. Two people in my office died. It was just the most surreal, you can’t make this up. This is a terrible movie concept. It’s just not unfathomable that that happened.
But then that’s really what pulled me on my path. I’m going to try it for the Magic. I’m going to make movies. I’m going to start a business. I had to write, at 22 years old, I was contemplating deaths in a real way for the first time. And I was just like, “Man, am I going to stay in the same job because my parents like respect me if I do it or am I going to go and chase my dreams and really chase the fire inside because fuck it, I might die right now?” Literally, I was lucky I wasn’t 32 or 42 or 52 when I had this near-deaths experience, it was 22. So it was like that big moment of questioning. So that’s when I wrote down play soccer professionally, make movies, start a business. And I was like, “I’m going to do those things.”
Miki Agrawal: And so, soccer was done and then make movies and basically started picking up trash on the streets of commercials and music videos and driving directors around and getting producers coffee and being like, my parents were like, My Cornell student and blah, blah, what is she doing?” And then very quickly worked my way up to production, managing, producing commercials, music, videos, and things like that. And while I was on set of the commercials it was when I had my first idea. I was eating all the craft service on the tables, there’s all free food and free everything, and I was like, free is my favorite price.
And so, I was just like, I’m going to just keep eating this free shit. But it was like pigs and blanket, pizza, terrible process shit. And I was just like, “Ugh,” in just so much pain all the time. And I finally went home one day and I was like, “All right, what’s going on with my system?” I’m like, “I can’t.” Everything’s shutting down. And that’s when I researched, and I was like, oh my God, my first idea came to me, which was, I’m going to create New York City’s first farm to table alternative pizza concept made with gluten-free flowers, hormone free cheeses, local seasonal toppings, supporting local farms, creating local jobs. All these things that in 2004, 2005, nobody was talking about local seasonal farm-to-table, organic. It was a big idea, but I didn’t realize.
And I think entrepreneurs have to have a ton of naivete going into any business. Because like, “I could do that. Sure, of course I can.” And it doesn’t compute, “Wait, okay, I have to get a storefront. Now I have to put equipment in there that I’ve never worked before.” I don’t even know how to cook, at the time. And then I have to negotiate with the landlord of a New York City real estate property, and to secure a 20-year lease. And then I have to hire kitchen staff. I’ve never hired a person in my entire life. I need to get the bookkeeping and all the legit money and food and just everything to start a business. And I just didn’t even, I was like, “How could it be?” I ate the whole humble pizza, put it that way.
Shifting Peoples’ Perspectives
Miki Agrawal: So for seven years, I ran my restaurants myself and did a pretty… I’m proud of myself that I kept them going on sheer will and just making it. I remember standing outside my restaurant for years, every day, for years, giving out little tiny pieces of pizza to anyone walking by. Like, “You want to try some healthy, organic pizza.” They were like, “Ew.” I’m like, “Okay, let me try something else?” “Do you want to try some delicious farm table pizza?” I’d be like, “Oh, try.” So I learned what made people go, “Ooh,” what made people go lean in, lean out? I really think that it was like a PhD in humaning, and really understanding the human experience and what opens, what closes. What makes people open? What makes people close? That’s when I developed my thesis around how to shift culture, how to shift consciousness, how to get people to think about anything in a different way, where they would first recoil, but then lean in.
And over the years it has worked for my restaurants, it then worked for sinks, and it worked for Tushy. Across the board, this thesis, that I developed over these years were standing outside my restaurant, handing out pizza to everyone, it worked. So the thesis is basically three-prong. The first, it has to be a best-in-class product, whether it’s the tastiest pizza ever, you can’t just be like, “Here, firm-table-table pizza that’s gluten-free.” And it tastes like shit. People will be like, “Ew, never again.” Or underwear or bidets or whatever it is, it has to be something that I would want to wear, something I would want to see in my bathroom that doesn’t feel like a device or something attached to my toilet. And so it has to be best-in-class product number one.
Number two, it has an artful experience. The way of presenting, my restaurant interior, whether it’s just the experience of having somebody come to my restaurant, is it a romantic experience or is it like this loud lit, where people have overhead lights, and you’re just like, “What are you doing? This is not attractive for anyone.” Or for things or for Tushy, it was like, how do you make artful created where people are walking in a subway and seeing a period-proof underwear advertisement, but they’re leaning in because it’s so beautiful and artful, and not period. It’s more like, “Wow, that’s beautiful. Oh my God, they’re talking about periods. But my first impression was to lean in and therefore I’m not going to recoil because my first instinct was already opening.”
And then the third prong is accessible, relatable language. We’ve tried medical, clinical, academic, theoretical, all the different things, that was way too heady. We’re trying to use buzzwords and big words of this and it was over people’s heads, and we were like, “This is totally not working. So let me meet people where they are. Let me just talk to them like I’m texting my best friend.” What does it look like when I text my best friend? When we text our best friends, we’re silly, we’re funny. We’re just careless. We don’t give a shit that much. We’re just being authentic. We’re being fully ourselves. We’re not like, “What do they want me to say? And then let me say in a way that’s exactly what… ” And then that’s so inauthentic and it just feels yucky, and then people recoil again.
So that thesis, I really learned by standing at the restaurants for years and years, and years. And that led to two nine figure comp. It’s true, authenticity, you can’t fake it. Art, people love art. It doesn’t matter what, where you are from, how old you are. You look at art in a way that’s with reverence. And you look at it with this different level of just advertising shouting at me like, “Eh, I don’t like that.” Don’t shout.
For more musings, read the Miki Agrawal IdeaMensch interview.