Knowing your why - the most important part of starting a new business

entrepreneurship Jun 21, 2019

An interview with Sneha Shah, founder and director of Curaty  

Curaty champions early career artists by curating intellectually engaging exhibitions of their artwork in inspiring workspaces across London, with a mission to democratise the art experience for all.  

What led you to set up your own enterprise?

I studied in art school but as it was wrapping up I realised I didn’t have the platform I needed to transition my art practice into the “real world,” as most galleries require you to have years of work experience before you join in. That’s when I realised there have to be other fresh graduates like myself who struggled to find a place to showcase their work. Seeing this as a business opportunity as well I decided to start my own enterprise. When I came to UCL and received my Master's in History of Art, I found out about UCL innovation and Enterprise. Through their entrepreneurship courses I met founders of companies (both established and starting off), business advisors, lawyers, and marketing professionals who helped me overcome my fears, boost my confidence and launch Curaty. Now of course starting your own business is not an easy feat and there were many struggles along the way, but my goal was clear - I wanted to enable young artists by giving them a platform to continue producing art post-graduation and connecting them to art lovers. And the best part? This model allows us to cater to all art lovers regardless of their budget.

What are the aims of Curaty?

Curaty champions the patronage of exceptionally talented early career artists. Less than 33% of fine art graduates receive gallery representation or paid exhibition opportunities in the first five years after university. Curaty provides artists the platform to showcase their work in public and private spaces, whilst being paid. Often our exhibitions will be their first show after graduation. We recruit primarily from art schools across London and strongly believe in fair-pay for our artists.

Our signature ‘art on subscription program’ offers businesses an opportunity to engage staff through art, increase productivity and well-being, as well as foster a sense of belonging within the workplace. We lease intelligently curated museum quality art displays to align with company brand narratives and goals. Our aim is to strategically match artists with businesses - bridging the gap between art appreciators and artists. We additionally advise, commission, and place artworks in the collections of private individual patrons and commercial venues. Our vision is to bring out the art lover in every individual and democratise the art experience for all, one artist, one patron and one wall at a time.

Anthony Hensman, Field, 150 x 200 cm, 2018, Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Herringbone Linen, courtesy of the artist.

What is the biggest challenge that you faced in your career journey so far?

Any business is a two-part system that requires domain expertise and knowledge of how to run the business. I do not have a business degree so I knew the latter was certainly going to be my biggest challenge and it was. But instead of letting it intimidate me I took that as my greatest lesson and learned from everyone around me including friends, family, courses, books and even our clients! Once I went in for a pitch and the potential client (now client!)  said to me “I want you to do this entire thing again. Walk out, come back in, not as a student, but as an entrepreneur, and have confidence.” That was tough for me, but the moment I walked back into the room - I woke up, something inside me changed, I gave a pitch I am proud of, and thought “I know what I am doing, I can do this!”

What has helped you in your career journey? Have you had mentors?

One of the challenges of having your own business is knowing when to share information and when to keep things to oneself. In addition to industry specific mentors, it is crucial to have a trusted advisor - one who is empathetic to your emotions, but can also be critical and challenge you in a productive way. As touched upon previously, the biggest take away has been always having an open mind, knowing when to ask for help, listening and absorbing.  

What labels have been applied to you in your career and what have been the effects of these positive and negative?

I have always been called very ambitious. Positive and negative. In my job in a corporate setting, this came across as being negative. I wanted to grow very quickly within an organisation that had certain structures for growth, so it had no scope when you reached a certain level. Being ambitious means a lot to me, but initially it felt like a nagging burden… Why couldn’t I just be content? But why is it a bad thing? And I've been reading a lot about this and I realised I wasn't an odd case. For a lot of women, being ambitious has always been a negative factor. Sheryl Sandberg touches upon it in Lean In, and Michelle Obama in Becoming.

So, when I started my own business, I took it in my stride. Being ambitious is a good thing. I'm proud of that and encourage it within our team.

What do you think will make the biggest difference to speed up the move towards equality?

Concept of equality is contextual. This is not an easy question to answer. My brushstroke response is mindfulness, empathy, awareness of how biases are embedded in our current systems on a micro and macro level, and acting on the awareness, on an individual and institutional level will take us a long way. Whether it is how budgets are organised, the rubric through which we hire staff or make key decisions - we need to ask ourselves, who are they favouring? And subsequently course correct.

Our team at Curaty has been consciously thinking about the impact art can have on conversations of equality and the biases that exist in the world towards art and the cultural sector. Opportunity equality, is one of the most rampant issues. Emerging artists, however good they may be, receive few paid opportunities for exposure of their works. They get frustrated and burn out, and often leave their creative endeavours for more mundane income earning jobs. We constantly ask ourselves, how do we make being an artist a sustainable and acceptable career choice?

Our signature ‘art on subscription program’ is one of the ways we attempt to bridge this inequality gap and democratise the art experience. Not only do emerging artists receive exposure and income from art rental, but also companies that would otherwise have steered clear of art because of long term financial commitment, can now inspire their employees with a healthier work environment through intelligently curated art displays - in line with their brand. Hence the motto "We champion artists, no naked walls!"

Courtesy of the artist, Melissa Hartley, Follow, 22.4x 22.4 x 2 cm, 2019, Acrylic paint on canvas.

What advice would you give to other women who are early stages of navigating their careers, and might like to set up an enterprise?

I'm still in early stages with my enterprise, so I don't want to mislead. But I would definitely say speak up, ask for advice, ask for help. Talk about your idea. Record yourself. I went for this amazing entrepreneurship course where the coach at the end of the program got us to go to the top of the building, up 10 storeys and just shout out what we want to change in the world. By the time we’d run up 10 storeys, we could only shout out how we truly felt because we couldn’t think anymore. I highly recommend this method to anyone really looking for their ‘Why’, it’s quite empowering. That's the biggest thing when you start your business, to know your why. For me, it was because I'm an artist, I've gone through the experience and so my ‘why’ is very personal, I just never want to see any other artist lose their ambition or lose their passion. I want to make the world as supportive an environment as possible for them.

Take advantage of opportunities. Actively look for courses because meeting other entrepreneurs and being surrounded by them is the best way to start - they are going through it too, and completely empathise! Find your advisors. Surround yourself with people who will motivate you on days when you're questioning every life decision you have made. Listen to a lot of podcasts. I highly recommend “How I built this with Guy Raz”. Being an entrepreneur can get lonely, and requires mental conditioning, think of it as running a marathon rather than a sprint. Lastly, as Steve Job’s stated “Stay hungry, Stay foolish”.

 Instagram: @Curaty_London