Nandini Oomman believes in the power of storytelling and the potential of women’s networks. That’s why she started The Women’s Storytelling Platform, over two years ago in Hanoi, Vietnam, where she was then based. Last week, Oomman was in India to set up the Mumbai version of the business.
Mumbai-born Oomman is a global health and development specialist who has worked around the world. When life took her to Hanoi, Vietnam, she came up with the idea of hosting storytelling salons where women could come together and share their stories. She started hosting the event in an informal way, but the salon’s popularity led her to realise the enormous interest women had in each other’s stories. That’s how her trademarked company, The Women’s Storytelling Salon, was born.
The salon will convene once a quarter and aims to celebrate women’s achievements, encourage conversations, and inspire action. Each quarter, the salon will feature two women who will tell their stories in a structured way, and then invite comments and questions from audience members.
Oomman says that storytelling is an age-old tradition, and that virtual connections aren’t as powerful as being a part of an active audience. She says that she is a researcher by nature and that neuro-biological research shows how people’s brains change when they listen to a story
When her family relocated to Washington DC, Oomman decided to continue the project. She launched the salon in DC, but wasn’t sure if it would take off. That was on December 8, 2014. The salon has since hosted Hillary Clinton’s chief economist, documentary filmmakers who made a film on the 2016 presidential election, top management at Planned Parenthood, and many other illustrious names. She jokingly tells us about how she used to force her children to volunteer at events, and urge them to bring their friends to help out. “Now those same volunteer spots are so coveted,” she says.
When Vijaya Pastala, founder of Under The Mango Tree, read about the salon, she decided to contact Oomman via social media to talk about starting a space like this in Mumbai. Though Oomman will continue to be involved, Vijaya and actress Avantika Akerkar will be the curators of the salon in Mumbai, and they kicked off the salon’s Mumbai edition by telling their own stories.
So why stories? Oomman says that storytelling is an age-old tradition, and that virtual connections aren’t as powerful as being a part of an active audience. She says that she is a researcher by nature and that neuro-biological research shows how people’s brains change when they listen to a story. “You can find yourself in your own story,” she said at the event.
One of the benefits of such a platform, says Oomman, is that it can be a great space for women to connect with one another. Younger women have found internships and jobs through the platform, and the connections made between women who meet at the events can translate into great friendships and business partnerships.
Indeed, the first session had in its audience many interesting women who had found out about the event through Facebook, word of mouth and otherwise. Actor Dolly Thakore, Master of Wine, Sonal Holland, Anupa Mehta, and many other prominent professionals were amongst those present.
One of the benefits of such a platform, says Oomman, is that it can be a great space for women to connect with one another
During the event, Oomman urged Akerkar and Pastala to speak about their lives. The women spoke about their journeys, aspirations and learnings. Akerkar described her professional life as “a smorgasbord of varied experiences”, from helping resettle lives of refugees finding new homes in NYC and running a policy think tank on improving public transportation in Mumbai to finally starting her own consultancy. Pastala spoke about her journey of becoming a successful social entrepreneur and her artisanal honey brand, which is the first in India.
Oomman is off to London to set up the Women’s Storytelling Salon’s London edition. While the stories are confidential, sessions is every salon are recorded, and Oomman wants to start working with the different curators across the world to use the content in different ways. She doesn’t know what shape it will take yet. It could be a podcast, blog, book, or videos, she says. She also wants to encourage women of all ages to attend. The power of the salon is the intergenerationality of it, she says.