Pooja Pradeep

Pooja Pradeep is an educator, dancer, and a serial entrepreneur, the Founder & Executive Director of Letters of Love which is a youth-led international non-profit organization that provides psychosocial support to refugee children through art, sports, dance, music, and other workshops while creating a globally aware, empathetic citizenry of young leaders in classrooms. She is also the Communications & Advocacy Manager Community Arts Network (CAN) which is a platform that aims to engage, enable, and empower people through arts – be they individuals, organizations, or whole communities.

Pooja was born to two incredible, hard-working, and kind parents and was brought up along with a wonderful sister in Kerala, India. Her mom always told me that she first learned how to dance before she learned how to walk. She graduated as a Mechanical Engineer with a specialization in Energy Engineering from VIT University, Vellore (India), while leading, dancing, and choreographing for the university Hip-Hop dance crew all those years.

During her last semester of engineering, Pooja had the opportunity to be the dance counselor at a camp hosted by my university for 100 odd underprivileged children which brought her to a turning point in her life. That made the decision to pursue her true calling- Education.

She finished her Bachelors in Education from St.Xavier’s Institute of Education, Mumbai (India), and ever since, she has been working with the youth around the world in the fields of Empathy-centric Education, Conflict Transformation, Psychosocial Support to Refugee & Migrant Communities, Edtech and Entrepreneurship.

Connect with Pooja here:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/pooja-pradeep/

Website: https://pooja-pradeep.squarespace.com/

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Pooja Pradeep Shares Her Remarkable Life Journey As a Letter of Love

Pamela Bardhi
Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of underdog. Today I have a super special guest here with me. Pooja, how are you?

Pooja Pradeep
I am very well given the times that we’re happy and healthy going on. Thanks, Pam.

Pamela Bardhi
Amen. It’s so awesome to have you here, your energy radiates, and such a positive and fun person. And I just can’t wait to get into your story and so for those of you listening. Pooja is tuning in from India, which I think is the coolest thing ever. I just can’t wait to hear her story and she’s up to so many incredible things in the world. But I always start off with an extremely loaded question, but it’s my favorite. Pooja, what inspired you on your journey to where you are today?

Pooja Pradeep
Always starting with the heaviest ones, I want to say that I think growing 0up. My parents brought my sister up with the kind of value system that resembled this. You have a problem with something. Oh, okay, good to know. Go ahead, fix it. It was always that growing up with that, in a world that we live in right now. Rampant with inequities and legacies of conflict in multiple domains. There was always this pool of Ah, that bothers me.

This bothers me. The other thing bothers me and was always about how to do something about it. I just think growing up with that value system, really inspired me to constantly evolve. And go ahead and do something about it. Problem-solving through and through and children came along, as I became a teacher. And that just became my biggest motivation and quite the vision. Because they are showing you the key to a better future.

Pamela Bardhi
Amen. I love that. So, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Pooja Pradeep
Oh, a bunch of things. Let’s go to sixth grade. I think that’s my earliest memory where I wanted to be an astronaut. Why I have no idea, I think I learned how to draw a pair of binoculars. And I’m like, Oh, that’s what astronauts would need. So I want to be an astronaut. I’ve always wanted to be a dancer, I would say that like my mom would joke that. I started talking before I started walking on in my little Huggies Pampers. That I’ve always been a dancer, it’s just been my default state to move with this music in my head.

So the astronaut thing went by South Asian, so by default. I like to identify myself as a nerd, so math and science came easy. Engineering was the conventional option, so it was very much into physics and very much into English literature, too. So basically I wanted to be like a bunch of things. But I never thought I would be an educator or sort of devote my life to kids. They were just not on the table, wanting to be everything else, so that’s quite an interesting twist.

Pamela Bardhi
I love that, I love a whole slew of like different things, that you wanted to be. Very creative and each and every single one of them. So what led you on your teaching journey. Like, what inspired you to go down that route.

Pooja Pradeep
So I am a mechanical engineer by my first qualification and didn’t want to do that. It was great physics and math are wonderful, beautiful to me. But I wanted to pursue dancing and I got a scholarship to Broadway. I was going to pursue that in 2014 when I graduated and this was my last semester in college. And I was ready to go and dance for the rest of my life. That was the same year when I was invited as a field expert for a camp, sort of like a counselor. The camp was for 200 orphan kids hosted by my university. So that was my first ever interaction with kids. We were just dancing away. It was just like a dance workshop day in and day out for an entire week.

And in one of those interactions while dancing, a child in front of me. Goes through a panic attack and she sort of blacks out. So as soon, I take care of her, I take her aside and I talk to her and she then confides in me. Because she was moving with her body and expressing, which is dancing in front of her classmates. We’re also boys and she’s a nine-year-old, I want to remind us all. Because of that, she got reminded of the time that she was sexually assaulted as a child. And that was a big blockade for her and at that point. I had no idea what to do with that information or what to do with this child. Of course, I mean, being women, we’re not new to such stories.

Most of those are our own experiences. But to have a nine-year-old sort of tell you looking up to you was a lot. And what I did at the top of my head was I use dance for that day, to sort of talk about gender and stereotypes and the inequities that exist. Which in the Indian context is not a difficult thing at all. So it was as simple as Oh, you guys, what song? Should we dance next? And they’d all say one particular item number from Bollywood. Like, Okay, great, great song. Let’s talk about the lyrics. By virtue of it being an item song, all these lyrics objectify women, so when you dissect those lyrics.

Which is the case largely in the music industry, too, I feel, and when you dissect it. And when you ask the kids Hey, so is this right? That doesn’t sound right. We shouldn’t be talking about women like that. So throughout the week for this particular girl, to see how her boy classmates. Were sort of like empathizing and saying the right things. Was very transformative for her and she found safety and comfort in that space. And over the week that we worked together and by the end of it. She was adjudged the second-best answer, she bloomed as a personality. That was just a calling, like, all it took was a little bit of extra time, a little bit of conscious, intentional effort.

And that’s like a lifelong, sustainable change for this one person and then I was like, that’s it. I remember calling my dad and I was like, hey, so dad. Remember the time that I said, I don’t want to be an engineer, I want to be a dancer. And my dad’s like, Oh, no, did you come up with something else? I’m like, Yeah, I don’t want to be a dancer. I want to be a teacher. He’s like, what is backing you and like, we support you, we trust you. That was it and I went on to do a second bachelor’s in teaching and just everything snowballed from there.

Pamela Bardhi
That’s amazing. Oh my god, I love that story. And just with a little bit of help. She was able to understand, you know like, her traumas and where that really came from. But I feel like you just have that nurturing energy though, too, which like, radiates. It’s, very motherly and very cute. I got it from my mama. Gonna Say I’m like. So, who was a big influence and inspiration in your life?

Pooja Pradeep
Oh, yeah. Well, mother, like hands down. I’m not religious or anything, but I often say that I don’t believe in a God. But I believe in you, mom. That’s usually to get something out of her, but I mean it too. I think mom’s just been a huge influence, I think growing up. There are several instances other than she’s just like this. This personality, who is the epitome of selflessness and just unconditional love, that’s always been there. She’s a dental surgeon, I saw her work 16 to 17 hours a day. While I was growing up as a child, there was always this tug of war. Between work and her patience and her very critical work. And also a crying helpless child, with all my needs and wants and I’ve seen a balance in the whole thing.

I’ve also just seen how she’s the most empathetic person in any single room. She walks in sometimes even you know, not by choice. Sometimes she does not want to feel as much. But she still ends up absorbing what’s in the air. And I think that is one thing that genetically sort of transpired into me which I’m very grateful for. But other than that, yeah, I remember this very, this one incident. Well, two things that have been like offerings from her to me. One is I remember asking her Hey, why are you not religious? I mean, typically, my family is supposed to be a Hindu practicing family. Like, why are you not like the other women lighting lamps. Or like worshipping the idols at home and stuff like that?

Why are you always working? And I remember her telling you that Oh, so my religion is serving people. For me, work is indeed worship and that’s what I do. That’s how I pray and that became, such a huge moment for me and I was like, Yeah, that makes sense. It is in work that I see a higher being and in this particular, you know, even the service industry, that’s just there. And the other time was the only one time, she actually remembered my birthday was my ninth year birthday and as a gift. She gifted me Ileana edge Porter’s book called Pollyanna.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book. It’s about this young girl who is taught to play the glad game by her parents. Just finding reasons to be glad in the thick of adversity. And I think the starting story of that, which I really want to share with. So Pollyanna is from a really poor family ailing parents and every Christmas. She would wait for the donations the church would spare for these kids. And one year, she really prayed for shoes and what she got was a pair of crutches. She was really upset and her parents were like, Okay, well, tell me one.

That should be one way where you can actually be glad about this and she’s like, yeah. I guess I can be glad that I don’t have to use them and they’re like, yeah, there you go. And that was about playing the glad game. I know hyper positivity has its own consequences but in a lot of ways that really helped me. Find silver linings wherever I found myself. Mom’s a superhero.

Pamela Bardhi
Oh, Mom’s a superhero. That’s amazing, so like, because I know you’re up to so much now these days. So going from getting a Bachelor’s in education, so walk me through how your journey was after that.

Pooja Pradeep
Okay, it’s a beautiful story that dovetails into each other elements. So in 2014, I graduated with an engineering degree. In 2015, I graduated with my bachelor’s in education and I’m a teacher. Now, I teach physics and math. And that also the year when the Syrian war and the refugee crisis caught international attention. Ever since the alarm, Cody was washed ashore. The little boy that very horrific image and a bunch of reports that came one after the other. And for me, I think in my time, the time that I’ve known. That was the largest humanitarian crisis and the most televised one. I had never up until that point, seen that many reports that many Facebook Lives. About bombs being dropped into similar neighborhoods and stuff like that.

And I think international media also really stepped up. I think it was that time of rampant digital, you know, transparency in a lot of ways. To me, it just seemed like you’re watching this horrific series of events. And you can sort of switch it off and just go on about your life. Or the pizza you want for dinner, have fun with friends and that’s it. That sort of dichotomy of that really bothered me a lot and I just again. If that value system kicks in, I have a problem with it, I better do something about it. At the time, I’m 23 broke, not influential, has no idea how the world works at large.

And there’s no knowledge of charity or philanthropy or social work, really. Because in India, those are not part of our culture or our lifestyle. It’s a developing country with its own problems. So I really struggled with what to do. But I really wanted to do something, because I think another part that really hit me. Was that more than half of the victims of the Syrian refugee crisis were children. And that was really shocking. So I remembered how my students at school, although they would fare so badly in the physics and math papers. Because those are those dreadful subjects they all hate. They would really look forward to the little post-it notes that I would stick on. There are pieces or project presentations, etc.

And that would just have like, the one good thing that I saw them do. Or the one beautiful artwork. That they did two weeks back or something that meant so much to them. And I was like, okay, so that should work and I remember growing up letters meant everything to me. Mom and Dad would go to work, we would often my sister and I would wake up to like a letter on the dining table. With what to eat what to do and that they love us and they miss us and all of that. So I’m a big fan of letters, so old school, I can’t even tell you. I think I’m born in the wrong century, so I was just like. Okay, I’m going to send a bunch of refugee children letters.

And the idea was to make them smile, because up until that point. I did not see any visual of a happy child or normal child. Because children deserve to be happy, they deserve to learn they deserve safety, all of that, so I was like. Okay, I really want to change that. And the thought process is like this, okay, I must send letters, what are the letters I have loved? So what do I call it letters of love and came up with the Facebook page, as shabbily or as quickly. The idea was, okay, a really happy picture will get printed out as a postcard, a really short, sweet message like a rock star. I’m looking out for you all the way from Boston in the United States.

I can’t wait for you to like study and play hard and come your one day. We could travel the world together, lots of love your friend from the other side of the world. Something of that sort, that would get translated to a native language. Because I realized that, actually see that someone took the pain to write it in their native language. Would have been great and that was the idea. So a simple piece of postcard with doodles and stickers and a nice little post-it note on top. That was the whole idea, but where do I send it. Who’s gonna distribute, I did not have the resources to answer that.

I had no idea at the time how to draft one. Because I know how to make a computational fluid dynamic model at that point. But not a project proposal made one send it out to 536. I really remember that number, even today. 536 email ids that I found by just Google searching the UNHCR offices in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Which were the three countries that were maximum. There was maximum influx of refugees at that point. How many responses did I get? Zero, nada, but contact had somebody working at the Gaziantep office in Turkey, who said. Who’s your wonderful idea? Send it through, so that’s like a full cycle that’s established, I can just send them the letters, they’ll do the distribution.

So the first year in 2015, 2016, New Year, we sent letters to 2300, Syrian refugee children. At that point, so many people were just like, what is the point of letters? Aren’t you making them more upset by showing them something so happy? What is the difference? Is the letter really going to make all of those questions all right and I didn’t have an answer. I think when I started off very honestly, I started off from a place of, oh. How do I contribute to this? I feel better so that I can go to sleep better. And I really didn’t know what children really needed. Send the letters. Anyway, I was like, let’s see. There was 2.4 gb of media that came back.

And they were filled with joy, just children overjoyed, getting letters, reading them. Talking to each other about your new friend and volunteers using those as learning materials. For example, hey, Muhammad, where is your letter from? Like, oh, this is from Brisbane, Australia. And then the volunteer goes, do you know what Brisbane Australia is? Let me show you a map and this is where Brisbane Australia is. Do you know what people over there look like, do you know the other cities in Australia, do you know the ocean surrounding it? Like no, tell us so it just became a learning material for them and it truly just became an incentive to like, learn and wonder and be more curious.

And I was just amazing. So suddenly all the gory distressing images of refugee children. That I have seen up until that point, that narrative was shifting into these are children. Just like any other who deserve to live in a world just like any other child and get an excellent education, health care, all of that. So eye-opening, but at that point, I was exhausted. No, I blew up all my savings on logistics and I was young and didn’t have much. And was super tired writing those letters by hand. It was just like a lot and then, I thought it was one of those, one-time things that you do. Yeah, just to feel good, like a Social Work Project of sorts. But in July 2016, UNHCR came back, Hey, you won’t believe this.

But the kids are asking if their friends, will be writing to them again for the coming New Year. I was like, okay, their friends will and they’re like, also, a few more kids have joined this on our side. Do you mind sending letters to everybody on like, Sure, I will. So I’m thinking from 1300, Mega 2000, or 3000. But they said that they needed 13,000 letters because Afghan and Iraqi community centers also wanted in. Because word spread as the letters of love being this one global movement. Connecting people across borders, through letters I heard I was like. Oh, so this is working, I need to really understand the impact of it. So that’s what it’s kind of getting to the next stage and all along while at the same time.

I’m a teacher in classrooms, so as I go. If it’s like a free period, they’re like, Oh. They all want to know what the teacher does in our free time. So what do you do on Sundays and stuff? And I’m like, Oh, I have this thing called letters of love. What is it about? I’m like, Oh, you know what? The Syrian war and these are like, 15-year-olds I’m talking about? And they’re like, yeah, we’ve heard of it, what about it. They would just listen to what I had to say and it’s so interesting how kids are just like, Okay. This is bad and now that we know, what can we do about it and that’s when it all struck me. You know, all of us, including us, when we’re children.

When we’re like in kindergarten, who do you want to be, oh. I want to be a superhero, I want to eradicate homelessness, I want to abolish poverty, big, big, big ambitions. You fast forward to let’s say grade 11 and 12. Hey, what do you want to be? I want to be an investment banker or doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer. It’s as if the system sucks. It changes your attitude and you so I was like, oh, God is where I want to put an upload. And I want to create an empathy-centric curriculum that uses current affairs. So your Syrian war and refugee crisis, which is just like everywhere, around you. As a case study to inspire empathy and to actually come up with action plans.

Because I honestly think if you don’t follow awareness with an action plan, it’s just data. Like there’s no point in just having data you have a plan. So that was the idea and then, we had educational programs. We started building up that under letters of love. And the whole idea was teachers, could adopt this 45 50 minute module to raise awareness and get all the kids to write letters. Which will then be actually sent across to refugee kids through our networks. So it was like a full cycle thing and it just kept snowballing from there in 2017. I go as a counselor to seeds of peace, It’s a summer camp in Maine, It’s 28 year old now.

It’s a beautiful Leadership Camp that invites teenagers from conflict countries. And explores leadership and dialogue through a traditional summer camp model. So you’re essentially eating with, playing with, sleeping in a bunker with, and engaging. In very difficult dialogues, so-called other, so you have Israelis Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians. Indians Pakistanis have gotten us, along with Americans and Brits and it’s this beautiful testing, challenging but magical space. And over there, of course, they’re all such enthusiastic teenagers, especially right out of a camp. They’re all like, oh, the world is one we have so much work to do.

And everyone learned about letters of love and they’re like, sign us up. So immediately after the 2017 summer, I had groups of young people counselors and campers included in seven countries. They were like, we’re gonna do a lot of things and that’s the beauty of letters of love. It’s always been a space, where people just come on and think of it as their own home. If their own piece of clay to mold and I always wanted to be a space like that. Where you can come with your ideas. And this space will provide you resources, skill sets, mentorship, whatever you need to make your idea happen. Never let anybody tell you that you can’t work on your idea.

Because you’re young or you don’t have money. Or you know, many of those things kids are often exposed to. And it just kept snowballing from this point. I couldn’t do letters of love and manage my day job. So I quit that I found so much more value in letters. It was hard to sort of establish it, I have no sense of how to really incorporate the nonprofit at that time. Because I didn’t know anybody in my ecosystem, who did that everybody at that point were doing their masters abroad. which was something that I would have done or I would have been a dancer was also crazy.

And then 2018 Finally, I incorporated out of the states as a 501 c three letters of love is a, you know. International nonprofit that provides psychosocial support. Which basically is emotional support through art, dance, music, and sports. A letter is a happy addition to every single workshop of ours to sort of. Create a kind world for the kids to grow up and also to sort of cultivate safety around them. And truly give them a childhood that they deserve all this. While also raising a very empathetic citizenry of young changemakers. Because that’s the constant feedback loop, right? Like, it’s not just enough that I and my team are doing this, I need more people to also be able to do that.

And that’s how letters of love were born and then it’s just been letters of love. You know, just a lot of field work, a lot of youth movements, a lot of mobilization. We’ve done educational programs for more than 10,000 students around the world. And this is all teachers coming on board, volunteers coming on board. My youngest Oh, the team is 35 people. It’s a party. 35 kids, I would say I’m the oldest of 28. The average age of the team is 22. My youngest, Gabby, she’s from Alaska. She joined me when she was 13 and she’s single-handed. Yeah, she single-handedly headed the student ambassador program. Handling 20 other enthusiastic high school leaders and their projects and she’s now 16 it’s also crazy.

But yeah, so we have a student ambassador program for young leaders. There are community engagement programs, where if you’re a company or corporate or even just like a society. How do you come together to address a particular conflict in your region locally or globally? And all two letters, right. It is a beautiful medium of connection and then my favorite pen pal project, which was quite a logistical nightmare. But the idea was to actually connect ABC senders ABC to receivers XYZ. And also facilitate a connection back to see where that would lead. Because I often think that the best way to understand a side of a conflict that you don’t know. You’re far removed from making a friend, you make a friend. You naturally have the motivation to empathize.

So the first year we piloted this project with a bunch of children, who I take sessions for in Bombay. And they write the letters and the letters are sent to internally displaced kids in Syria. Because we have a chapter there, we literally smuggled them in and smuggled them out. Imagine 50 kids in Gaza again. Smuggle the letters and smuggle the letters out and also to a refugee community center in Turkey. I think if I was also in Gaziantep and then we got the letters back. The whole thing cost us a lot of money, a lot of time. But the results of it, it was just so beautiful to have children really write down.

And ask those three basic simple, but thought-provoking questions. Which we as adults often go like, Oh, yeah, I wish I was a child again. And those connections have been beautiful, those friendships are still fostering and that’s beautiful. So a bunch of things led us to love has been doing. The pandemic hit us all, pretty severely, I would say, especially because we’re a volunteer organization. I think volunteers work, that extra energy that you have at the end of the day. After you tend to your family and your own personal wants and needs and your work in your pet and whatnot. At the end of the day, you have that part left and you’re like, Oh, I want to do good with this.

I want to sort of shift the spark and give it to somebody else, in a way with the pandemic. What I’ve noticed is that extra spark has been repurposed into self-preservation. Or fending for your family while hunting for another job. Because you just got fired from yours or multiple other things, your mental health, all of it. So there was a steady depletion in that capacity to volunteer, so I put all of us on a wellness break and said. If anyone has capacity, let’s just form a smaller team and see what we can do. Because with the pandemic, we also realized that the frontline workers are a growing community. That also needed acknowledgment and words of love from the rest of the world. Who were all socially distanced.

I mean, what better time would possibly exist for connections to build, rather than a socially distant world. So I thought that was a huge responsibility for letters of love. And we actually shapeshifted and deliver letters and we still do up to more than 10,000 doctors and nurses in five countries. It was just beautiful to see communities just come together safely, literally, with sanitizing each and every bag. The two volunteers who went to drive and pick these up with a government permit. Would be dressed in PPE and we would just go drop letters with the doctors and nurses in various hospitals.

And the impact is so simple, they just feel seen and heard and celebrated and acknowledged and they’re grateful. That’s one good thing in their utterly terrifying life these days. We’re transforming schools in Palestine right now under-resourced schools, with giant blow-ups of the kids. They go to the school just to sort of make the environment more conducive to joy and learning. So we’re doing a bunch of things at the intersection of well-being, learning your well being and learning. That’s what I would say and the result of that is utter joy. And yeah, that’s pretty much where I am right now. It’s been a few years of my life cut short in a few minutes.

Pamela Bardhi
I love it, I mean, it’s just what a journey that you’ve had and how it’s grown. So beautifully or organically is like the most remarkable thing ever, so I just commend you for that. And just like acting out of love and kind of just doing it, even though you’re like. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m just gonna do it anyway. Yeah, a lot of heart and a lot of courage, you know. With all that you’ve experienced in that, you know, like, I always ask this question like. What would your older self tell your younger self, based on what you know, now?

Pooja Pradeep
Oh, quite the question. I would tell my younger self, that Pooja, whatever you’re doing right now is amazing. It is valuable, it is important. But it is also just as important to draw healthy boundaries and say, stop and rest when you have to. I think being in this field, it’s sort of like my growing edge. How to love yourself and take care of yourself. So that you can do the best for the others. My mentor, always tells me, you have to take care of yourself the most so that I can do the best for the others. And that is something that I even tried today.

I’ve gotten so much better but back in the day. I was sucked into the culture of glorifying working 18 hours non-stop, no Sundays, no holidays. You’re just working, working working. You don’t have time for anything on your own. That’s a cool thing. It’s not what I learned the hard way that had some bad spellings, into chronic depression and anxiety and you know. Habits are an important lifestyle, they’re so important, and self-love and self-care. That is one thing I would tell the younger Pooja, although I wonder if she’d Listen, she’s a little stubborn. She just does things.

Pamela Bardhi
So much for sharing that I was gonna ask, what have been some of your biggest challenges? And like, how did you overcome them? What helped you overcome them? Especially as an entrepreneur, no matter if it’s not really anything. When you’re heading a big mission, especially like yours. There’s obviously obstacles, especially in the first few years when you’re trying to figure everything out. How did you get past that? Because I know there’s a lot of entrepreneurs listening or somebody, who’s starting a business or something that, like. Okay, how do I get past this block that I’m having right now?

Pooja Pradeep
Yeah, well, I think for me, I mean, you know, other than the good old classic hurdles of funding. And a very rigorous mentor, circle, etc, I think I want to focus on mental health. Because even though there are resources and stories of a greater magnitude than ever existed before now. I don’t think it is trustworthy enough, I think I was young and I have a bubbly personality. That is my personality. Sure, I’m not faking it, this is who I am. But there is also another side to me, which likes the quiet. Sometimes I just completely shut down and I’m just by myself. And that part of me was really tapped into. When I got diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I also wanted to talk a little bit before I actually got diagnosed.

I think I want to speak for myself and of course, people who are listening or you know. Free to sort of interpret it the way they want to. But I was under the impression that I’m too emotionally intelligent for anybody else. I know what I’m doing. I’m fairly like an emotionally intelligent person. But that sort of overshadowed my judgment, when I needed help. And I was totally like, Oh, I don’t need it, I know what a therapist is gonna tell me. She or he’s going to tell me to do ABCD. Yeah, I know. I’ll do it. That went on for a year and my panic attack became as frequent as three times a week.

And I would be traveling here, there, everywhere I was living out of a suitcase at that point. Was consistently keeping up this image that I have right and you’re young. You’ve just founded a nonprofit, you have to be enterprising all the time. So you know, you wake me up from sleep and I just need it. Oh, hi, my name is Pooja. I’m from Bombay, India, and letters of love as a nonprofit. It was just that the pitch was ready. But I was struggling deep down. I remember mentioning it to my best friend at the time and they literally thought I was joking. Like they legit thought I was joking.

Because I’m so bubbly and so happy on the outside that you know. I would often just like, try and do these attention-seeking things, that’s just a part of my personality. And they thought it was an act. So it took a while for me to get to the therapist to find me. I think the last panic attack I had was when I was on a flight from Istanbul to Bombay. My panic attacks manifest in the sense that I lose my senses one after the other. So I stopped hearing at first and that’s my first alarm or I’m going to get an attack. Now I have lost my sight. Then I lose any sense of touch and then I just like blackout for 15 seconds and every time I went into that baseball spiral, I was like. Okay, this is it, I’m gonna die.

And then I was just like, I can’t keep living a life like this, and I had friends across three time zones. Who set alarms in my Indian standard time zone and made sure that I walked into my therapist door. Like I’ve literally told them, oh, I have the appointment. Don’t worry, they’re like, no, send us screenshots and I’m fine. I actually got one just so that they would shut up. And then they’re like, Okay, great. This time is your appointment, set an alarm and walk me through the door. You know, I love therapy. Now I see it in the sense that I feel so bad that no one told me that.

It’s just like, how you go to the gym for your physical body or how you go for a run or a walk. Just so that your physical body is tended to therapy is what you do for your mind. You don’t even need to have an illness, but still, check in with a therapist. I definitely would say that to everybody. You’re an entrepreneur or not, it is a healthy thing to do. Just like you know, like drinking water. Water is great for your body, go to therapy. It’s amazing family and friends really helped. I think I’m very grateful to have a wonderful family and incredible support systems. And also mentors who are just there, through and through and through.

So I honestly don’t think that I would have made it personally and professionally. That’s the thing with being in the social work sector. There is really no demarcation between the two. You really can leave your work outside the door and walk in like your personal is your professional and vice versa. Yeah, and yeah, I was one challenge and I was on medication for a while. I remember I think my letters of love team was the first group of people to know that I was on medication. And I couldn’t work anymore, I needed some time off and I remember telling them and I was like. Because it’s a volunteer-run organization, I’ve often had to be up by 400%. So that they would show up in the ER at 90%.

And I couldn’t be that person anymore and I was like. The space is yours if you want to do anything with it. But for now, I have to step back and I remember when I said that. It opened up such a safe space with the levels of love that team members had. Started sharing things that they hadn’t with anybody else about their own mental health. And that was another big learning for me, about how organizations really lack a space to talk about this. If you fracture any one of your limbs or if you have a splitting headache. You can evidently show those things you’re on crutches, you can hold your head, your stomach aches, you can sell a flinch.

But with mental health, that’s not what people do. So consciously intentionally create spaces for those, so you know. It’s been a few years. I am off medication and grateful for living a balanced healthy life. But at the same time, I’m like, every month we have just a sit-down. Were we on a mental health check-in, where are we on a scale of zero to 10? And then we actually have our buddy system follow through. So yeah, those are two things mental health, find a therapist no matter what, to intentionally create spaces to talk about this. Yeah.

Pamela Bardhi
I love that. Pooja, thank you so much for sharing that because a lot of people. Don’t talk about the mental health side of things. That’s the hardest part. Like getting through that, especially in the first few years, not just even in business. But just in life in general. And like, being willing to step back, somebody like me could never think, oh man who has been through this. Some people look at me and be like, oh, wow, I didn’t realize Pam went through this.

But like, we’re all human, we all have things. We all have our limits like we’re human, we have our stresses, we have our anxieties. And everybody has them, you know and that’s so important to note. But what I love about your story, too, is that you are willing to step up and say, Hey. I’m stepping back, you know, opening up the space for your team to I think is really powerful. Because then they felt safe to say about how they were feeling.

Pooja Pradeep
Yeah, I think I just want to echo back what you just said that in the sense that I think vulnerabilities. And sort of having them right up on the sleeve is what makes a person strong. If you ask me, like, I want to be able to see how human you are. Because that’s going to be a testament to how incredibly brave, resilient, and genuine you are. And I would trust that from a business perspective, from a personal perspective and professional perspective. You name it, I would trust you and I think that’s so important.

Pamela Bardhi
Yes, vulnerability is actually a strength, not a weakness. And that society has totally flipped that upside down. But seeing somebody like you mentioned it like it’s just, it’s beautiful. It’s absolutely beautiful. That’s a show your human side because that empowers others and empowers others. Absolutely. And speaking of empowering others, I know you’re up to like-new missions and new things, like. What’s going on in your world next? So okay, monster, so what’s going on in this world?

Pooja Pradeep
So in this world, this is quite timely, actually, so the day job that I have letters of love for is my passion project. Which I spend a few hours on the weekends. The day job is with a Community Arts network called can. It’s an organization headquartered in Vienna, where we engage, enable and empower artists, individuals, and organizations working in the arts for the social impact sector. So it’s sort of like the Tinder for the social impact world where what do you need. You need scaling, you need funding, you need collaborators. Whoever you need, there is a tech backed platform that will give you that within the network. We’ve been working on it for a year.

He’s done some amazing things with Ted with Carnegie Hall, all of it. I’m super stoked to have the launch of the advocacy communications person. And this is a combined effort from two foundations. Who’ve never had a communications person before in 160 years of philanthropic work. So I just have a lot of stories to tell through my cat, so that is one thing that’s happening. Letters of love slowly sort of get back to a new rhythm along with the new normal. As I mentioned earlier, we’re transforming schools now to more pleasant conducive to learning environments, under-resourced schools in refugee hotspots. That’s another thing.

These are the two things at work really. I really want to make sure our Community Arts network blooms. Because I come from a very grassroots level, I know the value of connecting with others. I need somebody else who can provide for it. It is the most beautiful, magical thing and to be able to work for an organisation that does. That as a founding principle is great these two things. But Pooja also wants to go on vacation so badly and just wants to, you know, like. See people do normal things and go on about their lives. Which sounds like a far fetched dream from where I sit now, but you know, we’ll get there. Yeah, on the way we just keep doing good things that benefit ourselves and others and life’s okay.

Pamela Bardhi
Absolutely. Oh, yeah, I’m sure that’s coming after COVID dies down and things settle down for good. I think on the vacation, everything will be ready for you. For sure, I just love all the initiatives and everything that you’re doing and like just the empowerment space. It’s such a gift and I can’t wait to see what you do in the next year. Or so now everyone needs to know where to find you and your awesomeness.

Pooja Pradeep
Okay, well, you can find me on LinkedIn. You can find me on Instagram. It’s just Pooja Pradeep, I think I’m the most active on Instagram because you know, that’s where the fun kids are at. But anyway, it’s just like a much more easy chatty space. Please feel free to reach out to me, especially with letters. As you can probably tell, I love them. So yeah, that’s that.

Pamela Bardhi
I love it so much. You are so fabulous. And I just want to thank you so much for being here today. Fuji I appreciate and continue to light up the world the way that you are. And I can’t wait to see you again soon.

Tune in to the episode to hear the rest of my incredible interview with the amazing Pooja Pradeep.