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Women in Business: An Interview with Malai’s Pooja Bavishi

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Pooja Bavishi has taken the New York food scene to a whole new level with the introduction of Malai. Started as an entrepreneurial venture, Bavishi now hopes to see new & unique flavors overtaking the traditional flavors in the country.

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As far back as she can trace, Pooja Bavishi’s family has been entrepreneurial. Her parents were entrepreneurs and have been for her entire life. Today, Bavishi is following in her parents’ footsteps, yet her version of entrepreneurship is a bit unconventional.

Pooja Bavishi Malai Ice Cream New York

Pooja Bavishi at the Malai Ice Cream Shop in New York City.

When it comes to food trends, the New Yorkers have got it covered. From brisket ravioli to black ink martini, if you’re after an unlikely food combo, there’s no better place to fuel your fix than the bustling streets of Manhattan. But if your taste errs on the traditional side, the latest dessert craze making its way over the Atlantic might be more your bag.

Combining delicious scoops of the finest whipped ice cream encased in a layer of Indian-ness – it’s no wonder ‘Malai’ treats are slowly becoming New York’s hottest new dessert trend. To make these sweet indulgences readily available to New Yorkers, North Carolina-native Pooja Bavishi’s brightly colored ice-creams are here to win your heart.

After earning her MBA and acquiring business acumen, Bavishi knew in her heart she was ready to start her own entrepreneurial journey with Malai.

At Malai, Bavishi sells a variety of flavors and concepts, including “Coconut Tahini with Date Caramel” and “Masala Chai.” New York’s most innovative ice-cream shaman believes the ice-creams’ uniqueness lies in its texture, its depth of flavor, and the nostalgia factor.

 “I think that food makers are moving more towards using traditional, "authentic" flavors rather than developing something that would be acceptable for the mainstream audience,” she explains. “There is a need for representation in the food world, and it's so exciting to see it take shape.”

Malai Ice Cream Pooja Bavishi Female Entrepreneur

A look at sweet and salty indulgences, made with nostalgia, at Malai.

“My passion for food started at a young age. I made the connection that desserts make people happy, and I knew that I eventually wanted to be in the business of making people happy,” Bavishi explains. “I loved that food is so cross cultural, and cross traditional, social and hospitable.”

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Join Industry Leaders Magazine as we learn how perseverance proves to be the name of the game, and how a simple dessert got a delicious new twist.

Industry Leaders Magazine: What has been your role as a leader since founding Malai? 

Pooja Bavishi: My role as a leader since founding Malai has evolved greatly. At first, I did everything: I wheeled a camper cooler around to food fairs, developed all of the product, secured all business opportunities, handled the marketing, and raised capital. That foundational journey shaped me into the leader that I am today. I knew what I wanted Malai to represent, and knew where I wanted it to go. So today, my role as leader still involves knowing every aspect of the business and how it gets done, but also making sure that the culture of the company is at the forefront.

HER STARTING POINT

What was the hardest part that you had to face in the early stages of Malai?

 I think that it was just getting from point A to point B. I was not in the food industry prior to starting Malai, so the learning curve seemed really steep at the beginning: I did not know about certifications, I did not know how much funding it would take to run the business, I did not know how to scale. But I soon realized that the learning curve actually never shallows out when you're an entrepreneur - the challenges just change. It was a big learning moment when I realized that overcoming challenges to confront new challenges is a sign of growth.

When did you realize that you are in fact attracting right and significant customer base?

I devoted my first summer of the business for proof of concept. I tested everything: target customers, flavors, price points, etc. By doing that (and constantly asking everyone to fill out surveys) and constantly observing, I was able to refine my business model to ensure that I was attracting the right customer base. 

HER PERSPECTIVE

What has been the biggest driving factor for you as a leader and entrepreneur? 

My biggest motivating factor when I started, and even today, is to bring joy to people. It is what drives me to be better as a leader, and grow as a company. It is also so gratifying to know that you're a part of someone's happiness.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs who want to make it in the food space? 

More than anything, I would say to ask questions. There are so many people who have done this before, and who know more than you, so ask questions and don't be afraid of acknowledging that you don't know something. 

How and in what ways do you feel that the food scene is transforming? 

I think that the food industry is going through a much needed transition right now. I think that food makers are moving more towards using traditional, "authentic" flavors rather than developing something that would be acceptable for the mainstream audience. There is a need for representation in the food world, and it's so exciting to see it take shape. 

What about Malai most feeds your soul? 

More than anything, it's about knowing that we are becoming a part of people's memories. Ice cream is such a nostalgic food - everyone has happy memories surrounding ice cream. And nothing drives me more than to see regulars on warm summer nights, getting their favorite scoops, and enjoying on the bench outside. It makes me so happy to know that when they look back on those nights, Malai will be a part of their memories. 

How do you plan to take Malai forward? On a personal front, where do you see yourself standing in the coming years?

I envision Malai to be a global brand. I want as many people to know and experience these flavors as possible. Also, I am aware that the Indian diaspora is quite large and expansive, so there is a large population of those wanting to experience these nostalgic flavors. I started Malai as a way to be able to bring joy to as many people as possible, while spreading my culture. When I first started, now, and in the coming years, that will be my mission with Malai.

Name your biggest inspiration among women. 

My mom is my biggest inspiration. I am always so in awe of her: she is an immigrant who was able to raise a family, co-found a business with my dad, and build a path for her children in a different country. She did this all while instilling all of the cultural traditions that she grew up with, making us believe that it added to our identities as first-generation Americans. She also is unbelievable support to my business and has been from the very beginning. Her energy, tenacity, and strong-will continue to inspire me each and every day.

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 Those wanting to indulge their sweet fix can visit the Brooklyn store, where Malai will be serving up a range of delectable flavors on environmentally-friendly cups, or to take home in special biodegradable tubs. Pull up a pew to take in indulgences, from Sweet Roti and Ghee to Tulsi Chocolate Chip, designed to be devoured immediately – or simply hit the counter to get your own takeaway assortment.

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