Born and brought up in Germany, Gwenda Schobert first visited India in 2010 as a volunteer for a social service project in a village in Karnataka.
“When I was in college, I volunteered to do social service in a foreign country as part of a program by the German government. I was supposed to go to Tunisia but the government there paused the project at the last minute due to security concerns. I was then offered a social service project in Karnataka, which I accepted,” the 29-year-old entrepreneur tells Little India.
Gwenda returned to Germany to complete her studies and then shifted to Singapore for work for about a year before making Mumbai her home in 2014.
She talks about her first visit to India, setting up her own company in the country, befriending a policeman and more:
I faced a huge cultural shock when I first came to India in 2010. I didn’t have the time to read up about India as the decision to move here was sudden. I didn’t know what to expect.
I lived in this small village called Surathkal near Mangalore in Karnataka where no one spoke English. I stayed with a family as a paying guest and traveled in a bus daily for an hour to get to the school I was teaching at.
One of the things that caught my attention was different seats for men and women in buses. Also, the minimal attraction between both genders seemed weird, as did public spaces being dominated by men.
Meeting the Husband
After working in Surathkal for a few months, I switched my volunteer program and moved to Bengaluru, where I happened to meet my now husband, Naveen Peter. He was living in Singapore at the time and had come to the city on a business trip.
I met him by chance at a social gathering where I was invited by a friend, who happened to be Naveen’s schoolmate. He was in town and was also invited for the get-together. We got married in 2012 but kept moving between Germany, Singapore and India for work and studies before making Mumbai our base in 2014.
Platform for Expats
I write a blog called Gwenda Glocalista, which talks about life in Mumbai, with expats being the target audience. When I started blogging, I realized that many of my readers were fellow expats who didn’t have friends in the city.
It started as a personal blog to keep friends and family updated about my life here. Now, it boasts of events, resources, personal recommendations, a forum and an online shop. We hang out together and explore the city as much as we can.
In 2016, I started my own company named Enspireco, which focuses on digital marketing and content creation. It began with creating content for Food and Beverage brands as they had seen my blog posts and wanted something similar for their brand. Now, our clientele also includes educational, technological and financial brands as well.
We hire only women. It was a practical decision taken at the time because I started the company based out of a spare bedroom at home. I was more comfortable having women around. But it turned into a company policy where we create career opportunities for women. When we work with freelancers or external staff, we prefer women to men.
I think there are lack of opportunities for women in this country, and then there is also the issue of the wage gap. As a business owner, I wish to create more employment opportunities for women, and encourage the values I wish to see in the society.
At Home in Mumbai
Mumbai is not necessarily India because it is a very global and cosmopolitan city. I don’t feel like a foreigner in Mumbai as people from across the country and world live here. They don’t care whether you’re born and brought up here or elsewhere.
I still remember that I moved here on a Thursday. On Monday morning, I was at Andheri station trying to board one of the local trains to go to work. I watched 2-3 trains go by till I finally figured out how to get on one. People will eventually push you into the train and then push you out as well.
I experienced Mumbai in a very raw and local way from Day 1. It made me feel very much at home. I also picked up Hindi really fast. I enjoy my chaat on the street as much as I enjoy dinner at a five-star hotel.
As a foreigner, you always have the benefit and the curse of being treated differently. As a young woman starting a company without any man backing it, things can get edgy at times. I believe you have to build a personal relationship with people here to get things done.
Befriending a Policeman
I was required to get a police verification done for my OCI card when I moved here. A policeman came to our house to do the verification. He seemed like a very shy and nervous person. I asked him to come in and offered him some tea and started to talk to him in Hindi. He felt so comfortable that he forgot he had come to verify the documents. We chatted for about an hour and also got all the work done without any hassle.
After the formalities were over, I went to the police station to give him some sweets. He felt so happy that he introduced me to the senior police officers as well. We spoke about my blog and other things. They were all so impressed that they invited me to spend a day with them and cover their daily work. I haven’t been able to do it yet. I will do it soon hopefully.
I found the courage and the confidence to try different things after I moved here. I learnt to work hard, and dream big. It’s fine if it doesn’t work. You move on to something else. This hardworking and positive attitude of people here is something that motivates me every day.
I don’t know what the future holds but I don’t think I will ever move back. I’m a typical Mumbaikar.
The interview has been condensed and edited.
Expat Voice is regular column on expats in India. Email us at email@example.com to nominate yourself or another expat for the column.