In episode 136 Kerel and Erik talk with Avantha Arachchi, Chief Operating Officer at A-Frame Brands, about catering to marginalized markets and trailblazing for up and coming brands. Avantha describes herself as a perfect blend of her parents with her dad being an electrical engineer and her mom, a fashion designer which has helped her become multifaceted and dynamic in whatever situation. As a transgender woman, Avantha shares her unique perspective as to how equality and privilege work in the business world and how she still needs to be good allies to people whose experiences she doesn't understand.
In the conversation, Avantha talks about her work at A-Frame of getting rid of the one-size-fits-all model and catering to specific markets and needs, how one’s skills developed in a certain market may be very useful and transferable to other markets, and the importance of building relationships with people you work with who support you and not only listen to you, but encourage your input.
“There's this idea of a one-size-fits-all model and it doesn't help everyone equally. It's a very old way of doing things. And so our models [at A-Frame Brands] focus more on being able to create those products for the people who need them and the people who deserve them.”
We want to welcome all of our listeners to another episode of Minority Report Podcast. with Erik and Kerel. Each episode we talk with leaders in business, tech, and media and today joining us is Avantha Arachchi who is the Chief Operating Officer at A- Frame Brands. Let's jump in and get to know Avantha. Welcome! Avantha. How are you?
Avantha Arachchi 0:27
I'm doing great. Thank you so much for having me. It's a great Monday here in San Francisco.
Oh, awesome. Yeah, I was just gonna say happy Monday to you. And you just got back from some travel. Tell us about a happy moment.
Avantha Arachchi 0:40
Yeah, of course. It was my brother's wedding. It was a mixing of cultures. So we are Sri Lankan and his bride is Indian. And so we just had the Indian wedding, which was a couple of days long, a couple of days of lots of celebration. And now I have to look forward to the Sri Lankan wedding in a month.
Oh, that's so cool. I want to ask you a little bit more and circle back to that, but Sri Lankan and also Indian, obviously, you just experienced the blending of the cultures. But tell us a little bit about you and growing up in your culture? Where did you grow up? And tell us about your family and tell us about you.
Avantha Arachchi 1:12
Yeah, so I grew up on the East Coast between New York and New Jersey. And I am the daughter of a fashion designer and an electrical engineer, which then led me into this merging of a blend of business and tech, really, in CPG, and beauty and fashion. I always say I am actually a perfect blend of their two personalities - of rationality and logic and data analysis, and all of her charm and business thinking and charisma, and love of beautiful things. And they got blended into me. I grew up a child of five, so I was the middle child, technically. But we had about a 16 year difference between the oldest ones and the youngest one. And so I was more so the youngest one for a while, and then all this one for a while when kids went off to college. Which I think then also made me very multifaceted and dynamic to be in whatever situation exists, I will pop into and kind of be able to work around it.
I have to ask, if you say you're the perfect blend of your two parents, what do your siblings have to say about that?
Avantha Arachchi 2:19
(laughs) I hope that they would say that they also have those perfect blends. But it's funny, you'll see that when we were all together, there was such a commonality between the amount of, honestly, the charm that pops into the room, and also the funny little snarky things that are more on my dad's logical side. So I feel like the smoothie is slightly different each time, but it's still a perfect blend.
That's so cool. You just mentioned a kind of a really fascinating sort of spot to be in, right, like as that middle child and sort of the span in ages? Tell us what that was like, you know, what you sort of learned from your older siblings, and then tell us a little bit about like kind of what you were able to pass on to your younger siblings, and maybe a little bit of what you learned from your younger siblings too, just in case they're listening.
Avantha Arachchi 3:06
(laughs) Well, I think that I had it really good, with my older siblings, I was the baby, I was also probably the most outspoken and got to be able to set the tone for whatever we wanted to happen. And I got a lot of support from them, particularly in whatever I wanted to be able to pursue whatever I wanted to try, which is really great especially in my younger years. We are a South Asian family and as exists in a lot of South Asian families, there's a lot of pressure to perform and do well and I think that there was always in tandem with that an interesting blend of not only you're well equipped to do well. Like you are, I think from birth I've always had this expectation of you can do whatever you want. You have both sides of those personalities together that make you well poised to accomplish anything that you want. And so I've always thought that things were limitless. I think that that's part parents, part siblings and seeing things with them. And I hope that that's also what I've passed on too, that whatever you want to do, you can do and the opportunity is endless.
That's awesome. I want to ask you about what's going on these days at A-Frame Brands.
Avantha Arachchi 4:13
Yeah, so A-Frame is a company where we incubate, develop and launch personal care brands and then support them afterwards. So I always say it's like a third brand incubator, a third investment firm and a third parent company like Unilever and P&G. Except I think the most interesting aspect about it is that we build products, A) in partnership with celebrity talent, which is always fun. But also, and more importantly, we build products for the people who haven't had products built for them before. And that exists where there are underrepresented groups that represent maybe hundreds of millions of people across the US that just literally have never had a focus on them. And they'd haven't had that focus because they'd be considered a niche market. And I think that there's this realization these days that that idea of a niche market is categorically false. That there's, like, hundreds of millions of people there and they actually sometimes become the majority as our population changes. And even more so that those people will buy products that are specific, that they might have different needs, they might have things that will help them better. Because there's this idea that this one size fits all model, it doesn't help everyone equally. It's a very old way of doing things. And so our models focus more on being able to create those products for the people who need them, and the people who deserve them. We're very excited, we launched our first brand last year, our second brand is about to launch very shortly in a month. And we also announced a third partnership that will be launching at the end of this year.
Awesome, awesome. Avantha. Can you take us through your career journey? I see a few different interesting decisions along the way from Wedding Planner to Talent Advisor now to see oh, and I am someone who's had a few different twists and turns in their career as well, too, so I'm curious to hear your story and your journey.
Avantha Arachchi 6:04
Yeah, I mean, I think it all starts with my basis in psychology. I started out as a Behavioral Analyst. And I worked in a bunch of different psych labs, but then also with the police department. And I worked heavily on understanding people, understanding group dynamics, understanding power dynamics, and I loved it. I loved academia in some ways. But in other ways, I felt like I wanted to be able to do something more. There's a lot of things that you do because you want to get published. And that was A) less satisfying and B) just not what I wanted to focus on. I had a lot of friends that were out in San Francisco, working in startups, having a lot of fun, working on a lot of impactful things, and honestly making good money too. And I was like, 'You know what, I don't know if I want to get my PhD yet,' because that was the pathway I was on if I wanted to continue in psych. And I said, 'No, let me take a couple years and try out this startup thing.' And I fell in love. And there was this, the ability to apply all of my understanding of people and systems and data and how things work and how people work and how they think in a different setting where it's not about publishing, it's about impact and it's about creating things and it's about making things better in whatever facet that is. And so my work from there really dovetailed into kind of two aspects, two big aspects. The first is startups working as foundational teams, building things from scratch, helping and scale and grow to a certain point. And then working as a consultant - diving in places as a Swiss army knife to say, 'Hey, you're a company that needs XYZ,' because I have a very multi varied background, I can say, 'Here's XYZ of how we can be able to solve it, here's what it'll take and here's how we can be able to accomplish it.' And then hire in a team after that, and let's set out its way so I can help somewhere else. I also, as you know, always have a side business as a wedding planner because I am hyper organized and I love the creativity of it. And it's honestly the same skill of problem solving. If a bride comes to you and says, 'I want XYZ crazy thing, I want a pinata that explodes into a gazillion flower petals,' you're like, 'Cool, I'll figure out how to do that.' And it's the same skill set as when your companies come to you and say 'We want to launch in Canada. How do we do that?' It's approaching a problem and trying to figure out how to solve it, which I think is also the core of operations, which is where I lead to now.
Yeah, it's so interesting to think of it that way, right? If you know yourself, if you know your strengths, the skills that you have, like you said, being very organized, right, and being a problem solver, those skills are transferable to a number of different positions in a number of different industries. And I feel like sometimes people get so laser focused on a traditional career path and don't really take into account their strengths and how they could lead and open other doors for them. And I'm curious to know, is that something you realized earlier on in your career? Or do you realize that as you're going through your journey?
Avantha Arachchi 8:54
Yeah. I mean I think I realized, I've always been a curious person and I always loved the idea of being able to get my hands into things. I like puzzles and I like learning how to solve them. And so it's less something that I figured out and more something that I just got into because I was like, 'This is interesting, I want to fix this, I want to try this.' Let me even go out to a company that I'm interested in and say, 'Hey, I love what you're doing, but here's a way that I think that you can do XYZ even better.' And sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn't work. And so I don't even know if it was something that I even was conscious of, that it was these non transferable skills. But I do think that it does blend a lot into the work that we do a lot in recruiting. And it's something that I am very passionate about, it's something that we do, I've done it at a lot of the companies that I've been at before and I think also a hallmark of what we're doing here at A-Frame. That because we are building products for underrepresented groups, because we're representing underrepresented founders like Naomi Osaka, Gabrielle Union, Dwayne Wade, John Legend, we want to make sure that we ourselves comes from those same diverse lived experiences because A) we know, like, categorically diversity has value. It gives better productivity heuristics, it gives better stock prices, all of those different factors, but it also, particularly for us, it gives us the perspectives of the consumers that haven't been heard before. It helps us build products that are functional to them and tell stories that resonate with them. So we try very hard to make sure that our team is just as diverse as the groups that we want to serve. Which also means that there are a lot of ways that, structurally, the industry has been set up to leave a lot of people behind. And I think that focus on traditional pathways is a big one. Because there are people who have such an incredible background, expertise, passion, and are just going to be game changers and what they are going to be able to draw into, but because they've never been a manager before, on their resume, no one's ever going to give them a chance to be managed. They might have managed people before and coached people and done all of those different aspects, but because they haven't had something on their resume, they're not being brought into the room. And so we focus really hard on being able to find all of those diamonds in the rough and help them shine.
I can't help but feel in the work you're just describing too that you're almost creating new traditional pathways, right?
Avantha Arachchi 11:17
I mean, I think maybe? In some ways, yeah, it is - it's trailblazing. You're creating a new trail that groups can be able to go into. Honestly, also something that we are very focused on in A-Frame as well, is the idea that we want to build businesses better. We want to build businesses in a way that is based in DEI, based in the core understanding of equitability and everything that that means and how that exists in every facet of our business. And we're not just doing that, because we want to be successful, and that it is a proof point for everything that I have always spoken about within diversity, but also because we want it to be the new template of how to build businesses.
I want to ask you a little bit about that, about your own personal experiences and how that has informed you about diversity and inclusion and all those things that you just talked about that are not only near and dear to the heart, but things that you've experienced. And I feel like it informs everything that you do and it creates a level of authenticity that is unmatched. Tell us a little bit about that.
Avantha Arachchi 12:16
Of course. And I think the easiest way for me to kind of describe that is I am a transgender woman and I transitioned during my career. Like, not when I was younger, I was outside in the world already, outside working. And it was such a moment of a realization for me of how bias exists and how all these different structural elements exist and everything like that, because I was fundamentally treated differently before I transitioned then after. And it's one of those things that is really hard to be able to describe how privilege works except if you've seen your own experience on both sides. Like, nothing about me changed, nothing about my experience changed, nothing about the way that I approach things change. It was the outside context that changed and it was the perception of me that changed. And so I stopped getting access to the things that I want, I stopped getting trusted as easily in a lot of different places. I would be questioned a lot more and the veracity of anything that I was bringing to the table. It was such a marked change for me to recognize and reconcile that helped me also then start talking with people about being able to get outside of your own tunnel vision. Because I think that's one of the key parts of being able to be in this work is to be able to have empathy for people and their experience. And to do that you need to get out of your own experience.
Yeah, that's awesome. I want to ask you about if you sort of step back a little bit like you just kind of did and think about it, like, as a proud trans woman of color, you're not alone, right? And so for others out there that don't have resources to turn to to know what it feels like, what it absolutely is to go through that, what kind of advice could you pass on to anyone to sort of navigate that and get to this moment of your confidence? And also just you pushed all that behind? Right? It doesn't even matter now, I can feel it, right?
Avantha Arachchi 14:16
What advice could you pass on to someone else to get to that point?
Avantha Arachchi 14:21
Yeah, I mean, I think that it starts with, it's funny, it starts with going back to that I have this belief in that the opportunity is limitless and I think that that is frankly the core reason why I was able to break past all of that and really focus in on 'You can do any of this.' And so when I talk to queer populations, I talk to people of color, I talk to anyone that feels like they are kind of being left behind a little bit. Part of it is to just level set with them, that you have the opportunity to be able to break through this. You have the expertise, you have the skill set, you have the passion, and it'll get there. It's also a meeting of the opportunity and timing and finding the right people. Something that was huge to me was finding mentors that were outside of the norm for me, and honestly, it was finding mentors - there weren't any trans women of color.
I was just gonna ask you about the mentors because clearly your family, like you mentioned, had a great impact and said, 'You know what, you can do anything.' and that was fantastic. Is there any other sort of folks that you'd like to call out and say, like, hey, you know, they were helpful to you as a mentor or someone that could guide you through that?
Avantha Arachchi 15:28
Yeah, it's interesting, because I think that it's a honestly a big exercise in ally ship that my CEO right now, Ari, we've worked together at a couple of different companies before and the reason that I went to go work with him is because I recognized that there was something in our relationship that I was like, we think about things very similarly from very different perspectives. But we come to the same kind of point and we build things in the same way. And he is a cis white straight male. We come from very opposite roots of the world, and yet are able to bounce things off of each other. Like we have similar worldviews. And it was honestly, for my growth, from like, going from kind of basic ICs, like the visual contributor / mid level manager to moving into more of an executive role was our relationship and him mostly saying, like, 'What do you think?' that's like, those simple and amazing things that him and every good manager that I've seen, too, is to be able to help someone build that confidence in their own skill set is to say, 'What do you think?' first before they talk. And it helps me gain a stronger move from - and I think it's very common with anyone from an underrepresented group - is you have an imposter syndrome, about being able to speak up and say what you think, and even starting the conversation with 'What do you think?' helps build that over time.
Avantha, thank you for sharing your personal experiences, and also talking about the importance of ally ship.
Avantha Arachchi 16:59
Yeah. And we all need you to be good allies too. I think that that's one of my big points that I have generally is that I do come from a lot of underrepresented groups and I still also have privilege. And that also still means that I need to be good allies to people whose experiences I don't understand.
Yeah, very true, very true. Where do you draw inspiration from?
Avantha Arachchi 17:21
Whew. I would say the people around me. A lot of what I do is people based. I am genuinely interested in the experiences of the people around me. And I think at A-Frame we build teams where that curiosity exists. If we say diversity has value, it means that we also want to understand where you come from, understand your perspective, understand who you are and what you bring forward. And honestly, that's something that I've always had that curiosity. People are puzzles and so I want to understand how they tick, how they work, where did they come from, and how do they become who they are.
Right, right. What advice would Avantha today give Avantha who was starting out in their industry and in your career early on?
Avantha Arachchi 18:05
Uh, you know, I would probably say it would change. With potentially that I was too emotionally invested in different things. Which honestly, like, I go back and forth, because that emotional investment, I think served me well in many different ways. It helped me be committed to a lot of different things and my heart and soul and passion into things. But I think that as I have gotten older, there does need to be a distance of things of like you can build things and have it not be inextricably tied to your identity.
Right. Right. Yeah. Okay. Great answer. Love that. All right, fun question I love asking every guest that we have on the podcast is to give us the top three apps that you use on your phone, but you can't name email, calendar or text messaging, because those are just way too boring.
Avantha Arachchi 18:57
(laughs) I don't know that my answers are gonna be less boring.
(laughs) Well let's hear them.
Avantha Arachchi 19:04
I mean I would say my first two answers are easy - it's Instagram and LinkedIn. LinkedIn, I work in people, I'm always looking at what's happening within teams, who's moving where. I love my network and the network that I've built over time and I also do a lot of hiring and so it's integral to everything that I do. Instagram, again, that curiosity. I love brands, and I love what's happening out there. I'm constantly looking for the next new thing. I'm an early adopter and stuff and so I'll be like, I just found this random app or like I found this random Knick Knack that does this specific thing that I think is really cool and is helpful to my life.
What's something cool that you discovered recently?
Avantha Arachchi 19:46
That's what I was just trying to think about.
Avantha Arachchi 19:51
No, it's probably- I got a Roomba that has room AI data mapping on it and mapped my room. Which also helped me know where in my room it isn't vacuuming as well, because of furniture. And so I started doing some optimizations of where furniture could be so that it could get into some better places.
Anything can be optimized these days. (laughs)
Avantha Arachchi 20:16
(laughs) Right? But a third - like I'm trying to think what - the not fun answer is Slack because like - (laughs)
You're always on it. Yeah, yeah.
Avantha Arachchi 20:29
I mean, actually reminders, I use reminders a lot for a lot of to do lists. Before the wedding I had maybe six to-do lists attached to the wedding. I love food. And so I'll also map out what I'm going to cook every day on the grocery list. I do spend a lot of time making lists.
What do you make these days food wise?
Avantha Arachchi 20:48
Well, tonight, I was going to do a smoked turkey leg with some fried okra.
Wow. Exciting. How 'bout that? I think those will do. That works. That works. Well, just in case anybody wants to find out some other interesting early apps, what are some ways that our audience can stay in touch and find you?
Avantha Arachchi 21:10
Yeah, to find me, you can find me on LinkedIn, please add me on LinkedIn. Always. I love meeting new people, love learning the background. I actually do a lot of resume critiquing, too, for free for folks, if they want to send it over, because I also love helping people move into new jobs. Even if it's not with me. It's a little bit of 'I'll put you over there until I can take you.' So you can find me on LinkedIn. I'm just Avantha Arachchi and on Instagram as well. It's a very old tag, but its beauty and bullets (@beautyandbullets).
Excellent. Well, Avantha, thank you so much for hanging out with us. It's been a blast and we had a lot of fun. And thanks everyone for listening to another episode. You can find more episodes where you find all of your audio and video, just search Minority Report Podcast and look for the logo. Thanks, everyone. Thank you Avantha.
Avantha Arachchi 22:03