It all began with a puzzle and a fierce competition between sisters.
One of Akruti Babaria’s fondest memories of growing up in India was seeing which family member could make the best rangoli, a traditional decoration of colored sand, flower petals and rice designed to welcome good luck into the home, especially during the country’s many religious and cultural festivals, like Holi and Diwali.
“My older sister and I would try to sabotage each other—it was that serious,” recalls Babaria, a double graduate of the School of Management.
Babaria now lives in East Amherst, N.Y., with her husband, Umesh Babaria, MBA ’03, son Ayaan, 6, and daughter Aarya, 15 months. She is CEO of Kulture Khazana, a children’s toy company she founded in 2018 that specializes in authentic toys, games and activities celebrating India’s rich cultural traditions
The business is steeped in Babaria’s childhood. “I bring my deep knowledge of my culture to everything we make,” she says. Named after her favorite Indian food television show, Khana Khazana, meaning “food treasures” in Hindi, Kulture Khazana helps Indian parents and their kids re-create beloved traditions while giving non-Indian families accessible, fun ways to experience different world cultures.
At first, such treasures included books Babaria imported from India and sold to U.S. schools, museums and libraries. She also held in-person cultural workshops at Wegmans supermarkets and other local venues.
As her business grew, she began designing, producing and manufacturing her own puzzles, board games, craft projects, and gifts for sale online. Babaria also offers teachers and parents free, downloadable lessons about South Asian culture and a free series of downloadable audio stories, which she narrates and produces. Her very first product was a rangoli puzzle, a nod to her family and still a bestseller.
When Babaria was 16, her father gave her a choice: stay in India or emigrate to Buffalo, where an uncle lived at the time, and pursue her education. She chose to leave, getting on a plane alone before the rest of her family followed weeks later.
At first Babaria struggled to fit in at her suburban high school. But she eventually joined a local Hindu temple, where she taught dance in the Indian community and soon became a classically trained Indian dance instructor like her sister.
“When you’re a dancer, you always have a community around you,” says Babaria. “Back in India, I was immersed in culture and traditions. My parents didn’t try to educate us about it. It was just a way of life.”
Babaria had lived in the U.S. for only a year and a half when she entered college, so starting a dance group at UB helped her find community on campus. “I wasn’t a domestic student or an international student, I was somewhere between,” she recalls. Babaria also began honing her leadership skills as president of the undergraduate Indian Student Association and as a senator in the UB Student Association.
After graduation, Babaria worked in health care project management in New York City and then Buffalo, where she had moved back to pursue her MBA, all while also still teaching dance. But when Ayaan was born in 2017, everything changed, and she shifted focus.
“It made me realize I had a strong desire to raise a child who would embrace and feel confident in his identity,” Babaria says. She began looking for Indian books and other cultural resources to share with him but found next to nothing authentic in the U.S. that resembled the stories of her youth.
Babaria realized she could either live without those resources or create them herself—and feed a potential market of others looking for the same materials. She asked Umesh, “Listen, should I take this leap? Because I don’t know who else is going to solve this problem,” she says.
With help from Nagendra Raina, MBA ’05, president of Buffalo Games, a Western New York puzzle and game company, Babaria launched Kulture Khazana out of her home, curating India-sourced cultural books for wholesale to schools and libraries.
“Nagendra was a great mentor and resource who helped me navigate the manufacturing aspects of my new business,” she says.
Kulture Khazana sold its first rangoli puzzle in November 2020, but the pandemic ended Babaria’s in-person dance and music workshops and forced her to pivot into direct-to-consumer sales online. After landing deals with Target and Nordstrom, Babaria began pushing her brand on social media and seeing real growth.
To launch her startup, Babaria combined her leadership experiences as a dance instructor, in health care project management and as a UB management graduate. Through courses like a challenging data modeling class during her MBA program, she discovered a knack for tracking consumer behavior, a marketing skill she uses every day.
Another influence on Babaria’s career was UB’s LeaderCORE™, a two-year professional development certification program for MBA students that taught her to reflect on her career journey and learn from failure. Babaria now sees professional failures as teachers, and as the kind of friends you learn from “and learn you don’t want around anymore.”
She makes time each year to return to UB, speaking to MBA students to “basically sell that certificate—LeaderCORE is a no-brainer. And many students I encounter have never really talked to an entrepreneur like me before.”
Many of her peers haven’t, either. On Instagram, she offers advice to fellow “mompreneurs” juggling multiple roles as parents, CEOs and head dishwashers as they turn their passion projects into a living.
“People visit my social media for the products, and they also come for me,” she notes. “My buyers are mostly families and a lot of them are moms, and my stories resonate with them. I show not only the highlights, but also the not-so-Instagrammable moments behind the scenes.”
Babaria’s willingness to reflect and learn from her mistakes is paying off. In 2022, she was named a Fedex Small Business Grant Contest Grand Prize Winner, beating out more than 15,000 other entrants, and was recognized as an emerging alumna at the School of Management’s annual alumni awards ceremony. She is also a finalist in the 2023 Women in Toys Wonder Women Awards in the “Rising Leader” category.
Above all, family and community come first. Ayaan’s interest in his mother’s business and in his own cultural journey has motivated Babaria to start writing a children’s book, and she hopes to someday launch a South Asian literary festival in Buffalo. She’s also rolling out new products, most recently a sand art kit and rangoli scratch art lantern, with plans to develop more for other cultures.
“I want our products to normalize difference, and be able to live in any home,” she says proudly.
Published October 23, 2023