Dancer, Storyteller, Feminist, Entrepreneur

This year, I’ve been learning that art and entrepreneurship have a lot more to do with each other than I thought. For an earlier piece, I spoke with graphic designer and social hacktivist Ashley Qian, who graduated from Duke last year. Ashley taught me that artwork geared toward social impact can be approached entrepreneurially for maximum impact. After speaking with her, I wanted to find out how other Duke students are navigating the intersection of arts and entrepreneurship. Immediately, I thought of my friend Ibanca Anand.

I have a lot in common with Ibanca, who just finished her junior year. We’re both dancers who love nothing better than reading good books. In fact, we’ve joked about building a dating app for book nerds where everyone discusses literature and no one is allowed to ask what you’re wearing—like Tinder, but without the objectification. Of course, I would probably never pursue such a venture, but Ibanca might. Entrepreneurship is a major focus of her Duke experience. She’s part of The Cube, Duke’s entrepreneurial Selective Living Group, which requires members to launch at least one product or venture during their time at Duke.

Ibanca Anand posing in her Kathak dance constume
Ibanca Anand in her Kathak dance constume

I was curious to know how Ibanca’s artistic interests influenced her business ventures. She was spending the semester in China at Duke Kunshan University, so it took us a while to find a video chat option that didn’t lag too badly. When we finally connected, I told her about my conversation with Ashley and about Ashley’s opinion that art and entrepreneurship are very similar.

Onscreen, Ibanca nodded in agreement. “I think that entrepreneurship is in itself a kind of art because it has the potential to get people to think a certain way,” she said. “The reason I’m so drawn to it is you have this ability to create something that didn’t exist before and get people to believe in it—it’s almost like starting your own religion!”

Souvenirs from Ibanca’s Kathak dance class. From the flyer: “This elementary course… will introduce students to Kathak’s traditional techniques and theories, as well as explore how Kathak can be used to communicate important themes in today’s society like cultural and gender identity.”
You might wonder what, exactly, Ibanca is trying to get people to believe. But perhaps the more interesting question is how.

Ibanca is trained in classical Indian dance, including the Kathak form. Kathak is storytelling through the embodiment of different stock characters. It’s an ancient and beautiful tradition, but Ibanca was dissatisfied with one major aspect of it. “Every single female character we would take on,” she told me, “was like a housewife or a lover waiting for her husband to return from war.”

So last summer she worked with Purnima Shah, chair of the Dance program at Duke, and a group of mentors through the Melissa and Doug Entrepreneursprogram to create a feminist Kathak dance curriculum. “I completely changed it from the way I was taught,” she says. Using her new curriculum, she taught an eight-week course at the Durham Arts Council. Her advisors pushed her to continue the project, perhaps even to start her own dance school, but Ibanca isn’t sure she wants to commit to such a long-term undertaking.

When I asked Ibanca what she hopes to do in the future, she laughed. Like Ashley, she has so many interests and skills that it’s hard for her to sift through them and decide which one she wants to pursue — maybe that’s typical for artistic entrepreneurs.

“It’s weird,” she said, “because I know exactly what I want to do in fifteen years, but I don’t know what I want to do next year. I would really love to be a professor, and to write. But I want to do something different before I go into academia.”

She’s a Literature and Economics double major, and she’d love to someday teach both subjects—not separately but at the same time. Her version of Econ 101 would be a “storytelling class.”

I didn’t quite follow. A storytelling class sounded cool, but how would it work?

To explain, she told me a story about a poet who declares his love for a woman through a beautiful, heartfelt poem. They begin a relationship and the woman continues to enjoy the poems he writes for her. Over time, however, she begins to find his poetry a less and less satisfying response to the realities of their relationship. Finally she becomes angry when he tries to give her a poem, and she throws it out of the window.

At this, I smiled. She was using a story to explain the law of diminishing marginal utility, which basically states that, consumption of all other things remaining constant, increased consumption of a given product becomes less satisfying over time. In fact, this concept was first explained to me in middle school with the help of a mini-story. A guy orders an enormous steak at a restaurant and finds that after the first few bites, each successive mouthful becomes less and less enjoyable until he is so stuffed that the idea of eating another bite becomes absolutely distasteful.

This storytelling approach reminds me that economics, which I’ve tended to think of as a mathematical discipline, is actually the story of people’s motivations and desires. And even though the relevance of the humanities is constantly in question, much of the more “practical” field of economics can be boiled down to narratives about people. At its root, economics relies upon literary concepts such as conflict and cause-and-effect. By teaching economic principles through stories, Ibanca might be demonstrating to her students one way that literature is a reflection of real life.

And that, I realize, is the thing her enterprises have in common. She really is the guru of her own religion—she’s a leader who teaches from a nontraditional perspective, emphasizing the relevance of art in the world. Whatever she ends up deciding to teach, whether it’s classical dance through a feminist lens or Economic Stories 101, she’ll have no trouble gaining eager disciples.