Devika Rhodes (33) is the co-founder of a branding, design and strategy agency located in New York, Chicago and Graz. She is a married and mother of a four-month-old daughter and is currently living just south of Chicago in Effingham, IL. Her multicultural background and her international lifestyle not only influences her work, but also her personal family life.
You are a cosmopolitan living and working in New York, Effingham, Chicago, Graz … which of those places would you really call your home?
I love my home that I share with my husband, daughter and two dogs. I commute between Effingham, Chicago and Graz and I go to New York every now and again to align with our clients and team, where I also have family. My family is spread out around the world so I try to see them as much as possible and feel at “home” in different locations depending on who I am with.
To be honest I have struggled with answering this question my whole life because I, nor my family, have ever lived in one place.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Chicago. When I was nine/ten months old we moved to Singapore, where I lived for 13 and a half years. We then moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for three years. I finished high school in Munich, Germany. I then moved to Providence, RI where I attended the Rhode Island School of Design and earned my BFA. I continued to live in Providence for work after college. A few years later decided to get a master’s degree and expand on my design education. I attended the WU (University of Economics) in Vienna and got my master’s degree in Marketing and Sales. Towards the end of getting my Masters, I competed to rebrand a large company in Graz, Austria and won. I ended up moving there to implement the rebrand and continued to work for the company for about two years. I then founded my own company in Graz. My business partner, Laureen, who I met in college and remained friends with, had also started her design company some years prior. Laureen is French-Moroccan. She grew up in NYC and also leads an international, very cultured life. We felt that merging our companies would present bigger opportunities and would be a great story to tell – Paperwhite Studio today is the result.
In which way did your parents not really sticking to one place influence you?
You learn to understand different people and their way of thinking – I was immersed in so many different cultures (people, language, food, traditions, holidays, …) day to day and we were able to travel a lot. I probably took this for granted when growing up, but now, I definitely think about and appreciate the opportunities I have been given. At work, I can quickly shift gears to accommodate the way our different clients think regardless of where they are in the world; and Laureen can too. We are aware that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution in the work we do, and also in how we collaborate with the people we work with.
How many languages do you actually speak?
Unfortunately, not so many anymore. I grew up speaking English, Gujarati (Indian), I was taught German and I studied written and spoken Mandarin, Chinese for several years. When I am surrounded by the languages, they come back to me but I absolutely need to refresh and practice to get back to where I was. I hope our daughter is surrounded by different languages and learns a few well so that they are anchored somewhere inside her, at a minimum.
My whole family is very talented when it comes to languages. My mother speaks many, and my grandmother, who is originally Russian-Romanian, speaks 8+ languages fluently.
How did your parents – you have a half Indian, half Russian-Romanian Mother and a German Father – raise you? Were both cultures a part of your life or did one of them outweigh the other?
My parents actually met when they were very young and my father received a lot guidance from my mother’s parents. He embraced more of the Asian / Indian way of thinking as he grew up. My grandmother is Jewish (and as she is my Mother’s mother, I am technically Jewish as well). She studied Sanskrit and adopted Hinduism as her primary religion. So when my parents met, my mother was being raised as a Hindu.
When my parents got married and had me, my brother, and sister, we were organically raised with the Hindu traditions and culture. We were also surrounded by many others because of where and how we lived – as I previously mentioned. I would say our home was more tradition-focused than religious.
My husband and I come from two different backgrounds. He, and that side of our family is Catholic. Luckily we ourselves, and both sets of our parents, are very open-minded people. We agreed before we got married that we do not want to take anything away from each other, our families, or our children. Instead we want to add and teach each other what we have to offer. This way, everyone can be present and happy in the moments that matter. That has been a big focus of ours.
Which aspects of the two backgrounds do you most appreciate?
I think from the Indian culture, I am emotionally tied to keeping our traditions and our culture alive – keeping the memories of my great grandparents, grandparents, their homes, and what our parents have taught us around so that we can share it with future generations. This has become more and more important to me as I have gotten older.
When it comes to the traditions and culture from my father’s side, I feel the same. He is from Calw and Bernkastel-Kues. Our hometowns in Germany are near and dear to me – my heart is connected to the stories I have heard and the memories we have made in being there. We still have family members and close family friends that we visit as often as possible.
After getting married, my husband’s family history and background has also become very important, and I do not want those stories or traditions to get lost either.
Does faith play a major role in your life?
I know it does in my husband’s life – I am a bit different perhaps. Lately I have found myself thinking and feeling more in terms of energy. It’s hard to explain. I have come to believe that things happen for a reason but I am not a very religious person – that is different to being a traditional person in my eyes.
I am too black and white of a person when it comes to religion, so I find myself needing more answers than I can get. I get criticized for this sometimes which is fair enough – I am working on it (laughs). While I personally often need answers, I truly think that people should believe in what makes them feel good and brings them peace. I believe in universal morals and ethics like ‘be kind, treat people well, work hard, love your family’. In my mind, that is the main message we should pass on to and teach our children.
According to you, what should a women “be like?”
I think that women are really strong. I have a lot of respect for women who work hard in their chosen profession but I also respect a woman’s choice to stay at home with her baby. Again, not to be a broken record but man or woman, do what makes you happy and allows you to be a good person. Women of course have a lot of potential and I think they should be given the platform to do whatever they want to do.
We all know that the Indian culture is heavily focused on strict traditions and values, like many other religions. How does the new generation deal with that? You even married an American…
My father used to joke with me before I found my husband and got married, saying that he would put an Ad in the papers and find me a nice Indian boy – and he is the German (laughs). Funnily enough, my husband is part American-Indian – just a different kind of Indian!
I did not have any troubles with my parents when it came to my relationship with my husband or our marriage but this is based on a tradition and pattern of open-mindedness dating a few generations back. I think my parents’ goal for me was to find somebody I really loved and a person that loved me back – not somebody with a certain cultural or religious background.
My situation might be very different from the type of Indian family you are referring to – I can’t speak to that knowledgeably to be honest because I am not immersed in that world.
You are the co-founder of a branding and design studio with three branch offices. You have a female partner. Do you prefer to work with women?
I actually prefer to work with men and I must admit that women tend not to like me so much. My partner Laureen was one of the few girlfriends I had in college and we just found that it would make sense to merge our companies – we weren’t trying to be a female-run company.
By chance, most of the people we hire in our office in NYC are females, while most of the people we hire in Europe, are men. The New York branch and our US clients are mostly focused in the restaurant and hospitality space and our work in Europe is really more driven by the technology industry and we grow a lot of start-ups. But it’s starting to cross-over and blend so we’ll see what happens. Most important to us is to work with good people who are doing great things – inside and outside of our company.
Are the two of you similar or very different?
For Paperwhite, we have similar goals and grit. The importance of our families and home life are also quite in line and we appreciate each other’s background, upbringing and what we have to offer each other from a business and friendship perspective. We do have different personalities though – we have different intensities which can be challenging but also lends itself to balance at the right times. We both had babies in the last year and wanted to continue working which not every woman can relate to. And you’ll read later, we both love food 😉
Both of you have become mothers recently. Is that hard to combine with your job?
Both of us knew that we would be better mothers if we continued working. I want to make clear that it is personal decision though and I don’t think there is a right or wrong. I don’t think I, personally, could be a full time stay-at-home Mom.
We also have invested a lot of time and money into our business so it is important for us to keep growing it. So yes, it is hard. But worth it. Right now our goal is to be the best versions of ourselves personall and professionally, and adapt as we go.
Being on the road a lot, how important is it to you to keep in touch with friends? How do you manage?
As my friends have always lived all over, I am used to not having my friends near me all the time. We have a silent understanding that we love each other but that it is just not possible to see each other as often as we would like. At this stage of life, we are all busy with family, kids, jobs etc.
We communicate via text, FaceTime, Instagram – all platforms that provide great opportunities for us to stay up to date with each other. And when we get to see each other, we pick up right where we left off.
Is food important to you?
It is. Really, important. I think about food all the time (laughs). I think about it because I love it and also because I have always had to think about it. My family does not have the best metabolism so I literally would eat a piece of cake and the next day need another pair of pants. I also love to cook. I love Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Mediterranean, French foods (to name a few), any kind of Seafood – and my mother’s Cheese Fondue is probably one of my all-time-favorites (all the women in our family are actually great cooks). I really love Ethiopian food too but it is really hard to find – when I have it, I’m in love.
I would pick savory over sweet food any day of the week. The only food I hate more than anything in the world is bananas. I have an irrational fear of them – I don’t know why. It’s okay – you can go ahead and chuckle.
Food, and the industry as a whole is really important to, and for, Paperwhite. Laureen is also extremely passionate and knowledgable about food. That might be an understatement! It’s a huge part of our business and I love the idea that it is something that brings people together and that it can be shared on a large or small scale. Honestly I think it is the second most important thing (after my family and friends and our wellbeing) in my personal life.
It makes people happy. I’m the person that’s thinking about cooking tomorrow’s dinner when I’m eating today’s. I want a meal to be special and have purpose every time – that doesn’t mean fancy – just special with intention.
Please tell us how you met the love of your life.
I started to feel pretty lonely in Graz and did not know what to do. I could not find a partner and my mother kept telling me to be patient, and that he would turn up unexpectedly – which at the time drove me crazy.
My brother advised me to go online and I ignored him for about a year. Then one day, I went to see my friend from college in NYC who had just met her boyfriend online. We met in my hotel room and she said: ‘Let’s make you an online profile.’ I was online every night for a year and it was awful. I felt judged and so judgmental at the same time.
Unexpectedly one Tuesday, my husband found me on match.com. He was sitting in Effingham, just south of Chicago and I was in Graz, Austria. He practically wrote me three sentences and I knew something was different about this man. ‘Simple’ as that.
My advice to other people online is you need to give it a significant amount of time and you need to believe in it. If you are a good person and are on Match, chances are there are other good people on it too. But it’s hard, no doubt. Prior to meeting my husband I probably had to read 3,000 profiles or messages that were horrible and made me want to quit every time. You need persistence and patience.
You both belong to different religions – how did you get married?
We were really honest with each other from the beginning about our visions / wishes and both wanted our wedding to feel “whole.” So, we had two weddings, a Catholic and a Hindu wedding.
On Thursday, April 21st 2016 we had a Chinese dinner for our closest family members. Friday night I had my Henna – all females – and my husband and all the men went to a famous blues / jazz club in Chicago. Saturday we had the Catholic wedding and a cocktail party afterwards and on Sunday we had the Hindu wedding followed by a reception.
The entire weekend was a celebration of our families and friends coming together and was very traditional. I have to say, it was perfect and filled with so much love, even more than we could have prepared for.
How do you want to raise your daughter?
My husband, myself, and our family will give her all we have to offer individually and together. I would like her to experience as much as possible and combine that with our guidance to mold herself into a strong, kind, and interesting individual. She should find what makes her feel whole.
Right now we are focusing on developing some traditions and routines in our home.
What is still on your bucket list?
Traveling is high on my list because I want to give my daughter and future children the chance to experience and see different parts of the world – like I got to. I also want to explore different countries and cultures with my husband. He’s dying to go to New Zealand and Australia so that’s high on our list. I want to build Paperwhite to see where we can take it. I want to cook more – my next project is to perfect different sauces for different cuisines. I’d like to start up on my languages again and learn some new ones – Spanish for example.
Of course I want to spend as much time with my family as possible, which is always a challenge as we are so spread out. I’d love to exercise more to feel strong in general. What I really want to achieve in my life is balance across the board, that is a big goal.
If you had any superpower – which one would it be?
Breathing under water for long periods of time. I love the water – that’s one of the places I feel the most peaceful. Actually, teleporting is a good one too.
Which woman would you like to interview?
I would love to interview my great-grandmothers as an adult. I met 7 out of 8 of my great grandparents as a baby, and knew 2 of them into my early teens. They seemed to have really carved a path for us on both sides of the family. From the stories I hear, they seem just fabulous. It may be a cheesy answer, but it’s the truth.
Courage: I think people who don’t think they have figured it all out are courageous. People who feel/know the importance of being open-minded and balanced in life. People who think about other people before themselves.
Inspiration: I’m inspired by my husband and my family of course. As little as my baby is, she inspires me to push harder in life as well, which I love and am in awe of. My clients, business partner, and employees also inspire me. My father taught me to hire and surround myself with people who are smarter than I am and who push me which is great advice. From a business stand-point, my father is probably my #1 source of inspiration. I want to make my parents proud.
Challenge: Having it all and making it all work. Understanding your faults and knowing how to fix them. Getting it all right, all the time.
Pain: If somebody I love is hurt or upset. That is the worst.
Failure: : I am always afraid of disappointing people. I fear failure.
Womanliness: Making myself happy, challenging myself. Being a good wife and mom. I think I found my purpose in the world as a woman and a mother, with room to grow of course.