How a Year of Prototyping Became a Year of Trusting Part 3

Yigal & Nirupa. Somewhere near the Dead Sea overlooking Jordan. PC: Nirupa Umapathy

Yigal & Nirupa. Somewhere near the Dead Sea overlooking Jordan. PC: Nirupa Umapathy

It was October 2017. The village, Ein Bokek. Crossing a momentary highway, I said goodbye to friends. Beyond my eye’s corner lay the Dead Sea, splitting Israel and Jordan. He was waiting across the road. A black car by his side. Yigal his name.

Our friendship — 5 minutes old in analog and 2 weeks young on digital. We had met on CouchSurfing.

I crossed smiling and mildly relieved. Thinking, he looks my height from a distance. Manageable in the event things go off-sides.

The calculus of a single woman traveling alone.

I could not see the kindness of his eyes yet. Earnest like his digital profile- “A month-long camel ride in India. A fan of Sadguru.”

Mine should have read- “Nomad. Hybrid capitalist. Reciprocalist. Surfer of trust.”

Coffee meets Couch?

I was not couching with Yigal. Our dates did not work out. He was driving me to a village called Idan, where my couch-to-be-a-shack awaited, 20 minutes north on the south side of the Dead Sea.

By my calculations, Idan and back was a 50-minute round-trip. The whole evening might have “cost” Yigal 3–4 hours. Hundreds of dollars where I come from — the imputed tax on east coast office time.

Nothing was asked in return except for conversation.

It was ride-sharing meets CouchSurfing meets dating app for friends. Coffee meets Couch.


A Contract on Text. Via WhatsApp

In the middle of the Arava, I had no bearing. According to T-Mobile, I was in Jordan. Data was expensive. I resolved to only use it in the event of an abduction.

Yigal, I am joking :)

Reality could not have been further from what I had projected, feared and imagined. Imperfect scenario analysis. My brain is terrifically bad at patterning and predicting the unfamiliar. Is yours?

For two hours we drove through the stunning aridity of the Arava rising to a setting sun, stopping at scenery with conversation a punctuation mark.

Conversation an earnest exchange of personal histories. Everywhere we looked a pop-up intimacy prevailed. We had started at different points of origin. We had found home in many places. We did yoga and meditation. We loved the life nomadic. We talked furiously about the culture of humanity, of the mind, of being and becoming.

An Arava Sunset. PC: Nirupa Umapathy & Yigal

An Arava Sunset. PC: Nirupa Umapathy & Yigal

Trust Scoring

In my old business on the trading floor, due-diligence was the norm. My transactions of yore were backed by contracts, paper trails, trade tickets, indentures and trust deeds. In the radically open frontier of social networking apps, there is a trail of text, a not so well-defined profile, aka the digital resume and trust. Co-created in an instant in time.

A Zipcode of Trust. Via WhatsApp

A Zipcode of Trust. Via WhatsApp

Sparse had been my due-diligence. Yet I trusted. The tonality of text divined a certain sincerity of persona and common interest.

The Basis of Exchange

In the career of past, the premise to relationship building between a salesperson and her client was defined. The basis of exchange, that is.

The basis was the intent to transact and build a portfolio of deals together. The prevailing assumption being both parties could facilitate something mutually beneficial. The basis was to maximize value generation on both sides with protocol creating form, a structure for engagement.

In social networking apps, the basis of exchange may be well-defined but protocol of engagement varies. The culture and context of each app is very idiosyncratic. I had seen the good-bad-the-ugly of the swipe left and right of online dating. I had experimented with ride-sharing apps for friending with delightful results. Dating apps have the premise of meeting for a hook-up or a date or those seeking something beyond. Value-creation is not always mutual. The signal is not always clarified from the noise.

CouchSurfing had remained an unexplored frontier. My original reasoning had been- a couch was too close to home. If the couch did not work, where would I bolt? In CouchSurfing, the basis to “transact” was defined but also more open-ended. Even if the premise was to find a couch, a host, a friend and many variations of this, the contract could be fluid — the basis of exchange seemingly tenuous. Too much could go wrong, I argued. Besides, how could something so good be for free?

The Secret Saucing of Trust

In my past life trust was not granted. Trust was earned through impeccable execution, hard work, service and knowing your client in and out. Trust was a byproduct of reputation meticulously built. Reputation was social capital, trust its currency. The alchemy of business relationships was formalized by belts and suspenders of documentation. Good “salespersonship” in financial services relied on structure, crisscrossing and cumulating financial and social capital.

Adapting from the highly structured world of finance into the highly unstructured world of the sharing economy, I found my feet not through documentation but by suspending disbeliefs and active curation. I had to learn a new protocol and learn I did. A protocol two-way verified and co-created. With technology a facilitator.

What the radically open frontier of social networks and I had in common were philosophy and framework.The future is open, the future is learned, the future is shared.

I believe in the indescribable mystery of human relationships. I play in the radically open frontier of social-networking apps. Yet, the romantic in me long-exited online dating. Online dating apps felt too much like slot machines of the heart. I believe in reciprocity and creating an exchange at a point in time. I believe in the alchemy of what makes special relationships, extraordinary.

My social graph is a living, moving thing — reaching across the digital and the analog. Regardless of means and medium my fall back is the connective tissue of what it means to be indescribably human- to be curious, to look beyond the nose, and follow the story in the eye’s corner.

It was dark when Yigal pulled up in the dusty straw-covered, make-do parking lot of the mushav, where I would make my bed the next few days. I was nervous to say goodbye to Yigal. We had crossed the sound barrier of strangers. I did not know what lay ahead.

In the darkness, I could see Rotem, my CouchSurfing host, come forward. With a smile that could light a starless night, Rotem greeted me. He looked not more than in his mid-20s. Yigal and he chatted, a conversation that might as well have remained tongue.

Grateful for my enriched passage through the desert — fed fat with conversation I bid Yigal good-bye. I looked back with a pang and fondness for my new friend. We had traveled solid in the zip code of trust.

As Rotem and I walked in, a group of young, smiling faces greeted me. Dinner preparations were in the midst. I had arrived on the eve of Sukkot, just in time to break bread with more strangers and kinsfolk of an instant in time.

Rotem, Nirupa & Friends. Mushav Idan. October 2017. PC: Rotem T

Rotem, Nirupa & Friends. Mushav Idan. October 2017. PC: Rotem T

This is Part 3 of a series of stories on traveling alone, surfing the social network and the alchemy of human stories and relationships.

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How a Year of Prototyping Became a Year of Conversation Part 2

Credit: Self on iphone. Jerusalem. October 2017

Credit: Self on iphone. Jerusalem. October 2017

An extraordinary thing happened Saturday. In the dwindling light of evening in my living room — 10 of us gathered, as women, as girls, as sisters, as humans. We were of many ages, we came from different shores, we might have studied different things and worked at many places — we were from different mothers but we were not the Other to each other…….

Episode 1 of the Traveling Pants Exchange kicked off. I had organized TPE to kick-off Reinvesting the Past into your Future. To say good-bye, I had wanted to bring back the women of my past, from financial services, to meet the women of the present, from the creative and healing arts. I had wanted to see if we could gather and ignite a future of co-created culture. A culture of inter-disciplinary exchange and cross-pollination, a culture where we could boldly “step out of our paradigm” and question beliefs, assumptions, biases in the spirit of radical openness and connectivity. A culture of safe space where we only had to be ourselves, as Experts of our Own Story. (As articulated by various design thinking schools, and as heard on an IDEO webinar, David Kelley on Design Thinking)

Photo Credit: Asha Ganpat. June 2018. Poetry & Spoken Word Salon. Jersey City

Photo Credit: Asha Ganpat. June 2018. Poetry & Spoken Word Salon. Jersey City

I asked us to tell our story in three words- how we be, what we do and what we are becoming.

How we be- started with our names, our “line of business” and why we were there. How we be, quickly became, how many we were within, in our multiple personas with the many roles and responsibilities. We were women, who wore many hats and many voices.

The topic of the evening was being yourself in your body through the ritual of embodiment. My friend Kat Szekely, actor and yoga instructor, started with an exercise in embodiment, of feeling yourself by standing on your own feet. She then led the group into a drill on neutral mask from physical theater, put forth by Jacques Lecoq. We were asked to retrieve an object that we “would not leave home without”. We reached in our handbags, looked on our person and embodied it, and allowed ourselves to be endowed such.

“There are three masks: the one we think we are, the one we really are, and the one we have in common” — Jacques Lecoq

“The neutral mask is a learning tool for actors — to help them develop emotional honesty and economy of movement , and to give them an inner core that is balanced, centered and focused while they express powerful, authentic emotions on stage.” (

Each woman participated and shared her experience of what just happened. In wearing the neutral mask, we were able to drop the mask of who we thought we should be, and get in touch with who we already were. We talked about our mothers, of a filigreed necklace where the heart meets voice, of “depth, curl and dimension”, the symbolism of a ring. We talked about standing on our feet, solidly planted where we were, not where we should be.

Some of us talked about transformation- moving lives, moving careers, moving from one box to the other; all the while trying to honor the inner-moving-self. Some of us talked about flowing between boxes and making new boxes when the old ones did not fit. We talked about boxes that were imminently flexible, boxes that allowed creativity and autonomy, essential for the moving self. Some of us talked about how it was not change that we were afraid of, but what we have been told, change can be like.

In our reflections, we were verbs, we were nouns, we were pronouns. And present participles. We acknowledged Becoming as a process, which is constant and “in-motion”.

Mixing and matching many personas takes work. It requires finding a new center. It takes practice to be easeful with “the incredible center of being off-center”, “the middle way that is not down the middle”, “allowing for the pendulum to swing both ways”, “the equilibrium in the disequilibrium”- “the non-work-life balance.” But that evening Kat taught us one way to come come back to “neutral”. The neutral of the safe and the strong space, a held space within.

“Neutral is holding the centre” — moving with grace, dignity, power, and direction in times of rapid change and crisis.” Jacques Lecoq

We are women in process. We are women in becoming. We are women who support each other. We bring our openness, our desire to connect and share a page from the experiential playbook. We are eager and hungry to step out of our paradigm and learn how we be. And this is how we are becoming, creators and custodians of a new, co-created culture.

We come bearing a singular intent — of dreaming and wanting to mix and match all of the above; and to do justice to this one awesome, extraordinary life. Our tapestry is one of richness and multiplicity. We are the face of diversity. And in that shared intent and purpose, we are the face of inclusion. We are the face of unity in diversity.

This article appeared as part of Series on the New Culture of Work on LinkedIn. For more of my writing on behavior change and life as a series of experiments, please follow me on

May the dancing spirit thrive within!



How a Year of Prototyping Became a Year of Conversation. Part 1

Photo Credit: Self on iPhone. Taken at the Cochin Biennale 2016.  Installation by Raul Zarita: “The Sea of Pain”

Photo Credit: Self on iPhone. Taken at the Cochin Biennale 2016.
Installation by Raul Zarita: “The Sea of Pain”

So what do you do exactly?

“Hmm… I do Salons.”


Silence. Of the gulping kind. The kind that you want to slice with a knife.

So do you have any experience with hair products?”

“Not particularly, but why do you ask….”

Elevator was not traveling to the top-floor on this non-caffeinated morning.

I mean……. it is kinda bold that you would venture into the hair business.”

At this point, my quizzer took a long breath-filled pause, gave me a once-over, with pointed observations circling around my unkempt head.

I could see inside, politeness was laying siege to judginess.


Einstein- moment. Thank you E to the power of (M)any C Squared.

“No. No!” I rushed to disclaim…. “Not THAT kind of Salon… (as I was digesting the basis of misunderstanding).

I made pointed eye contact to assure my listener, turned interrogator.

“Yes, yes, I am with you. I have no experience cutting hair- although I have tried a few experiments on myself..”

“I do Salons for the Arts and in the Arts.”

Light dawned, fractionally. Puzzlement, now turned curiosity.

“So what does this Salon exactly entail?”

“Well, we gather people, 20–25 large groups. We get together around an artist or artists, we watch performance. We tell stories. We commune and engage in finding ourselves. And then we leave, promising to meet again for more.”

“Sounds like therapy.”

“Well-said actually. Yes, a number of these events have become safe spaces. They can almost feel therapeutic.”

“How have you gotten your audience to get comfortable, to thaw, to ice-break, I mean?”

I was beginning to love this line of questioning. It was feeling like an interview. I have an uncanny fondness for such. Past life externalities.

“Well, it has largely been trial and error. AND- no experience is the same. But we have stumbled upon a very happy, collective coincidence… which is — the arts igniting emotional resonance, curiosity and utter engrossment, to the point, you sometimes forget yourself… the boundaries between you and your neighbor blur, when you are in the presence of solid story.”

“So what got you into this?”


“As in — like building a product?”

“No. As in, the spirit of experimentation.”

“Please explain. Sounds nerdy.”

“Yes. Gladly. I took a sabbatical last year. It was much needed after 14 dog-eared chapters in finance.”

Pause. License for continuation.

“During my sabbatical, thanks to a well-timed recommendation from a well-meaninged friend, I read a well-designed book, called, “Designing your Life- How to Live a Well-Lived, Joyful Life” (Burnett & Evans). I discovered prototyping.”

Silence. The absurdity, was that what my listener was thinking….but I persisted.

“I made my life last year, a series of rapid prototypes. I iterated on ideas, I traveled for 170 days, I discovered new things, I met new people — to see what I could gather, by way of insights… data points.. real life data points.The world was the lab, I was the lab-rat.”

“What does this have to do with Salons?”

“Good question….. ”

“I came back after visiting with people from different cultures, places and spaces, and concluded that, we all thrive on story. We all desire to be seen and heard. We all desire to be part of community. We all crave for space where we can be ourselves. So I began collecting stories. And gathering community, who also like stories.”

Pause… digestion in slo-mo.

“What does this have to do with the arts?”

“Good question…. gosh, you will make a ninja interviewer or interrogator, you know.”

No acknowledgement of the compliment. My interviewer was serious as heart-attack.

“Well, arts because, they are uniquely embedded in the universality of human experience. And the universality of human storytelling. Arts are a gateway. The arts help creates space where we can all be just ourselves.”

“Were you not working in finance before. What makes you qualified again? Are you an artist?”

“Technically, I am not qualified.. I am at the baby’s beginning of my journey into a creative life. I am an -in-training everything. Entrepreneurially, artistically….”


“Last year was the life of zero. This year is the life of 0.25, a fractional increment from zero. I am slow-playing change.”

“And no, I am not an artist. I am not anything that is defined by what I do anymore… My new life is without designation. My job has no title. This is the no-business card lifestyle.”

You with me, listener?

“I don’t work out of a physical office space. The world is my office playground. In some circles, we are called digital nomads.”

Silence. The symphony of unwanted comprehension?

“My team are a group of collaborators — we call each other the creative cloud. And they are awesome. In some circles, we might be called the wandering feet of the gig-economy. We come together because we share similar values. We come together because we share a similar mission. We come together because we dream and then we do. We co-create culture.”

My hyper-attentive listener better not be turning hyper-allergic. Before any further onslaught of questions…. I added with some terminality.

“AND, every day we come to work, so we can just be ourselves. We are one more face of the radical, rag-tag, remote, diverse and inclusive work-force.”

This post is part of a series on making your life a series of experiments and the unbearable levity of a creative life. Post first appeared on LinkedIn, under same title.