Sometimes our past and present intersect. Sometimes life takes its own course. And yet sometimes we end up coming back full circle to where we started, sort of. Meet Mallika Malhotra, former advertising executive turned photographer turned brand strategist, based out of Short Hills, NJ. Passionate, self-driven, super-organized and owner of MikiFoto + Co., she manages family and business with aplomb. Let’s find out more!
AM : Tell us a little bit about your background, Mallika.
MM : I am part Filipino, part Indian, born and raised in the United States, and so I have a very diverse upbringing. I grew up in suburban New York. My parents are immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 60s. The emphasis in our family was very much on academic achievement – most of them are involved in the medical profession and healthcare, so there was really no room or role model for creative endeavors. In fact my husband is a physician as well! I was determined to do something different once I graduated from the University of Michigan. This led me to the world of advertising, where I worked for about 8 years or so, on different products such as L’Oréal and Oil of Olay. Work led me to different cities – NYC, San Francisco etc. It was a busy, fun life.
AM : Wow, so then what led you to pursue photography as a career?
MM : The well-known fact is you can’t have everything. My husband is a pediatric heart surgeon, and this took us all over the country. Raising a family and working full-time is a tough balance, especially when you have to uproot yourself every now and then, so I left the razzle-dazzle of advertising and started doing other things, mainly small businesses. I designed bangle bags and handbags using Indian fabrics, then started KidGuru – an appliqué t-shirt venture. However with each move, I still felt lost and isolated. My camera was the only thing that helped us connect to our families. This became my creative outlet as well as my lifeline. I could express myself using portrait photos and at the same time, keep my kids and my family in touch. I am self-taught – I spent as much time at the library as I could, reading, practicing nearly every day and I knew I had found my new passion. Before I knew it, I was taking pictures not only of my own family, but also those of neighbors and friends and soon people started hiring me. But with all the cross-country moving, it was not easy to establish myself as a photographer since I had no clients and no brand. I would pretty much have to restart all over again each time.
AM : How did you transition then from being a photographer to a brand photographer and strategist? What was the driving force behind that decision?
MM : After we moved to Short Hills, NJ I joined this great organization for women called B.I.G (Believe, Inspire, Grow). I realized there were so many women entrepreneurs out there, all trying to grow their brand and what they stood for. It struck me that photographs were a great starting point to help create a brand, and make it stand out in this crowded market of so many others trying to do the same thing you are. I guess I did come full circle in that sense – my advertising background did help with my thinking there. I wanted to coach my friends and clientele to see beyond themselves and come up with new and different strategies to market their brand. That was really the beginning.
AM : What is the mission statement and purpose of MikiFoto + Co?
MM : I would say that my mission is to empower women to be the face of their brand and share their message with confidence. As we know, nowadays if you don’t exist online, you may as well not exist at all! Online marketing is extremely important, and MikiFoto helps tell the story of your brand and differentiate you from other people in the market. I help you put your message with depth and intention, out on social media and be very strategic in your marketing.
AM : Tell us about your new book. What’s it about, and what was your inspiration behind it?
MM : It’s called the Brand Photography Playbook. It’s like a How-to business book and it is intentional in its glossy fashion mag type design. It is meant to be a coffee table book, or one for the bookshelf, and used for reference. At some point when I was taking a lot of photos to be used for online businesses and social media, women would ask me about a brand photograph – what it would do, and why would they need it, how and when would they use it etc. I was also speaking for podcasts and at meetings, and it felt like I was cutting and pasting the same questions over and over. Thus sprung the idea for a book. I wanted to share the process and the importance of storytelling. For the book, I profiled many women in business and interviewed and photographed them. I wanted it to be a tool that helped women scale their business, and serve even those that don’t exactly live near me. The hope is that they too would be empowered and informed in the process so they could coach who they hire.
AM : Tell us a little bit about being a member of B.I.G. (Believe Inspire Grow)? How has that shaped your career and your network?
MM : Sure. I’ve been a member since 5 years and was the leader of the Millburn-Short Hills pod for 3 years. It introduced me to a close-knit community of local women who share the same sense of purpose and passion and support each other professionally and emotionally. In addition to finding several clients and friends, I now have my own inner circle of people in B.I.G. who I communicate with on a daily basis – to either read copy on my website or push me try something that I am not sure about. I have truly enjoyed the camaraderie of these amazing group of women, and they have made me grow as a person and an entrepreneur.
AM : How would you describe yourself as a person? What is the motto you live by?
MM : I’m fun-loving, creative and passionate about what I do. Also because my parents are from such different cultures and I’m a first generation American, I am able to blend in different groups and get along with anyone – I find something in common with anyone! I try to be a leader in my space and in my industry and like to inspire other people to succeed.
A motto I live by is – Embrace the chaos! You’re not going to have the Instagram Pinterest worthy perfect life. Be transparent. I have 3 boys and I do my best trying to keep it all together and be happy. I cannot do it all sometimes. But I am not going to beat myself up for it. I’m trying to model myself for my kids and show them that I am doing something that I love. If that means the house isn’t always clean or dinner isn’t always ready, then so be it! I learn to outsource and get help when I need it. And takeout is always good 🙂
AM : I am one of the lucky women to be photographed by you for my portrait photo (and I love that headshot!) What was the inspiration behind this venture?
MM : I was trying to do something that no one else was doing. I am always wired that way – I try to innovate and get involved in new experiences. The purpose of the photo shoot was to feel beautiful first and then look beautiful in front of the lens. We arranged for hair and makeup, styling and accessories and worked with experts who took care of the women and helped them feel like a million bucks for the camera, thereby also dissipating their fears! Being with women who were going through what you were going through helped alleviate some of that, and the end product was something they could use to brand themselves and be proud of!
AM : What is your opinion on black and white photos vs. color?
MM : I am all about color- it brings vibrancy and expression to the shot, and the personality of the subject really shines with color. That being said, I think B&W brings out the serious and artsy side of me – you can portray certain vibes and moods with black and white that you cannot do with color. However I am a 90% color person, it is real, aspirational and authentic.
AM : In this day and age of constant photoshopping, what is your view on maintaining the integrity of a picture? Are all these filters really required?
MM : I think filters are a way to express your creativity. I fully support that. But when you use photoshop indiscriminately to alter who you are and what you look like, I think that the authenticity of who you are gets compromised in the process. My message is to embrace every gray hair, every line, every experience in life. Think bigger than what you look like. Think about your message as to why you are providing this service to your client. What is it you are trying to convey to the world. Going overboard with image manipulation is not my idea of doing that because that could hurt your brand and your business. If you show up and people don’t know who you are – that could be a problem!
AM : What camera/lens would you recommend for beginners and why?
MM : I love Canon. I started with the Rebel and would recommend that because it’s a good starter DSLR camera. I think the 50mm 1.8 is an affordable, powerful prime lens and takes beautiful portraits.
AM : Any tricks of the trade you’d like to share with budding photogs?
MM : Practice every day. Know your camera well, experiment with the settings and the subjects. Learn how to look at the light and try everyday. Keep your camera with you every single day. Read and take courses. Invest in education. There are tons of online courses – either on youtube or specific photography sites. Learn the basics and then practice, practice, practice!
AM : You run a book club for women and most of your selections are non fiction business books. What would be your top 3 recommendations? And what made you start this club?
MM : Grit is a great book about parenting, business and combining passion with perseverance. It talks about teaching drive to privileged kids, for example, and about teaching gratitude and showing them that there is a life outside this bubble. Pumpkin Plan is my personal favorite. It is a book every business owner should read. Then there is Fire Starter Sessions, a wonderful book on how to start life over on a clean slate.
Starting this club 2 years ago was purely out of selfish reasons. I love to read, in fact early morning reading is like a 30 minute meditation for me. This club makes me accountable to actually read and be able to discuss the book at every meeting. So I would have to find the time to read. Many women who have attended the club have loved it and are very thankful!
AM : In the same vein, any favorite fiction books you’d like to share?
MM : I’d recommend A man called Ove, Lucky boy, Big little lies and Unaccustomed earth.
AM : Any parting words for women entrepreneurs out there, trying to make it big?
MM : Yes. In this day and age, you need to tell stories and describe your intentions for your business. Connect with the audience. Create an experience not just pretty pictures. Create a brand that is your own, and help grow its longevity. In the end it’s all about digging deeper, having a mission and express yourself with your personality and the values you believe in. The why is equally, if not more important, than the what and who!
Thank you Mallika! I am sure our readers will be as energized by this interview as I was writing it! Wish you a happy 2018 and success in all your forthcoming endeavors!