Ms. Chaya Venkatakrishnaiah has had a long road to St. John’s College. More than moving across the planet from Bangalore, India to Santa Fe, New Mexico in the United States, she first discovered St. John’s back in 2010 while she was researching engineering schools for her son to attend. The Great Books program struck her as interesting and unique, but wasn’t what her son was looking for. It would be 9 years before Ms. Venkatakrishnaiah came to enroll in the Eastern Classics Program at St. John’s College.
Though Chaya worked at the State Bank of India for 28 years, she had always wanted to study law in the United States. She looked into PhD. programs and applied but didn’t get in. Her son, Amogha Kirshna Srirangarajan, advised her to look into undergraduate programs in the U.S. to better understand the foundation of Western law.
“It was my son’s guidance that, if you want to do law in the US, first you should do undergrad here. Then you will understand the grain of the U.S.. Without understanding that, studying law would not be meaningful. And, in four years, you will get the opportunity to learn the culture and get accustomed to the climate.”
Under this advisement, Chaya took a step back. She took the SATs, passed the TOEFL exam and applied to undergraduate schools in the U.S.. At this point she remembered the Great Books program at St. John’s College and applied here as well.
She was accepted to St. John’s College and the generous financial aid convinced her to attend in 2016. Unfortunately, she didn’t stay long.
“My husband had come to drop me [at school] and go back. But, he was very disturbed to go back alone,” said Chaya. “And it was a very distinct time for me, too. I thought, ‘let me go back with my husband, and if everything falls in place I can again come back.’”
She returned to India and sought employment once again in the banking profession. She found positions that offered as much as a 30-40% increase in salary, but these new banks expected her to bring old clients to the new bank.
“For me that was not ethically okay. And I should not compromise my moral and ethical values just for money. With this in mind, I was not able to take the bank jobs. Plus, even though I was in India, my mind was at St. John’s. This was my calling, always.”
Ms. Venkatakrishnaiah was caught between finding work, wanting to return to St. John’s, and refusing to compromise her ethics for money. While she wrestled with this decision, she developed an idea for a food business.
When Chaya came to St. John’s College in 2016, she brought with her a suitcase filled with prepackaged Indian food to enjoy while in Santa Fe. When she left the program, she handed the suitcase to her son, who had come to visit her. He was ecstatic to receive the food and Chaya insisted on send more food from India upon her return. After the first shipment, Chaya began considering the quality of the food she sent.
“I started feeling there are so many preservatives there in that food. I started thinking ‘for every problem, there is a solution.’ So, I started preparing food at home without using preservatives using old Indian techniques. Then I kept it on the table and checked it for its shelf life.” She monitored the food over days, studying to see which meals held up best being shipped to her son without refrigeration. “It has
to travel from India to the U.S.. That’s at least four or five days. In case it’s held in customs, another five to six days. So, 10-15 days.”
She and her husband prepared the meals, packaged them, and shipped them to her son in California. Naturally, he loved the food. He said the prepackaged meals from the market tasted like medicine, where his mother’s food was authentic, and a delight to taste after five years away from her home cooking. Once again, he wisely advised his mother on what to do next.
He told her “mother, why should you search for a job when you have so much potential? Why don’t you start this as your own business?” He encouraged her to study other well-established food companies, their struggles and how they thrived.
Ms. Venkatakrishnaiah spent the next 30 months refining her techniques and her product. She finalized the recipes for the dishes with the best longevity while maintaining their authenticity as Indian cuisine. After those months, she was ready to begin the business. And that’s just when St. John’s College reemerged in her mind.
“Then I told myself,” Chaya said, “before I start the business, I will do a course a St. John’s. I don’t know why. I don’t know whether I was right or wrong but this was my thing.”
During her short time at St. John’s in 2016, Chaya heard about the Eastern Classics Program on the Santa Fe campus. As she was deciding whether to start her business, she looked into the MAEC program and discovered it was only a year-long program.
“I thought this is the best for me! One, my dream of having an education in a U.S. college is met. Two, it is a short-term course, so I do not have to postpone starting my business for a long. And three, this is an opportunity to academically go through the Eastern Classics books, to have a discussion about them and to write about them. So, I thought ‘everything has fallen in place!’”
At long last, Chaya Venkatakrishnaiah applied and enrolled in the 2019 class of the Eastern Classics program at St. John’s in Santa Fe. Her experience has been remarkable. Working with the Office of Personal and Professional Development, Chaya produced a list of over 30 skills she believes St. John’s has helped her create or refine for herself. Many of these skills she is excited to apply to her business once she graduates this summer.