Shy. Timid. Never wanted to be an artist. Instead, would have been happy in a steady 9-5 job – in banking.
Do you see someone shy and timid in the picture? That’s how Alicia Souza chose to describe herself as she was a few years ago. Lies, we think to ourselves. Today, she’s a sought-after illustrator with several clients and organizations that would offer testimonials to her work. She also manages a vibrant Facebook page and has developed quite a fan following. From someone who was once reserved, Alicia transformed herself into a person who takes on a stage with confidence. If you’ve followed her work, you’ll be happy to know that she’s exactly the way you would imagine her to be – fun, bubbly, enthusiastic and an easy conversationalist with enough for us to guffaw about in between.
We’re sure she’s always had her brand of humour, but it’s hard to imagine that she was anything else. It’s even harder to imagine that there was a point of time where she wanted a life different from the way it is now.
To Want To Be Normal
Alicia grew up in Abu Dhabi with a fairly pleasant childhood. As children, we all believed we were natural artists. From scribbling across the walls to drawing outside the lines, we were encouraged to explore our creative sides. As time progressed, many of us soon realised that the adults around us were just being kind. Alicia’s story, however, was a little different.
“I never wanted to become an artist or an illustrator”, she says. “I thought it was a hideous job. I was attracted to pictures and colourful things, but never art. I thought I would become a Veterinarian.” As she completed her tenth grade, the time had come for her to choose a stream. Alicia opted for Commerce. “I was really good at math! By this point, I thought I would become an Accountant. I wanted a 9 to 5 job so badly and I imagined a completely normal life.” We pause for a second, amused at this line of thinking. “Well, everything sure worked against me!”, she says in jest.
Her life was slowly set to change when she decided to work on the cover of the school magazine. “My art teacher had a look at it and said that I would ruin my life if I didn’t pursue art as a profession.” That one statement pushed Alicia to take up a Graphic Designing course in Melbourne, Australia.
The Australian Years
“I completely disliked graphic designing and the process of it. But in my final year, I could choose my elective and started working on illustration. I loved it and realised that it was exactly what I wanted to do. I had decided that if I was going to be in the world of art, I would only do it as an illustrator and nothing else.” With this newfound direction, Alicia started working on her portfolio and soon enough, she got a call from a newspaper to work with them on a contract job. “The work was so good that I even forgot to invoice them for it!” Thankfully, she worked part-time in a café to earn as she would get odd jobs to illustrate.
Her work with the newspaper, however, was short-lived. “Since I was on a contract, it came to an end. I was told that I had to read political news as there was a demand for political cartoonists. I had no interest in politics and decided to not go that way.” To sustain herself, Alicia took up a job as a teller with a bank. To her surprise, she absolutely enjoyed it. “I met new people everyday. I’d then go home and draw. I could work in a job that I liked and still take on assignments related to illustration. I loved it!”
Soon enough, Alicia came to a crossroads. She was offered to play an integral role as an illustrator with Chumbak, a startup that dealt with India-based souvenirs and accessories at the time. “I was already doing some work with them part-time, but now I had to choose. I decided to go to India and work with them as I might never get this opportunity again. I could always go back to a job, after all.” With that thought, she decided to end her Australia stint of five years and packed her bags to set sail for Bangalore.
To Rise, Fall And Power Through
Alicia hit the ground running. She started working with Chumbak and everything moved forward smoothly. They expanded massively across India and built a solid following. It was also in this period that Alicia started getting popular as the face behind a lot of the illustrative work. She worked on drawings that would eventually find its way onto mugs, keychains, fridge magnets, etc. All of these products were sold under the company banner.
A year and a half later, Alicia’s relationship with Chumbak had come to an end as they had decided to move forward on different paths. “It was a sudden move and I wasn’t in the best of places. I was on my own and had no intention of taking help from my parents to see myself through. I had no idea how I was going to make it.” At this point, she had spent a year away from the banking industry and wasn’t sure if she could go back or simply take another job. “In Australia, I could just work in a café and work on something else. That’s not an option over here.”
Alicia now found herself in a spot where freelancing as an illustrator was the only feasible option. More importantly, she was in a place where she never imagined she would be – one that would force her to step out of her reserved demeanour. “I started with setting up an e-commerce site and using my Facebook page to promote my work. I still had to go talk to people, discuss payment and do other things I didn’t enjoy. I was still very held-back. Slowly, I realised that if I do something that’s uncomfortable often enough, it becomes normal. That really is the key.” In the beginning, Alicia wasn’t paid very well. Over time, she learnt her way around the market and started to position herself accordingly.
Even though she didn’t enjoy all of what had to be done, she had a strong enough motivation that went well beyond her – she had her children to take care of. By children, of course, we mean her dogs. “I was ok with scrapping by, but I couldn’t make Charles and Lola-bear go through the same. I had to take care of them and feed them well!”
One of her biggest breakthroughs in this time, however, was to be able to speak on stage. When she first got a call to be a speaker, her immediate response was a resounding no. In conversation with a friend, she realised that this could be a very useful opportunity for her. Soon enough, she found herself on a podium, albeit reluctantly. “This was the worst thing someone could do to me! I could get motion-sickness with the thought of speaking to a crowd.” As it stands today, she’s been a speaker at Google, TEDx talks, Infosys, INK talks and IIM amongst others. “I took almost six months to put my first talk up on my Facebook page. I used to overthink it. But the same rule applies here too. You have to start getting comfortable with what you’re uncomfortable with. Do it often enough and it will happen.”
Life As It Stands Today
Four years after she started freelancing, Alicia lives the life she never knew she wanted. She is constantly busy with her work, chooses what she wishes to do and is able to propose ideas to potential clients with ease and certainty. She’s worked across industries with several customers such as Yahoo, AOL, The Hindu, The Times of India, Tanishq, Amar Chitra Katha, Chennai Super Kings and many others. Oh, we should also add that her dogs are well-fed and she smothers them often enough. “I used to be scared of being on my own. It turns out that it was the best thing that happened to me.”
As we listened to her story, it was obvious that Alicia was always blessed with both an artistic and creative streak, her education in the field aside. At the same time, talent wasn’t the only answer. She had to do a lot more to be heard and get her work out there before she really hit her zone.
What about you?
Right from the start, Alicia worked with a guiding principle. “In my initial days of freelancing in Bangalore, I had made a decision. I would never do crappy work. It didn’t matter if I struggled, I would not do something I didn’t like.” Such a decision is hard to make when the chips are down. Sticking with it eventually bore its fruit.
In our conversation with her, we also realised there were no down-moments. Alicia could share her entire story with a broad smile. In fact, we found ourselves mirroring her cheerfulness. “I’ve got so much work on my plate, I’m sorry if I was a little drab”, she said. We had no idea what she was talking about.
It was clear to us that that’s how she approaches life. Her exuberance comes across in her work and it is absolutely clear that she does love her work. Interestingly so, that part wasn’t an accident or forced; in her entire career, she only did what she loved.
What about you?