Written by Kaylee Kobert
Sharmila Khushalani Karamchandani calls herself “the survivor.” Sharmila – a native of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India – struggled for years to overcome post-Sept. 11 prejudices and find her niche in American society. Salvation finally came in an unexpected form: a craigslist advertisement.
Empowered Women International (EWI) was looking for someone who could create handmade cards, and Sharmila responded. What she didn’t know, however, was that she was about to begin a complete transformation as an artist – and as a person.
Of course, her journey began long before her craigslist job hunt. A member of a very artistic family, Sharmila had always been more an observer of art than an artist herself. But then high school charcoal and oil painting classes awakened in Sharmila a passion for the arts. She went on to earn an undergraduate degree in advertising in Bombay, then traveled to the United States to visit her brother, Sunil Khushalani, in 1998.
While staying with Sunil in Georgia, Sharmila became interested in the graphic design program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “I’ve always been a knowledge seeker,” she said, “and I wanted to get a higher degree.” So Sharmila converted her tourist visa to a student visa and started work on her master’s degree – which Sunil was kind enough to help finance – in January 1999.
Though Sharmila “naturally blended” with the school’s diverse student population, the treatment she experienced changed dramatically after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. “There was a lot of prejudice against people who looked like me,” Sharmila said. “I used to be stopped on the streets and asked if I was from Afghanistan. I could feel the hatred. That was very, very disturbing.” This change in attitude hurt Sharmila professionally as well – she said that though she went to thousands of interviews, five years passed without any opportunities in her field.
Sharmila finally discovered the craiglist advertisement in 2006 while living in Virginia with her husband, Girish Karamchandani. Her subsequent involvement with EWI did in fact begin with card making, but EWI staff members suggested Sharmila complete the “Training for Success” entrepre-neurial program once they saw her portfolio.
Sharmila said she was skeptical in the beginning – she wasn’t earning an income and the program’s $150 cost seemed too steep. “But something said that I should do it,” she said. “And ever since I took that program, my life completely changed.” Sharmila cultivated a more professional approach to her art and also learned to work under pressure, schedule her time and promote herself and her work. Sharmila now sees her training as a finishing school of sorts. “I had the talent, but didn’t do anything about it,” she said. “But now with the combination of this training, I feel more complete.”
EWI continued to provide Sharmila with opportunities even after she completed the program. She began doing graphic design work for the organization and was eventually introduced to others who could also use her services. She got involved with EWI’s microenterprises, and began creating and selling jewelry.
In addition to her passion for art, Sharmila’s interest in teaching has also been satisfied by her involvement with EWI. She worked in an after-school program at Mount Vernon Elementary, and eventually received a teaching position at Westwood College after learning about the opening from another EWI artist.
Sharmila said she is very grateful to have the opportunity to hone so many of her abilities through just one organization. “I have a personality where I dabble in many things,” she said. “So a place like this – where we’re also evolving, trying to figure out how to fundraise, how to make money – has tapped most of my potential. It has pushed me and made me excel in all of those things that I love.”
While she is happy to have learned so much about her craft, the most important lessons Sharmila has learned are more universal. “No matter where you come from, you’re going to have these patches in your life that are going to be a struggle. But how do you overcome it? You do whatever it takes,” she said. “Have that faith in yourself. That is the main lesson that EWI – and this country – has taught me.”
Though Sharmila said she is finally comfortable in her own skin, she plans to continue her evolution as an artist and as a person. She would like to nurture her interest in fine art and continue to teach. She also hopes to give back to others who may be struggling as she once was. Fortunately, the hard times that Sharmila and others at EWI have endured allow them to do just that. “All of us who work here are very intuitive and experienced, and we’ve gone through a lot,” she said. “So we have the ability to lift a soul. It gives others a lot of strength. Like, ‘OK, if you can do it, I can do it too.’”
Sharmila especially encourages female artists and immigrants to check out EWI, but said the organization has something for everyone – including Americans and non-artists. “Not everyone who works for EWI is an artist,” she said. “We utilize all kinds of talents. Whoever comes here will get something out of it, whether a contact number or a new way of life [through the completion of training]. We’ve never turned anyone away.” Sharmila certainly has no regrets about her own involvement with EWI. “It has made me very grounded and stable,” she said. “It has nurtured my soul. Really, as the name suggests, I feel empowered. I feel like there’s nothing I cannot do.”
Sharmila’s earrings are available for sale in our Etsy Shop!
Other Success Stories can be read on our website
Examples of Sharmila’s graphic design work
One example of graphic design work Sharmila has done for our organization
Kaylee Kebort is originally from Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Gannon University in Erie, PA in 2009 with a degree in Criminal Justice and minors in Spanish and Forensics. Kaylee then moved to the DC area, after procuring a job with the federal government. She currently lives in Arlington with her one-eyed rescued cat, Sammi.