An Interview with Shriya Sekhsaria of Lumhaa

For the next 7 weeks, Siblini will be sitting down with 7 different young creatives—artists, technologists and entrepreneurs—to discuss how and why they pursue their passions. This week, we had the pleasure of speaking with with Shriya Sekhsaria, the founder of Lumhaa. The India-born, New York-based author created Lumhaa to help people (re)live their own memories as well as memories around the world through virtual reality, mobile apps, and websites. 

Hi Shriya! Thanks so much for speaking with us today. Can you start by telling us the story behind Lumhaa?

The story behind Lumhaa stretches back to a childhood passion of going up to people and wanting to know their life stories. I think I was four when my mother was convinced that this habit would get me kidnapped.

In terms of the company more specifically, it really began in 2015 during my freshman summer at college. I was writing a book about terminally ill children below the poverty line in India. The idea was to raise money for their treatment through the book, which is why I wanted the book to be as authentic as possible—I even lived with a few of the children. Unfortunately, a lot of them passed away before the book was published. I felt incredibly helpless and wanted to find a way to make the families feel better.

I raided my house and found some glass jars in my grandmother’s kitchen. I then filled the jars with drawings the children had made for me, videos I had taken of them, voice notes from them, stories they told me—whatever I could think of to make the families feel better. And then I mailed those jars to the families.

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Hearing back from the families about how much they appreciated having the jars really inspired me to do more. I started working with more of these “memory jars” for different groups of people—army units around the world, senior citizens with Alzheimer’s, strangers on trains, anyone who wanted one. Once I saw the impact these jars had on people (including me, as I found myself getting addicted to exploring these memories from around the world), I became curious about why they worked. So I focused my senior thesis in psychology at Princeton on the effects of these jars. I ran experiments with seniors at Princeton as well as senior citizens in 11 assisted living facilities in New Jersey who created memory jars, and then read either their own memories or a random anonymous stranger’s memories a few weeks later. It was really exciting to see that both writing down and reading memories— regardless of who they belonged to—made people feel significantly happier, less lonely, and more motivated.

Given the scientific backing and how this experience seemed to touch lives around me—including my own—I decided to scale the experience and build a company around it to make it sustainable. And that’s how Lumhaa was created. The word lumhaa translates to “moment” in Hindi and serves as an ode, both to the children this began with, and to my own Indian roots.

What inspired you to write about terminally ill children?

Because I feel like life is really unfair to them—it ends before it even begins, and for no fault of their own. I wanted to find a way to both immortalize their lives through the book as well as try to extend it through the donations for their treatment.

On a more personal note, I started working with the children because of my older brother, who passed away under mysterious circumstances four days before I began freshman year at Princeton. We had all these plans about how he was going to cook my farewell dinner from India and how he was going to vet the man I married… and all of those dreams ended in one lost heartbeat. I missed him every day, and would have done anything to give him a hug or see his dimples again. When I saw how my family clung to every piece of him, I kept wishing that I’d done something to document his life better. And that’s ultimately why I turned to terminally ill children—I wanted to give their families something to hold on to in a way that I had failed to do for my own.

Why are you passionate about memory collection?

I just love hearing people’s stories! There are billions of people on this planet with more stories than I even know an appropriate number for, and I enjoy hearing about their memories because I feel like it helps me vicariously live a thousand lives.

What are your plans for expanding Lumhaa, and how will you balance working on your startup with a full-time position?

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We currently have two products available right now—the first is our core offering of a website and mobile app that helps you collect your memories as well as see memories from around the world. It has a few interesting features, like the ability to build a family tree by inviting your family members to contribute memories as well as a “memory walk,” where you can walk down a street and see memories pop up as you pass by places they were created in (kind of like a Pokemon Go for memories).

The second is Lum World—a business-to-business offering to help companies humanize their institutional memory. Most companies do a great job of keeping their financial and legal documents, but forget to record the human aspect of growth and history. In addition, when employees leave or move to different positions, all the knowledge gained through their years at the company disappears with them. Our tech platform helps companies deal with this problem.

We’re also very excited about our expansion into the extended reality space so you can actually immerse yourself and walk around in memories, a store to order physical versions of memories that are handmade by artists from emerging communities around the world, and—my personal favorite—Lum Jars. Lum Jars are little glass jars that project your memories on a wall or as holograms above their lids. A nifty thing to keep on your work desk or use as a digital wallpaper for your bedroom or in a table setting for your family dinners, since you can choose which memory collection you want to display. Plus, whenever someone walks by your jar, they can use their app to drop in memories for you.

As for balancing my full time position with my dreams for Lumhaa, I often talk about work-life balance. My full time job is an intellectual passion—one that gets me excited to go to work even on a Monday morning. And several people manage jobs like that with their lives outside of it, doing things they care about, like raising a family, for example, while also working. For me, Lumhaa is the life side of the “work life balance.” It’s my heartbeat and I’m incredibly lucky to have support from both my full time and Lumhaa teams as I live this crazy, privileged life.

Where do you see Lumhaa in five years?

Is it corny to say in people’s hearts? Or too ambitious to say that it’s going to be the world’s largest memory collection?

Honestly, the biggest focus is to create an experience that people love and to touch as many lives as possible. In five years, hopefully that means having happy users in several countries as well as rolling out our extended reality, physical products, and Lum Jar visions. I often remind my employees of our first principle—people are at the heart of everything we do—so as long as we’re touching hearts around the world, I’ll be a happy camper.

What advice would you give other writers and entrepreneurs?

To the extent that I am qualified to answer this question, the advice I would give to writers and entrepreneurs is fairly the same, because both essentially try to get others to believe in a world they dream about. What I would say is this—once you've created a world and decide that it’s worth moving everything you’ve got there, believe in it. Even when it’s just you living in it, believe in it because you’re going to get 100s of people—agents, customers, investors, publishers, and more—who tell you that your world is stupid. Until you get a few brave, sometimes crazy, ones to take the journey with you. You run your world, and don’t ever forget that.

Tell us about some of your other projects.

Writing is certainly still on the cards. I’ve got another new novel coming out soon called Implosion. I spent six years working on this, so I’m really excited for it to get out into the world. Plus, reading all the letters from ONE aficionados who are excited about the new book is always great. I also have a short story collection I’m finishing up. It’s a collection of six anti-fairy tales—each one is about a little girl on a different continent and what life looks like when "happily ever after" really is a concept you only find in movies.

Aside from the writing, I’m working on my research which is getting published in a few journals and continuing on with my archery, acting, and some international relations work.

—Interview conducted by Ashlyn Lackey.