Interview with Aanchal Wadhwani, co-founder of STAGE Management

Aanchal Wadhwani is a 29-year-old commercial photographer, actress, model, and entrepreneur responsible for four businesses.

Most notably, Aanchal recently co-found Hong Kong’s leading alternative model and talent agency, STAGE Management. STAGE Management aims to dissolve the confining standards of Asian beauty, accurately showcasing the faces of Hong Kong’s distinct urbanity. It currently represents a truly diverse group celebrating different cultures, sizes, hair types, and body art. 

As a talent herself, Aanchal has also advanced intersectional portrayal in a variety of commercial projects. She is best known for her role in DBS Bank’s miniseries ‘Sparks’, and has been featured in other programs and films.

Aside from running several creative businesses in photography, talent management and education, she actively works with NGOs, charity organizations, schools and platforms such as TED, encouraging the city’s minority youth to look beyond stereotypes and pursue their passions.

What’s your career background?

I do quite a lot of things within the creative world, so the simplest way for me to introduce myself is to say I’m a creative. However, the long answer is that I’m a commercial photographer, art director, model, actress and an entrepreneur responsible for four businesses.

In order of what I started first to last:

  • The first is Matryoshka Studio – a photography production and studio space.
  • The second is Academy of Design, which I am a co-founder of. At the academy we conduct design short courses and workshops for all ages and backgrounds. The programs are taught by industry professionals and are conducted purely in English or Cantonese.
  • The third is STAGE Creatives – a visual production that covers photography, video, web, branding, graphic design, animation and more. Our aim is to be a one-stop service for clients to put together all their visual marketing needs.
  • The last is STAGE Management, an alternative talent agency which is a sister company to STAGE Creatives. I co-founded this business alongside veteran model, Nikola Lines, with the mindset to introduce diverse talent to the Hong Kong industry. We currently represent models, actors, dancers, singers, athletes, voice artists who all have a unique look!

Where did the idea for your businesses come from, and how did you move from idea to actual business?

I’ve come to realize that all my business ideas have developed from a need that is lacking within the industry.

My first business Matryoshka started at the age of 16 as a jewelry brand. I was a fashion design student at the time and wanted to experience the market after failing to get an internship. However, I fell in love with photography and transitioned the business into a photography production shortly after. I brought my experience as a designer into my photography which I feel elevated the visuals significantly.

Academy of Design was born out of the difficulties my partner and I faced while studying fashion in different schools. Accessible and feasible courses were falsely promoted as English medium with notes being in English and teachers speaking Cantonese.

The courses were focused on unleashing creativity without any knowledge of the functional aspect of design. We created a space where students of all ages, working professionals, university students, secondary school students, or hobbyists can pursue a career in design. Our programs are affordable and the languages are either purely English or Cantonese.

I founded STAGE Creatives after many of my clients asked me to introduce videographers, graphic designers, web developers and other creatives for their businesses. Over my years of working as a commercial photographer, I’ve worked alongside many talented creatives in the city, so it was natural for me to put together the best team to offer a broader range of services!

STAGE Management was born in the midst of the pandemic, which gave my partner Nikola and I more time to bring our ideas into fruition. As an actress and model myself, I had experienced issues with my ethnicity. I was not classified as Asian, even though I am. And I naturally couldn’t fit in the Caucasian bracket either. I was asked to lie about my ethnicity on many occasions to make myself more palatable.

It bothered me, and I wanted to create representation of diversity. Nikola had a different issue she wanted to address. As a full time model, she experienced unfair treatment from agencies, being cheated by clients, not receiving payment on time and worse – sexual harassment on jobs.

She wanted to develop an agency that protected our talents, ensured they get paid on time, vetted clients and if anything was suspicious, to have our team accompany them to jobs.

What’s your USP?

As a student, I was taught the difference between artists and designers. Artists create art for themselves, regardless of whether people understand or have the ability to appreciate it. Designers create art that has the buyer in mind. The work is tailored for the trend and mass audience to appreciate, regardless of the designers personal perspective. This is something I have applied to my photography which I find a lot of photographers lack.

I create visuals for my clients and their target audience. I make it my goal to understand who my clients are selling to and what would attract their target audience. I work closely with my clients marketing teams to craft content that sell. At the same time, I inject a taste of fashion into the commercial visuals I create which I think helps me stand out as a photographer and art director.

Our agency, on the other hand, has a unique vision to bring diversity into the industry. We are an alternative boutique agency in a city with a long standing, one track beauty standard.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

I admit, I’m terrible at marketing – that is my biggest weakness but I am working on that slowly! I use Instagram avidly for all my businesses and find that creating unique, honest and creative content is what speaks to my clients!

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Working in a predominantly male industry as a photographer was tough for me. I started out without a degree in photography. I had two degrees in fashion. I was in my teens, and I look younger than my age which didn’t work to my advantage. It was hard to be taken seriously and I had to put 10 times more effort than my peers to be taken seriously.

I have been to client meetings that turned into interrogations. I’ve been asked how many square foot my studio is, how many staff I had working under me, whether I had really photographed the content in my portfolio, whether I could understand gear and equipment being a female, whether I could carry my own equipment being skinny, the list goes on.

And your proudest moment so far?

My personal goal throughout my entire career was to pave the path for other minorities to find their voice, chase their dreams and never be afraid of failure. I wanted to share my example of working in a field that was hard to enter, to share my fight in the hopes to inspire them to break out of the box we are put into growing up in Hong Kong.

My proudest achievement till date is launching STAGE Management which is a business that directly addresses all the challenges I’ve faced growing up and is a community of like minded individuals who we can introduce opportunities they may otherwise never have had.

In the short year we have launched, in the midst of the pandemic no less, we were able to place talents on projects by corporations like McDonalds, Fila, New Balance, Steelcase, Nina Hotels and more.Why is work so important to you?

I’m a workaholic because I love what I do! My jobs and businesses all give me different creative outlets and allow me to be in different locations every day, which I truly enjoy.

Who inspires you?

My biggest inspiration is my mom! She’s a woman who changed our community and gave direction to many women in her generation and younger. She broke the tradition of being a housewife and pursued her passion in Early Childhood education.

She attend university the same time I did, which encouraged so many mature women in our community to believe that learning has no limit. She has grown to be an influential woman in her field and has taught my sister and I to follow our dreams!

How do you balance your work with your family?

I am extremely family oriented. My family has been by my side throughout all my highs and lows, and we have a great relationship. We are all very career oriented, it runs in our blood, so in order to ensure we’re not always working, we have strict family days off! We also spend meal times together on the same table every night.

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

The creative industry is ever evolving, so in order to have a lasting career, you need to be evolving constantly with it! Remember to always update your work, learn new skills, face challenges and keep fighting for the dream!

Find out more about STAGE Management.