Business & Real Estate

Los Altos business women foster community downtown

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Shashi Murthy, owner of Gitane, works with other local women on business ventures.

Shashi Murthy has been busy since she came to the Bay Area in 1990. Originally from Bangalore, India, she earned a master’s degree in computer science from San Jose State University and worked at a high-tech company before starting a consultancy and serving a stint as a kindergarten teacher – the better to be on her daughters’ schedule once they were in school.

“Now they’re out and about and I thought, ‘I need a job,’” Murthy said.

Two years ago she took over Gitane, the clothing store on State Street, and put her own mark on the shop while keeping its name (pronounced “Ji-tahn” – the French word for a Romany woman).

“I love the crowd here – they are like my family,” she said. “It’s more casual, more the style of the town. I’ve made changes according to my style and that of my customers.”

While Los Altos changes gradually, women like Murthy are helping guide that change. Her offerings have diverged from what Gitane initially sold to Los Altos residents in 2011, but the core of the boutique has remained.

“It’s not very drastic,” she said. “People don’t wear suits anymore.”

Entrepreneurial spirit

Murthy collaborates with several other members of Women Entrepreneurs of Los Altos to drum up business and form networks within the Los Altos community.

“We are all like a family – we all shop local,” she said. “That should be the main goal for everybody: Walk downtown, shop downtown and dine downtown.”

Murthy was one of the original members of the organization along with Upuia Ahkiong, who Murthy said “put us all together.”

Ahkiong runs Kua Body on First Street, which supports sole-proprietor massage therapists under one roof. According to Asha Raval, Kua Body’s social media and marketing specialist, the “massage destination” has just completed a round of Mother’s Day promotions and began searching for new ways to attract Los Altos customers.

“We wanted a way to reach out in a more personal way to our clients and community,” Raval said.

Lifestyle events

According to Murthy, Gitane’s survival depends not just on her current relationships with customers, but also on drawing new clientele through the door.

“For us to exist, we need help from people,” she said. “If they go to big stores and buy online, it’s not good for us. It means we will all be closing soon.”

She is not just hoping for help, but actively seeking it, planning events to bring people onto State Street and into her store.

“We want to send a message. People know Main Street more than State Street. We need to get people to explore State,” Murthy said. “When we have events, we need to bring people on State Street.”

Murthy does not think recent and ongoing events such as the Wine Walk or the Los Altos Farmers’ Market draw people looking for fashionable clothing.

“We should get people to come out here,” she said. “The events don’t really bring people into my store.”

She thinks that Women Entrepreneurs of Los Altos can help by giving business owners connections to each others’ audiences.

“It’s women entrepreneurs helping each other,” Murthy said, “asking how we can all collaborate.”

For Mother’s Day, Murthy teamed up with Kanesha Baynard to host a workshop at Gitane on self-care and family care.

“(Murthy) was having a promotional event and I came in and did a mini-workshop and talked about ways we could take care of ourselves and our families without sacrificing ourselves,” Baynard said.

Both Baynard and Murthy thought a collaboration was fitting. Murthy has aimed to make Gitane a place for mothers and daughters – “I have fashion for people from their 20s to their 70s,” she said – while Baynard focuses on helping her clients control their time.

Baynard has given many “bullet journaling” workshops, both at libraries and at events. She is scheduled to appear on “The Dr. Oz Show” next month.

“I love working with women and families, showing that you can have a full life without it being too full,” Baynard said.

Like Murthy, Baynard is well traveled and has a variety of life experience. After teaching English as a second language in Chicago and working as a teacher trainer in Colorado, she was looking for something unique to do when her family moved to Los Altos.

“I thought, if we are going to move again, I should start my business,” she said. “I still liked working with people, and I wanted to bring people together for unique experiences.”

A community of networks

Baynard said downtown Los Altos businesses are a great fit for her, because she runs her coaching and consulting business without a storefront, and because Women Entrepreneurs of Los Altos is cross-cutting in terms of business types and client networks.

“The group is a very great conduit for planned and strategic connections as well as organic ones, where you meet someone socially and you learn about them, then you want to learn about their work,” she said.

It is also an opportunity to discuss longtime Los Altos issues, such as providing customer-friendly parking and improving social ties.

“This is expanding my business expertise and my citizenship as a resident of Los Altos, and at the same time motivating me,” Baynard said.

Murthy agreed, noting that her business is also an opportunity for her daughters to stay involved in the community by helping guide Gitane’s clothing lines for recent college graduates entering the workforce.

“It’s been a good example, seeing their mom doing something she is passionate about,” she said.

Murthy wants her career, and her community, to be an example for a wider audience as well.

“We have to send the word out to Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, so people can see our products,” she said. “How can we do that? How can we let people know?”

For more information on Gitane, visit

Kanesha Baynard’s next bullet journaling workshop is slated 2 p.m. June 17 at Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park.

Sarah Mason contributed to this report.

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