From online travel companies and competitive test preparation platforms to housing society, cashback and coupon portals, women entrepreneurs are breaking the traditional glass ceiling to venture into the ONLINE start-up ecosystem. On Women’s Day, we profile some of these pioneering ladies.
Co-founder & EVP (operations), Yatra.com
Always follow your instinct when in doubt; remember, you are your own best advocate. Believe in yourself”
IT’S BEEN an eventful journey for Sabina Chopra. Having worked in the travel/BPO domain for over 24 years and being a passionate traveller herself, it was a vocation that was just waiting to happen.
Chopra is currently EVP (operations) of the over nine-year-old Yatra, an online travel company that she founded with partners Dhruv Shringi and Manish Amin in the winter of 2006. As EVP (operations), the Delhi University alumna manages sales, fulfillment and after-sales support for all the company’s businesses. She also heads Yatra’s domestic hotel business, where she uses her expertise of the hospitality business in India to ensure the travel portal’s hotel product is the best on offer.
Although many women are now breaking the shackles of traditional wisdom to establish their own businesses, Chopra feels creating one’s own start-up is still perceived to be a man’s domain. “It is definitely challenging to ensure people take you seriously,” she laments. “However, compared to the past, these days, we see more of women entrepreneurs who are successful in their ventures. They have confidence because of family support and societal acceptance. The outlook has changed tremendously, and for the better,” adds Chopra, who enjoys cooking, listening to music and taking frequent weekend breaks to be with her family.
Radhika Ghai Aggarwal
Running a successful business is not gender-play at all—it’s just about seizing the right opportunities”
RADHIKA GHAI Aggarwal is a second-time entrepreneur. Before co-founding ShopClues in 2011, she ran a portal called FashionClues, which was a fashion blog with a wide fan following.
Aggarwal always had a propensity of doing her own thing. “I think entrepreneurship allows you to realise your dreams on your terms and without being bound by set procedures and corporate silos. Also, it allows you more creative freedom that is extremely rewarding in a personal and professional sense,” says Aggarwal, who pursued an MBA from Washington University in St Louis and has over 14 years of marketing experience in diverse industry segments like retail, e-commerce, fashion and lifestyle, advertising and public relations with best-of-breed global brands.
ShopClues was initially bootstrapped with R1 crore, which the founders had personally invested. This was followed by angel funding to the tune of $2 million from a few US-based investors. “We closed the last fiscal at R350 crore in gross merchandise value and expect to exit FY2014-15 at a GMV of R2,000 crore.
ShopClues has maintained a 600% growth rate and is clearly on the path to profitability,” says Aggarwal. “Starting up is a leap of faith for any entrepreneur because in most cases, the only thing you have is a big idea. You have to then put in 100% of your conviction, passion, energy and effort to make it fly,” adds the mother of two.
Monika Pal Sood
Entrepreneurship is perfectly suited for women. Take a deep breath and plunge in”
MONIKA PAL Sood was always into fashion. After graduating from Delhi University and securing a diploma from the Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi, she soon found a job with a well-known apparel export company in the national capital. “There, I saw a big opportunity to start something of my own, where my creativity and design skills could be highlighted,” says Sood. So, she quit her job and borrowed some money from her father to start her own small business specialising in high-fashion apparel. She successfully ran this enterprise from 1996 to 2004, at which point she took a sabbatical to start a family. By 2008, the family was in place and she was itching to return to the entrepreneurial world.
Sood began Youshine from a spare room in her home and two staff, with a single kiosk at a popular mall in Gurgaon. She invested R5 lakh to start Youshine, and put in another R25 lakh to grow from one kiosk to six. “The break-even happened within 18 months, but in 2012, we (she and her husband) invested more money to take the business to the next level. We were also blessed to find two angel investors, who saw value in our business idea and have been co-investing with us for the past three years,” she explains.
Youshine is now a full-fledged omni-channel speciality retail Indian brand with 20 offline and online points of sale across the country. Its current annual turnover is
R6.5 crore, which is expected to reach R100 crore by 2018.
If you are brilliant at something, don’t do it just for others. Start now, you don’t need to know everything before starting out”
THE FORMER sales and marketing professional started her career with telecom major Airtel, but quit it soon to take a sabbatical. In order to make better use of her free time, she decided to work with start-ups. She joined a brewery and then a tech start-up, where she met her would-be co-founder Atit Jain of Gigstart, a marketplace to facilitate quick and transparent connect between entertainers and party planners. “He is the enterprising type who initially suggested, then insisted and eventually forced me into starting something on my own,” says Pandey.
The company was self-funded for the first six months, after which it was selected by GSF, the Gurgaon-based technology start-up accelerator. “The initial capital allowed us to seed the company till the time it was able to raise funding at a valuation, which was on our terms. That is the most superb return on initial capital, according to me, for any start-up,” she adds.
Since inception, Gigstart has done business worth
R85 lakh, of which 95% has been in the current financial year. “We have on board more than 3,500 artistes across 16 categories from 117 cities in India,” says Pandey, adding: “Several fierce women entrepreneurs are getting recognised. Also, a lot of young women I know are thinking about or are in the process of starting up with their social impact ideas, which I think is incredible.”
Founder & CEO, Embibe
Entrepreneurship in general is exciting and fraught with challenges. There
is a lot of learning on the other side of navigating those”
AN MBA from Chicago Booth, Aditi Avasthi has had stints at consulting firms Bain & Company and Barclays, where she worked extensively across the US, Asia, Europe and Africa in the mobile commerce and payments, as well as ITeS spaces. Having been an IIT aspirant herself, she returned to India to start Embibe, an online test preparation platform.
“Embibe is the outcome of my personal experience with the competitive exam system in India. In 1999, I appeared for the IIT-JEE, but did not clear it. I felt it was because I did not study chemistry as much as I should have. Embibe has been created to personalise the crucial mentoring and academic guidance needed by young people in India, a country where one number can define your access to college,” she says.
Avasthi raised $700,000 of seed capital for Embibe before starting out. “We are not targeting to break-even right now, the goal is to grow the market and advocate the need for online as an indispensable tool for achieving one’s potential,” she explains. Avasthi feels for any new sector on the Internet, advocacy is an initial challenge. “A lot of parents and teachers still view the Internet as a ‘distraction’ when it comes to education. It is imperative to understand that the Internet is also a critical medium for information and the only way to get forensic and critical inputs to understand the fastest way to score higher,” adds Avasthi.
Find the problem or opportunity that you would feel over-passionate to solve. Then go for it. Get your family to rally around you. And don’t give it up for anything in the world”
AFTER LEADERSHIP roles in several Internet corporates, taking up another senior job was not challenging enough and doing more of the same did not excite Pearl Uppal. Thus was born TalkingThreads.in, an online shopping portal for Indian ethnic wear.
Uppal bootstrapped TalkingThreads initially and then made an investment of
R1 crore into the business. “We broke even in nine months. The revenue figures now touch a million-dollar run rate,” says the engineer and MBA by education.
As a woman, she had to face several challenges in her career. “Most VCs attach an extra risk factor to a woman leading a start-up and many of them struggle around women with a strong point of view. I have also felt challenged balancing raising start-ups and babies simultaneously,” she says, adding: “Women entrepreneurs are growing in numbers, but are not enough even now to say that it is a growing trend. Many more are needed. Some sectors like health, education, parenting, fashion and lifestyle can benefit a lot with more women entrepreneurs, as they have inherent inclination and strength to innovate and solve problems in these sectors.”
Getting started with any business is an uphill battle for quite some time. But if you stay focused and think of it as your ‘baby’, then you start to see progress each day”
REBEKKAH KUMAR was born and brought up in Louisville, Kentucky, US. She started her career after college as an engineer focused on supply chain and inventory management systems for a major high-tech company and later worked as a supply chain consultant.
Post-an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, US, she started working with Microsoft in e-commerce product and brand management in Redmond (Washington), and was with them for nine years. “In 2006, my family and I packed our bags and moved to India. I took a couple of years off from corporate life to spend time with my young children after we moved here. Then I started as a freelance consultant, which was a great experience,” she says, adding: “I have been passionate about jewellery since childhood and I have been collecting jewellery from around the world. Having lived in India for eight years, I saw a definite market opportunity for a line of contemporary, modern, lightweight jewellery for what I call global Indians. I also blended some of my design ideas with my love for Indian culture.”
Thus was born Fourseven.in. Kumar invested R60 lakh in Fourseven.in to get started. We have seen a great response from our consumers and the revenue is growing 20-25% on an average month-on-month basis,” she adds.
Empower yourself. Have a
successful career and a full life outside work. A positive work-life
balance is attainable”
SHEFALI SINGH is a travel industry veteran with over two decades of specialised experience in MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and events), domestic and international holidays. “I launched Mysha with a vision to optimise my expertise in the realm of travel and tourism, and merged it with my entrepreneurial spirit. As the managing director of Mysha, I helm the overall growth and development of the business, while nurturing brand-building activities,” says the Delhi University and American TESOL Institute alumna.
Singh worked for over eight years at Cox & Kings before joining Yatra as the vice-president of domestic and international MICE travel. “It is this prowess, developed over years of top-notch professional experience, that enabled me to launch Mysha,” she adds.
Mysha, an online platform that offers travel solutions to corporate clients, is just over one-and-a-half years old. However, Singh is confident that her company will break even by the end of three years as planned. Incepted in July 2013 and based out of New Delhi, the company is run by a network of experienced women professionals most of whom work from home.
“We are trying to empower women and create opportunities with a flexible schedule, which allows them to simultaneously manage their homes. Additionally, we plan to follow the franchise model for our expansion, out-of-office sales executives, centralised operations and state-of-the-art technology. This manner of functioning enables the company to maintain cost-effectiveness,” adds Singh, who enjoys reading, writing, cooking, gardening and listening to music in her free time.
In today’s world, there are hardly any
roadblocks for women to build a business as well as men. Let’s just do it!”
SANGEETA BANERJEE and her partner Venkat Kandaswamy quit their jobs with an investment of R10 lakh to start ApartmentAdda, an online housing society accounting and management portal, and remained without salaries for three years. “We broke even (without founder salaries) in four years. After that, we raised angel funding. Now, we have over 6,000 apartment communities on ApartmentAdda with over two lakh active users, all of whom are HNI and super-HNI home-owners,” says Banerjee, who did her schooling in Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai before completing her electrical and electronics engineering from College of Engineering, Guindy, Chennai, and MBA from Louisiana State University in the US.
“Since most of my meetings used to be in the late evenings and in remote places where new apartment complexes are being developed, I had to be cautious about personal security. In the first two to three years of running the business, the only luxury I have indulged in is the choice of commute. I have always chosen safe travelling options, even though I have had to pay a little more every time,” she explains.
“Finding restrooms in places where malls aren’t present has also been a challenge during full-day sales meetings. This led to drinking less water and feeling dehydrated all day. Actually, this is a challenge for all salespeople in India, irrespective of gender,” she adds.
Tanvi Malik & Shivani Poddar
Work is like meditation for us and it
gives us immense satisfaction
and mental peace”
FOR 28-year-old Tanvi Malik (below, left), economics was her first love, which led her to the doorsteps of Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi from her alma mater Delhi Public School, Mathura Road. “My fascination with the creative aspect of marketing and branding meant that an MBA from MICA, Ahmedabad, specialising in brand management, was the next logical step. After close to three years working the corporate grind, I decided to quit and start FabAlley with my school friend Shivani Poddar,” she says.
Adds Poddar, “We’ve always been interested in fashion—it was always more of a personal statement and following the latest fashion trends was part of our lifestyles. But what really got us interested in starting this business was the lack of affordable, high-street opportunities for women like us.”
FabAlley was initially boot-strapped by the founders with an investment of less than R1 crore. And then, the Indian Angel Network invested in October 2013. Being an online brand, the margins are healthy and FabAlley.com was at a break-even level at the time of funding. “Our brand is clocking more than
R2 crore gross revenue per month, and growing at a breakneck pace of 20-25% month-on-month,” explains Malik.
When the duo started working on
FabAlley, it was just the two of them, sitting across each other in a small office space and working on everything from building the website, the supply chain, the back-end and logistics. “Doors would be shut on our faces when people found out that we were just two young girls trying to make it big in an industry that was being run by 40-something men, all Internet veterans and with years of relevant experience at Amazon and the likes. But, as difficult as it was, we managed to hire our first batch of employees and are proud to say that they are still very much with us two years hence,” adds Poddar.
Work hard and have faith in what you have set out to achieve. You’ll be able to do
justice only if you really believe in the idea and your ability to execute it”
SHE HAS always worked in places where there have been more men than women, but she never let it affect her performance. “My challenges are the same as any entrepreneur: finding great talent, growing fast and maintaining good unit metrics,” says Swati Bhargava, co-founder of CashKaro.com, a cashback and coupon portal.
The Ambala native started her first entrepreneurial cashback business PouringPounds.com with her husband Rohan in 2011. Today, it is one of the UK’s leading cashback and voucher websites and works with 2,500 popular brands like Tesco, Debenhams, M&S, Expedia and Argos. “In April 2013, we started CashKaro in India. We loved the cashback idea and really believed that it would work in the country.
E-commerce is growing really fast here and as entrepreneurs there
couldn’t be a more exciting place,”
says the Convent of Jesus & Mary,
New Delhi, and London School of
In 2012, CashKaro raised $75,000 from angel investors at London Business School. In August 2013, it raised $750,000 from UK-based angel investors. “We are operationally profitable already and drive over
$3.5 million in sales to our retailer partners every month via CashKaro alone,” says Bhargava, who feels entrepreneurship is one of the most rewarding career options, but comes with its own set of challenges irrespective of gender.
“It’s not more challenging for women than it is for men, but, yes, maybe it’s just a little harder! Part of it is dealing with stereotypes—some people assume women may not know much about tech or finance. So the responsibility is on you to prove it,” she adds.