Indian business landscape is replete with instances of women entrepreneurs who have mastered their trade. Indrani Bose profiles personalities who have led their ventures to great success, while also making a significant impact on society
Mrinalika M Bhanj Deo, director of the 200-year-old Belgadia Palace in Mayurbhanj, aims at building sustainable tourism with social impact in the tribal-dominated region of Odisha
After her return from the US in 2014, 28-year-old Mrinalika M Bhanj Deo, second daughter of Praveen Chandra Bhanj Deo (the 47th ruler of the Bhanja dynasty), set out to cater to travellers’ growing curiosity in offbeat destinations in Odisha’s interiors. The Belgadia Palace in Mayurbhanj (northern part of Odisha) looked attractive to travellers but there were no luxury hotels nearby to stay.
Hence, the idea of opening The Belgadia Palace came to her. It is the only heritage luxury property in Odisha that runs as a travel start-up. It has so far housed 500 guests and hosted 2,500 visitors for a guided tour of the property.
“In the last nine months, we have had two successful artist residencies, one tie-up with an academic institution for internships and research-based academic work, and have been involved in skilling local community members in hospitality and tourism. We hire only from the region, in a deliberate attempt to create more jobs,” claims Deo.
The fact that it’s a 100% private venture funded by the family made it easy for the process to get started. However, it was not an easy task for Deo and her younger sister Akshita to convince their parents to finance the project.
The main task was personalisation and creating unique itineraries (in the last five years, India has seen a rise in demand for experiential tourism) for the guests, says Deo.
The house has different revenue streams. “We serve as a living museum. For a small fee, you can come and take a guided tour of the house. In addition, a percentage of all funds from Belgadia are earmarked for the Mayurbhanj foundation which supports dying arts and crafts, she says. In future, Deo is keen on promoting the farm-to-table concept by incorporating permaculture to their 15-acre land. She also has plans to expand with personalised handicrafts and handlooms. “The next year will see us running our own farm, cafe, boutique store and host ayurveda retreats,” says Deo.
Maithili Appalwar, CEO of Avana. She runs a for-profit social enterprise developing affordable technologies for water conservation aimed at farmers
When 22-year-old Maithili Appalwar, CEO of Avana, noticed the rising poverty and suicide rates of farmers in her home district Yavatmal in Maharashtra she realised that she could use Emmbi’s (Avana’s parent company, and a leader in the polymer processing industry for 20 years) polymer expertise to create affordable water conservation solutions, targeted at Indian farmers. Thus Avana was born. Today, Avana has saved over 37 billion litre of water on more than 7,000 farms in Maharashtra. The company helps farmers dig pits lined with polymer to save water, and also breed fish in those ponds.
As far as red tape is concerned, Appalwar managed to escape a lot of it since water conservation and management has been high on the government’s agenda too. “We have worked extensively with central agencies like the ministry of water resources, as well as local bodies such as village panchayats, and found that their response and support for this cause have been overwhelmingly positive,” claims Appalwar.
However, like all enterprises, Avana too had her fair share of challenges. One such challenge has been training staff. Appalwar mentions that so many companies in the agricultural sector make money by tricking vulnerable farmers. “Since our central mission is farmer prosperity, this was completely against our values. Thus, training staff, who have come from other agri-companies, involve not only teaching them the technical aspects of water conservation, but also familiarising them with our cultures,” she says.
Another challenge has been to maintain quality while scaling quicker than usual. To ensure that Avana is able to do this, a team of over 50 quality officers has been formed to interact with farmers and make sure that they are satisfied with the product and services.
For Appalwar, one of the biggest positives has been to run a business that is profitable, but keeps farmer prosperity and empowerment as a central tenet. “I’ve always valued the ability to learn more about people who live in rural India — being born and brought up in Mumbai, I had little exposure to rural life before we started Avana,” she mentions.
As far as work-life balance is concerned, Appalwar’s biggest learning has been to understand that “in order to consistently perform well, you have to practice self-care and prevent burnout”.
“I practise a balance by making sure I don’t check my e-mail an hour before I sleep or before I get to work in the morning. I also use my time at home to do things that charge me up mentally and physically, like reading good fiction, running or hanging out with friends,” she says, adding that her family is extremely supportive and know that the start-up stage of any venture can be really challenging.
In the future, Appalwar wants to continue to grow the water conservation business in Avana, and also start distributing other products through the dealer/distributor channel. “In the five-year horizon, my dream is to transform this from a manufacturing-intensive business to a distribution-intensive one. In the later future, I’d love to get into a business that involves urban retail,” she says.
Akshya Shree, founder of Silpakarman, a social enterprise that works with artisan clusters in Tripura to fashion a contemporary range of products from bamboo that generates employment for over a lakh youth in the state
When 26-year-old Akshya Shree was young, she would find her mother buying a lot of handmade products like tribal sarees, bedsheets, storage boxes, which she loved a lot. “While girls my age would gossip about boyfriends and new trends, I was constantly engaged with something that I bought on my recent trip, or folklore I had heard or the way tribals are dressed. It was all so fascinating!”
A few years later while Shree was pursuing export management, her father suggested that she explore bamboo and that’s when it all started. Shree runs Silpakarman, a social enterprise where a group of craft enthusiasts work with clusters of artisans in rural India, and aims to innovate contemporary products by following the traditional art form of these craftsmen, thus providing them a livelihood option.
For the entrepreneur, there was no getting around the red tape because it never existed in the first place. “My parents never forced me to do anything or divert me to some other direction. They have supported my decision since day one. I was allowed to make mistakes and my parents would always find a solution for it,” she says.
Managing working capital has been a major problem for Shree and due to its shortage she can’t maintain stocks and develop new products. “And, many times we need to educate our clients about bamboo, the handicraft process and the pricing because a majority of clients want their products made in a few days and handicrafts take time, and also they are not uniform,” she says, and also highlights the constant comparison with Chinese products. “However, we have improved our products and timelines to suit our clients and we are introducing some new techniques as well,” she claims.
As far as funding is concerned, Shree’s parents have invested Rs 14 lakh in her business, but they are bootstrapped right now. “We may start seeking funds when we plan expansion,” she says. For Shree, one of the positives in her entrepreneurial journey has been winning the ‘WE CAN INDIA’ programme by Dhriiti, in association with the Cherie Blair Foundation and the US Embassy. This was the first entrepreneur training and mentoring support she received.
Also, Shree is proud of the impact that she has had on the community. “Even little improvements in the lives of the artisans validate my efforts,” she claims.
Shree feels her success and asset is her team of artisans. It was difficult to get access to them and convince them to join her venture. “As long as I have them I have everything,” she comments. Shree always finds time from her busy schedule to read, indulge in poetry, writing, learning new languages, sculpture, painting, hiking and swimming — almost everything under the sun to sum it up. She and her sisters take care of all the strays in the neighbourhood. Recently, they rescued seven kittens.
Shree dreams to go global with Silpakarman, creating a strong customer base for her products. Currently, she is working on a new brand called ‘Silpatva’, which works like a complimentary brand. In ‘Silpatva’, she offers design and interior solutions for customers but, “all the products we offer are handmade and sourced directly from artisans”. Silpakarman can create an appetite for handmade goods for its clients and also brings on board a lot of rare crafts, which are being practised by a single family.
By 2022, Shree plans to have two flagship stores — one in India and one abroad, which will be a one-stop solution for everything handmade. “So, you can buy products, you can co-create with us, you can buy interior solutions. You will get everything, from flooring to furniture, under one roof,” she says.
She is also planning to introduce tours (ecotourism) to interact with the communities who are involved in making products. Alongside, she has laid down a plan for industrial set-ups for bamboo, which will introduce bamboo fibre products, bamboo charcoal (to be used for alternative energy and water purification) and bio-fuel. The project will be supported by waste generated from bamboo artifacts and is bound to create employment for over 2.5 lakh skilled and unskilled youth in Tripura.
Rashi Narang, founder, Heads Up For Tails, a retail company aimed at making pet ownership more responsible, a richer experience and more fun
A few years ago, a puppy came into the life of 37-year-old Rashi Narang, (founder, Heads Up for Tails), and it changed everything. In her quest to find Sara good quality treats and toys, Narang looked around at all the pet stores in Delhi and other parts of the country, but was disappointed with what she found. That’s when Narang realised that there may be others like her looking for good quality merchandise for their ‘family members’. This episode prompted her to get down to some serious research and learning. Finally, she launched Heads Up For Tails in 2008.
As a single-person start-up, it was awfully hard in the beginning for Narang. “I spent so many days sitting in customs offices trying to get my first few shipments in, or in government offices figuring out VAT and other formalities. The learning curve was steep, but once you decide that you have to get past these barriers, you do,” she says.
For Narang, one of the biggest challenges was starting a business in an industry that did not really exist. “We’ve had to work very hard on building up the vertical, building awareness about how to be responsible pet owners. Also, there was no one to learn from, so we had to carve out our own path,” she claims.
A year after starting the business, her husband was posted overseas and Narang accompanied him there. For the next seven years, she ran the business remotely with no team, no funds and no real experience except what she was learning on the job on a day-to-day basis. “Vendors were so hard to find. No one had manufactured the products that we wanted to create, and no one was taking a 25-year-old very seriously! But persistence and perseverance helps,” she says. Today she has 28 stores across Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai through both company-owned and franchisee-led model and retails sweaters, clothes, bow-ties, harnesses, dog beds, pet mats, dog blankets, personalised collars, etc.
Narang, however, has had her fair share of positives as well. “I have to say that the biggest positive is that our customers have really cheered us on, ever since we started out. They have always been at the centre of what we do and why we do it, and without them we would not have got so far. Our goal is to help more people to experience the magic of sharing one’s life with an animal, and our products and services intend to facilitate this bond, and help connect people better with their pets. Besides, we have always aimed to help animals in need and have made a difference in the lives of thousands of urban animals that have needed help like food, medical aid and adoptions.”
On work-life balance, Narang says, “After years of trying to find a perfect work-life balance, I have realised that it doesn’t quite exist. I have made peace with the fact that some days work takes priority and on other days, family.” “I am grateful that my family, especially my husband, have been extremely supportive. My husband recently quit his 16-year-long finance career and joined the business full time.”
In the future, Heads up for Tails plans to expand both on the domestic and international fronts, “with more stores in India in the next few years, as well as strengthening their online presence.” Recently Narang collaborated with designers Shivan and Narresh for a fun, fashionable collection but with functionality at its core.
Chitvan Wazir, founder of the clothing label Wazir.C. Its objective is to revive the age-old, dying art of Kashmiri embroidery by roping in women of the state
While pursuing her graduation from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi, 28-year-old Chitvan Wazir was heading the women development society and closely involved with various women and child rights organisations. It was then that the seed for women emancipation and restitution was sown in her mind and she pledged to work considerably for the cause in future. “When I came back to my home town Jammu, the cases of poor economic and social condition of women in the Kashmir valley caught my attention and after working closely with various women organisations in the state I conceived the idea of Wazir. C, that would provide employment to destitute women and give them the opportunity to reconstruct their lives,” she says.
She is also determined to redefine the age-old art form and repackage it into a global model, taking Kashmiri women’s skill across the world. Setting up a business in conflict-ridden region like Kashmir was challenging. Wazir recalls how she was grilled by security forces when she set out to open her first workshop in Budgam. Her all-women venture was also looked upon with suspicion by some Kashmiris, who accused her of being someone who was there to ruin the moral fabric of the state by asking young girls and women to step out of the houses and work for a living. Also, she recalls how women were reluctant to break free from the shackles of the middle men they were so accustomed to working under for a meagre remuneration. According to Wazir, the journey and battle there was not of setting up a business unit alone, but to fight the social stigma of allowing women to work outside the house.
Other than these, the fact that Wazir had re-modelled the entire scope of Kashmiri handwork and Pashmina and brought them onto western attire was very difficult for the artisans to grasp. “We had arranged a number of training sessions for them to be able to grasp the structural changes. Besides, Kashmir being a disturbed area is mostly under a lockdown and the internet and transport services are regularly snapped. So it becomes almost impossible for my teams in Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir to coordinate among themselves and operate smoothly,” she says.
Wazir’s mother was initially sceptical and not inclined towards her daughter making frequent visits to the valley, and stir up a movement against the social wind. But, she fell in line eventually.
All businesses need funding. In Wazir’s case, the funding mostly was bootstrapped. Before starting WC Designs (Wazir. C), Wazir was already running a company called Golden Globe Fitness, which ran various leading health and fitness centres in the state . The revenue from this mostly contributed to the funding for WC Designs. Despite her venture, Wazir makes it a point to spend time with her parents every evening after work and share experiences with them.
Wazir’s next plan is to undertake a bridal collection and create various Indian and Indo-Western silhouettes for the modern bride, using Kashmiri embroidery and pashmina. “We are currently operating through our e-commerce website and various multi brand stores across the country and the world, and would be aiming at having more such national and international collaborations. Eventually we will move on to individual retail,” she says. She is happy she has managed to get her 46 women workers around Rs 9,000 per month. Since the middlemen have been eliminated,
the workers get the full reward of their hard work.
Shreya Lamba, co-founder of The Mumum Co, aims to build a sustainable, healthy and long-lasting food brand for children
When 38-year-old Shreya Lamba, a co-founder of the Mumum Co, became a parent, she analysed her pain points and tried to find creative ways to ease the demands of parenting. “Feeding children is one of the biggest challenges,” says Lamba. At The Mumum Co, co-founders Farah Nathani Menzies and Shreya Lamba are aiming to build a sustainable and long-lasting healthy snack brand for children. From the beginning, the firm decided to be as transparent as possible about their ingredients.
“No junk, no nonsense. The brand is built on a mum’s promise of ‘no added sugar, no preservatives, no artificial flavours, no added colour and no gluten’,” says Lamba, adding, “This does make product-development more challenging as we add absolutely no junk in our snacks. Just real food in a bag.”The Mumum Co has been able to bring on board some great advisers and stakeholders on this journey. Their board of advisers include industry stalwarts like Nisa Godrej (chairperson, GCPL), Vivek Gambhir (MD & CEO GCPL), Samana Tejani (director operations, Gits Food) and Ajit Gajendragadkar (MBBS, MD in paediatrics). Furthermore, they have raised a round of angel-funding of $0.5 million, led by Nisa Godrej, and co-founders of Paragon Partners, Siddharth Parekh and Sumeet Nindrajog. This has been used for building up the team and launching new products.
According to Lamba, raising the first round through angels “gave us the freedom to establish the brand, learn more lessons and make all the pivots and decisions that start-ups need to nimbly make at this stage”. “Our next round of funding will be an institutional round sometime in the next year as we scale up and establish our presence across the country,” she says. For Menzies and Lamba, one of the positive things in their entrepreneurial journey has been being in regular touch with many start-up founders.
Often life changes completely after women become a mother, and their professional life takes a backseat if they do not have ample support from their family. Clearly this wasn’t the case with these mums. Whether it is to do the school-runs or homeworks, their husbands have been present and involved through the journey.
“Not only that, you will sometimes find them wearing Mumum Co t-shirts and pitching in at a Mumum Co stall over a weekend,” says Lamba. “In addition to that, Mumum Co has a little army of tasters in our children and their friends, who have been trying early versions of our products right at the onset. This is a crucial part of the early-stage of our product development. Mumum Co is a venture supported by our families,” she adds.
Mumum Co’s vision is to become the brand of choice for healthy snacking among children. “We started off with our Cool Crunchies — baked multi-grain puffs made with jowar, ragi and corn tossed with real fruit powder.”
Most recently Mumum Co has launched Punchy Protein Puffs – baked puffs made with amamranth and jowar, with high levels of protein and calcium. These come in a range of savoury flavours — Pizza Party, Cheesy Cheese and Masala Madness and have been well received by parents and children alike. The Mumum Co today is in the process of expanding, and the current portfolio of snacks to further include new products and variants.