Meet the women who started up at the absolutely “wrong” age, and succeeded
Their story tells us there is no right or wrong age, just right or wrong decisions
We live in a country where stakeholders bet on young women – not on their potential though, but on when they might give it all up to “settle-down.” Older women professionals and aspirants, on the other hand – the ones who obstinately hold on to the wagon, that is – are perceived as way past their “best-before dates” when one dons the ageism-coloured glasses. But women like the 57-year-old jute baroness Lata Bajoria, 26-year old globally renowned Indian techie Shwetal Shah, 56-year old ecommerce tsarina Falguni Nayyar and 32-year-old pro-patissier Pooja Dhingra are proof that passion sees no gender, eureka knows no age, and hard work leaves no woman behind.
Lata Bajoria’s reckoning of her sense of self coincided with the passing of her husband – Arun Bajoria, the tycoon behind Hooghly Jute Mills in Kolkata. As her daughters were married, Bajoria, then 57, decided to finally set foot into the campus of the burgeoning business her husband had left in his wake – albeit with no prior professional experience and after spending nearly three decades in the throes of a Marwari patriarchy, that stripped women of all forms of personal and professional freedom and chained them to household duties.
“When your husband is so well-known, you automatically have to be in his shadow. You couldn’t say, ‘I want to do this, I want to do that’. You couldn’t ask questions such as, ‘What’s going on?’ or ‘Where are you going?’ either,” Bajoria explains.
Bajoria had always wondered what lay behind those formidable-looking iron gates of the jute mill compound that she happened to live right across from, but had never been allowed to enter. But now, it was time to break that barrier, literally and figuratively.
“More than half my life was gone before I discovered myself,” she says. Her strides into the mills were first met with resistance from the sea of male heads that ruled the shop floor, but she soon turned it into respect, by being stubborn and always getting a foot in the doors that they threatened to shut in her face. After all, when she expressed her intent to go down to the mill, she was initially asked not to even visit. But she stayed resolute, and reminded herself one thing – no one can deny her something that’s already hers. She assumed an active role in the company, successfully helmed its sustenance, and finally, even transformed the idle spaces in the campus into a cultural hotbed of events and meetups. “At my age… I’m doing whatever I can do. I can’t be that radical. But whatever I can do, I’m pushing it, 100%. It’s never too late,” she says.
While Bajoria largely learnt her lessons on the job, banking honcho Falguni Nayar’s plunge to start online marketplace for cosmetics Nykaa.com, was a spawn of her confidence in her skill, leadership acumen, and vast body of experience. After all, when the startup wave hit, the sense of opportunity and optimism that washed up ashore with it was age-agnostic, and Nayar was naturally excited to marry her expertise with a worthy entrepreneurial mission. “Power comes naturally to me. I come from a family of high-achievers,” she says.
“Even at a young age, I could read balance sheets and insurance statements. At a glance, I could advice my dad about what would work and what wouldn’t,” she adds.
So unflinching was her foresight, that she did not hesitate to quit at the peak of her banking career, from her role as MD at Kotak Mahindra Capital Company, to start over in an industry that was not only new to her, but new to the Indian business landscape in general.
This decision, mind you, was governed by repeated analysis and calculations, rather than impulse. “I am not a person who is emotional. I see everything in terms of facts and figures. So, I was only concerned about work and targets. There has never been space for anything else in my career,” says Nayar.
It’s no wonder then, that her calculated risks paid off, and she managed to scale Nykaa to an entity that is valued at over Rs. 3000 crore at last count, as of April this year. “I knew that naysayers are a part of every entrepreneurial journey – and they surfaced in mine too. People thought I was crazy, giving it all up and betting so big on ecommerce – especially for cosmetics, but that’s what sets an entrepreneur apart – they can see, rather, foresee, what others can’t even imagine,” she says.
And five years hence, Nykaa clocked Rs. 570 crore in net revenue in FY18, holds a gargantuan 33 percent share of the online cosmetics space, while also building a burgeoning brand is also building an offline presence with its stores in 17 locations and counting. The company which is hoping to nearly double its revenue to Rs.1100 crore is planning its IPO by 2020 and increase the number of stores to 180-200 stores over the next 4-5 years.
“I want to keep chasing goals and use my energy to build my business. For me, this is not work, it’s something I really enjoy. I will continue to do this till my last breath,” she says, smilingly.
Triguni Food founder, 76-year-old Radha Daga’s second entrepreneurial plunge was a similarly inspired moment, and stemmed from the same sentiment. “Having lived in the Ashram, there was always a desire for self-expression and I always wanted to do something related to food and cooking – in spite of the fact that I couldn’t really cook myself,” she tells us.
The MD of Triguni Foods, a new age FMCG brand based in Chennai, created a line of dehydrated food packs including upma, poha, biryani called Eze Eats that can in about 8 minutes, simply by adding hot water to the cup. Married at the age of 20, Daga first started working because she did not wish to sit idle and yearned for personal growth, and subsequently, to also gain financial stability. The lack of sufficient capital is what prevented Daga from entering the food space immediately, so, she did the grind and kept raking in the requisite funds through her first entrepreneurial venture, Chimise Exports (later renamed to Chimise Indus), a garment manufacturing unit. The business flourished, and their profits multiplied manifold such that Daga was able to move out of their rented factory premises into a unit she owned. However, the dream was to always be a ‘food entrepreneur.’
She was clear that she wanted to innovate, but that would require intensive R&D and hence, substantial money – so, she did her waiting. She knew she had amassed enough by the age of 69 – so, when all of her peers were almost a decade into living out their laidback retirement dreams, Daga in turn, dove head-first into the startup hustle to live out her entrepreneurial fantasy, in 2010. And that passionate leap is what led to the Triguni Foods empire being built. The company counts Indigo Airlines as its largest customer which buys 150,000 cups of upma and biriyani a month. The company produces over 1.6 lakh units of their products per month.
Being considered “too experienced” sure is bizarre, but being considered too inexperienced to do something is a constraint as old as time itself. However, high-flying techie Shwetal Shah’s story – that started in Mumbai’s Kandivli but is now moved on to London – proves that being on either end of the spectrum can double up as the start to something spectacular and fruitful.
It’s tedious summarising all that Shah had accomplished by the age of 25, but the culmination of all her efforts is this – she is a regular fixture in the most elite tech-circles of not only India but also UK. She has shared the stage with tech moguls such as Steve Wozniak and Richard Branson during the MIT Solve and leaders like Prince Harry, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held earlier this year in London. She currently heads partnerships at Erase All Kittens, an ingenious mobile game targeted to little girls to get them interested in coding – a stint that became her stairway to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for Asia this year. These feats only get that much more impressive when one learns that no more than three years ago, Shah was a complete outsider – not only to the UK, but also to the world of tech.
“When I moved to London from Scotland (where she went to college for her master’s degree) I didn’t know anyone here, which worked to my advantage as I had to put myself out there. I started attending tech events, and built a rock-solid network. However, being the youngest and the only female the environment most times was a bit isolating and intimidating. I was 21, while those around me had over 30 years of work experience, so I kept a lot to myself and just focused on work and channelled the negativity I felt sometimes into outreach programmes to get more girls into tech,” she tells us.
When one looks a certain way that doesn’t fit the stereotypical mould of a ‘techie,’ they do not get taken too seriously, Shah informs us. “When you seem too young and inexperienced, people don’t want to give you more challenging tasks because they would not want to risk losing millions. But you have to go outside of that environment and work on projects which show your leadership style, your problem-solving skills and let your work speak for itself,” she states.
Now 26, her advice to the young is to be wild and free, as well. “If you’re just starting university or graduating, put yourself out there, go to events, create your own, and leverage social media instead of deleting it. It can do wonders,” she says.
While making it in an ecosystem away from the mothership is a daunting experience, being in your own can be an uphill task as well – as the idiosyncrasies of this patriarchy-ridden land we call home catch up to you from time to time. When Pooja Dhingra founded her Macaroon et cetera patisserie chain ‘Le15’ at the age of 23, besides the utter lack of awareness about her product and people branding it as simply “biscuits,” one persistent challenge right from the start for her was being told she was too young. “Right from the start, I had been perceived as too young, and not being taken seriously. I would always have to take my father along with me to push my authority,” she says.
“In the first month itself – I was in my kitchen when someone from the government once came for checks – and asked to see the manager, so my team called me out. They looked at me and were really shocked – and go, ‘no, we mean the owner.” And I tell them I’m the owner. At first, they had no idea how to react – until one of them goes, “Kyun? Aapke pati off ho gaye? (Did your husband pass away?) My 23-year-old self just looked at him like – no, I’m not doing this because the man in my life is dead! This is my business!” she recounts.
Le15 and its prodigy founder have successfully been fending off the myopia in the minds and palettes of their patrons for eight years now – and Dhingra, what with that impressive headstart, still has miles to go before she rests. The brand currently has four outlets across Mumbai.
As countless other women find the pluck to emerge from the fringes and take control of their lives no matter when the awakening occurs, the lesson is resounding and greatly empowering – when you have the perfect plan, you’re automatically the perfect age.