Sabina Chopra, co-founder of Yatra.com, can traverse any difficult path to reach her destination
The year was 2005, when the internet and starting up were not considered glamorous. Sabina Chopra decided to quit her cushy corporate job and start her own company. “I thought I would have more time with my family. But, that proved to be a misconception,” laughs Chopra, co-founder of Yatra.com.
She recalls how frantic it was. “I was constantly travelling all over the country, tying up with hotels and negotiating with partners. I actually never saw my family during the first year. In fact, we had no Sunday offs in the initial three years,” she recounts.
Clearly, it wasn’t an ideal situation, more so for a mother and wife. But, there was a gold pot on the other side of this hustle. A solid online travel agency, now listed on the Nasdaq.
The entrepreneurial plunge was totally unplanned for Chopra. She grew up in Delhi, started her career in the travel space, fell in love with an army man and married him. She had successful stints at Japan Airways, Canadian Airlines and ebookers — a UK based online travel portal. Life was smooth but unexciting.
One day, she received a phone call from her colleagues at ebookers — Dhurv Shringi and Manish Amin. They wanted to start an online travel agency in India and asked her to join them. “At first, I wasn’t really sure. But, I took a step back and thought — Why can’t I do this? If it doesn’t work out, I can always go back to my corporate life,” she recalls.
So, she set out on this new journey. From a chic office cabin, Chopra was now working from cafés with an old laptop. “I went from the corporate world, where all my expenses were taken care of, to buying my own coffee and having no office space. It was really anticlimactic,” she says with a smile. For the first few months, the trio would work on models wherever they would find a place to sit.
And, the challenges were not only limited to lack of facilities, the market itself was not completely ready for the product. At the time, travel industry was running completely on an offline model. “When we talked to the airlines and the hotels, and told them that we would take their services online, there was a sense of reluctance. They didn’t believe us,” says Chopra. To make matters worse, broadband penetration in India was in its nascent stages, and the website had to be made lighter so that it could be accessed everywhere.
In the pursuit of dealing with all these challenges and scaling up the company, Chopra was hardly able to give any time to her two daughters. “Sometimes, I used to feel guilty,” she says.
So, how was this taken care of? Years before starting the online travel portal, Chopra had to take a sabbatical from her career for five years, to raise the two girls. Her husband, Aadesh Chopra, would have remote postings, and there was no other way the kids could be raised.
“I really thought I had given up on my career and had moved along. But, something inside me kept burning,” she says. Eventually, with support from her mother and her husband, she was able to go back to work.
During the crazy years of starting Yatra, this settled support system at home proved enormously helpful to her. By then, Aadesh had left the Army and set up his own business. He encouraged Chopra to work towards her dreams. “My daughters were absolutely fine with me not being there. I think children are very hardy, and they succeed any which way,” she says as she mentions that both her daughters have grown into independent adults.
One of Sabina’s defining traits is her determination, she feels. She doesn’t give up easily and that has helped her move hurdles out of the way, both at home and at work. “I take a step back, smile and go forward again,” she says. Chopra recalls the slowdown of 2008-09 and its impact on Yatra. Business was not picking up, so they had to take a call to outsource their customer service operations and let many employees go. It was one of the toughest decisions she has have ever taken.
Around 300 people were working with them. “We ensured that all of them had an offer letter. And being a people’s person, I went ahead on the floor and addressed each and every employee myself,” she says.
Chopra doesn’t draw inspiration from anyone. “I didn’t have any woman around me who I could model myself on. I wanted to do it, and that is what made me get up and take risks,” she says. But she admires Indra Nooyi and Oprah Winfrey, for both of them come from humble backgrounds and have achieved great success.
Initially in her career, Chopra was often quizzed about marriage and babies. “I felt offended. I mean, you don’t ask those questions to men,” she says. Consequently, she wouldn’t join organisations that asked such questions.
While Chopra hasn’t faced gender discrimination per se, she agrees there are some disadvantages. In the initial days of her career, she needed to go back home in the evenings to be with her daughters. But, her male peers would go out for drinks. “They don’t have this guilty conscience. They can easily spend time on a couple of drinks,” she says. However, from a networking point of view, Chopra was losing out on valuable meetings. She understood that she couldn’t do it daily, but if she had to grow in her career, she had to be part of it. She decided to join them at least once or twice a month.
Fighting all odds, Chopra has made big strides. Not every Indian startup gets listed on Nasdaq. Yatra attained that distinction in the year 2016, and she counts that as a big high in her career. In the last four years, the online platform has gained important position in the India’s corporate travel space, as well. What was imagined by three colleagues in 2005 and was built from coffee shops, has surpassed their expectations by a wide margin.
“I think in the first year itself, we crossed every figure that we had dreamt of. It was a high that we would sleep on, and that’s what made us kept coming back to the office every day,” she says. And even today, this tremendous excitement is what drives Chopra.