Women on top: Six Indian entrepreneurs who’ve found their place in the sun

They are known for defying stereotypes and spearheading companies. They are woman of substance. Here's a look at six female entrepreneurs and their journey.

Written by Deekshita Baruah | New Delhi | Updated: March 18, 2016 9:11 pm
From L to R: Tanaaz Bhatia and Nina Lekhi. (Photo of Nina Lekhi: Facebook) From L to R: Tanaaz Bhatia and Nina Lekhi. (Photo of Nina Lekhi: Facebook)

In a bid to promote women entrepreneurs, Indian government, on March 8 launched ‘Mahila E-Haat’, a first-of-its-kind website that would offer them a platform to sell their products. This is an indication that women have come a long way from just being a homemaker.

Also, if nothing else, we believe Narendra Modi’s start up friendly environment in the country has proved to be a blessing for female entrepreneurs and instrumental in fighting gender stereotyping in the business community.

Here, we salute the undying spirit of these six women entrepreneurs.

Nina Lekhi, founder & creative head, Baggit
Nina Lekhi who was recently featured in Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women list started her company with minimal investment from her mom. Today, she and her design team launches new collections every month for the high-fashioned consumers.

Nina started the company from scratch but the journey wasn’t always easy. Failures in the past, ignited a spark within her to be successful. It also gave her a lot of clarity on how she wanted her business to turn out. With 44 exclusive Baggit stores, currently, Baggit is present in 77 cities across India and numerous online channels. An exclusive collection “The Rusted Revolution” by Nina Lekhi for Baggit has also been launched recently to cater to the modern, well-travelled customers.

She was also conferred Women Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2015 by Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Hon’ble Minister of State for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship.

What prompted you to be an entrepreneur?
Three decades ago I realised that my friends and I did not have funky and contemporary bags to buy in India. My zest for painting and art inspired me to take up art courses- one in textile and another in interior decoration. The design background I developed and the urge to create extraordinary handbags for the fashionable woman helped me start my company. I picked up the tools of the trade and started the Baggit journey.

How did you go about it?
Since my teenage years, I felt that just like T-shirts with slogans, bags too can be fun and creative. This thought urged me to create “Bags with Attitude”. I was always inclined towards graphics and humour-related objects and knew that I wanted to do something that adds value to the customer. I created my first set of tote bags and for the first few years sold it to a few retail stores in Mumbai. The collection was quite a hit among consumers. I learnt a lot during this phase and gained customer insights. Gradually, I started experimenting with canvas and then moved on to using coloured canvas for a more artistic feel. Today, we design bags which are light weight, easy to use, reusable, recyclable and environment friendly.

How do you handle the fierce competition?
Baggit’s strength lies in delivering a product which is superior, in terms of functionality as well as design. The acceptance among all age groups and our large variety of skills helps us retain market-share.

Tanaaz Bhatia, founder, Bottomline Media
An alumnus of the prestigious Stern School of Business, New York University, with a degree in media and finance, Tanaaz began her career in New York, working on Wall Street with Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns before moving back to India to start her own venture, Bottomline Media.

She has worked on some of the biggest films such as Ra One, Don 2, Agent Vinod, English Vinglish, Roy, and Dil Dhadakne Do and her recent accomplishment has been marketing Dilwale. Her extensive work with luxury brands such as Micheal Kors, Tumi, John Galliano, Tods, Satya Paul and with celebrities like Shah Rukh, Gauri Khan and Saif Ali Khan has made her the consultant of choice for companies planning their foray into the country. The company has also stayed true to servicing every aspect right from celebrity partnerships, digital campaigns to television production.

What prompted you to start a company?
I moved from a career on Wall Street to Mumbai when my father had a heart attack. I worked with Kotak Mahindra and then at Citi Bank, but starting my own company had been something I had wanted all along. Bottomline Media took birth as an idea over a cup of coffee at Gloria Jeans. A friend suggested I look at the entertainment sector and the business around it, since I know so many people in the field. I saw this idea as something that would work for me and started acting on it. Soon my dream started taking a more tangible form.

How did you go about it?
Timing is everything. When an opportunity knocks at your door, you have to be smart and grab it and if you don’t, you really lose out. Being in the right place at the right time is really important. Around the time when I was starting out, I met Jaspreet Walia who was then working on his movie Lamhaa and he asked me to work with him on it. I laughed because I didn’t know what to do in a film, so he said I should take up film branding. Initially, I was apprehensive, but it worked so well! After that movie in 2010, word about my work spread and several projects came our way.

How do you handle the fierce competition?
It isn’t easy but when your work is fueled with passionate challenges, it makes the job more exciting. Sanjay Dutt was impressed by my work in Lamhaa and asked me to work with him on another project. While the industry has stiff competition, hard work and great output never goes unnoticed. I kept my focus on my goal and before I knew it, I was working with Shah Rukh Khan on Ra One. This film was the turning point in my life. The marketing idea, the videogame based on Ra One, was a huge success. The strategy went viral and we got in touch with many international brands. That put me on the map and there was no stopping after that.

From L to R: Vandana Luthra and Zeba Zaidi. (Photo of Vandana Luthra: Facebook, photo of Zeba Zaidi: YouTube grab) From L to R: Vandana Luthra and Zeba Zaidi. (Photo of Vandana Luthra: Facebook, photo of Zeba Zaidi: YouTube grab)

Vandana Luthra, founder, VLCC
VLCC, a beauty and wellness giant has it’s presence in 11 countries across Asia, Africa and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and the credit goes to Vandana Luthra. Initially, a homemaker, Vandana started her journey in 1989 when the first of her two daughters was only 3 years-old.

Born in Kolkata, West Bengal, this beauty expert got herself well versed with beauty, fitness, food and nutrition and skin care when she pursued higher education in Germany, UK and France, after completing a professional course from the Polytechnic for Women in New Delhi. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013 for her contribution. and in 2015, she was listed as the 33rd most powerful woman in business in India by Fortune India.

What prompted you to be an entrepreneur?
In my family, we were encouraged to take decisions and be independent. Beauty and wellness always fascinated me. Once, I was accompanying my father on his official trip to Germany where I met his friends – a husband-wife duo running a health centre. Theirs was a great combination, with one being a nutritionist and the other a cosmetologist. They had a big influence on my decision to enter the business of beauty and wellness. Moreover, the encouragement and support I received from my husband Mukesh, who is also a first generation entrepreneur, further steered me towards my entrepreneurial journey.

I started VLCC with a simple dream. I wanted to create an environment where people felt supported and nurtured, where they would be encouraged to achieve their full potential. I envisioned a place that inspired people to be the best versions of themselves, for themselves.

How did you go about it?
Being an entrepreneur, that too in the late-eighties, was an uphill journey for me. Not only was the beauty and wellness services industry in its infancy, people were unwilling to take my work seriously as I was a woman. While people were familiar with the ubiquitous ‘beauty parlour’, the idea of a holistic wellness solutions provider which combined scientific weight management programs with advanced skin and hair treatments was new. Being in what was largely an unorganised mom-and-pop shop kind of sector, I struggled to raise capital – private equity was a relatively alien concept, and banks were wary of something that was hardly deemed as scalable and sustainable.

We worked on developing a unique business model for the company, one which is widely used today (especially in the hospitality industry), called infrastructure facility management. That was the turning point in the business. In 2004, VLCC received its first private equity investment from CLSA. VLCC received the second round of PE funding in 2007 from Everstone Capital. I had to be persistent and assertive to convince people about the value proposition of my business. It took a while to convince them that my venture had a scalable, sustainable business model. Finally, patience and hard work paid off.

How do you handle the fierce competition?
It makes more than just a great idea for one to stand out from the crowd. A great product, consistently excellent service delivery and maintaining quality are key. Equally important is constant research and innovation. The idea is to give your customers what they don’t know that they want and yet when they see it their latent need awakens. It’s a challenge, but equally satisfying. Wellness is a knowledge-driven business where the wealth of knowledge an organisation accumulates is not just what differentiates it from its competitors but, more importantly, ensures its sustainability.

Zeba Zaidi, CEO & co-founder, Volano Entertainment Pvt Ltd
Driven by the passion for sports, Zeba launched India’s first participative sports firm, Volano Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. Under Volano, she directed the execution of some of the most path-breaking sports properties like the Devils Circuit, Devils Ciruit Swift Challenge and GameOnIndia. A sports enthusiast and a huge Arsenal fan, Zeba completed her graduation from Lady Shri Ram College, but later moved to London and lived there for over a decade before returning to India. With her keen eye for detail, Zeba ensures every activity – right from the marketing initiatives to on-ground events are executed to perfection. Her rich expertise spans over 16 years in sales and marketing with Fortune 1000 companies across UK, Europe & UAE and it has proved instrumental in the success of Volano in such a short span.

What prompted you to be an entrepreneur?
Becoming an entrepreneur was a sheer stroke of luck. I moved back to India in 2011. It was with an aim to revive my corporate career which had centred around the sales vertical spanning multiple geographies and industries. I had taken a three year sabbatical to spend time with my young children and was ready to leap back into work. Having spent years overseas though had inculcated a deep love of participative sports in my family and it was a lack of playing opportunities in India that pushed me into thinking about this niche. The more I spent time talking to like-minded people about wanting to play weekend sport, the more I realised the great opportunity that lay in this space. Eventually, I took the plunge and with a vision of building a participative sports organisation, I started Volano.

How did you go about it?
Volano Entertainment Pvt Ltd is situated in the space of Sportainment. The idea behind Volano was to combine active sports and entertainment. We thought of creating properties which provide unique opportunities to engage in participative sports and at the same time create memorable experiences for our customers. The decision to get into sports as a business was a very risky one, given that we moved opposite to the trend of professional sporting leagues, by getting into the amateur space. When we started out in 2011, there were absolutely no players in this category and that is what was most exciting. I think very few businesses have the opportunity of creating a market for themselves and we were fortunate enough to be in that situation. The idea is to maximise the first mover advantage with constant innovation and growth and that’s what we have been focused on ever since.

Our flagship brand, The Devils Circuit, is India’s first and biggest Obstacle running series that is an annual event. With a social media community of over half a million enthusiasts, we take pride in the fact that this community is built out of sheer passion and love for sports and fitness. This year’s season began in October and has seen the Devils Circuit hosted across Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Mohali and Mumbai. We will culminate the season in Noida on March 13.

How do you handle the fierce competition?
I guess the most important factor when it comes to dealing with competition is to constantly innovate. In today’s world where everything is changing at a super fast pace whether it is the consumers’ interest in a brand, the advent of a new fad or new technology platforms serving innovating engagement platforms; the key is to stand out from the clutter.

For me competition is not other players in my industry, I enjoy a first mover’s advantage and stay ahead by consistently adding new elements to my sports properties. The real competition is everything that would prohibit a potential consumer from using my services. This competition I deal with at 3 levels- first, I ensure a fantastic experience that participants remember and talk about, second, I constantly innovate to ensure that what we are offering at Volano stays fresh and third and most importantly, I look at competition as an impetus that drives me to give my best every single time.

From L to R: Puja Bansal and Ankita Seth. From L to R: Puja Bansal and Ankita Seth.

Puja Bansal, founder and director, MyHeera.com
A certified diamond grader, Puja launched herself in 1998 as a brand under Khandelwal Jewellers Ltd (KJL), a famous jewellery brand known for its strong legacy. Known for her creativity and innovative designs, Puja has been actively involved in manufacturing, retailing, designing and has showcased her expertise in several events and fashion shows in India and abroad. Her keen interest in jewellery and her passion for designing led her to introduce Myheera.com, a unique online platform presenting itself as a virtual world of a globally connected business to business stage for the Gems & Jewellery industry.

Puja brings with her an extensive industry experience of over 17 years.

What prompted you to be an entrepreneur?
I come from a family that’s being in the jewellery business for over 60 years. We are into manufacturing of precious stone jewellery for the European and American market. I belong to the third generation. and have 17 years of experience. In the business, sourcing was always a challenge and had to be routed only through few offline exhibitions. This led me to launch my venture in 2014. With a strong knowledge in the industry and with the strong support of the promoters backgrounds, the project was taken aggressively.

How did you go about it?
The time and research that went into making the portal was more than two years of market survey by the promoters to check the need of a b2b platform for this industry. The result that we could see was that the industry which still runs on a touch and feel business model has now over a period of time matured enough to run transparent business model using today’s digital approach. The market statistics was gathered and we were shocked to see that such a vast industry which is robust and adds a good amount of value to the country’s GDP is only 4% organised and has a lot of scope for improvement. New B2B inquiries, sourcing and new buyers were limited to offline exhibitions with limited participants, limited time frame and limited space. There was a need in the industry to create a space which could accommodate the entire chain of manufacturer, retailers wholesalers, traders and service providers from large, medium and small enterprises to a single click search engine, generating leads through 24/7 online exhibition .

How do you handle the fierce competition?
Nothing comes easy specially in today’s digital world where your deliverables are very high. Initially, we were the first movers to bring this industry in one window for sourcing and solutions, and now, we are convincing the industry to participate online as the very nature of the industry is traditional. But since time has changed new generation has taken over and we see the market now available for a much healthy business environment. Competition is in a way needed somewhere and we are working hard to make this portal world’s best b2b for gems and jewellery segment.

Ankita Seth, co-founder, Vista Rooms
Ankita was a social activist who worked with various NGO’s. This led to a lot of travel and during her travels, she figured out that the budget hotel segment in the country is highly fragmented and everyone takes the discerning traveller for a ride to say the least. Vista Rooms was created with a intense, common intent to standardise budget hotels. The founders were similarly wired, which helped common synergies. Her travel experiences helped her realise a common dream to help travellers opting for budget accommodation. Today, she is instrumental in turning haveli’s in Rajasthan into boutique hotels and is the only women in the budget hotel segment.

What prompted you to be an entrepreneur?
During my stints with various corporates, travel formed an integral part of my profile. Since most corporates prefer putting up their employees in budgeted accommodation, I would eventually end up in a budget hotel. The budget hotels in India can be ridiculously fragmented and I would always wonder why there was no standardisation in the segment. Most of these hotels would paint a rosy picture on OTA portals and end up being a nightmare for travellers. I was aware of friends, colleagues and others who have had funny tales from budgeted stays. Vista Rooms was born out of an intent to standardise budgeted stays.

How did you go about it?
Amit Damani, Pranav Maheshwari and I started Vista Rooms in 2015. We were driven with a common intent to standardise budgeted stays and we started a small pilot project in Mumbai and Pune. We slowly started expanding and today, Vista Rooms has 800 + properties in 80+ locations in India. Vista Rooms also commands the largest inventory in Tier II, tier III cities.

How do you handle the fierce competition?
“You don’t compete to be rich, you create.” I firmly believe in this philosophy. Our biggest competitor is almost twice our size, however, in comparison to them, we took half the time to reach where we are today, and that depicts our aggressive growth. The competition in the budget hotel segment is fierce, but we focus on bettering and diversifying our product offerings. Vista Express which is our food delivery model and Vista Lounge which looks at business lounges are our recent launches.