I belong to the beautiful city of Lucknow. We (my elder sister, younger brother and I) had a very productive, happy-go-lucky and carefree childhood without any sense of responsibility. Ours was a regular middle class upbringing though we were never very well off. My father had lost his father early and had brought up all his brothers, and we were three siblings ourselves.
Even though we knew we were not rich, we had a good life and went to the best school in Lucknow. But life takes a sudden turn without you realising it.
Lessons learnt, the hard way
My father passed away suddenly when I was in final year of college. That turned life upside down. My elder sister was married and lived in the US. Our younger brother had just got into a college in Delhi.
I was considered a sickly child, frail, protected and pampered by all. Our mother taught English at St Francis School. Father was a marketing professional, but because he had become a heart patient, he quit his corporate job and set up a home-based venture representing businesses in certain markets. None of us had any clue about the business, or took part in the running of it. We were not even being groomed to take over the business. Till the time of my father’s death, we hadn’t even entered a bank ever.
With him suddenly gone, two things happened. The anchor in our life was gone. Then, besides coping with personal loss and tragedy, the financial burden became a large concern. There were commitments and promises to fulfil, and people owed us money too. Financially, we were not very well off because whatever savings my father had, he had invested into the business. With my mother’s school teacher’s income, there was not much savings to dip into.
At that time, all I wanted was to protect his legacy. With final exams looming five days away, I developed high fever as a result of shock. However, I realised the necessity to take the exam and take up a job to ease the financial situation. Ours is a close knit family, so we all came together.
One of my uncles sorted through my father’s papers, jotting down what needed to be done on files, and it fell upon me to follow up on them.
It is said that some are born great, some have greatness thrust upon them… entrepreneurship was thrust upon me. Whenever I’d enter my father’s office room and sit in his chair, I’d be overcome by his presence and just break down without getting any of the work done.
Those times also showed us the true side of many people. Slowly, I figured out that I’d need to learn the business so I took up a job (it gave me a salary of Rs 1,200 per month) and started learning the ropes. In the evening I’d chase people who owed us money. Slowly we completed and closed out all outstanding projects, returned money to my father’s friend who had invested in the business. Some money I could never recover.
Steeling for the future
It was not easy. Imagine in the early 1990s Lucknow, a young girl trying to run a business and do a job simultaneously, I was not taken seriously many a times. My mother would get kidnapping threats when I’d be out visiting some offices. I don’t know where I got this strength to go on from, but I did.
The onus was on me to prove my capability to get things done. If I felt excluded it was because of my own ignorance at that time. It was not that the people I was doing business with didn’t want to help but they simply didn’t know how to communicate with a 21 year old girl fresh out of college and saying ‘I want to do business with you’.
I felt out of depth frequently. Travel and communication were not easy either. I could only address people in cities I had relatives in where I could go and stay.
Meanwhile, the pressure to get married was mounting. My mother would feel very bad so we made a pact that I’d get married only once my brother got a job. The company I was working in was a franchise centre for computer training and it was a great experience learning on the job because the business was new, in a way we were learning together, and since both were starting out together, there was lesser expectation.
Another new beginning
Finally I fulfilled all the commitments of our business and even grew it beyond its core competence before winding it up. I got insight into business and people, and also myself.
Then I got married and moved to Kolkata. I was so happy being a housewife. After five years of entrepreneurial experience straight out of college, though the learning curve was stellar, I was very tired.
Immersed in my new life, I loved learning to cook, clean, wash in the new environment, and then came motherhood. In 2000, my husband switched careers from public sector to a start-up and we moved to Delhi. Our son was two years old. Soon I started feeling the pressures of finding something to do on a part-time basis so I took up whatever came my way.
In those days, TiE was setting up in Delhi in the true entrepreneurial spirit of growing something from the ground. For an organisation like TiE, there is no prescription. I joined on a part-time understanding though I realised soon after that it was more than that but it worked for me. The idea was to start incorporating the Silicon Valley culture into the Indian ecosystem for start-ups, angel investors and primarily, mentors.
Some founding members had the vision to see that India will need more jobs and these jobs will only come from start-ups. People talk of job seekers becoming job creators now, but in 1992 when TiE was established, it was part of the mission statement. It is a virtuous cycle of wealth and value creation. And since I always wanted to be part of the social sector, TiE gave me great space for social impact.
Attitude marks your altitude
It was my own approach that helped too. I did not come with the mindset of ‘I know it all’. I was willing to learn. I had a porous mind and soaked in everything. The best results are when you use your common sense and basic intuition.
I was fortunate to be able to learn from people around me, had a good support network at home, my husband was very open to the idea of me working, and my mother gave a lot of support. It is never easy for a working mother with a young child. It is not easy to juggle a lot of balls as you are constantly filled with the guilt of not doing enough, not giving enough time, and not being there.
I maintained the flexible aspect, and refused full time payment although I was working full time. I was very lucky that the people in the leadership of TiE were supportive and never made any demands. They knew that work will be done, never questioned my sincerity and integrity. Whatever struggle I had was because of the pressure I put on myself. And women do that.
Don’t be hard on yourself
It is very easy for women to start feeling guilty and there is no shortage of people around you who would make you feel that way. But it is the worst thing you do to yourself because you harm your own health and mental peace.
I would never take stress seriously. But I have realised that whatever health issues I have are because of stress. We give ourselves the least amount of time and credit for what we do.
However, the biggest guilt is from the child’s side. I thought of leaving TiE many times but it was my son who encouraged me to work because he felt proud of what I did. He’d become self-sufficient at a very young age. Everyone is born with their own destiny. You might feel that your child will become a better person or better student if you sit at home but s/he will become what s/he is destined to be!
I also realised that the number of people I was able to help was immense. The element of guilt remains but it is not as predominant as it was earlier. If you could break down any ‘situation’ into smaller incidents and if you did all you could in that then you did well, instead of this big generic ‘motherhood’ statement.
Nobody should expect perfection. No one can be perfect in that sense. I’m beginning to exorcise those demons and I’m happy that I’ve helped enough people to say that my karma will not be out of balance!
We have come across such amazing stories of women achievers, either because of their own capability or out of sheer necessity, who have made so much of a difference. You realise that whatever you are doing is still relevant. TiE is a great place for this inspiration and positive energy.
Work hard but do remember to thrive
But entrepreneurship is a lot of hard work! The working hours are long, you are multitasking, you don’t sleep enough. Women are equipped to do this and being flexible helps. You get to connect with so many from whom you can imbibe this positive inspiration.
What makes me Thrive? That is still a journey. In certain ways I’m, but I need to improve upon the aspect of personal health and de-stress to thrive better. I have a fairly erratic routine. On an average day, I wake up at 7.30 am, spend some time with my dogs before heading to work, I come back in the evening and spend time with family over dinner. At 11 pm, I restart work, I’m (regrettably) a slave of technology, and continue till 1.30 am.
In all this I had not left any space for exercise or time for myself until recently. I’m trying to build in one hour of exercise in the evening.
Feeling thankful for the journey
It has been a journey where I have constantly struggled, but the biggest thing I feel is a sense of gratitude. Whatever I’m today is the result of people who have provided some sort of support, and nurtured me. I try to do the same for my team. If you give people a feeling of ownership, of dignity, of freedom to explore their ideas, encourage healthy debate and have fun doing things together, productivity multiplies.
Sense of, and choice of, freedom is inclusion. Feel grateful for what you have, make the most of it and make life better for somebody else somewhere along the way. The time for complaining, for talking about problems is over, now it is about positive action.
If I had to advise my younger self, I’d say: Be more confident and believe in yourself.
The desire to be an entrepreneur never goes away. I’ve filled myself with so many commitments that it feels like a job not done. The jury is still out on if I’d be able to fulfil the entrepreneurial bug again because it is very much there.
(As told to Kuheli Sen)
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