Purpose//

Most People Wonder, “What if I Fail?”. I Asked Myself: What If I Succeed?

The story of Kalpana Rao, a former retail entrepreneur who turned actor at age 56, proves it’s never too late to reinvent yourself and fight for your dreams.

Photo: Moushmi Kapadia
Photo: Moushmi Kapadia

To experience something new in life, you need to create a new identity—and for that, you must change your beliefs about yourself. Here is the story of Kalpana Rao, a former banker-turned-entrepreneur who defied expectations to make her acting debut at age 56! In conversation with digital storyteller Jahnavi Katti, Kalpana talks about how she used failure as a stepping stone to success. Here’s her story in her words.

As a young Gujarati girl from Mumbai, my dream at age 16 was to get married and live happily ever after. So I got married, got a bank job, and had a kid. One day, I accompanied my husband, an Exhibit Marketing professional, to an exhibition. Owing to a last-minute shortage of staff, he asked me to manage a stall and handle sales of body-building equipment. I naturally declined, as I had no sales experience whatsoever. But I eventually gave in, when he insisted. Shortly after, a group of four well-built men came to the stall to test some body-building equipment. To their surprise and chagrin, they were unable to bend one particular device, while I demonstrated it with ease. Eventually I had my first sale. At that point, my opinion about my sales skills changed forever, and my entrepreneurial journey began.

That was my first lesson: Always keep trying new things, and be willing to learn

I saw a huge opportunity to do something on my own. Being a Gujarati, I had a ‘fire in the belly’ attitude to do business and leave my 9-to-5 job. In the early nineties, my husband and I quit our jobs, turned down lucrative offers from the same body-building equipment company, and moved to greener pastures: the Garden City, Bangalore.

However, the grass was not the proverbial green on the other side. In those days, the city wasn’t very entrepreneur-friendly; Bangalore was still a Pensioners Paradise. And it was also rather conservative. We started an apparel business in my name, and since women were seen as incapable of doing a business, we faced much reluctance when we approached prospective landlords for a rental place, or met bank loan officers for financing.

Despite that, our retail store—Pari’s—ran successfully for many years. Pari’s speciality was cotton pregnancy wear including discreet feeding, apart from women’s apparel in pear-shaped bigger sizes. I always believed in giving my customers what they needed and wanted. During the 2008 recession, I wanted to reinvent my brand, and so did a short-term Women Entrepreneur programme at IIM Bangalore.

My second lesson was: Educate yourself, upgrade your skills; reinvent!

My decisions may look like mistakes in hindsight, but when I made the decision, I felt they were the right ones. Truth be told, I was not good at money management. Around the time of the 2008 slowdown, Pari’s faced tough competition from top brands. Since we had smaller margins, we couldn’t compete with those brands. Moreover, buyers started preferring online shopping as they got huge discounts there. I had to shut down Pari’s, and even sell my house to pay off our financial losses. We all live in rented houses now.

The third lesson: There are no mistakes, only lessons. Learn and move on in life!

I had been modelling for advertisements for four years while in Bengaluru, and that became a new opportunity after Pari’s closed down. I was drawn to acting when I was much younger, but I gave up that dream because my mother wasn’t keen on me pursuing it. Now, the opportunity presented itself. My husband threw me a challenge to go, stay all alone and prove it that I have it in me to become an actor at the age of 55. So I moved to Mumbai, the ocean of opportunities. I knew I had to do the rounds, go to production houses, meet casting directors, and live all alone as a paying guest. But I did it all, because age is just a number. With my energy and the conviction that I am a good actor, I am doing good work. My movie debut (in Dabbang 3) is a judge’s role (it’s 4 seconds long), and in the next one I play a Human Rights Commisioner in Rajnikant’s Darbar. There are a few more roles in my kitty. I am doing a Netflix Web Series. I shook a leg with Shah Rukh Khan in his voting video and am doing ad films with actors like Karisma Kapoor. I am lucky I am getting roles to play a strong woman because of the strength that I now symbolise.

My fourth lesson was: treat challenges as hidden opportunities. Age is just a number. Opportunity knocks for the one who is ready!

About 30% of the people I know say I should slow down, retire and take care of my family. But 70% cheer me as an inspiration to other older women who are not able to follow their dreams. My dream at 16 to be an actor is fulfilled now at 56. When presented with an opportunity, many people think ‘What if I fail?’. But I thought ‘What if I succeed?’ and went right ahead. Not once in the last eleven months have I regretted coming to Mumbai and having made this decision. I am happy living all by myself. I don’t feel the need for too many people to be around; I am happy focusing on my work. And I am always there for my family when they need me.

The fifth lesson was: don’t live with regret. Think “What if I succeed?” not “What if I fail?”

I have realised from my experiences that I have the power to motivate other people. Using my power and position I want to be a Motivational Speaker. People need motivation; someone to tell them ‘Hey, you know what? You can do it!’ I feel women are filled with talent. My message to women is: There is no time to think. Just do it! Know your own worth! Show your hidden talents to the world! The World is waiting for YOU!

And that’s my sixth and final lesson, and my message: Know your own worth and realise your power. Take action! Just do it!

(Jahnavi Katti is a Digital Storyteller. She is Founder and Host of Story2Satori. She loves to interview and write inspiring stories of women who have made great transitions and transformed their life by taking bold steps and have dared to live their dreams.)

Want to share your story of how you thrive? Write to us at editorial.india@thriveglobal.com

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

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