Ten years ago, Pooja Dhingra started Le 15 Patisserie but the journey of bringing India its first macaron store began with quitting law school and embracing baking, studying and interning in Europe, and returning to launch her business in a male-dominated society.
“My biggest challenge was to get people to take me seriously,” she says. “From trying to find a supplier or trying to renting a property, everyone wanted to know where my father was or my husband was.”
But even before starting on her own, Dhingra worked under pastry chefs in Switzerland and Paris and it was an internship in Switzerland, or what she calls “the worst experience of my life” that taught her an invaluable lesson in leadership.
“I had actually fought with my family to live and work alone so I couldn’t tell them that I was working in a kitchen I completely disliked and was being treated horribly. Every day, I would go to work and be miserable at work. My boss would make me cry and I would come back home and have nothing to do. But I would call my parents and say, ‘Yeah, I had a great day at work’.”
“It took a lot of courage to finally tell myself that it’s okay if something isn’t working out. I remember this one time my boss suddenly changed the schedule so I didn’t know I had to show up at work. On that Sunday morning, I had someone knock on my home door. When I opened the door, I found that my boss had actually left work, found my apartment, and come there to drag me to work.”
“To me, that was a sign of an absolutely ridiculous person who was doing this to an 18 year old. That day, I found courage, I went to the general manager and quit. It was this internship that taught me what I shouldn’t be as a boss and the second and third one that taught me what I should be.”
A Fresh Start
She was 23 when she returned to India and started her own bakery. “It was a time,” she recalls, “when a lot of her friends were having fun, travelling, or getting married.”
Dhingra skipped through everything because she was always working.
“A lot of my friendships suffered in the first three years. But I knew I had this crazy idea and this was the amount of effort and work that I had to put into making it happen, so I was working 16 hour days. I did this for the first three years before I realised that, may be, it was a bit much.”
Revelation No. 2
The eye-opener came when she visited her friend in New York.
“I was working 16-17 hours in a kitchen all day and would be exhausted once I reached home. Then, one day, I was visiting my friend in New York who lived on the fifth floor of a traditional New York building, and I remember how difficult it felt to just climb those five floors. I thought, this is not normal for a 26-year old girl, I was exhausted.”
“That trip was an eye-opener for me. I came back determined to change things. I made a plan to run a half marathon the following year, which I did. Ever since, I have always had two goals—a personal goal and a professional goal. The goal for the next two years for me is to be able to climb Mt Fuji.”
Self Awareness is key
Now when Dhingra looks back on her life, she remembers that she was hungry, passionate, and extremely ambitious, but, “I wasn’t very self-aware,” she reminisces.
“I was doing things without really thinking and analysing them too much. I was naive. But the inexperience of my youth helped me, there was nothing I felt that I couldn’t do. I made a lot of mistakes from choosing the wrong recipe ideas, campaigns, or collaborations. I would hire the wrong people or let emotions take over but I think I have really changed the way I function in the last year. Now, if you don’t give me data on the table, we can’t go ahead. I am much more aware of what’s happening around me.”
Finding the Right Recipe
“Today, I’ve managed to find balance because I’ve reached a stage where I can hire people. Now I do an hour of some form of exercise, I meditate, I draw. Last year, I was learning French. I try to sleep for seven hours.”
“But I haven’t forgotten how I began. I started Le 15 with three people and today we are over 100… it seems like a lot of responsibility, that you’re in charge of a lot of people’s livelihood, and so any time you slack, don’t do well, or can’t make your targets, it’s somehow your fault that someone else doesn’t get paid. Therefore, supporting other people’s livelihood is my biggest stress.”
Taking on the Hurdles
Dhingra is conscious about fitting in a lot of work in a few hours and staying productive.
Her biggest work hack, however, is that she surrounds herself with the smartest people she knows.
“At the end of every week, my team gives me an analysis of my calendar and if I feel like I am spending too much time on one thing, I try to change it. As a rule, I don’t multitask in the kitchen.”
A big part of her job is also to keep her team motivated but, she says, that comes easily as, “A lot of people on my team are people I’ve found on social media. These are people who are already passionate about what we do and have chosen to be here. That kind of environment changes everything.”
There are numerous quiet places in her office where people can go to concentrate on work or relax but the biggest secret, she reveals, “is that there’s a lot of chocolate everywhere, so obviously it keeps everyone happy.”