Society

High above the glass ceiling

Ashwini Asokan

Mad Street Den, Chennai

It’s jupast noon and I am at Mad Street Den with only a labrador for company, until Ashwini Asokan, the CEO and co-founder, walks in. I follow her into a orange-walled office, complete with bean bags, posters of the hottest fashion trends, and a bunch of lively employees busily demystifying e-commerce.

Mad Street Den uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the e-commerce vertical to enhance a shopper’s experience. It has an office in San Francisco, where Ashwini, a product designer, and her neuroscientist-husband and co-founder Anand Chandrasekaran, lived for over a decade. They moved back to India in 2013, and started the company that recently raised 1.5 million dollars during a seed run, and now has clients in West Asia, Asia, Europe and the Americas.

High above the glass ceiling

At its Abhirampuram office, Ashwini strides around, stopping to clarify doubts, make suggestions or share a joke. I am reminded of the opening scene of Anne Hathaway’s The Intern. Ashwini dismisses the comparison with a laugh, but accepts that her days are as busy as they can get.

“There is 24x7 drama. I have a six-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. each evening, we focus on feeding and getting them into bed, after which we have meetings with our U.S. team,” she says.

“It was a challenge when I first moved here. I was fundraising and used to conduct meetings with my two-month-old son in one arm. There weren’t any nursing rooms; and people would say, ‘you are a new mom, I don’t think you can run a company’,” she says, but is quick to add that things are changing. Over the years, more women are turning to entrepreneurship. A few examples include Arpita Ganesh, who started Buttercups Intimates Pvt. Ltd., and Preeta Sukhtankar of The Label Corp. “Look around for yourself.”

The office clearly has more women than men. “I make a conscious effort to ensure that 50 per cent of my workforce is women. Of the six-member management team, three are women,” she says. “But, it is still a constant fight to be a woman in a start-up ecosystem. When it comes to sexism, it’s pretty much the same in the West, but the way it manifests itself might be different.

I am very strong-minded, have opinions and write about them on social media. But there are times when I give in, and later wonder, ‘Why did I do that?’. Sometimes, as a woman, you feel cornered. I fight that every day,” she says.



Sabena Puri

Stage3, Delhi

In mid-January, Sabena Puri, an alumna of Harvard Business School and Columbia University, launched Stage3, a fashion rental platform in New Delhi.

It was a low-key affair, but this rental and styling platform, which make designers such as Rina Dhaka, Anju Modi, Ridhi Mehra and Gauri and Nainika accessible to women, came up after a lot of perseverance.

“When I came to India four years ago, I was impressed with the fashion scenario, social networking sites and glamour on TV. It was not easy to convince designers to rent their creations. Fortunately, my past experience in running Vikas Khanna’s Junoon in New York helped convince them.”

Sabena, helped by Rina Dhaka as co-founder, focusses on working women aged 21 to 35. “We believe in democratisation of fashion. Rather than limiting the reach of designer wear, I am making them available to working women. We help them live their dreams.”

The brand has grown organically. “Our income comes from rentals. We experiment with pop up shops. The fact that an outfit can be delivered at their doorstep for Rs. 2,000 works to our advantage.”

Sabena says adaptability is very important for startups. “Our philosophy is to experiment and gauge customer reception before taking any decision.”



Falguni Nayar

Nykaa, Mumbai

There were times when Falguni Nayar was the lone woman among men on the dais when a high-profile company announced its public issue. She was then heading the investment banking team at Kotak Mahindra Capital.

After more than 18 years at Kotak, Falguni was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug in 2012. Thus began the journey of Nykaa, a premier online beauty and cosmetic destination, which, in just a little over four years, has opened four offline stores as well.

The idea for Nykaa came about on one of her visits to the marquee stores of Sephora and Ulta; she realised India lacked such stores.

High above the glass ceiling

“There was no multi-brand retail store for beauty products in India. I decided to replicate the internationally successful models here,” she says.

Started with just five people in April 2012, the start-up currently has a staff strength of 280. Nykaa has raised three rounds of funding as well and is valued at close to Rs. 900 crore.

The former banker feels the venture struck gold when it got quality content on the site, along with high-end product listings such as La Roche-Posay, Kiehl’s, Schwarzkopf, Chloe, L’Occitane and Chambor.

“We realised that beauty products are sold on advice. So, we put a lot of content on the website that led to a lot of conversions,” she says.

Nykaa has also launched its eponymous private label.

With the site firmly established, Falguni is looking for an omni-channel presence, eyeing 30 stores by 2020. Falguni has kept an eye on the financials as well. The turnover rose to Rs. 250 crore this year from Rs. 80 crore last year.



Shradha Sharma

YourStory, Bangalore

Shradha Sharma, born and raised in a small town in Bihar, never imagined she would become an entrepreneur. The attitude changed after she joined a course at Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College, before heading to MICA in Ahmedabad. She says, “When I was growing up, women were considered a liability. I wanted to change that perception.”

After working with a news channel for a few months in 2008, she set the ball rolling for Yourstory.com, a website that has since emerged as the biggest platform for news and views related to startups, entrepreneur-related stories, and more.

High above the glass ceiling

“I wanted to write great stories and have fun in the process. I started by blogging about Indian startups. I learnt that many people were coming up with interesting things but lacked visibility. The blog soon turned into a website.

We have been successful in chronicling the best ideas and startup businesses from across the country. It was initially tough, because no one knew about the company, and a web-based media firm was an outlier in India.

From being turned away from important events, we are now backed by eminent personalities from Mohandas Pai to Ratan Tata. We have written about 50,000 stories.”

She says, “We were initially terrified of being a web-only publication. But, our journey has made us more aware of the world and aided us in evolving as people and an organisation. We are relaunching our website and app soon, and hope to reach 100 million people soon.”



Aanu Nobby

AanDe, Thiruvananthapuram

It was a huge leap into the dark when Aanu Nobby quit her finance job at an MNC to fashion her own career in 2014.

“While at Technopark, I got my first break as a designer, when I launched corporate office wear for women at the IT hub,” she says.

Nevertheless, eyebrows were raised when she quit her job and invested her savings in a fashion venture. “What appalled many was the fact that I opened a store at Alamcode in the suburbs. I had to prove my critics wrong! Word-of-mouth publicity gave a boost. To diversify my portfolio, I incorporated party wear and bridal wear,” says the 30-year-old.

High above the glass ceiling

Although Thiruvananthapuram is not a hub for fashion designers, Aanu was confident about her aesthetics and business acumen. When the dresses she designed for season three of D 4 Dance, a dance reality show on Mazhavil Manorama, became a hit, things began to look up.

On November 23, when Kochi hosts season four of the Kerala Fashion League (KFL), all eyes will be on her creations; Aanu is the official designer of the fashion gala. At the event, she presents Kismath, a collection dedicated to Kanchanamala of Ennu Ninte Moideen fame. “It was on this day in 1969, that she met Moideen after a gap of 10 years. We celebrate the eternal love story with the collection,” says Aanu.

The 30-year-old has been waiting for such a break for her label, AanDe (which stands for Aanu and her sister Devi).

“I want to make a mark in tinsel town and dress Nivin Pauly and Amala Paul!”



Rashmi Daga

FreshMenu, Bangalore

Before launching food delivery startup FreshMenu, Rashmi Daga had worked with other startups, created valuations for companies and raised funds for interesting ideas. She says, “At the Indian Institute of Management, we were trained to think of ourselves as entrepreneurs. My experience in the field helped when FreshMenu began.”

Rashmi worked in the sales teams of many companies before bootstrapping a platform of curated art forms. It didn’t work out and she went back to her sales job.

High above the glass ceiling

“FreshMenu began as a passion project based on something that everyone likes — good food available in super-quick time. The lack of options to get good food home delivered in the suburbs got me thinking about a company that would offer tasty fare cooked by chefs to working professionals.”

She adds, “We got a few investors and launched in October 2014. We spent a lot of time tasting the food crafted in our kitchen in Sarjapur. One of our USPs has been the fact that we change our menu constantly and plan to grow into a countrywide operation soon.”



Upasana Kamineni Konidela

Apollo Life, Hyderabad

She comes from a well-known business family and is married into a rather famous one too. But despite that, Upasana has had to learn the ropes of running one’s business through her own experiences.

The granddaughter of Prathap C Reddy, founder of Apollo Hospitals, and wife of actor Ram Charan (son of actor Chiranjeevi) knows that healthcare and wellness aren’t to be taken easily. Not one to shy away from admitting that she once fought weight issues, Upasana chose to give wellness a fun twist and offered it through Apollo Life-Wellness for Complete Health.

Upasana Kamineni Konidela

Upasana Kamineni Konidela  

Designed for the wellness of patients, doctors and staff at Apollo Hospitals, she threw it open to all those willing to get healthy. “Health and wellbeing are a part of life and not a fad. Wellness for me was a natural progression. We ought to be in charge of our bodies,” she says.

She mooted the idea of an ‘occupation health provider’ that’s accessible to all. She says her grandfather’s confidence helped pursue her dreams.

To opinions that her family background offered her an easy platform for Apollo Life, she says, “It was my own struggle and love for spas and spaces to remain active that led me to float this idea. Things weren’t just given to me; I had to convince the family and then our clients,” she says.

“I am aware of the day-to-day happenings in my centre and, when in town, I work out there myself.”

Upasana’s company has tied up with motivational guru Deepak Chopra. Together, they strive to move forward with the wellness app Jiyo.

Sona Reddy



Room Therapy, Hyderabad



Sona Reddy’s home décor store Room Therapy took off when she was two months pregnant. “It was like having two babies,” she laughs, two years into establishing her firm.



A career in her home town Bangalore and in the U.S. burnt her out, but the store allowed her creative freedom unfettered by commercial constraints. But, a glimpse at Room Therapy will show she’s reaping ‘rich’ dividends.



Room Therapy ideates, conceptualises and designs interior spaces. Sona’s ambitions have to do a lot with her genes. Her parents run a restaurant, and she grew up thinking she would be a restaurateur. Her in-laws have also been managing a family business for three decades now. “None of them was into the retail sector, which was an entirely different ballgame. The structure was different.”



Most of her team in the studio are under 30, and she recruited people who were passionate, ready to work extra hours and without inhibitions. “A supporting family and a team always helps,” says Sona.



Initially, not many took Sona seriously in a male-dominated furniture world. It took time to build trust. One thing that helped was the absence of big local players. “Better display, adequate research and evolving with market trends has helped us. Even if we capture about two per cent of the market, sustenance shouldn’t be an issue.”


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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 8:45:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/High-above-the-glass-ceiling/article16668332.ece

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