At a time when hardly any Indian women dared to venture into the entrepreneurial space, in 1990, Zarina Screwvala started UTV. Two decades after she co-founded it with Ronnie Srewvala, The Walt Disney Company acquired UTV for about USD 450 million — testimony enough for the sustainable and meaningful business she had built.She spills the secret of her success to HerStory.
I finished my schooling from J.B. Petit School for Girls in Mumbai. We had a very progressive Principal. She believed that women can go out and do anything they want. And this was in the sixties. So you can imagine how she had inspired an entire generation of girls. She also taught me that rote learning never works, it is always about deeply enquiring and being curious. My other guru is Pearl Padamsee. I started my career as a production manager for a play produced by Pearl, a theatre personality par excellence. Pearl transformed me from a really shy person to an extremely confident person.
Most of my values that I carry with me to this day come from my early mentors.
The entrepreneurial bug bit me when I got a call from one of my friends asking if I could be an Assistant Director for Mashoor Mahal. It was the first television show in India that was not produced by Doordarshan. That was the beginning. I loved media and television immediately. I remember my first day at work. I went to the production house at 7 in the morning, and got back the next day at 7am. I was really excited.
For an entrepreneur, the first learning should be never give up. Especially in the beginning, because it is really hard then. It is all very nice to look at a glamorous success story, and think it was all about success from Day 1. But my journey was very tough. It was a lot of hard work, at the same time, a lot of fun too. But my key learning is never give up. People only like to talk about their success. But behind every success, there are multiple failures. You need to believe in yourself and keep going because in the beginning, failures are much more natural than success. So don’t get deterred by failure, keep going. In India especially dealing with failures is hard. Everybody knows about your successes and everybody knows about your failures too.
After the UTV exit in 2011, I started thinking about what next. I was seeking out a new big challenge. That is how the Swades Foundation came about. The mission of Swades is to lift 1 million people out of poverty every five years. I had thought about various issues well before the exit. But what the exit gave was the strength and stamina to take up such a big challenge.
We chose rural India as the area of focus because the growth so far has been very inequitable. Rural people lack basic facilities and opportunities. They lack options for good education. Like others, they are also are hungry to learn and seek opportunities. We thought a lot about it, and we knew we had to approach this problem from a 360 degree view point. So we designed a model of development, which is sustainable and replicable at scale. We are focussed on community mobilization, livelihood, agriculture, education and healthcare. So we have a 108-member team, of which 80 are on the field. We are focussed on rural empowerment. Our job is to empower people to go and find the opportunities by themselves.
My advice to women entrepreneurs is: Once you set yourself a goal, go after it. There will be skeptics around always, but don’t let that get to you. Stick with your goals. You will fail in the beginning, so keep that in mind. If you change course every time you fail, you will get nowhere.
Sometimes when you do things, you are either ahead of your time, or behind time. Timing is key and critical. If the timing is not right, then you need to rethink your business. If your issues are around people, you can correct that. If your issues are around finance, you can always correct that. But think carefully about your business.
I have never been ambitious. But I love a good challenge. I love overcoming challenges but I don’t consider myself ambitious at all. They are two totally different things. If somebody is ambitious, it means they want success. And I was never after success. I am interested in making a very difficult thing work. What we have done with UTV is that we built a cutting-edge innovative media business from India. In 2004, we launched Hungama TV, exclusively for kids, and within two years we became the number one channel for kids. The story of UTV Bindaas is similar as well. We also helped create similar channels abroad following the Hungama prototype. Being very disruptive, very innovative and coming out on the top was key.
It is the challenge of the journey that I enjoy; if the result is success, then it is great.
Even if you look at what I am doing with Swades Foundation today, our goal is to lift a million people out of poverty in five years. This is a huge challenge that we have taken on, and that really excites me.
According to me, a person who makes a good professional is also the one who makes a good entrepreneur. For me, energy, passion and staying the course matter. When I hire someone, I look for someone who had a few knocks in life. Also having a positive attitude is key. A lot of people have business skills, experience and are good at their work. But in the end, people who win are people who are positive. Please do not mistake positive for naiveté. It is about knowing all the challenges yet being confident that one can succeed. ‘It is not going to be easy, there are many challenges, but I am working to find a way out, I know I will succeed.’ — That is the kind of person I look for.
Building good teams is the passion of my life. You look for people who have the qualities that you need and the skill-sets needed for success. Building a team is about communication and ensuring that there is constant communication up, down and sideways. Treating people with dignity and respect is important. That is what makes a team.
Make time for yourself. Make time for your family and friends, make that time count. It is important to keep personal time for yourself, to read a book by yourself, or sip a cup of tea, or whatever re-energizes you. These are very important things, don’t lose out of these. No matter how hard you work, don’t lose out on these.