A self-made woman, H. Saroja’s story feels like it is straight out of a movie. While movies are often the work of fiction, life isn’t.
Saroja is an entrepreneur from Shimoga. She is currently running the Nandi Vermicelli Industries that has two food processing units located in Bhadravati in Shimoga district of Karnataka.
This is not her first venture. She has tried her hand at running a beauty parlour, candle manufacturing, papad making, textile agency, and was even into the dairy and firecracker industry. Some of these were labour intensive industries and due to problems arising out of labour related issues had to be closed. In the case of others, she is quick to quip in Kannada- “I did not shut shop because I was making losses but because the growth rate was not what I was looking at.”
She found her calling in the vermicelli industry. Saroja says, “my journey towards empowering myself as a self-employed woman started in 1994.”
Saroja comes from a well to do family but had always wanted to be self-reliant and independent. She was married to a cousin of hers who, had been for years, staying at Saroja’s home itself.
She says that her husband preferred to continue living the life of comfort at her parents home and did not want to be the breadwinner for his own parents. Saroja, driven by the will to be self-employed, moved out from her parent’s house and went to live with her in-laws and even supported them. The latter have been a great source of support to her and have stood by her decisions.
Saroja had no support from her own family and with her husband deciding to settle in comfortably at her parent’s place, she had no moral or financial support and life was daunting to say the least. “ I did not know where to start from as I was a house wife and did not even have much formal education. I have not even studied till class 10th,” she says.
But after much thought she made up her mind, steeled her nerves and tightened her girdle to achieve her dream of being self-employed and startup.
Another reason why she wanted to startup was to bring together women who were in the same boat as her, without family support, and give them a chance to be self-reliant.
In 1994 she started small scale with two women and today her company employs 26 people and it has, she proudly says, “Given me the designation of Proprietor of Nandi Vermicelli Industries.”
Saroja takes care of her workers, their families and the education of their children.
As an entrepreneur she has had her fair share of challenges. Talking about some of the challenges she says, “I was able to manage the production and quality of the vermicelli produced at my plant. But I failed miserably in marketing. Due to lack of innovative or competitive ideas I was not able to find a place for my product in the market. I overcame this by selling my product at a very less margin for an entire year to compete in the market.”
She also faced the problem of labour when she received big orders. To resolve this she replaced her semi-automatic machine with a fully automatic one.
On the personal front the ride has been far from easy. With no family support, she was on her own. She has even lived in a hut without proper sanitation, done physical work, which she says, “Usually men do.”
As a mother she has done her best for her children. Without much education and no degrees she was unable to get her kids admitted into an English medium school. Saroja took this up as a challenge and overcame this hurdle by learning English.
She got coached by a teacher who trained her to answer the questions the school may ask. She says, “I gave the parents interview in English, and got my kids admitted to an English medium school.”
Saroja had told her parents that she would not enter their house until she succeeds in her life. “I did not go to my parents’ home for 10 long years.”
Though Saroja has battled on with great strength, there were times when she too faced dark moments.
As a beautiful woman she had to face constant unwelcome attention from men. While door-to-door marketing for her products she would often face men who would leer at her, proposition her and eve tease her. During such moments Saroja wished she was unattractive so as to not attract attention.
Since she was living alone and doing things women aren’t often seen doing—like driving her own goods carrier, Saroja was subject to attention and scrutiny. “There were situations where I thought of committing suicide along with my children. But luckily by God’s grace and my will to succeed, I overcame all of that”, she says remembering those times with a lump in her throat.
Today she has a heavy motor vehicle driver’s license and is very proud of it.
She loves her work and that keeps her motivated. Along with it being self-employed and giving employment to other women and empowering them gives Saroja a lot of satisfaction.
On the business front, competition keeps her going. “A new competitor in the market drives me to work hard and succeed.”
Saroja enjoys working towards getting more and more orders for her products and coming out with different varieties of vermicelli like vermicelli made of ragi. At present her vermicelli is available in Karnataka. She did try selling in Delhi and even though she received a good response, the process was too cumbersome. She realized with half the effort and the same returns she could continue in Karnataka. So at present her focus is on Karnataka.
One of her biggest learning over the years has been that no business in itself is loss making, “It is the result of our ignorance, short sightedness and negligence,” she says.
Her mantra has been and continues to be, “If you wish to go high you should be the constructor of your steps and while going high do not forget to take people who are around you.”