“Always keep learning and evolve with the times.” Manisha Ahlawat, 40, has followed her mantra to a T. From growing up in Jat village to being educated in US, starting up in India to being a single parent, Manisha’s life has been paved with challenges. She has used every opportunity that life has offered her to learn and evolve and this is her story:
The village and the city divide
Born in Daurala, a predominantly Jat village in western UP, she attended the local village school. It was the late 1970s and things changed when she was sent to live with her paternal aunt, who was married to an Army Major. This completely changed the course of her life, because while she stayed with her aunt, she was sent to a convent school. “This was in complete contrast to the village school. I got a good education and was away from the patriarchal conservative environment of the village. However, I was in for a culture shock on my return to my parents after six years. I could not come to terms with how my younger brother was given far more importance than us three elder sisters. My two sisters had gotten used to it, but I always rebelled against the blatant gender discrimination practiced in our family. But mine was a lone voice.”
The second chance
Manisha’s rebellion only led her to being married early, at the age of 19. In 1995, she moved to US after an arranged marriage and she calls it “another blessing in disguise”, even though the marriage did not last. America also gave her the opportunity to study further, work, and try her hands at entrepreneurship. She completed her MBA from Georgia State University, and while at GSU, she managed to get an assistantship that required 20 hours of work at the Economic Forecasting Centre at the university. “In addition to the 20 hours, I was also helping my husband manage his jewellery business in a mall. I started a formal career once I was back in India in 2005 with retail chains like Crossword Bookstores, Reliance Retail, and Mom & Me. I gained a lot of entrepreneurial experience in the booming retail sector since I always joined new brands at the launch stage.”
Vivafit – from Portugal to India
Manisha registered her company in July 2010 and opened the first Vivafit center in India in Gurgaon in February 2011.
She had seen the Vivafit ads on Facebook, and since she was into fitness and a champion of good health and nutrition in her personal life, she decided to look into Vivafit. “I was very vocal about women’s issues and was known as a feminist. When the opportunity came to combine two of my passions, I took it up. A chance meeting with the founder of Vivafit at the Paris Franchise Show led me to research Vivafit and I found it to be a concept that was much needed in India. The women’s fitness market in India in 2010 was, and continues to be, underserved. We hardly had brands back then that focused on women’s specific needs,” says Manisha.
In 2010, she signed a master franchise agreement with Vivafit. Currently, she manages the North India operations and has two centres each in Gurgaon and Delhi, and one in Lucknow. Though a Portuguese brand, Vivafit centers in India saw the introduction of meditation and Yoga too.
Fielding early challenges
Finding qualified and fitness enthusiasts to join her all-women team was one of the early challenges she faced. For that first year, she hired trainers from Portugal and then recruited physiotherapists and Physical Education graduates from various universities in NCR, got them trained by the Portuguese master trainers, and solved the problem to some extent.
Another challenge was funds. “A growing business can have an unexpected fund requirement at any stage and I had not planned for the same. While banks ask for collateral for any kind of loan, most investors want to invest in e-commerce, and I had a purely brick and mortar business model. I had to take loan on my jewelry at one point to fund the business,” she says.
However, over the years her team of 20 full-time employees has become her support system. With all-women teams, Manisha is happy to combine her love for women issues, feminism, and fitness and health. “I have over the years got the opportunity to hire and train some young women, who are committed to making women fit and healthy,” she says.
The fact that she is able to get these women to take that step towards being healthy and fit drives Manisha and her team. “Just a week into fitness activities can bring about a change in the posture, energy levels, and this has a huge impact on confidence levels. It is very heartening to see this positive change!”
Freedom of choice
Ask her about her biggest challenge in life and she says, “I believe life itself is a challenge. You don’t overcome it; you live it. Being a woman, born in the Jat community, life can be an adventure too. Early on, you realise you do not have freedom of choice, and it can be very frustrating. Slowly, every step you take is towards trying to get this freedom. It is difficult but not impossible. I had to struggle for years to get it. It took me an arranged marriage, two kids, an MBA degree, work outside home, and a divorce to get this simple freedom of choice.”
According to Manisha, it took her a few years to learn to use this freedom responsibly and finally be able to face opposition and criticism for the choices she made. “ And that is not difficult, she says. “Not having the freedom to make your own life choices is the only challenge; the rest all is logistics. Vivafit happened because I had this freedom of choice, to be an entrepreneur.”
Being a single mom
Manisha has two kids, both were born while she was in the US. Being a single mother has not been easy but, in retrospect, Manisha calls it an adventure. “When I compare a regular couple raising kids vis-à-vis single handedly, then yes two is a better team than just one. Though I had support from family and friends, there are times you feel like Mother India really. Homework, PTMs, report cards, guitar lessons, kathak lessons, good nutrition, organising birthdays, movies, mall visits, middle of the night hospital visits, it all requires a lot of time and effort,” she says.
A winner on all fronts
Manisha practices what she preaches through Vivafit. Her fitness mantra is to eat right and exercise. “Simple as it sounds, it takes a lot of planning and motivation,” she says. So she plans her meals for the week on Sunday, and finishes the grocery shopping same day. “Almost everything I eat is home-cooked and in moderation. Exercise or movement is very important, so 30 minutes of exercise is enough for me. I stay active throughout the day. Moderation in your food and movement in your body should take care of your health,” advises this fitness freak.
While fitness keeps her going, what has helped her in the long run in the face of huge challenges is that she never gave up. “Hang in there, persistence and resilience will win above all. What seems like a big problem today, will be solved or gone tomorrow for sure, but only if you keep working at it.”