The view from the top is truly breathtaking, but only if it is from the mountain you wanted to climb, rather than the forklift you got on accidentally. After all, like Deepak Chopra once said, “The greatest leaders looked inward and were able to tell a good story with authenticity and passion.” Although Rajeshwari Vaidyanathan was at the pinnacle of leadership, she had, perhaps, not yet found her story. So, the woman who could have been among India’s most powerful corporate leaders, given her fanatical strides against the tide, decided instead to heed the call of her heart and waltz into a staunchly ageist industry to become a danseuse and entrepreneur.
Born to an IIT-Kharagpur topper in Kolkata, for Rajeswari Vaidyanathan, mediocrity was never an option. But when she did not crack the AIIMs for the few seats they have in the general quota, she switched to English Honours at Loreto College, and graduated in the top 10 in Calcutta University — a feat in itself, given the impossibly high standards at the prestigious institution.
After completing her post graduation from ICFAI Business School, her first act of defiance came when she impressed recruiters enough to be part of an O&M summer placement programme in rural marketing. Only three people were to be deployed, and there were standing instructions that girls could not participate, considering the difficulty level. “This was my first step towards surviving in a man’s world. It was also my first rigorous corporate training experience and laid the foundation of hard work for me. My days used to start as early as 6 a.m. at times and end as late as 2 a.m., spending the day travelling to the interiors of the country launching a Rs 1 sachet of Sunsilk shampoo.”
Her husband got placed in Mumbai, and she followed him without securing a job but with the confidence that she would land herself something interesting. After a couple of weeks in door-to-door marketing and a year with Citigroup selling premium credit cards, she joined ICICI Prudential Life Insurance in a team management role. “This was where my career took off. My senior, Mr Vishwanath, was instrumental in instilling the killer instinct in me. Within five months of joining, I made the first record of qualifying for a trip to Australia as an incentive of being among the top 15 performers in the country. There was not a single award that I missed from then on and finally left the company after two-and-a-half years, bagging the top 25 performers award (among at least a thousand competitors) for the entire financial year.”
The next stint was a short one with Citibank as a Citigold Acquisitions Manager for the branch, and soon after, with Kotak Mahindra as branch manager. Her seniors then entrusted her with another highly unprofitable branch, to turn it around. It took her but six months to get it back in shape and a year to take it to profitability. Yes Bank noticed the miracle worker and headhunted her as their Napean Sea Road area manager, putting all branches from Bandra to Fort under her purview. About three years ago, she was promoted to senior vice-president, and became one of the senior-most women in retail banking.
It was then that Rajeswari Vaidyanathan took the decision that left everyone around her flabbergasted. “I decided to break away from the corporate world and pursue my passion. This came as a shock not only to my family but also to my seniors, as they were confident that I would have risen to become one of the top 20 powerful women in corporate India within the decade. But for me, I was drawn to something else. I wanted to attain this feat as an entrepreneur.”
She decided to take on an inherently ageist field with flair; she was 36 when she twirled her career into entrepreneurship. She felt reborn when she let the closet danseuse take the lead. “Here too, I wanted to prove that it is never too late to make it as a dancer,” she says.
While travelling and training abroad, Rajeswari found a different kind of zeal among the students, who gave hours and hours of time training and practising to perfect themselves as serious dancers. “They take this whole sport so seriously. Unfortunately, in India, we lack this seriousness in approach. The main challenges that we face from the students are lack of time and persistence, and impatience. People associate Latin with only salsa which is much easier, and really a club dance form.”
This gap she observed was her cue; it felt right. Along with her closest friend and now business partner, she decided to start Shan and Ragz’s DanceSport India, driven by their common passion for Latin and ballroom dance, to spread awareness of this form of dance and popularise it in India.
He had a few students who were learning from him in two centres in Mumbai — Babulnath and Kandivali — and was contemplating starting to work elsewhere because of the way the business was going. But enter Rajeshwari, and the business was not only turned around, but also scaled manifold. They created a strong student base of over 400 students, trained over the past two years with branches in Tardeo, Prabhadevi, Bandra, Juhu, Andheri and Kandivali.
They teach all Latin ballroom dance forms like salsa, cha cha, jive, rumba, samba, bachata, tango, waltz, quickstep, line dance and disco. They cater to corporate workshops for team building and other HR-related activities and also have a dance troupe in place for corporate and private events.
They have around 150 students, and even run Shan and Ragz’s Indian DanceSport Council that hosted the 1st India Open Latin & Ballroom DanceSport Championship last month.
“Right from the time I tasted my first success in O&M to the time I left the corporate world, I have had men who have often tried to pull me down — it was their insecurity that made them act. I never wasted or had time to waste on mundane corporate politics. Yes, the men had a better ability to bond among themselves and with their seniors, which I felt was a drawback — after all, I wasn’t invited to that smoking or drinking session! But hard work always paid off in the end,” Rajeswari says.
The gendered challenges continued to haunt her, this time as a double-edged sword sharpened by sexism and ageism. “A lot of the older people — students and instructors alike — moved off for various reasons. But we feel it is a blessing in disguise, as we have no past baggage to worry about. Moreover, it feels great when students look at you not only as teachers but as parental figures in their lives and come running to you for solutions to all their problems, not always related to dance.”
In the past two years, they have expanded to Prabhadevi, Bandra, Juhu, Andheri and Kandivali and have started their own studio in Tardeo. They also plan to stretch to the central lines to Powai/ Chembur. Outside Maharashtra, they have been able to successfully spread the passion to smaller cities like Belgaum (Karnataka) also. “Our recent success was training Bollywood heartthrob Ranveer Singh and his heroine, Vaani Kapoor for a song in an upcoming Yash Raj production called Befikre.”
This year, they plan to include upto three new cities to the DanceSport fraternity, namely Kolkata, Delhi, Mysore and Ahmedabad. Currently, Shannon and Rajeswari are rigorously preparing for a competition in Bangkok.