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Dreaming, doing, daring — entrepreneur lessons from 14 inspiring women

Madanmohan Rao
22nd Sep 2016
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India has a low female entrepreneurship index as compared to dozens of other countries. This is unsurprising, considering that women have to negotiate a patriarchal setup in addition to the usual founder challenges.

“In an ecosystem where generations have grown up ruing the lack of professional female role models, we are fortunate to have crossed paths with some amazing female entrepreneurs,” begin Rinku Paul and Puja Singhal, co-authors of Dare to Be: 14 Fearless Women Who Gave Wings to Their Dreams.

The inspiring 206-page book features profiles and learnings of 14 women entrepreneurs across a wide range: bloggers, artistes, coaches, social entrepreneurs, and IT professionals who found creative satisfaction along with commercial success.

Rinku spent 16 years with the news channel Aaj Tak, a part of the India Today Group, and is now a life coach, corporate trainer, and neurolinguistic programming practitioner. She co-founded writing studio The Muse along with HR specialist Puja. (See also my book reviews of Superwomen by Prachi Garg and Follow Every Rainbow by Rashmi Bansal.)

The entrepreneurs profiled in the book share some of their success tips: when entrepreneurship calls, give it your best shot; choose your passion and money will follow; it can help to have back-up plans; develop a continuous learning and doing habit; have a thick skin and take rejection only as a temporary setback; give back to society.

The authors also caution that entrepreneurship is not for everyone, and each reader should conduct their own ‘litmus test’ to see if such narratives connect with them to decide whether or not to leave a corporate career.

Each profile is very well structured, with personal narrative as well as snapshots of each entrepreneur’s role model, a book that has been inspiring, proudest moments, and tips for aspiring entrepreneurs. Here are some brief vignettes from the book. See also the Changemaker Storytelling Canvas as a visualisation tool for entrepreneurs and founders.

Kanika Tekriwal, Founder of JetSetGo Aviation Services (‘Uber of the skies’), was earlier with IndiaBulls and Aerospace Resources. She grew up in a conservative Marwari family in Bhopal, and in her childhood years dreamed of becoming a pilot. Surviving a brush with cancer during her consultancy career, she refocused her corporate skills into the emerging aviation services market in India. Kanika eventually secured funding for her company from Yuvraj Singh’s YouWeCan Ventures. “You have to conquer your fears yourself; nobody else can do it for you,” she advises.

Anisha Singh co-founded Mydala, India’s largest coupon provider, and was earlier with e-learning firm Centra Software in the US. Ironically, she had chosen a corporate career because she had seen her father’s entrepreneurial struggles when she was a youngster. In the US, she worked with the National Women’s Business Association. With some tips from Deep Kalra of MakeMyTrip, she moved back to India and launched Kinis Software. Exposure to the group-buying model in China led her to switch again, this time to launch Mydala. “Have a viable business plan. Don’t just strive for a high valuation,” Anisha advises.

Neeru Sharma, Co-founder of InfiBeam, was earlier with TCS, Alcatel, and Amazon. As a child, she witnessed the struggles of her entrepreneur parents, and chose the career of computer science because of its decent pay. Her exposure to India’s growing e-commerce sector led her to team up with former colleagues and launch InfiBeam as an inclusive ecosystem rather than a destination site. “To take up more than one can chew, to not delegate, is a sure-shot formula for burnout,” Neeru cautions.

Sairee Chahal, Founder of Sheroes.in (earlier FlexiMoms), grew up in the small town of Muzaffarnagar and yearned for a bigger canvas to paint on. She studied at JNU, worked for CII, and stumbled on the opportunity to launch a magazine for mariners at sea (NewsLink). Sairee then co-founded Saita Consulting for SMBs, and realised the need for a platform for alternative work models for mothers when she herself became one. “Be kind to yourself and follow your inner voice,” Sairee advises.

Pooja Warier founded UnLtd India (launchpad for social entrepreneurs) and Bombay Connect (collaborative space for changemakers). Witnessing financial hardships in her childhood years taught her about the necessity and limitations of money. She was attracted by the behavioural sciences, and worked at TISS to study social work. Pooja discovered the work of UnLtd UK during the World Social Forum, and brought the model to India to help social entrepreneurs get mentors, credibility, and funds. Work-life balance is a challenge for her, and she admits that ‘founders’ guilt’ for women is a reality. “Determining what you do not want to do is as important as discovering what you want to do,” Pooja advises.

Yukti Kapoor Mehandiratta is the founder of children’s experiential learning firm Concept Exhibitions. She is also an award-winning model and was earlier with CitiBank and Barclays. The harsh reality of being a mother in the corporate world along with her desire to serve a purpose other than making money led her to brainstorm on alternatives, leading her down her path in discovery-based learning despite criticism from naysayers. “Jump towards the side where your heart lies and the rest will be magical,” Yukti advises.

Malini Agarwal worked as a Bollywood correspondent with BBC Asia and then at Channel V, Radio One, and MTV, after which she struck out on her own to start prominent blogging site MissMalini.com. As a child she was a writer and dancer, and was exposed to a range of cultures due to her father’s career as a diplomat. She fell in love with the energy of Mumbai, and was hooked on to blogging right from her first posts. Backed by her husband, she built a solid business model around it, and has since expanded into TV and is working on two books. “We live in a generation where anything is possible,” she says.

Sonam Kalra is the founder of the Sufi Gospel Project. She has previously been a TV anchor at BBC and art director at Trikaya Grey. The authors describe her as a woman with “the voice of a nightingale and the heart of a lion.” Sonam grew up in an artistic household, training under Shubha Mudgal. Laryngitis forced her to initially switch from her musical performance path, but she later moved out of advertising to return as a spiritual singer. Her group has musicians from many faiths, and promotes tolerance, equality, and human rights. “All you need to do is to open yourself up to experiences,” Sonam advises.

Monica Bhide, author of books such as Modern Spice and A Life of Spice, grew up in the Middle East, got an engineering degree from Bengaluru, and worked in corporate America for 13 years. The loss of a dear friend jolted her, and soul-searching led her to leave the ‘golden handcuff’ of the corporate world and start writing about one of her passions: food. Overcoming criticism from her family and friends for being “fickle” and “naive” and some of her own internal fears of income cuts, she began writing articles for food magazines and sites. Her work eventually appeared in top US magazines and newspapers, and then as cookbooks. “Feasts and famines are a part of a freelancer’s life,” Monica cautions.

Swati Kaushal, author of bestsellers Piece of Cake and Drop Dead, was a brand manager at Nestle and Nokia. She opted out of the everyday struggle of corporate life to write books about women role models. As a child, she was inspired by the storytelling skills of her grandfather. She graduated from IIM Calcutta (her husband is a batchmate), but took time off from her corporate track when her child was struck with pneumonia. A journalist friend recommended that she take up writing, which led her down the book path. “It is not important for a woman to behave like a man to prove herself,” Swati advises.

Sucheta Pal is India’s first Zumba education specialist, and was earlier a business analyst at TCS. She grew up in Ranchi, and was inspired by Bollywood disco dancer Mithun Chakraborty. During her corporate stint, she was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, and eventually went through depression. A personality development course led her to pursue her passion in dancing, which she followed up in the US when her husband relocated there. She stumbled upon Zumba, and went on to become a successful master trainer, launching TV shows and classes in India upon her return. “Society has a way of not accepting change till you reach somewhere,” Sucheta observes.

Abha Maryada Banerjee, motivational speaker and founder of Success India Leadership Company, was earlier a lawyer and activist, and has written the book Nucleus: Power Women Lead from the Core. She was often called a troublemaker in childhood, and was encouraged by her father, himself a lawyer, to pursue law. She found inspiration in the works of Swami Vivekananda (control of thought processes), and in personal development courses in Singapore. She changed career track to become a successful award-winning motivational speaker, and has coached Olympic athletes as well. “Rejection means nothing more than someone not being able to see what you see,” Abha advises.

Rangana Rupavi Choudhari, alternate therapist and founder of Vitality Living College, was earlier marketing head at Smith & Nephew, an MNC in medical equipment. She grew up overseas, and studied at Oxford University from where she got a PhD in cancer research. Brandon Bays’ book The Journey inspired her to pursue alternate therapies, particularly in the aftermath of her father’s death and her own ailments as a workaholic. “My own wake-up call was my health. You need to find your own purpose,” she advises.

Neeti Palta, founder of Loony Goons, was previously senior creative director at J. Walter Thompson, and went on to win awards as best stand-up comic. She quit the corporate advertising world because she no longer wanted to “sell cola to the youth” and preferred to be creative with some level of self-respect. “Beyond a point your ‘bullshit quotient’ gives up and you need to find something that doesn’t just give you money but also makes you happy,” Neeti says. The stand-up comic journey was tough and lonely, but personal moments of satisfaction came when her father himself said he enjoyed her jokes.

In sum, this collection of entrepreneurial stories is inspiring as well as cautionary, with a good balance of the arduous struggle and eventual successes that the women faced. It covers the ‘planned’ as well as ‘accidental’ entrepreneur, and helps draws similarities and contrasts between the wide range of profiled entrepreneurs. The book is packed with useful quotes and extracts, and it would be appropriate to end this review with some of them.

Ability has nothing to do with opportunity. – Napoleon Bonaparte

Life does not give us purpose; we give purpose to life. – Bartholomew Allen

The most common form of despair is not being who we are. – Søren Kierkegaard

All you touch and all you see, is all your life ever will be. – Pink Floyd

A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way. – John Maxwell

Intuition is seeing with the soul. – Dean Koontz

Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change. – Wayne Dyer

If you can dream it, you can do it. – Walt Disney

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