Manju Dhawan was the first entrepreneur in her family, and broke away from a concept that she was conditioned with ever since she was little–that professional success meant climbing up the corporate ladder. That moment, when it came, to break away–was not because she felt greed–but because the industry felt the need. She carries forward the same principal as the only woman in the four-member-strong dream founder team at logistics startup Ecom Express.
She personally acts independent of gendered expectations–for it is bad enough that peers and audiences everywhere still try to package her in a box of archaic binaries. But on the myriad occasions when the company requires the special skill set women bosses are known to possess that are indispensable to a company's well-being, she readily summons them, to be the hands-on problem solver that has now even earned her the title of 'Woman Supply Chain Icon of The Year', at this year's Global Logistics Excellence Awards.
Manju Dhawan now tells us how she has always lived the best of both worlds, in this chat with YourStory.
Given Manju's earliest influences, she naturally made a beeline for the corporate grind 30 years ago, kickstarting her career in the express and logistics industry. But two decades into it, she saw the fissures and was inspired to take the plunge. But launching Ecom Express marked the first time that her parents didn't back a major mission she was embarking on. She says,
“No matter how thought-through our plans were, my family did not understand why I would leave a stable career for what seemed like an unlikely goal. But we had seen this as an industry that would supplement the future for retail in India.”
Her co-founders—TA Krishnan, Sanjeev Saxena and K Satyanarayana—were friends and colleagues with similar professional opportunities and exposure, and had discussed in detail how there was a gnawing need for an independent organisation to handle the unique requirements for the e-commerce industry—mostly due to burgeoning e-commerce in India. “From our experience, we had realised that the industry, which was largely catered to by the traditional courier services providers, needed a specialised service. That prompted us to set up the organisation,” she says.
What's more—Manju was no stranger to the way e-commerce held the plot together behind the scenes. She had co-anchored the conceptualisation and development of the delivery services and business distribution model for the e-commerce industry at her company, as well.
A dinner, therefore, in 2010 was their last supper as corporate staffers—it was then that they finally decided to set up a dedicated logistics solutions provider to take care of the very special shipping and delivery needs of the e-commerce sector, thus leaving behind their comfortable jobs to take a shot at building their own company.
Starting its operations with just one customer, 35 centres and 311 employees, Ecom Express notched up 6000 pin codes across 600+ towns through 700 delivery centres at the beginning of 2016, and is currently servicing over 17,000 pin codes across 1,600 towns through a network of over 1,700 delivery centres.
As one of the founding members of Ecom Express, leading the organisation to operational excellence through customer-centric strategies was Manju's forte. “As a woman co-founder, I believe I bring balance to every perspective of the business. Whether it’s related to workforce, strategies, or investment, all of the co-founders’ viewpoints are considered before we take a joint decision. Although it was not by design, having a woman co-founder has given our business a creative one-up by embracing diversity at the leadership level,” she says.
Manju feels organisations today greatly benefit from gender diversity and equality within the workplace. “Women are considered to have qualities that assist in creating a comprehensive workforce. They are also known to be good at multi-tasking and are better in soft skills, which gives them an edge when it comes to relating to people,” she says.
A telling example to illustrate the importance of women in the workforce is how Manju holds down the fort backstage during the festive season—the busiest time for an e-commerce logistics solutions provider—especially during Diwali. The order volumes at the time peak due to offers provided by online shopping platforms, resulting in the tripling of parcel volumes.
It is during this demanding season that all resources of Ecom Express are focussed on one objective: to process the parcels and get them delivered to end customers at the fastest possible time. Leading a large team is a mammoth task, as there are over 20,000 employees who perform different tasks aimed towards the larger goal of providing uninterrupted services to customers. In order to motivate all employees towards one goal during such a crucial time, Manju becomes a source of inspiration to go the extra mile for the organisation. From sending daily emails to charge up the team, to reinforcing back-end systems, to dealing with the surge in the number of orders that happen during the sale, she handles it all.
“I would also hold regular conversations to discuss any issues and concerns with employees and clearly and succinctly explain to employees everything, from organisational goals to specific tasks. The success of the team during the Diwali of 2016 was immense as the number of parcels delivered to end customers were the highest as compared to previous years,” Manju reveals.
Ecom Express’ growth trajectory has been commendable, and they have been growing at over 100 percent year-on-year for the last two years. Manju states that they are operationally profitable and are poised to break-even this year. She says,
The challenges for a woman to assume an entrepreneurial role are aplenty - from little family support to economic challenges. “It is not easy for women to not see themselves as givers and submit to pressures. I strongly feel that this must change, and women must realise their potential.”
Perceived to be a male-dominated vertical, the logistics sector is often considered an ill fit for a woman entrepreneur, but this glass ceiling is slowly seeing cracks. In fact, Ecom Express had a capital infusion of Rs 850 crore from Warburg Pincus in June 2015, which is the largest round of funding raised to date in the Indian logistics sector.
While approaching VCs, Manju advocates doing one's research and asking for help, where needed, especially when trying to gain entry into the ecosystem.
“Go to VCs with a working revenue model that's scalable. Also, people matter as much as the idea so you should go with a rock-solid core team. No matter what stage your company is at, you should be thinking about who might want to invest in the next two stages. Different firms like to invest at different stages of the startup life-cycle. Therefore, it is always helpful to do your research on who might be interested in your venture several months later,” she adds.
Manju is a firm believer in India’s rural growth story, and wants to continue to expand her venture's reach in rural markets, including tier-III and tier-IV towns and beyond. “Our goal is to service over 20,000 pin codes, covering 90 percent of India’s population and households in the next three years,” she says, adding, “We also plan to achieve our strategic goal of extending full-state coverage to 23 states.”
Since it also recently entered the fulfillment services business for sellers with the launch of facilities in Gurgaon, Bengaluru and Lucknow, Ecom Express now plans to set up six to seven mega, state-of-the-art warehouses in the next two years, housing a pickup & processing centre, and a hub & fulfilment centre, all under the same roof, to meet the increasing logistics and warehousing demands of the industry. “In order to help Ecom Express deliver superior customer experience and build a highly competent and scalable business, we are also looking to invest in technology, deploy advanced parcel sorting systems, and strengthen network reliability and infrastructure,” Manju notes.
Maintaining a full plate and a fuller life is a challenge that every woman grapples with, but Manju's take on it is refreshing.
“Being an entrepreneur and single mother has taught me lot of skills – most importantly, multitasking. It was never a setback for me but a challenge to run the business and maintain a connect with my daughter. I have been able to figure out how to do so, but what is good for one person may not be good for another and you need to find the balance that fits your personal and professional ambitions,” Manju adds.
For women, the pressure of accommodating business as well as family without much support can get overwhelming, which is why many do not choose the entrepreneurial path. In such cases, it is crucial for one not to be hard on themselves, because going for what you are passionate about pays off like nothing else. Meanwhile, as Manju has gone on to show, figuring out the ideal mix of ingredients that makes your life worthwhile is key.