This woman started India’s largest export house that supplies to Gap, Walmart, Target, and H&M from her home

After working as a seamstress in factory, Sarla Ahuja started Shahi Exports in her home in New Delhi. Today, it’s the largest export house in India, has numerous international clients, and a 115,000-strong workforce comprising more than 65% women.

This woman started India’s largest export house that supplies to Gap, Walmart, Target, and H&M from her home

Monday January 30, 2023,

5 min Read

The story of Shahi Exports, India’s largest apparel manufacturer, began from a makeshift unit in the home of its founder, Sarla Ahuja, in the early 1970s.

Today, Shahi Exports boasts of a 115,000-employee workforce, with Rs 8,244 crore revenue this year from 51 factories across India. It has a customer base that includes Walmart, Gap Inc, Abercrombie & Fitch, PVH, Kohl’s, H&M, Target, and other big brands, with a current MoQ of 10,000 per order.

Shahi Exports

A woman at work at a Shahi Exports factory

Sarla Ahuja is now 86 years old, and though she retired from her position two years ago due to ill-health is up-to-date with the company’s expansion, growth, and new initiatives. In a conversation with HerStory, she recalls Shahi’s humble beginnings from her home in Delhi.

She is joined by her grandson Anant Ahuja, Head of Organisational Development at Shahi, who pitches in wherever her memory fails her (which is not often) and outlines Shahi’s plans in building a women-strong workforce and working towards a sustainable future.

Married at 16, Sarla decided, at the age of 22, to supplement her family’s income by working as a sewing machine operator in a factory. She decided to quit after a year because she was finding it difficult to manage both work and home.

“I was, however, fortunate to be given orders that helped me to work from home. Soon, I was able to employ around 15 people for export orders to the US,” she says.

It was not easy. Neighbours complained incessantly about workers coming in and out of her home and drinking chai outside. But, with the support of her family, Sarla worked hard to fulfil the orders that came in.

Shahi’s growth was quick. With a capital of Rs 5,000, she established Shahi’s production unit in Ranjit Nagar in Delhi 1974 with a capacity of around 200 pieces a day, with the business exporting directly to America and Europe through networks.

Sarla only remembers working hard, sometimes until midnight to compete urgent orders.

“I single-handedly managed things, blind in work. I think only God knew what the plan was at that time,” she says.

The next generation takes over

Once her two sons, Harish and Sunil were old enough, they started helping her in the evenings, after school and college.

Anant explains, “My father took over the business in India in the 90s to expand it further and my uncle moved to the US, to run the import side of it. When the export quotas were removed, Shahi started to grow and receive bigger orders.”

Shahi has had a women-strong workforce right from the beginning. Sarla says it was a conscious decision.

“I used to go to houses in the slums nearby and encourage the women to work for me. There were women living in the streets without a roof over their heads. I told them ‘come work with me’, and ensure a good education and life for your children,” she says.

She was threatened many times for this, but she did not let that affect her. Today, Shahi has 77,000 women in its 115,000-strong workforce, an impressive 68%.

Ladke shaitan hote hain (boys can be evil),” she says, matter-of-factly, adding, “they beat up their women and took away all their money.”

In fact, Anant shares that Shahi was the first to have an ATM in the premises (and the area) of its factory in Bengaluru 22 years ago. The women could directly deposit their salaries into their accounts and have control over their earnings.

Anant joined the business in 2012 and is interested in different aspects of work development and sustainability.

“One of the biggest challenges with a labour-intensive workforce, mostly comprising women, is managing them,” Anant points out.

Life skills programme for women

Inspired by Sarla’s vision for Shahi’s women workforce, in 2007, Shahi became the first company to pilot Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement (P.A.C.E.), a proprietary life skills programme by Gap Inc. It teaches communication, time management, decision making, problem solving, and financial literacy through weekly group sessions in the workplace and has trained over 75,000 women so far.

Shahi was also the first Gap Inc. supplier to be awarded the licence to scale up P.A.C.E. by training women beyond its factories. It launched the programme in Tex Fasteners’ zipper factory in Gurugram. The programme, according to Anant, helped workers perform better, leading to increase in productivity.

Sarla says she is very happy with the work of her sons and grandchildren at Shahi. She visited the Faridabad factory every day until two years ago, but chose to retire because of ill-health.

Anant continues to speak about Shahi’s efforts on the sustainability front. Interestingly, Shahi created the first-of-its-kind circular dress, under the Cradle to Cradle concept.

Its Arth Collection, with Cradle Certified products, aims at creating a positive ecological impact rather than simply minimising the environmental footprint.

The goal is not just to substitute harmful chemicals and other raw materials with more sustainable alternatives but also to rethink the lifecycle of products — from design to disintegration. The emphasis is on increasing durability. Once disintegrated, the value of the materials used in production is not lost but rather preserved and brought back to the loop.

“This is a huge opportunity to be more efficient with resources, use waste better, and recycle more. Every process of making the circular dress is environment-friendly and it’s totally biodegradable,” Anant says.

Anand Ahuja, Anant’s brother runs the retail expansion of Shahi that includes the running of its 35 Nike stores in India.

“We want to continue to have impact at scale and change lives for the better. When dadi started the business, there was no other woman entrepreneur running a company of this size. A lot of hard work has gone into building Shahi and there’s a huge sense of responsibility and duty in continuing the legacy,” Anant says.

(The story has been updated to change the designation of Anant Ahuja)

Edited by Teja Lele