By Lipika Sud
Imagine spending a lifetime setting up a business, only to have it collapse decades later and having to start all over from scratch. That’s happened to me, and yet, I neither lost hope in my career nor in myself, nor even in life.
A few years ago, I was head of one of India’s biggest interior design firms. But wait. That’s not where my story really starts. My story starts in high school, where I faced a peculiar challenge.
You see, unfortunately, I got very good marks.
I was always very good at art and design from a young age. I would draw and sketch happily while other kids played in the school yard. In fact one of my paintings was selected as the face of a postage stamp inaugurated by then prime minister Indira Gandhi (I admit that gives away my age!). In school, I was an over-performer; I was head girl of the school. I participated in painting and art competitions but also drama and debates. And I always, always got good marks.
Though art was my first passion, it wasn’t considered a viable career option back then. So like a good student, I decided to go to a good college like Sri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi University and take up a good specialization like Economics Honours. Of course, the creative instinct was always there: I got involved in college theatre and started the college magazine, Aakriti.
After college, people went into lucrative fields of study like MBA or chartered accountancy. I wanted neither. So I decided to get into advertising and joined Lintas. I loved it. And if the crazy job scene wasn’t enough, I also did a course in law side-by-side. So I’m actually a qualified advocate now. (Like I said, I somehow always got good marks.)
Somewhere along the line, I joined the management division at Taj Hotels. There, I was part of a team that was given the project of creating the interiors space at an upcoming nightclub. And that’s where my Eureka moment took place. I decided, “This is what I want to do with the rest of my life. I want to design interiors.” So I promptly quit Taj.
The family and my colleagues thought all this was just a phase and that I would get over it. But I was sure I wanted to give it a shot. In 1989, I converted my mother’s garage into an office. The chair was taken from home, and I had to put it back at the end of the day. I registered it as a private limited company. Against a backdrop of people telling me I had committed career suicide, I began to focus my energies on finding myself a business edge.
I hired people and together we studied the gaps in the market. I realized that while there were many designers doing up residences, there weren’t too many designers working for corporate houses. It was the early 1990s, and India was suddenly inundated with global players coming in. They all needed world-class workspaces.
I’ve learnt that you need to tap into the 3 Fs when you start out in your own business: Family, Friends and Fools. Just kidding! I was a first-generation entrepreneur with absolutely no family member doing any sort of business. I got in touch with ex-colleagues, asked them shamelessly for contracts. I started with one, then two and then dozens of new interior-design projects. I would work all day and night. We grew and grew.
Here’s some advice for budding entrepreneurs: Ask yourself, what is your edge? Who is your competition? Who is your customer? What is your differentiation factor? One of the strongest qualities you’ll need to develop is perseverance. I had to prove myself, that’s it. I did not give myself any other choice; there was no plan B. I told myself, “This has to be done.” And that’s what kept me going despite all the setbacks.
And believe me, there are setbacks. People would see that I’m a woman and would say, “A woman can’t do up a six-story building with 2,00,000 sq ft of space.” And if I got a big contract, I would sometimes lose it because my competitors would tell the client, “She got it because she’s a woman.” But I didn’t let these little hiccups bother me.
I learnt to multi-task. We have many roles to play in our lives as women, and we have to handle them all very carefully – our roles at home, at work, in the public eye. It’s like cycling – you have to keep moving, else you will fall down. There will be challenges every single day, at work, at home. Your children will take you for granted. You’ll come home exhausted from a tough day at work, and without realizing what you’ve gone through all day, your kids will still expect you to sit with them and do their homework. I learnt that the only way to survive all these debilitating pressures is to carve out your own identity. That’s the only way to survive as a woman in India.
And then, when I reached the pinnacle of my career, it all tumbled and scattered away like a pack of cards.
I was cheated by a partner. Someone I had full faith in. My work of 20 years crashed to the ground and one day, I checked my bank account and saw there was just Rs 17,500 left. I cannot express the devastation and sense of betrayal I felt. I had to shut my company down. Imagine all those losses, those people laid off, all those years of painstaking effort gone to waste.
It took me six months to gather myself and my courage and to start again.
Two years ago, in 2012, I launched another new company, which is where I work today. Like I said, I have not lost hope in either life or myself. I’ve learnt to be fearless, to have faith in myself above all. And I’ve learnt that as long as you are there for yourself, the world will be there for you too. Never give up. Just never give up.