A year ago, the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony as US President, India woke up to a full-front-page advertisement in two national dailies featuring Trump and Devita Saraf. The copy said, “Congratulations, Mr President”, and the footnote declared Devita’s credentials as founder and CEO of Vu Televisions. It went on to add Devita’s optimism about “a strong and inspired relationship between India and USA.”
Indian Twitterati went on overdrive that day, with various voices calling out Devita for her “unsubtle self-promotion” and “waste of PR money’’. Rival newspaper websites carried nasty editorials. It seemed as if many just could not get over a young woman aspiring to the “old boys’ club”; certainly if Mukesh Ambani or Ratan Tata had put out such an ad, they wouldn’t have been called “narcissistic”.
All trolls fell silent three days later when the Wall Street Journal carried an interview of Devita. Instead, the cash register began to ring, and hundreds of stores across India lined up to retail Vu TVs. A cabinet minister conveyed to Devita that the ad had been well-received by the political establishment as well. One of Devita’s biggest competitors in the TV market asked a mutual friend how much the advertisement had cost.
“Oh, I didn’t charge Donald Trump anything,” she replied with a sardonic smile.
Having been CEO “for 40% of her life”, Devita has business in her blood, and would rather be admired than ‘liked’. Born in Mumbai a year after father Rajkumar Saraf launched Zenith Computers, she grew up with an older brother in a disciplined environment as their mother, a former Economics professor, insisted on “well-bred, well-rounded” children who excelled in both academics and life.
Habituated to hard work, the children were also exposed to dining-table talk of business and technology. On visits to their father’s office, little Devita would observe the respect her father commanded, and resolved, “That’s what I will be. I will run a company like him.”
She also observed, however, the way women in their family back in Rajasthan were treated: “Women were indulged, but had no power or respect. They were ‘back-end support’ to the men in their lives.” The realization kindled in her the desire to challenge the status quo and change attitudes.
Dynamic, cheerful and extroverted, Devita won friends easily while growing up, and began working in her father’s company from the age of 16. Unilaterally, she made a decision to study business in California, shocking her family who had never let her out of sight for more than a few minutes.
But they acquiesced, and Devita spent the next four years doing her own laundry, studying, working, attending classes in IT, leadership training and global business from University of Southern California, Los Angeles, University of California, Berkeley, London School of Economics and Harvard Business School.
Uninterested in the many male classmates who chased her, she kept her eyes on the prize. “The more you ignore men, the more they come after you,” the award-winning entrepreneur philosophizes in retrospect.
Worried that his daughter would stay back in the US, Devita’s father lured her to India to join his business as marketing director. Just 21, she began training with his employees who had seen her as a child, working her way up department by department, earning their trust and respect.
“There’s a perception that if a businessman has a son, the daughter is redundant,” explains Devita, adding that her very presence changed the way people saw women. “People assumed that the new girl boss would be a pushover, but soon realized I was as serious and driven as my dad,” she narrates.
In 2006, when she was 24, Devita launched Vu luxury televisions in US and India, an enterprise that would make best use of her creative streak and her company’s technological and manufacturing expertise.
They grew in leaps and bounds. Today, Vu offers a range of 29 TVs, and has a turnover of Rs 800 crore. Developed in California and Mumbai, and made in Korea and China, the brand’s USP is its combination of intelligent features and glamorous branding.
With 14 offices around India, they sell about 3 lakh units a year through 25 standalone stores, 1600 multi-brand outlets, and an exclusive tie-up with Flipkart. “The share of Vu grew to 40% of the total market-share in the TV category for us,” a Flipkart executive testified in an interview to the Economic Times. One of the fastest growing TV brands in various segments, Devita is looking to sell double the number of TVs next year.
A regular on the ‘most powerful women’ lists by Indian business publications, Devita is nonchalant about being a female high performer in a male-dominated industry. “The concept of ‘man’s world’ isn’t relevant in a knowledge economy. The computer can’t tell your gender; your ability to process and think is more important. The gender battle has been replaced by a mental race, thanks to technology,” opines the 36-year-old, who is a fan of Rolf Dobelli books.
Devita does not believe in giving up her femininity in order to fit into traditional corporate codes, either. “You can be both feminine and tough. Boldness is paramount. I am constantly bringing courage to the table,” she says.
Believing that India can be a superpower only if women are allowed to develop their potential, Devita has launched a leadership foundation to “mentor and guide young women to pursue their dreams and think beyond societal boundaries that limit them”. She frequently speaks at forums like TiE and TEDx, and contributes to public policy-making.
It takes guts for a single woman to defy cultural expectations in India. When she decided to model for Vu ads, Devita was criticized: “What is wrong with you? What will your future in-laws think?”
But a supportive environment where women can perform without inhibition is precisely what Devita demands: “When I fight, I fight for a country of young women”. Her life’s motto leaves no doubt about the direction she’s headed: “Aspire to be an iconoclast. However far you come, you can always go further.”