It has been a year of lost hope, fear and business instability. 2020 has been a difficult time for the world and it has seen economies struggle, businesses shutting down and announcing bankruptcy, due to the pandemic-induced lockdown restrictions. And amidst these times, the world saw entrepreneurs innovating and rising above challenges to stabilise businesses in the new normal, catering to consumers who have a totally different set of demands right now.
With the new challenges of this new market and new customer behaviour, women entrepreneurs across industries ranging from retail, agri-tech, e-commerce to communications, etc., are adapting to these times and are designing new businesses and products with an aim to impact the ecosystem.
The pandemic has transformed fashion retail segment and women entrepreneurs are standing tall against this adversary. Over the past few years, India has had a record growth in women entrepreneurship. At a global level, about 126 million women have started or are running their businesses, whereas in India, there are about 8 million women running their businesses. Women are totally breaking the chains of misogyny that had held them for years and are growing into strong and independent individuals, more so in the apparel retail segment. And while it has been a great achievement for a country like India, it hasn’t been without its fair share of struggles and challenges.
This women’s day is overtly special as the businesses are running under losses due to the pandemic and the initial months of lockdown, but we talked to some of the strong women entrepreneurs who have stood tall against everything and kept the engines running.
Shivaani Jain & Saanchi Jain, Co-founders, Once Upon A Trunk
Shivaani and Saanchi Jain co-founded Once Upon A Trunk in 2015, with an aim to serve as a bridge between affordability and luxe fashion. The online marketplace is an aggregator of the most talented designers in the country that has over 300+designers in its arsenal and across 1 lakh+ products. It was a perfect partnership for Shivaani and Saanchi – growing up in an industrial family, owning a business has always been their goal. It was a mix of the family’s support, Shivaani’s marketing inclination and Saanchi’s fashion sense that paved the way for them.
Amongst many accomplishments, the duo survived Covid without laying off their employees and with full vendor support. “Covid struck all businesses hard. We were stuck physically; hence fulfilling orders became a huge challenge initially. It was challenging to deliver orders, so we cut down on the marketing expenditure and worked with organic marketing from July to September 2020. Later, we bounced back strong with our team and utilised those savings to support our vendors with stronger marketing tactics. The trusted goodwill of 300+ designers, 1 lakh+ customers with a 35 per cent repeat rate has been a great addition to Once Upon A Trunk making it stand in the women’s lifestyle segment,” avers Shivaani.
While there have been challenges along the way, Saanchi believes it’s somehow ingrained in Indian women to take care of everything – home, family, work, etc., and this has helped women cultivate that ‘superpower’ beautifully.
Barkha Bhatnagar Das & Meghna Kishore, Co-founders, Greendigo
Greendigo was founded by former bankers and Mumbai-based siblings Meghna Kishore and Barkha Bhatnagar, with a vision of making ‘organic’ the new normal. The duo saw a gap in the kidswear market and took it upon themselves to offer organic clothing for kids up to the age of 12 years. Greendigo started with an initial investment of Rs. 15 lakh and in a few months, they had crossed over 500 customers with 20-22 per cent being repeat customers.
Meghna maintains, “Our unflinching, deep rooted belief in our cause of providing good quality, safe and comfortable clothing for children kept us going through all the challenges and hurdles that came our way. One of our key milestones was the certification of Greendigo by GOTS. Their stringent checks and balances along the entire supply chain, from farms to consumers was indeed a validation of our tight-loop supply chain in our endeavour to offer our customers only the best quality sustainable and organic garments. Another accomplishment for us is that now we are a carbon neutral brand right from seed till the customer’s doorstep. We already use organic fabrics and employ sustainable manufacturing practices to significantly reduce our CO2 emissions. But there are still emissions which are unavoidable. We are tackling these unavoidable emissions by investing in offset projects such as renewable energy, forest conservation and energy efficiency.”
The start-up too had its share of challenges including the ones induced by the ongoing pandemic but never because it had women as its co-founders. “We never view ourselves as women in an industry dominated by men. We are passionate about making organic clothing the new normal and strive hard to have a voice in the industry. Having said so, the first and the biggest hurdle that we encountered not as women, but as entrepreneurs, was to set up a clean, sustainable, tight loop and reliable supply chain. During Covid too, we focused on safeguarding ourselves on three key parameters – disrupted supply chain, delayed or unfulfilled customer orders and safeguarding internal stakeholders,” maintains Barkha.
Vaishali Kulkarni, Founder & Director, KB Cols Sciences (Fashion For Good)
Vaishali Kulkarni is the Founder and Director of KB Cols Sciences which is Fashion For Good’s innovator and a technology driven start-up in the field of Bioprocess Technology. It all started during Vaishali’s research days at ICT Mumbai (Institute of Chemical Technology, Formerly UDCT Mumbai) when she realised that there should be a company making biodegradable/safe colours instead of working on treating effluent (coloured water) released from dyeing mills. From there on, there was no looking back for KB Cols! However, it of course brought along its share of challenges like building a team, learning all aspects of business from financial, management, to technical, etc., raising funds for R&D and trying to maintain a work/life balance, amongst other things.
Vaishali maintains, “Covid has actually been a challenge for KB Cols. Limited resources and limited access to the workplace (R&D lab) had slowed things down for us. However, the upside has been the increased awareness around nature and its resources. Post-Covid, many corporations have increased impetus towards sustainability and ESG policy. KB Cols in the last 6 months has signed multiple pilots with leading brands across continents.”
For Vaishali, it is of utmost importance for women to have patience and perseverance, self-belief and the ability and confidence for taking the plunge because every second of the entrepreneurial journey is worth it.
Tanvi Malik & Shivani Poddar, Co-founders, FabAlley & Indya
Tanvi Malik and Shivani Poddar founded High Street Essentials (which houses brands FabAlley and Indya) in 2012. They started with the online-only brand FabAlley and later in 2015, launched their app which sees monthly active users of over 1.5 million. A year later, the duo launched two other brands – Indya and Curve. HSE also saw the brands shift from purely online to offline with large format stores, the same year.
Tanvi reminisces, “A stray conversation where I and my co-partner, Shivani bemoaned the lack of affordable, globally trendy fashion in the country for women, specific to Indian body types and aesthetics gave us the idea of starting FabAlley and later, Indya. Our vision was to be a fashion house that understands the evolving Western and festivewear needs unique to the modern Indian woman and focuses on providing 360-degree wardrobe solutions covering all facets and occasions, which international brands and unorganised boutiques are unable to deliver. While we faced a lot of rejections initially because of the scale that we were operating at and because we were inexperienced in the eyes of the investor community, we overcame all of that with resilience.”
Like all industries and majority of brands, HSE too underwent a setback during the Covid-induced lockdown but Tanvi and Shivani did some quick and intelligent pivots, researched on the demands of the customers in the new normal and decided to venture into categories and streams that are relevant to them and the business at the point.
“In May, we launched a line of non-surgical protective face masks. These were first launched on our brand websites and online marketplaces such as Myntra and Nykaa Fashion. We then took a B2B approach by tying up with pharmacies and online grocery store Big Basket. We also introduced a home shopping solution for our store customers, giving them the option to try and buy clothes in the comfort of their homes, or book an exclusive time slot to visit our stores. We also forayed into personal care segment with the launch of an in-house brand, Indya Skin Care,” informs Shivani.
Samyukta Nair, Founder, Dandelion
An Indian entrepreneur who has launched a variety of businesses ranging from restaurants, a concept store, Clove and sleepwear label, Dandelion which also extended into homeware with Dandelion LIVING recently, Samyukta Nair was always inspired by her grandfather and her father who motivated her to create a path of her own.
Samyukta tells, “Growing up, all dinner table conversations ranged from the latest trends in fashion to the newest developments in hospitality and that really sowed the seeds for both my entrepreneurial ventures in fashion and food. I fondly remember the year we started Dandelion; we created a three-part edition of Dandelion pyjamas, especially for Sonam Kapoor Ahuja to unwind in during her downtime at Cannes, which became an overnight sensation. Having Dandelion patronised by some of the bests in India who made us part of their intimate moments truly has me thrilled.”
Samyukta remembers going through a series of hurdles along her way but the right kind of innovation and pivot strategies helped her through the tough times.
“I don’t think women entrepreneurs face challenges in India alone, there is a proverbial glass ceiling and perception plays a huge role in undermining the competence of a woman. Luckily, this is fast-changing. During Covid, we looked strategised and later launched Dandelion LIVING and a loungewear collection in collaboration with Param Sahib which gave us new and interesting touchpoint to engage with those who already let us into their world with a distinctive and memorable product offering,” asserts Samyukta.
Malika Baruah, CEO and Co-founder, Proyog
A yoga practitioner and holding an experience of around 21 years in the fashion and retail industry, Malika Baruah has had a remarkably diversified experience – from learning pattern-making in Paris under Pierre Cardin, to heading the creative departments in Levi’s, Indus League and Globus. Proyog brought together her love for yoga and for all things natural.
“The options for yogis either in apparel or props seemed to be synthetic or PET and that touched a nerve. So this started a mission to ‘Save Yoga from Plastic’. Along the way, we found customers who shared our passion. We have had quite a few accomplishments since the launch of the brand. Firstly, we have been able to reach out to yogis across the globe, in multiple geographies – specifically, 60 countries and counting. Secondly, we started with a clear position on the quality of product we would design and produce (it had to be natural, sustainable, long-lasting, good in performance, etc.). And we have doggedly stuck to those principles and ethos,” asserts Malika.
For her, the greatest challenge as an entrepreneur is to consistently change ‘crisis’ into ‘opportunity’. To fellow women entrepreneurs, she says, “Take advice. Lots of it. On everything. You may not agree with all the advice you get, but it will help you get perspective from different angles. It’s also a quick way to learn, from others’ mistakes.”