The leader of India’s largest network of women entrepreneurs on what it takes to build a brand
Ajourney of a thousand miles starts with a single step— more importantly, the right step. Sixteen years ago I took the right step by quitting my sales management job at Madura Coats where I was head of sales for a set of Northern markets in their threads division, and joined Tupperware, which was then setting shop in India. The year was 1997 and at the time, little was known about direct selling. More importantly, steel was revered as the right choice in kitchens across India. As part of the start- up team responsible for establishing the business in India, my experiences were very interesting. I remember the first Tupperware party that my mother hosted for her south Indian friends in which I demonstrated our products ( it was a test marketing exercise), and most of the conversation veered around them wondering why a bright girl would stoop down to selling plastic at parties. They told my mother to get me married as my prospects would be brighter. It was a challenging time for me as not only did I have to convince people that direct marketing was a viable career option, but also change traditional consumer views about the merits of food storage in airtight plastics that kept food fresh, over steel.
Start- ups are often painful and exhausting. I punched my ticket between sales management in the company and finally moved to heading the marketing function. Each role brought with it new learning and experiences.
For example, in south India, idli and dosa batter gets spoiled very quickly in spite of being refrigerated. But Tupperware helped keep it fresh. This enabled us to demonstrate the product and its perceptible benefits. Along the journey, we Indianised or functionally localised the product portfolio to cater to Indian food habits. Slowly and steadily, our brand started being appreciated and women who started embracing our business opportunity started seeing a big personal transformation.
A turning point came as my husband took on an international role and we decided to leave India. That marked the beginning of a new chapter, a global quest so to speak. The best of these experiences was when we lived in Copenhagen, and I was the marketing director of the Nordic countries for Tupperware, which spanned Scandinavia and the Baltic countries. Working in a different culture taught me a lot. One of the first things I did as a marketeer was to learn Danish in order to get closer to the culture and the people. Although it wasn’t easy, it did do wonders to how I was perceived as a leader. The fact that I was making the effort earned me tremendous respect from my team. The next step was to gain an insight into who they were. The Danes, I realised, liked their work- life balance, while at the same time they were highly productive and creative people. A typical American management style might not have worked there. One had to respect their personal time, their need for four week vacations and yet invent ways to turn them into a high performance cultural group.
In the process, I learnt a thing or two about having a balanced approach towards life and work and appreciating a lot of fine things in life that we often take for granted. From a career standpoint, such moves always help one get robust global experience and the ability to adapt oneself across cultures. This is certainly a competitive advantage for anyone who wants to have a rewarding global career today.
We had already spent time between Saudi Arabia, Austria and Scandinavia when we decided to return to India in 2005. Although the time abroad gave me global exposure, the newly emergent India was filled with exciting possibilities for all businesses. The sheer dynamism and optimism that filled the market place posed a new challenge, the game had changed dramatically and we needed to adapt both product and business strategy to become a dominant player in the market. My new role was as the MD of the Indian market. I saw our biggest opportunity in ramping up recruitment of women, who are an under- leveraged resource in our country when it comes to participation in workforce, and training them with business and leadership skills to make them productive and successful. More importantly, they became role models to others who were stumped to see ordinary homemakers become extraordinary entrepreneurs.
Today we have successfully established this model in its entirety in India. Tupperware is the number one kitchenware brand among the SEC As and Bs and increasingly women across the country are choosing this as a valid career option which provides them a life changing opportunity, make very respectable incomes which allows them and their families to lead an upgraded lifestyle and use this opportunity to develop and percieve themselves as more than just home makers. I am deeply passionate about following the success of women and seeing them transform their lives for the better. This is the one thing that has kept me going in this business for over a decade and a half. I have had the good fortune of having a great support system that not only is proud of what I do, but gives me the much needed energy and encouragement to take on new challenges.