Straight Talk

The leader of In­dia’s largest net­work of women en­trepreneurs on what it takes to build a brand

India Today - - VANTAGE POINT - By ASHA GUPTA

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.

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