During a time when global economies are tumbling down and managing personal finances is a hot topic, it is important we lean into the power of community advising to get through this tough time. In this spirit, last week on Malini’s Girl Tribe, we put together a #RealTalk webinar on starting a new business, or sustaining an existing one in a year like 2020. This came just in time for the celebration of Business Women‘s Day on September 22. Our panel was graced with the presence of some incredible businesswomen. We were joined by Amninder Sandhu, Chef-Partner of Iktara; Preeta Sukhtankar, CEO & Founder of The Label Life; Deepa Krishnan, Founder of Mumbai Magic; and our very own Malini Agarwal, Founder & Creative Director of MissMalini Entertainment.

We opened up the comment section for any questions our Girl Tribe members had for our incredible panellists. If there were great questions, there were only better answers. Here are some highlights from the webinar, in case you missed it!

1. On the pandemic’s effect on the world of business.

Deepa, explaining the nature of the work at Mumbai Magic, said:

I work in tourism, and I’ve spent 15 years building this business, and my clientele is overseas visitors to India. So Covid came, and naturally, completely tossed us for a six. It was really horrendous, I think it was the worst crisis of my life […] It took a long time for me to even come to terms with this. When we heard about this in March, at that time we didn’t have a sense of how long the damn thing would last, so the one thing I had decided was I will not make any decisions in a hurry.

I run a social enterprise, which means that our company is for good, so when you make such tall claims, then at the first sign of crisis, you can’t fire all your staff. So I took the hard choice of keeping everyone. But of course there is no money, where will the money come from? So everybody is on very basic pay, because I didn’t want to make any decisions in fear.

A lot of businesses closed in April, May, June, but I’ve held on, and I don’t regret having held on.

Preeta, CEO and Founder of e-commerce fashion retailer The Label Life told us:

For us, we were supposedly at the place where we were scaling up. And as all of you know who run businesses, when you’re in that place, you could be potentially overstaffed, you could be fattening up things like better tech, since we are a digital first company. For us, similar to Deepa, March was sort of a “what just happened” scenario; but April we actually went a bit into overdrive, and I’m happy that we did.

In these uncertain times I wanted to make sure that we were, as a business, very certain about the pillars of who we were. We knew that we were definitely going to be people who were digitally first, so we should keep that arm, strengthen that arm. We didn’t want to lose people either, so we relooked at our fixed costs, tried and came up with innovative practices. In our zero revenue period, we didn’t do any marketing whatsoever. We did a ton of organic marketing, we were one of the first brands to do what everyone is doing now which is things like Instagram lives. We kept our community super engaged. I want to say at the back of all of this sitting three months later, that not only are we back to pre-Covid numbers, we’ve also realised that we’re back to those numbers with a stronger community.

Amninder, the Chef Partner at Iktara, a food delivery service in Mumbai said:

We launched Iktara 3 weeks before the pandemic. It took off really well, but even before the lockdown was announced, the restaurant community and the association decided for the safety of the community to shut shop. 2 weeks later, deliveries were allowed under essential services, and we could start again, but by then my entire team had gone off to their village. I had to rebuild the team, so it was like relaunching it. I started with 2 people, then 4, and then 6 and they stayed in the kitchen, because we have space. It’s a 2,500 sq. ft. state-of-the-art beautiful kitchen. So we decided to keep our team there, and they’re not allowed to go out and commute, which makes it safe to handle food. We had everyone’s safety in our minds. From there it just took off.

2. On starting a new business from home.

Amninder said:

Why not? I think this is a very skill sensitive craft, so I would say if you feel you have it in you, you should totally do it. It’s just a matter of starting small, but that’s not where you will end. You can get anywhere if you’re good at what you do.

3. Lessons and takeaways from this unprecedented time.

Deepa reflected:

For me, the initial bit was just shock. And then, I eyeballed the issue. I said, okay, worst case, how much money am I going to lose, if I have to keep all this going? And I eyeballed that number, and in my case that number is 1 crore rupees. Do I have the money to take this hit? And yes, it would come from my reserves. And once I accepted that “Yes, I’m going to have to fund this—there is no money and I’ve got to pull out savings.” That’s a bitter feeling for someone that’s been profitable from day one. But once you’ve accepted that, you’re only going up. Once I eyeballed that financial loss, then I found it easy to deal with.

Preeta reflected on what she wishes she had done differently:

In hindsight, if I could do something a little differently, I would have moved a little faster. In the beginning, I had a little too much faith in the system … I think in the first month, I was like, it’s okay. We’re going to get some rebate, some respite, no GST, you know, something. Had I not relied on that for a month, I think I wouldn’t have not lost out even on that much.

Malini brought in her perspective of running a digital business:

People always ask me about the digital business and they assume just because you’re online, everything is the same, and they ask how has your business been affected? But advertisers are not paying any more money, so it does have its impact … So for us, it’s also about understanding: what are you good at? What can you do? But also, what does the world need? That is something that has really changed. I think the businesses that are really going to resonate today and for the next couple of years are the ones that are tapping into that sentiment.

4. On the experience of navigating a business as a woman.

Amninder relayed her experience working as a young female chef:

When I first started out, I mean, it’s such a male dominated industry. I was bullied all the time in the kitchen and I was made to feel worthless. Even when I was in culinary school, a faculty member would say things, I mean, it couldn’t get more crude and raw than that. “You know the boys are going to be the breadwinners and you girls are going to find a rich husband, you’ll marry rich and you’ll go off. You don’t have to run your family so it doesn’t matter if you don’t learn.” After that I started my training and there are 16 men in the kitchen, you’re the only girl, and you’re 18 or 19 years old at that point, and they’re like “you’re too skinny, or you’re too short, you can’t lift weights, you’re useless.” That’s how I started my career. I’ve been professionally cooking for 20 years now and a lot has changed because now we have more literate people and people with more exposure heading kitchens. So we make sure we don’t create an environment that’s unnecessarily mean and is fair to everybody.

Deepa said:

The only time I’ve had discrimination is not in India but overseas. I used to be in banking, I used to be with Citibank and I used to work in several overseas banks. I used to wear saris to work in those environments, and damn it, they speak slowly to you! They don’t take your presentations seriously. In India everyone knows this chick is a boss. When you lose the cultural context and they have God knows what exotic image of Indian women, then they talk down to you and it takes some time before you prove yourself. Otherwise they’re always looking at your midriff all the time. I think that’s the only time that I felt that being female is not so great.

Preeta laughed and said:

I will need an entire day of all the examples that I’ve had, but I’ll just say: I’ve always done a lot of stuff amongst a lot of men, but surprisingly in the fields I’ve chosen, including when Malini and I met at MTV, I’ve always had female bosses. So I think for me it’s almost insulting that recently I got asked by a female investor “it must be so hard to work with so many women,” and I said “No, I only know what it’s like to work with women.” And every time people ask me “Why do you hire so many women?” I say it’s because I’ve never found the right man for a job, even in finance or accounting.

5. Advice on taking financial risks.

Deepa advised:

I think anyone that wants to run a business, or is already running a business, or wants to start a business, needs to have a very good idea of who they are. Know thyself. That means knowing how much you can afford: you must know your boundaries in your zone and also set some targets for yourself. So when people come to me and ask, you know, “I want to start a business” the first thing I ask them is—“how much do you want to earn? And how long are you willing to experiment till you get to that money? Have you defined how much you need per month to survive?” Once you know that number it really helps you to achieve it.

Amninder, the optimist of the bunch, said:

I would say don’t be scared. Just go for it and learn from your mistakes. I mean if you don’t give up nothing is impossible.

Preeta added:

I think it’s necessary to be a little delusional. I think I’m a little delusional which is why you can have nothing in the banks and still keep going.

Malini brought up an important point:

I think for me the advice I would give his honesty. Be honest with the people who are going on this ride with you, because you might be willing to jump off the cliff, but don’t take everyone along who’s not prepared. We come from a place where as long as you’re true to people, and saying this is where we are. Be upfront about this is how much funds we have and this is when it’ll run out so you have this much time to find something else if you don’t want to take the risk along.

We feel equipped to take on any project after receiving all this incredible advice from these boss ladies. What do you think makes for a successful business in these times? Let us know in the comments!

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