To Indra Nooyi, with Love

Once again, you’re in the news.

But unlike the last time when you embraced a position of power as PepsiCo’s CEO, this time you’re stepping down from the position and title you came to own, over the last decade.

I still remember being in high school back then, when the media first spoke of you. Of how a woman of humble Indian origin, had climbed the ranks to take over the position of PepsiCo’s Chief Executive Officer.

And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t just me, but the world at large who took notice of you. Of your steady ascent to the much coveted seat in the boardroom, Collectively, we marveled at the grit, resilience and courage your journey demonstrated. At the way in which a middle class girl from Chennai, made it to first to prestigious institutions like IIM Calcutta and Yale, and took on the glass ceiling heads-on, shattering it, successfully.

As for me, over the years, once you were a global public figure and other facets of your life became known, I came to respect your authenticity, personality and your candidness. At how you openly spoke about your constant tussle between being the head-honcho of a multi-million conglomerate, and a wife and mother at the same time. Your openness , with which you narrated how your story of how being a woman with ambition isn’t easy, yet is definitely worthwhile.

I admired your sheer business acumen. At how you gave a fast-food company, otherwise notorious for taking people on the road to unhealthy lives, a heart. In creating the mission statement of Performance with Purpose. Of making Pepsi a greener, more environmentally aware company.  Of showing how business and benevolence can indeed be balanced.

Yet, more than anything, as a girl with ambition and zeal myself, you taught an entire generation of women to dream. To not only dream, but dream beyond the dream itself. Because that’s where it all starts. You taught us all, that talent and ability can surpass the biases of  gender and ethnicity. You demonstrated how you can be the iron lady in the velvet glove, how aggression can be soft too. And you led us to believe that positions of power, always come with great responsibility. For its never about the position you hold, its about the impact you create.

All good things in this world must come to an end, and so do tenures of powerful leaders. Yet, As you step down, and pass on the baton, you’re leaving a footprint. On the hearts of not only the company and its employees, but on millions of dreamers, believers and achievers.

 

Small Business. Big Impact.

A typical 90s kid, I grew up in an India which wasn’t exactly free of big corporate giants. Butter meant AMUL and chocolate meant Dairy Milk and washing powder meant Nirma. Yet, as much as you became a recipient of mass commoditization as introduced by well known brands and big national and multinational businesses, a typical day in your life also involved ample integration with small businesses. The neighbourhood salon, which you visited not only for their services but also a fresh round of gossip of what was happening in your locality. The chai-wallah (tea-seller) down the road whose ginger tea pulled in everyone from the aam aadmi (common man) to the multimillionaires of the town. The kirana (grocery) shop, where the uncle behind the counter had seen me since I was a toddler, where thanks to a relationship that spanned generations (my great-grandfather knew uncle’s grandfather) we got to to buy entire months worth of grocery in advance on credit.

And if that weren’t enough, being an offspring of a first-generation entrepreneur, allowed me to gauge first hand what small businesses were, how they were established, the challenges they typically experienced, and how they had to grow strength to strength to sustain themselves in competitive environments. They struggled, and stumbled, yet managed to stay, survive and thrive.

At first glance, small businesses might seem like the Davids of the world, in comparison to the Goliaths – the multinationals. Yet, combine them together, and they’re quite a force to reckon with. There’s data to prove it too. According to reports by CII, in 2017, a staggering 95% (almost 42.5 million) of business units in India comprise small and medium scale enterprises. SMEs in the country collectively employ almost 60% of the workforce in the country.

Which means the conclusion is clear. Small businesses are big.

What is about them, though? What makes them vulnerable, yet resilient enough to withstand the forces of the big daddies? Why do small businesses manage to not just compete, but coexist with their international, mammoth counterparts?

Possibly because at heart, they are more than a mid-sized profit-making entity. Or because they offer nimble, personalized services as opposed to homogenized offerings of the faceless corporation. Or maybe even because due to limited resources as opposed to their bigger counterparts, they are forced to remain lean and cost-effective in true startup sense. And if nothing else, the fact that at heart, they remain largely relationship oriented – both within the enterprise as well as with customers. For instance, every trip to the kirana store ended with me getting complimentary candies from uncle. My chai-wallah knew exactly how strong my father liked his tea. And in a society that still thinks with a heart, like ours does, such snippets of customer delight are huge.

Small businesses are a living proof to the entrepreneurial zeal of the country, society and times we live in. In an era where foreign giants are eyeing companies in India that they can buy out, these are essentially the start-ups in true sense. Which is why it’s no coincidence that everyone, from Facebook to Amazon are working relentlessly to strengthen their relations and operations with small players, instead of dismiss them as worthless competition.

In developing, populous, heterogeneous countries like ours, small businesses are the heart of the economy. Ones that are critical to national well being, both financially and socially.  For on a slightly more romantic note,they don’t just serve the economy they’re in. They make homes, families and households run. They give an entire strata of society, economic valuation, financial freedom, and social status.

Not every small business remains small in the long-run. Every mega conglomerate was once a small business. And small businesses, make a big difference.

Women & Entrepreneurship. New best friends? Not really.

In the Bollywood movie English Vinglish, I remember a scene when everyone in the first session of a crash English course is introducing themselves. Sridevi a.k.a Shashi, mentions that she runs a tiny ladoo-making business from within the confines of her kitchen. ‘Oh, so you’re an entrepreneur,’ the English teacher exclaims. And Shashi’s eyes light up, for all of a sudden she’s now learned a new definition of her identity. One that enhances her own self-esteem in her eyes. In the blink of an eye, she’s gone from someone who thought she didn’t do anything exemplary, to an ‘en-tre-pre-neur’, a word she herself has to practice a few times before she gets it right.

As an Indian woman, there’s probably never been a better time to be an entrepreneur. As far as the glass ceiling of entrepreneurialism is concerned, the ceiling hasn’t just cracked, it’s been broken, even shattered. Repeatedly. In a nation that has traditionally seen a male-dominated entrepreneurial scenario, there is no dearth of women who’ve built and led successful ventures And that’s good news.

Yet, if I look back to my growing up years, it does strike me that female entrepreneurship is no new phenomenon. Rather one that’s been around since the last few decades. And there are several instances of this.

A prime example that comes to mind is the cooperative company structures Lijjat Papad and AMUL built. Allowing women to a taste of financial independence through employing household skills that they had anyway learned by default.  A win-win situation for these commercial ventures and for the women. Many of these business models even went on to become case studies at B-schools, for they were pathbreaking attempts at employing latent talent in women that had otherwise been traditionally ignored. And in the process allowing women, who had mostly been financially dependent on menfolk, to earn their own livelihood.

Or, another regular character in my growing up days, the women I called the Tupperware and Avon aunties. The ones who usually were female acquaintances of my mother through her personal network of friends, family and kitty party members. Ones who would come home with glossy catalogues of kitchen ware items and cosmetics, trying to make use of salesmanship trainings they had acquired through becoming representatives of these companies, almost always convincing my mother that the products advertised in the catalogues were far better than their retail counterparts. And each of these women ran her own show as a company affiliate, growing her clientele, and sales volume through her own efforts. Some of them even managed to employ other women under them, creating their own sales hierarchies. And running them profitably.

And then every neighbourhood most likely had a pickle and tiffin aunty. The ones who ran tiny ventures out from home. Making pickles and lunches for those who didn’t have the time to make their own. And becoming indispensable in most cases.

Each one of these women is an entrepreneur. Irrespective of the size of the venture they ran.

And the trend hasn’t stopped, for even today, there are several many women who run successful small-scale businesses, from within their homes. And we’d all probably agree that they are as important as are the women who build unicorns. For they contribute in many ways, to our social economy. And personally, I have an extra element of respect for them. Because even without B-school degrees, venture capital and sometimes even a basic education, they did everything that is included in the definition of an  entrepreneur. Take risks. Create value. Solve pain points. And in the process, earn identity and profit.

Advertising on my Mind

Given that yesterday was the SuperBowl, it seems timely that I should be writing a piece of my take on this conundrum called advertising.

As a consumer, Advertising is a drug. It catches you, as a toddler, when while you’re taking your first walking steps, you master jingles. When by the time you’ve entered kindergarten, you have logos tattooed on my minds to the extent that you can recognize the golden arches before you learn your alphabet, and you start equating the tick-mark to a popular shoe brand before you learn that it technically stands for ‘correct’. And then when you’re slightly older, you know taglines, brand icons and commercials by heart.

Yet, does advertising make you a buyer of the product? I’d say you buy into the story, and the brand, under the guise of which is cleverly enclosed some kind of product. Starbucks, not coffee. Tide, not detergent. Coca-cola, not soda.

So then, does advertising become selling, or does it become storytelling?

Now from the perspective of a marketing student, and not only a consumer. In my eyes, a happy marriage of the two. Storytelling with an intention to sell. A union of creativity and commerce. And added to that, in today’s context, purpose. For a millennial centric audience is no longer satisfied with a product that solves pain-points, and a brand that has a strong narrative. They’re also demanding one that chooses, adopts and safeguards regularly, values and principles that define its identity. A.k.a., brands that care.

Breaking it down further, I’d say that successful advertising comprises of three components – Heart, Mind and Wallet. Appealing to the Heart (we’re humans after all), Convincing the Mind (that the product you’re selling them is going to be more valuable than the money they’re going to spend on it), and impacting the Wallet (in favor of the brand of course!). And each of these, in my opinion, form the three parts of the triangle you might call advertising. Each as important and non-negotiable as the other.

I remember a professor of mine at grad school, explaining to us that advertising may be a ‘creative effort’, yet creativity is the process, not the means to an end. ‘We may be creative people, but we’re here to sell.” Creativity-on-demand, that’s what he would call advertising. And I think in my own way, I would, too. Solving business problems with creative thinking. Or using Creativity to solve business problems. The same expression flipped in two ways.

What then essentially sells, in advertising? I’d say a great story that combines emotion and fact, yet one that leads to a superior product. And these are opposite end of the same spectrum. Simply put, your customer might buy into the story, yet if the product is inferior, she’s not coming back again. And on the other hand, you might have a great product, but if you’re not making an effort to break through the clutter by communicating your story well, chances are your product is never getting discovered amidst all the others on the shelf (or in that desktop/tablet/app window if we’re talking e-commerce).

As a consumer, and as a marketer, if I had to conclude here, I’d say advertising isn’t a definition that be universally coined and carved in stone. The overall core idea may be similar (people selling to people). Yet the term itself can mean many things.  An artistic effort with a purpose. A duping mechanism. Yet, an unnecessary evil. Call it what you may, but advertising in itself, I know is here to stay.

Management Lessons I learned from Ma

A while ago, I read Richard Branson’s 5 Lessons I learned from my Mum

Ever since then I’ve been inspired to write my own version of what I learned from mine. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, at least for most of my growing up years. She belonged to a generation of Indian women who weren’t expected to have a full-time job or career, despite her college education. They were expected to support their husbands in their careers, and bring up their children while the men when to work. And that’s exactly what Ma did too. And she did a fantastic job at it. Bringing up three children, with a husband who was aggressively building up a company for the initial two decades of their married life , was no mean feat. At least, now that I look back in hindsight, I realize what an unsung hero my mother was. No certificates, no medals of appreciations, no material compensation. Yet, day in and day out, she put in her mind, body, heart and soul into her household and domestic duties, pushing all her boundaries to excel at them. And she never got paid, promoted, and applauded. To me, the more I think about it, the more I marvel at her internal motivation to be a better wife and mother, every single day of her life.

I on the other hand, grew up in a generation where women were clamoring for equality to the male counterparts in, every sphere of life. Which meant I always grew up knowing I wanted a career. I grew up admiring women who’d made in big in the corporate world, as entrepreneurs, and as global icons. Yet after almost half a decade of being out in the real world, I realize now that some of the invaluable lessons of life came from my stay-at-home. In her tiny lessons of life, lay teachings that have served me incredulously well in my professional life.

  1. Frugality & Budgeting – Frugality was always a core value growing up. And my mother reinforced it, constantly. ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees’, and ‘Daddy works so hard for all of us’, I remember her saying all the time. Minimizing wasteful expenditure, buying only what you need, and above all, respecting the value of money, were ideals she emphasized. She would give us pocket-money, and encourage us to write down in our little diaries, how much we were spending. These tiny habits today have translated into me being very careful about budgeting, keeping track of expenses, and storing resources for a rainy day.
  2. Attention to detail – My mother’s eye for detail never fails to astonish me, even today. Her ability to spot even the tiniest speck of dust on the kitchen counter, or the littlest crumb on the floor, or the faintest stain on our clothes. Even though I haven’t inherited even half of her well-trained eye, I do believe that I get my love for detailing from her. One that shows when I proof read my emails twice before I sent them out.
  3. Planning & Organization – My mother’s organization skills could seriously give Marie Kondo a run for her money. ‘A place for everything, everything in its place’ was, and remains her organization mantra. Right from her kitchen where every utensil, every spice container and every piece of cutlery had its own shelf and drawer, to teaching us how to fold and store our clothes according to occasion and type, to neatly storing my father’s work files in alphabetical order. And at work, I’m only learning to be more and more organized with each passing day. With my files, my documents, and my assignments. Because a little planning goes a long way. And the opposite too.
  4. Gratitude – Ma taught us to not complain. To be thankful for what you have, rather than what you don’t. She taught us that if something annoys you, you either change the situation, or you leave the room. Anything but sit and complain. And I carried this lesson with me to the workplace. When professional setbacks, situations or even colleagues got me down, I stood up and tried my best to do something about it. Rather than sit back on my chair and cringe about how unfair the world was.
  5. Patience & Silent strength – From my mother, I learned that good things come, not only if you work hard for them, but also if you wait for them. She taught me the power of resilience. The ability to face every situation with grace and poise. A virtue that’s becoming more and more respected in the boardroom.

Ma remains, and will remain my most important pillar of strength. Because in her little actions lay principles and values I’m certain no degree could ever teach me. And even though I don’t say this enough, I am indebted and thoroughly grateful to her. In the ultimate analysis, all I can say is ‘Thank You Ma’.

 

Why I became a marketer

Yes, I chose to become a marketer.

I became a marketer because I enjoy people. It fascinates me to think how people across race, ethnicities,cultures, communities, classes, genders and geographies feel, behave and react differently. Yet if you dig deep, you realize that human emotions are the same. Love, anger, joy and fear are felt by every single human being. And being able to address this similarity with dissimilitude is what I enjoy as a marketer.

I became a marketer, because I appreciate creativity. I firmly believe that there’s magic in picking up that boring can of soup and making it Andy Warhol-esque art, or in writing that jingle that in the years to come,will become an anthem, or in designing that logo which millions across the world will recognize immediately.

I became a marketer because I want to tell stories. Of real people, and their journeys, and challenges and experiences.

I became a marketer because I believe in the power of design. Great design speaks a million words. Whether its how something is packaged. Or presented. Or communicated.

I became a marketer because I believe nothing communicates like communication does. To people, by people, for people.

I became a marketer because strategy is my playground. Whether is planning channels of distribution, or customer segmentation, or media buying, I love integrating the strategic business element to my creative outlet.

I became a marketer because there’s Big Data, and loads of it. But my job doesn’t end at data collection, in fact, it begins at insight generation. When my real-time observations are backed by quantitative figures.

I became a marketer because I enjoy working with numbers. And tying them back to my strategic efforts.

I became a marketer because I want to harness the power of technology to create seamless, meaningful, interactive experiences for people.

I became a marketer, because I love it when people come back for more. And even more, when by sharing their experiences and stories, they become marketers themselves.

And all you thought I did, was sell products.

Creativity Vs Efficiency

“What is more important – Creativity, or Efficiency”?

I recently got asked this question at a job interview.

I responded without even thinking twice.

Creativity.

To which the next obvious question was , “How come”?

I would say it was one of those impulsive answers, in situations when you don’t really have time to list down the pros and cons of the two options you’ve been given. But then that is the best thing about such impulsive answers. You don’t answer what you think sounds good, rather, you answer what comes to you instantly.

In my case, I said creativity matters more than efficiency, for one simple reason. First and foremost, let’s define creativity. As Google says, Creativity is the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.And rightly said so. In the 21st century, creativity, specifically in the business & start-up world,  isn’t just synonymous to being artistic. Rather, I’d say the term innovative is much closer. Creativity implies how well you come up with new fixes, hacks, solutions to old problems. How you visualize answers to questions which have gone unanswered, even unobserved. Creativity isn’t just the mouthpiece of the painter, the dancer or the writer, but equally so of every agile, logical and solution-driven individual, especially where the problem-solver angle is concerned.

A classic case that comes to my mind is that of Uber. As an idea- it seems pretty simple. A tech-driven aggregator for on-demand taxis. Yet, an uncomplicated idea that revolutionized taxi travel across the globe.  But if it really was so easy, why didn’t we all think of it? A similar case with AirBnb. A platform to allow people to rent out their homes, when they’re vacant, and make some money on the side, another opportunity few people recognized. And why didn’t we observe it, when the problems at hand weren’t exactly hidden, but visible for everyone to actively notice?

The answer is simple – creativity.

The way I see it, the founders of these groundbreaking startups (and many more like them), saw the big-picture problem, and using their imaginative minds, backed with solid reasoning, logic and research,  came up with solution in the form of a business idea. And then, to make it all succeed, introduced efficiency into the process. Efficiency, which when mentioned in business context denotes, organization, orderliness, planning, regulation and orderliness. In my eyes, Efficiency is the key driver of the process without which moving ahead is impossible. Creativity, however, is the initiator. The solution-driver. The idea-generator The newer, different path to what may be possibly be the same destination. It may sound like a chicken-and-egg situation, but I’d say that creativity precedes efficiency, as the starter of the cycle of change.

Additionally, makes creativity so special is that at least today, unlike efficiency, it can’t be automated. Creativity still remains a premium quality of the human brain. And fortunately, for creative individuals, there’s never been a better time to add value to business processes. As design -thinkers. As storytellers. As content-creators. And lots more. Creative, wandering, out-of-the-box thinking minds, not always bound my logic, analysis and reason. And something tells me that this appreciation of human creativity only just started.

Business Lessons Daddy taught me

My father is a first-generation entrepreneur, drop-dead passionate about his work. He built an entire company from scratch. And he didn’t go to B-school. But I learnt some of the most invaluable lessons of entrepreneurship and business from him.
Growing up, I always wondered what it took to build a successful business, and how so many successful entrepreneurs built corporations from ideas without what may be considered as ‘business-specific knowledge’, and how the summa cum laudes at the Harvards and Whartons ended up working for them. To a slightly immature me, it seemed almost unfair, how graduates from stellar academic institutions had bosses less qualified or educated than them. Until I realized that successful business-building took more than knowledge. 
Over the years, analyzing the journeys and testimonials of successful entrepreneurs, I’ve realized that irrespective of geography, era, industry and product, there exist certain underlying qualities of every entrepreneur, including my father, that share common ground. Passion, a vision, fierce resilience and tenacity, and added to that a zeal and enthusiasm for their work, have indeed always been common ingredients of the entrepreneurial diet. The entrepreneurs are ‘dreamers’ and the ones they employ are the ‘dream-realizers’. In the end, they’re both equally important, but as the starter of the cycle, I wouldn’t shy away from giving the entrepreneur a little extra credit. 
What I learnt from my dad, are practices, principles and tenets I know I’ll take with me to the grave. 
  1. Vision. Vision. Vision. – Vision isn’t just a one-line sentence that goes down on paper, as a formal company statement. It’s that one single thing that turns ideas into corporations. A brave, daring, sometimes even seemingly unachievable vision. Dream big, work hard, do big. Like the say, well begun is half done. 
  2. Have an eye for detail – An obsession with perfection.  Always have high standards, and do everything within your might to achieve them. Never settle for sub-standardness.
  3. Solving a customer’s pain point – Treat this as your business motto, and everything in your business gets engineered towards making your customer a happier person. Exactly how it should be. Your business must always be to serve your customers first, your second, and external stakeholders, such as media and investors last.
  4. Focus on betterment – Product, process, people. Also focus on creating a better version of what you have. While there always will be eternal competition you’ll have to fight, in the end, the biggest competition will always be with yourself. 
  5. There’s no such think as too much homework – Always be prepared. You may have people running your enterprise for you, but in the end, you are who they’ll always look up to. Put in a little time regularly going beyond the fringe – whether its studying industry trends, networking with key people from the industry, or even digging deeper into your own business and identifying ways to increase internal efficiency. A little goes a long way.
  6. Leadership –  Your business is the ship, and you’re the captain. There is absolutely no substitute for good leadership.  Your people, if well led, can be your most powerful resource. 
  7. Agility – We live in disruptive times. And it isn’t difficult for redundancy to creep in. You need to stay on your toes, instead of getting too comfortable on the boss chair. Reverse engineering, and reinventing the wheel, aren’t just options, they’re necessary for your business to keep up with changing times. And if you’re still not convinced, there are enough companies as examples that went out of business because they did’t adapt their product, service or overall business model. 
  8. Relationships and people management – The core of building a successful business, according to my father. A successful business is one where every transaction creates a win-win situation for everyone in the picture – employees, customers and owners. Strong relationship management is what leads to longevity in business. 
  9. Have a sense of gratitude  – Success isn’t an island, and it doesn’t happen in isolation. You might be the one to have reached the top of the ladder, but there’ll always be innumerable people who’ll have played a role in taking you there. 
  10. Stay grounded Never, ever let failure go to your heart, and success, to your head. Success, particularly in this arena, should always be accompanied with humility, not arrogance. 
Business, particularly entrepreneurship  isn’t easy, but isn’t exactly rocket science either. And if my non-B school Daddy could you do, I’m sure you can, too!  

Who exactly is an ‘entrepreneur’?

I was born to a first-generation entrepreneur, with my father having started multiple ventures, failed in a few, succeeding in most. I belong natively to the ‘baniya’ community – a population typically known for their shrewd business & trading prowess, having given the country, even the world, some much-revered business personalities. And as a 21st century millennial, I was fortunate to have had hands-on experience of the dynamic start-up movement in India, having worked with one myself. And after all of this, when I got bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, it didn’t really come across as a surprise.

And so began my journey to understand what entrepreneurship was all about. Once I began to unravel the term ‘entrepreneurship’, I was surprised, even overwelmed by the various interpretations of what the word represents. Technically speaking, the Oxford dictionary describes entrepreneurship as the practice of setting up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.

So then, does anyone who starts a business become an entrepreneur? I’d have to say I disagree.

Because in my eyes, you can be an entrepreneur even if you don’t have a business. Yes, while in the general sense an entrepreneur has come to mean someone who is involved with the ownership, management and execution of business-led enterprises, in the larger sense, an entrepreneur isn’t just a person. Rather, entrepreneurship is a thought, attitude, and personality much before it becomes a company.

If you’re driven by the thought of taking an initiative because it means a lot of money, then you’re a businessman, not an entrepreneur. Not to say that financial gains aren’t a motivation behind choosing to become an entrepreneur, but if that’s the only driving force, then I’m not sure you’re on the right track. For one of the key rewards of entrepreneurship is being able to bring to life an idea that’s disruptive enough to break through the clutter, and acceptable enough to find its place. Which is why I’d say the primary step towards entrepreneurship is the thought of an idea that you believe is likely to work.

Time and again, I meet people with brilliant ideas, which if put into execution through the ideal combination of strategy and a well chalked out plan, are likely to find their ground. But the reason such ideas never see the light of day, is because the person didn’t think it would work. Or he was unwilling to take the risk involved. He had the idea, but lacked the entrepreneurial attitude.

And there of course are people who’ve got the idea, and  the attitude, but can’t sell their idea to their close kin, to the right people, or  the market. Because they couldn’t get people to believe in them. If you’re getting people to put their time, effort and money on your idea, you’re indirectly getting them to invest in you. Which is why there’s absolutely no way you can escape the personality part of being an entrepreneur.

And coming back to what I said about the link between entrepreneurship and business, I strongly believe that while we do end up correlating the two, the two can in reality be very far apart. For a businessman is someone who driven by the money, the entrepreneur, by the idea. An entrepreneur can be a businessman, and a businessman can be an entrepreneur, but when it comes to being an entrepreneur, you can be one, anywhere, in any situation. For it all takes to start is a thought, an idea and a belief.