From a career in banking in Melbourne to becoming an entrepreneur covering the travel, textile and food industries from Mumbai, we talk to Rakhee Ghelani about the dynamic and enriching life she has built for herself since moving to India.
Interview by Anna Groot
What drew you to India in the first instance?
My parents are Indian but come from East Africa and they moved to Australia in the seventies. I have been in India for two and a half years now and I spent the first ten months backpacking round the country before settling in Mumbai. I had a family friend here, so that was the initial reason for choosing Mumbai as my base. Mumbai is more cosmopolitan and feels safer for a woman on her own, in comparison to other places in India.
What is your connection to Australia?
I was born and raised in Victoria and still have a house in Melbourne. My family is still there and Australia is still home. My aim is to run my textile business via Australia so that I have the benefit of both worlds.
What can you tell me about the start-up culture in Mumbai and why it works for you as a place to start your own business?
I have a couple of my own start-ups that I am currently working on.
My observation is that in comparison to Australia I feel like I can do anything here - there are a lot less limitations, and access to market is a lot easier. For example, I recently launched a gourmet food business and it took four weeks to get up and running.
I have another textile business which is about to launch next year, with a focus on bedding. If you told me two years ago that I was going to be part of a textile design business and have my own gourmet food business I would never have thought it possible. I come from a banking background so it’s a bit of a life change.
I couldn’t have done what I’m doing in Australia because of the set up and production costs. There really is this feeling and an attitude of get up and go here.
Nothing seems insurmountable here in India. However, whilst setting up your own business is relatively straight forward, as your business gets bigger there are more challenges in terms of the associated regulations and bureaucracy.
What are the three key challenges faced when starting a business in India?
The culture is a big challenge to get your head around. Although I’m Indian by background, my corporate ethos is very Australian. You need to decipher elements in the culture here. For example you might be told ‘we will be deliver your order tomorrow’ but that does not always actually mean tomorrow. It can be frustrating but also interesting unravelling the various layers of communication.
Navigating the bureaucracy can be quite challenging and language barriers can be a big challenge. That is why partnering with a local is so important. In addition to being able to tap into their networks, they can also carry out conversations with officials and production companies etc.
Networking can also be a challenge here – it is very much a ‘who you know’ society. Initially I thought I would try to get a corporate job here but I found I wasn’t getting considered because I didn’t have the right connections.
With my textile business I partner with two local designers. I befriended them first and we talked about how we wanted to collaborate on Indian design with a western accent. So we decided to just do it.
With regards to the gourmet food business a friend of mine was also interested in food, and so we thought rather than cooking and supplying ingredients just for ourselves let’s turn it in to a business. We make food products that are difficult to find in Mumbai – like fresh pasta, fresh almond butter and vegan curry paste.
We currently operate as an online pop up shop. Once a month we open up for orders for five days, then home deliver all the items two days later. Entirely marketed through twitter and social media. I met my business partner via twitter. Twitter has been vital to me as a tool in my business.
In addition to running my two businesses I also freelance – providing writing and consulting services. I have met 90% of my friends and business opportunities through Twitter. It really has been a connector and a lifesaver. It also gives you access to people you wouldn’t normally have access to.
Can you provide a snap shot of the investment community? (Angel / private investors versus VC)
I haven’t brought in other investors. We’re not ready for that yet and in the textile business you want to maintain design control etc. Mumbai Angels have helped start ups get going here and I have heard a mix of good and bad experiences. If you’re passionate about something it can be very hard to go for VC funding and losing absolute control of your business or product.
Almost all investment in start-ups here comes from family connections. Whilst India has extreme poverty it also has extreme personal wealth. There is a lot of family money around if you know how to tap in to it. Being rich here in India really is at a completely different level to the wealth in Australia.
Can you describe the current investor environment? What are the three key industries for investment?
I would say that the current industries of note are technology driven. Textiles are also big.
I write a lot for the travel industry and there is a company here that recently received VC funding from the US.
What are the benefits of moving a start up here in comparison to other locations?
It really depends on what you do – the cost of labour is inexpensive, and there is a large and well educated population that can be accessed.
The size of the population is also a great benefit. The middle class is made up of 300 million people. However, the middle class income varies wildly and so purchasing power is hard to pinpoint.
If you have a product that is relatively inexpensive, then the scaling opportunities here are amazing.
Finding the right people to work for you can be challenging. Middle and upper management positions can be hard to fill as people are often educated not to express their opinions or assert initiative.
Timeframes can also be a challenge as I mentioned before – deliveries of products etc.
What are the key lessons you have learned to date?
You have to keep an open mind. Everything takes a lot longer than I thought it would. Make sure you understand why things are taking the time they do. Unraveling the reasons why is important, and is part of the very interesting cultural journey you undertake when living here.
Looking back, what’s one thing you would do differently?
There isn’t one big thing I would do differently, but with regard to the textile business I should have perhaps spent more money at the outset to cut down the timeline. Spending more upfront may have garnered a quicker result in getting samples completed.
Are there any common mistakes that you see Australian companies make?
I worked with Fosters here and they have since bought and sold a brewery in India. I also worked with ANZ who underwent some teething problems in this market but they are now getting back on track after those initial few challenges. I think corporates have a different approach to entering a new market which can mean it is harder for them to deliver on internal KPI’s. With start-ups you’re more flexible to environment.
Have you had any successes with the companies you have taken on in Asia?
I think when you start a business every time you achieve anything is a success to be celebrated. The first delivery round with food business was a big moment of pride for me.
With the textile business the photo shoot for the sampling process of textile pieces has been very exciting. Seeing your concepts turn in to reality is a great feeling.
Do you have a life motto?
I tend to take the attitude of ‘Give everything a go and don’t be afraid’. I left Austrlalia as a senior manager in a bank job. I now have two businesses on the go and get paid to write about travel. Life is really interesting in ways that it never would have been before.