Kalpana Rao: The Unbreakable Woman

“They said it on my face, Tumhare Jaise Bahut Si Aurate Aayi Aur Gayi! We don’t trust and believe in women.”

“Even women have turned to me and said, “Yeh passion koi cheez nahin hain. Dhanda nahin chalta hai toh bandh kar do!”

“Dark stories are like war stories.”

“Most men who I have shared my story with have said they would have closed down.”

There is something magnetic about women’s stories; especially when a woman decides to tell her story with extreme honesty. Storytelling I believe involves a certain practice in the art of nakedness. For a storyteller to really connect with her audience one really has to lay bare her emotions and feelings, especially when it is a ‘dark story’. Be brutal about one’s weaknesses and feel the chill of vulnerability while telling the story. Somewhere, somehow I feel that women are far courageous when it comes to sharing their personal stories. In this case, here is a story of a remarkable woman, an entrepreneur and a gutsy mother who opened her heart, her emotions and thoughts with an absolute stranger by sharing some amazing stories!

Kalpana Rao is the Founder & CEO of Pari’s Haute Couture & Pari’s M2B a speciality Indian and maternity wear brand. As someone who I have only just recently connected with, I was amazed with Kalpana’s willingness to share her story. We spent around 3 hours talking to each other over a muted Google Hangout call, talking and storytelling over a telephone because the network was poor. We kept the Hangout window open because we wanted to see each other. As one who told the story, and the other who heard it over.

I call Kalpana Rao the Unbreakable Woman…read her story to know more.

Kalpana RaoThe Unbreakable Woman (2)

SALES IS A WOMAN’S JOB

Corporate life entraps you. It gives you all the luxuries that you secretly want. It makes you reticent. But it leaves you restless. With 9 years in banking, there was very little that I could complain about. A comfortable life, two children and happy marriage. But there was something that was not right. Every day it felt that I was dragging myself to work. I was dissatisfied but I couldn’t put my finger on the nerve of my restlessness.

In those days my husband was into exhibitions. He was organizing one exhibition and handling the marketing and sales for brands. Nirlep, the non-stick ware had launched and my husband was handling their on-ground sales at an exhibition. He needed a hand and so I stepped with an ingenious idea of dishing out hot-piping Dosas. Back then in the 90’s experiential buying was still alien. Needless to say office workers stopping by at the exhibition lapped up the Dosas happily and also bought the non-stick pans. My first brush with sales(wo)manship infused me with an unknown energy! Next time around, my husband worked with two clients, one for himself and another that he wanted me to handle independently. When I reached the exhibition stall I discovered I was dealing with sports equipment!

My husband left me stranded with a bunch of sales interns and information brochures in my hand. I didn’t know what I was dealing with! All he said, “All the information is in the posters and brochures…just read and sell! Bus Becho!

So there I was handling a few inexperienced sales interns looking for a fast buck, trying to sell equipment that not just needed demonstration but a fair amount of convincing that investing in equipment is the way forward.

In walked a burly duo of Sardjis. They pointed out to one piece of equipment and asked in a heavy Punjabi accent, ‘How does that work?’ I picked it up and demonstrated to them. When they took on the equipment to try it, to their horror they couldn’t move a thing! This time they said, ‘Oh! She must have given us the harder one!’ When I used another piece they were visibly flummoxed! They bought the equipment. They couldn’t accept it that a woman had beaten them in a display of strength!

These two early exhibitions gave me a taste of sales. Over the next few months, there were more exhibitions and each time I learnt something new about customers and dealing with them. And in that slow, meandering process, I found my true self. It was my moment of epiphany!

I believe that sales is a woman’s job. A woman when she makes a decision she makes it from her heart. When she sells, she knows she has to find a way into the buyer’s mind. We are better at observation. We are quick to pick a buyer’s nerve and find that common ground on which we can connect. We sell by building a conversation with a client. Men say women are emotional. Oh yes…we are! It is our emotions that let us switch avatars, from a business person, to a saleswoman, a sister, a mother and a friend.

MANY CAME & MANY WENT! WE DON’T TRUST WOMEN!

In selling, I found my USP – Unique Selling Power. But was I going to sell other people’s products? I had discovered a skill, so what could I do with it anyway? I had a love for cottons, especially sarees. Could I really dare to go solo? Could I really take the leap of faith and walk the entrepreneurial journey?

Bombay then, is what Mumbai is still now; an ocean where we would be a small drop that would get lost in the water. We went through the typical middle-class debates. We have a home, then a bank loan. Would Bombay allow us to live my dream?

By the early 90’s the economy was opening up. Liberalisation had brought in foreign brands and many were heading to Bangalore to test the Indian markets. The Garden city was yet to get its nomenclature as the IT capital of India, but even then there were many virgin entrepreneurs heading to the city to make it their home. 20 years later, Bengaluru is the best start-up city in the country, but to me back then it was just another hostile city suspecting of outsiders.

In 1994, it was difficult to start up! People didn’t like outsiders. Here we were a couple from Bombay with 2 young kids. We had left our secure jobs and now we were in the city with no contacts, trying to open a store! No one believed us! I went asking for a loan, banks turned me down. They said it on my face, “Tumhare Jaise Bahut Si Aurate Aayi Aur Gayi! We don’t trust and believe in women.”

With doors slapped on my face, I realized that the road to entrepreneurship was not an easy one. For one, it broke many perceptions. As a corporate employee, doors automatically open for you. The same doors slam close on your face when you are entrepreneur!

THEY CAN COPY MY BUSINESS IDEAS BUT NOT MY SOUL

In July 1995, we opened our first Pari’s Store in Indiranagar. We had to survive and we did everything in our capacity to survive in the city. We discovered no one wanted to buy cotton sarees! So we diversified our sales. We were the first in the city to bring in the concept of mix & match! Women who walked into my store were surprised that one could buy a kurta and not buy the salwar & dupatta! In a 150 sq feet shop, we insisted on having a trial room and a toilet. Our landlord thought we have gone mad!

There was always so little room in the shop that men were made to queue outside the store while the wives shopped inside. Seeing the crowd of men standing, cars passing by would stop by the road and ask what’s the matter? And then men would say, “Oh no! Nothing! Our wives are shopping inside!” Our clients came back to us. Most of them were working women. They loved our designs, prices and most importantly the freedom we gave them in deciding how to dress up!

 

Pari's Prints

Pari’s Prints

And then it happened.

A multi-brand store had just opened its first store in the city. Every week a man visited us in the mornings. He looked around, bought a few pieces and went away. Sometime later, the man stopped visiting us. We discovered later that he had changed the timing. He would come in the afternoons when my husband and I were busy with our children picking them from school. Our assistant at the store would confirm us sales and we were happy that we were in business even when we were not in store!

A few weeks later we happened to visit this multi-brand store to buy my husband something when the same man came up and greeted us. He took us to the women’s section and showed us their collection.

We were shocked! They put up a huge standee saying, ‘Mix & Match! For the first time in Bangalore!’ We looked at the kurtas. It was all our designs, but the labels were theirs. The man showed off his spoils and said, “We went to Gujarat, bought the same fabric and see we now have your collection!”

There was no way we could take them on! They were a mega-apparel house, opening multi-brand stores across India. We had no chance of survival before them. I went back to Pari’s and I told myself that they can copy my business ideas and even my products. But they cannot take the soul that drives me and my brand.

REINVENT THE WHEEL OR PERISH  

By the summer of 2008, Pari was a 13 year old brand. And with that I was a teenage entrepreneur! Perhaps that is why I had started showing signs of restlessness. So at 44, I decided to invest in myself. I went to IIM- Bangalore for a Women’s Entrepreneurship Course. The idea was to go through the course and present a business plan.

I wanted to introduce a new segment on maternity wear, empowering expectant mothers to wear comfortable and affordable Indian clothes. My business plan was the best in the batch, but I didn’t know if I would really take the leap. Everyone said, ‘You cannot just sit on it!!’

And so I decided not to! By September 2008, I put together a small collection and launched the new collection. It was Ganesh Chaturthi and I told myself it can’t be so bad! A month later, recession set in! People were suddenly losing jobs. Women were scared that they may not have a job next month, what would they do with new clothes? This is when the maternity wear saved us! Babies were still being born! And luckily for Pari’s the M2B collection let us keep our heads above water.

Kalpana at her store using her Unique Selling Power

Kalpana at her store using her Unique Selling Power

WHEN IT TUMBLES, IT CRASHES!

Sometime in 2001, my husband chose spiritualism. For the next 5 years, with each passing day I watched him as he struggled to follow the callings of his heart and that of business and domesticity. By the end of 2006, I told him that he could stop coming to work. My husband is my rock. The one who helped me discover my heart and its strength. And in it I found the courage to set him free. My son had grown up and by then he was ready to join  me full time. And so since 2007 I have handled my business without my husband. He comes and goes in the family, but he is a great husband and a great father. He has a keen business sense and even now I continue to consult him for business. My husband was and is my rock!

I didn’t think twice before going solo. But I was not ready for what was going to come my way. Bangalore was growing up. The city was undergoing a change and the metro was under construction, right before our store. Surviving in a changing city was getting tough. We moved to a residential place where we could open a store but couldn’t put up a sign board. People didn’t know we existed. Some may even have thought that we had perished! Our business had dipped incredibly. And by then I was struggling to stay afloat. I borrowed from a few friends and family. Every month I dunked my purses to find enough cash so that I could pay salaries.

In the meantime we had decided to send our daughter to study Economics in Durham. We had to sell our home and my jewellery to fund her education. People said, ‘You are mad! Send her to a college in India!’ But I didn’t see why our financial situation was to hamper her studies. We scraped through the second year in college. I wrote to the University saying that I was going through a bit of a rough patch in business and I needed more time to pay her fees. The University was kind enough and remained patient as I paid them in bits and bobs. By the 3rd year arrived, the University wanted us to pay at the start of the term.

They made it clear that we pay the fees before the start of the term or she cannot join back!

I BEGGED & PLEADED FOR MONEY

This is when my daughter decided to crowd-fund her own education. She started an online campaign on Go Fund Me. She laid bare her desire to study and in all earnestness we hoped we raise the money for her to stay in college. Once the campaign went live, the press covered the story. Overnight people knew of our financial status. We were inundated with calls, with people asking the details or rather the levels of distress and financial situation! Everyone wanted to know our story. We got several emails of support. Friends and acquaintances poured in with online support. Many of my daughter’s friends and several from my contacts made small donations which went towards the collection. They shared our campaign online, many more promised us financial help. But when the time came, they pretended as if offering financial help was just the right thing to say, but not the right thing to do! And then people started avoiding me. My regular customers stopped coming to my store fearing that I would ask them for money. No one was willing to open their purses!

They say miracles happen. And so it happened to us. We found an angel who connected with my daughter and heard her whole story out. He offered to help us and asked my daughter to take down the campaign. So here we were with two days away from the university deadline and on the verge of closing down the campaign without a guarantee of financial assistance. We took the leap of faith. Sometimes you have to follow your heart. Sometimes you have to believe in humanity. We did! When the money was wired a night before the date of payment, my daughter and I cried our hearts out over a Skype call!

TELL YOUR STORY FROM YOUR HEART…YOU NEVER KNOW WHERE IT WILL TAKE YOU

The tide had passed. But I still needed to get Pari’s back on her feet. Everyone suggested I close down. I went to angel investors and consultants and they all said, “Close down your store, go online.” But why should I have to close down my store to go online?

All my entrepreneurial life I had worked enough to know how bankers thought and felt about women in business. This time around I really had no collaterals that would get me a secured loan. I decided to stay rooted to my beliefs. I decided to tell my story honestly to anyone who was willing to listen.

And I surely found someone who listened. In November 2014, someone connected me to the Manager of a newly opened women’s only branch of a certain nationalized bank. A couple of meetings, the manager visited my store and to my sheer surprise was ready to fund me. Today I have more than enough arsenal to fight my way ahead. And it is all because I dared to tell my story.

Dark stories are like war stories. Tell them from your heart and you never know where it will take you. Pleading for money didn’t give me pleasure. But every time I tell the story, it gives me strength. And I know it has the power to give someone else the strength to persevere a little longer. I believe all women have a fantastic strength within them and all you need to do is believe in it and then find it. Tell your story honestly, because you will find the strength to reach out to people. Ultimately it is your story that connects people from the heart.

Here is why we love Kalpana's Stories

Here is why we love Kalpana’s Stories

 Does Kalpana’s story inspire you? Know a woman who has feisty story to tell? Or do you want to share your own story? Your Story Bag is curating real women’s stories all through the year. Drop a line at contact@yourstorybag.com and you will hear from us!  

About Rituparna Ghosh

Rituparna is a professional storyteller and Founder of Your Story Bag – a storytelling venture that helps children, individuals and corporates harness the power of stories. For Rituparna, storytelling went from being a professional hazard to a parenting hazard and back! Always sniffing for a good story to tell, Rituparna feels that her past life as a journalist and television producer taught her the power of good stories. In her current avatar as a writer, editor and professional storyteller, she has discovered why it is important to tell a story! A story lover to the bone, Rituparna believes that everyone needs storytelling skills, to make sense of the world, and give shape to their own ideas! There is a child in each one of us and this is why she enjoys telling stories to children, adults and corporates alike. She dreams of a world where everyone connects over a story. And really, having re-discovered the child in herself, she has deeply avowed never to grow up again!

4 Comments

  • Loved the writeup!! Cheerz to Kalpana and Rituparna!!

  • laxmi rao says:

    Dear Rituparno,

    First of all i really want to salute you for this wonderful site your story bag,the story of Kalpana Rao literally tugged my heart loved it.
    I was the first sales person into selling Photocopiers in Hyd way back in 81,people felt i was crazy and to date so many decades have passed but i still enjoy being a sales person that i am and simply love my craft from the bottom of my heart and i have been successful.

    My simple mantra in life just go by your heart after what you aspire for and you will surely reach the goal post.

    Keep up the good work.

    Regards
    laxmi rao

  • Geeta yadav says:

    Hi love is our very existence…All I want to say is that I simply loved kalpana’d story…It touched my heart and inspired me…I wish her success and strength to rise and shine.

  • Neha Gupta says:

    Dear Rituparna,

    Kalpana’s story is very inspiring . Loved reading it .

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