Road Less Travelled
Life, they say, is never going to be a smooth ride on a smooth setting but I never imagined that the terrain was going to be so rocky and that I would always be trekking. I started the trekking journey very early in life. I was just 26 when I became a single parent and a mother of two girl children.
I didn’t know whether I should live or just move on and do something, feeling that my life had come to an end and that was what destiny had in store for me. But I was always a tough person mentally. Even as a child, I would go and play with my brother’s friends, the games that generally boys would play, like playing with wooden tops and flying kites. I learned cycling also very early in life. On the flip side, probably that made my parents treat me like another boy in the house and the errands my brother was supposed to do had to be shared by me.
In search of a job
I was leading a very cosy life till I was left high and dry with the bare world staring at me, with girl children at hand. The younger one was just two years. I started going from place to place and to entire rows of offices in Chennai seeking a job for me as a receptionist. I couldn’t think beyond that because all I knew was to speak in English and I was just a basic undergraduate. I had not qualified myself beyond that because I got married very early.
I knew that life was not going to be easy for me and having brought the children into the world, I owed a lot to them. I joined a private hospital in their sales division. I didn’t know what to do but somehow, I started learning while I was working in the sales department of the hospital.
The mentor who transformed my life
Subsequently I had a mentor. He was Dr Ravindra Padmanabhan and he always had a lateral thinking towards life, women, jobs and professions. He advised me about how I should move forward. One led to the other. He was running a small company for his staff’s son who had not gone to school. It was into masonry, carpentry and services related to the domestic segment. Dr Ravindra asked me if I would be interested in joining him and taking the domestic services company to the next level. He told me that even the major multinationals are into this space. As this was just a small group of about 30 people offering domestic services, I was apprehensive. By then, I was in a comfortable senior position in a private hospital at Adyar, Chennai. I didn’t want to leave that comfort zone of mine. As a youngster, I also thought that it was important to have vanity around you—a plush office and a beautiful place. I also started thinking that it was going to be a stagnant place for me and I could not grow beyond a certain point.
MBA and a surgery
Meanwhile, I started doing my MBA from Indira Gandhi National Open University. I was earning about 1200 rupees. I used to put hundred rupees away every month to pay my semester fees of Rs 400 at the end of each quarter. I knew that qualification would strengthen whatever I envisaged for myself and the kids.
So I started studying. I would go to the workplace. I would change two buses, leaving the kids in a creche, go to the workplace, come back, cook and get dinner ready for the kids. I couldn’t afford three square meals those days but my children were of prime importance. There were times when I would go to bed without eating anything in the night. After putting my kids to sleep, I would sit and start studying for my exams.
As luck would have it, during my first semester, two days away from my exams, I had an emergency appendicitis surgery. I was in the recovery room after the surgery. My professor came there as I had not attended the contact classes. He started telling me concisely all the management principles and asked me to conceive those concepts and write the exams.
As it was an open surgery, I was advised not to move out of the recovery room. However, my mentor Dr Ravindra, who operated on me said, “Listen, I have not done a cardiac surgery on you. It’s just an appendicitis. You have a long way to go in your life. Therefore, just get moving.”
The hospital was kind enough to put me in an ambulance and send me to the examination hall. The rest, as they say, is history. I came out in flying colours. The testing times were always there but my determination and the grace from God kept me moving.
I would finish the household works, go to the office, come back and go on wireless. Like that, we completed one order, two orders and three orders. God was kind and I could take on a lot of orders.
The new innings and a childhood dream
I told Dr Ravindra that I could join him as a consultant. It was just a small hundred square feet room upstairs and there were tea stalls downstairs. We had a small plastic table and chair. Apart from me, there was one girl to take care of accounts.
I started with contract housekeeping services. I moved on to the corporate segment and clinched my first deal in housekeeping. As I was coming out, I saw some guards standing there. As a child, I always wanted to become an IPS officer, probably because of my weight and height. I was also a basketball player and I always dreamt that I should become a cop. But born in a Carnatic musicians’ family, I had to get up early in the morning, practise music, do the household chores, then rush to the school or college, come back and do the same routine every day. I was not allowed to go outside and even for playing basketball, I used to sneak out and play without my father knowing it, because he was very strict. By six o’clock, if we didn’t enter the house, we had it. That was the kind of parentage that I had at home. So when I came out and saw these security guards, I thought, “This is the closest that I can get to, because now I’m too old to write IPS.” I came back and spoke to my mentor and asked him if we could start providing security services. He said, “If you have the guts and you think you can do it, go ahead. I have no problems about that. But please understand that I am not going to sink in funds. The funds have to come from the operations and it has to become a profit centre on its own.”
Breaking into a male bastion
I was stuck but then I decided to seek out my first order. Everywhere, given the mentality of people and the texture of Chennai, people were reluctant to entrust security services to a woman. Also, those days, there were not many women in admin sections and so I had to interact with men, and it was a Herculean task to get them to trust that it is my brains and that it’s not that the women would come and stand at the gates, although today, we are doing that as well.
A senior person in a very big corporate told me that he would try it out with me. That first order itself was a very large order requiring many guards for each shift. The task and the challenge started with it. Now I had to get the team into place. I didn’t know how we were going to recruit the guards.
Then we looked at a few people who could help us in recruitment and getting the guards. We could get hold of an ex-Service Officer to give us inputs into how we could move forward in this vertical. He helped us groom the boys and prepare the training materials and other things. My operations team were bringing in the people and we were training and deploying them in a phased manner.
I was relentless, working 24/7. I had the wireless in my hand and not to forget, my child was small and she was going to school. But this industry warranted 24/7 attention. I told myself, “If I don’t sacrifice something now and if the kids don’t participate in the sacrifice, none of us are going to achieve anything.”
So I just moved on. I would finish the household works, go to the office, come back and go on wireless. Like that, we completed one order, two orders and three orders. God was kind and I could take on a lot of orders. There were people who could trust our company and me. I was the face to the companies and the Doctor was in the background.
The world comes down, once again
It was then that a tragedy struck. In 2001, Dr Ravindra, my mentor passed away in an accident while he was travelling to Bangalore. The whole world came down crashing for me. I had no clue what to do with the new born baby of the security services. The only one thing I had in mind was that my mentor would often say, “There should be always somebody who must think on his or her feet and say what next?” and, “If there is an eventuality in the company, you should ensure that clients do not feel that the boat is rocking. It should be business as usual.”
We were making a decent progress. Then came the next challenge—making the staff accepting a woman, especially in a male bastion, as their boss. This, despite the fact that I had recruited all of them.
My mentor and guru who was everything to me was not there anymore. I had to be at the funeral and at the same time, respect his word and keep the office open. I got on to the wireless and told my boys not to come to the funeral to pay their respects to the founder. It was business as usual.
I had to assure my staff that nothing was going to be wrong. We would move forward and I would be there, standing rock-solid behind them, though I myself had no clue about how I was going to take it forward. On the home front, by then my aged father had moved in with me. I had just too many things on my hand and it was such a grind mentally and I was not very far from breaking down. As Doc said, I knew I should be the person to think ‘what next,’ and move on. My prayers got me moving.
When somebody asks me, “How can you tell who’s an entrepreneur?” I always say, “Don’t worry. They’ll tell you who they are.” I also know that an entrepreneur is a person who is bothered by customers, the core team, employees, investors and sometimes spouse. I didn’t have the spouse problem, at least. I was free enough to do my work and I got into this entrepreneurial journey.
Securing the company
The founder’s family wanted to bring the shutters down. I was totally against it and bought out the company from them in three years’ time. So from 2001, I was the captain of the ship and that was a huge responsibility. It is a very lonely and unenviable place to be in. But I decided to pull up my socks. “I’m a marathon runner. I am not a sprinter. Let me see till it falls on its own,” I thought.
We were making a decent progress. Then came the next challenge—making the staff accepting a woman, especially in a male bastion, as their boss. This, despite the fact that I had recruited all of them. Our competitors were having a field day because they knew that when my ship was rocking slightly, they could bring it down fully. Being probably the only lady heading a security services company in India, I became a soft target for my counterparts in the industry. They were spreading rumours that we were going to shut down the place. All our major accounts were being eyed by my competitors.
I also started retaliating to some of the clients whose behaviour I could not take lying down. I did lose a few orders because of that but I couldn’t pawn my self-respect and I was not chasing money.
The power of music as therapy
It was a battle mentally. I had no time or space for myself. That was the only time I thought I was fortunate to be born to musician-parents. I banked on music. I was always on music. I would sing along the music. I would play music while I was driving from one place to the other. I would be driving to take on a very unhappy client or a disgruntled person but this music would keep me going. I would say, “Let me reach there and start worrying. Why start worrying on the road itself?”
It was a tall order for me because basically I’m a person who is very tough and I don’t like anybody saying things that is not acceptable to anyone—not just a lady—for that matter. I have heard harsh words. Innuendoes were thrown at me by my own immediate circle. If a lady comes up in life, in any field, and especially if she’s single, then her character is being questioned. They fire unguided missiles. All of these hurt and stress you out.
The children were small. I couldn’t go and cry to them. I couldn’t cry to my colleagues either. There was a lot of demand on my time, so I could not socialise much. I had to swallow everything and keep pushing myself. I didn’t know that I had so much of inner strength in me.
I also strongly believe that we all need a little bit of relationship, friendship, affection, love and a little bit of everything. But at the end of the day, we are all alone in our journey of life. This is the philosophy that has gone into me over the years.
I also started retaliating to some of the clients whose behaviour I could not take lying down. I did lose a few orders because of that but I couldn’t pawn my self-respect and I was not chasing money. Money was incidental and I was chasing a passion. This baby—the entrepreneurship—that was thrown to me by the grace of God, became everything to me.
On the home front, I wanted my child to look at a very strong mom because I had to wear both the hats—I had to be the dad and mom. I also had to ensure that my aged father did not get unduly worried. I had to be the load bearer, whether I liked it or not. I started praying strong. I am a very strong devotee of Krishna and I think that He has been always with me, holding my hand. I have done well for myself and as I started my new innings, the first thing that I did was putting all the unkind remarks behind me.
The best thing you can do is just move away from people who are mean to you and have your peace of mind and place, because ignorance is bliss. When you go up the ranks and you’re visible, you cannot avoid these innuendoes.
All alone in our journey
I also strongly believe that we all need a little bit of relationship, friendship, affection, love and a little bit of everything. But at the end of the day, we are all alone in our journey of life. This is the philosophy that has gone into me over the years. Today my kids are married. I have grandchildren. I live on my own. I’ve learned to be alone in a crowd. I had practiced this thanks to the industry I am in, thanks to entrepreneurship and thanks to being the captain of the ship.
I have planned for my old age and retirement. I am not going to retire fast and as long as I’m active, I would like to go on, because we are making a difference to about 4,000 families. We are also into labour supplies. The children of our 4000 families are being educated till college.
The children of some of my security officers and guards have already graduated from engineering and other professional colleges and we have found them placements in multiple places. They are all happily settled. That is most gratifying.
I have lovely children. They say, “Amma, just go ahead and do what you want. Don’t save a penny for us. You have given us education and we are all well settled. Enjoy your life. If you want to do anything for your employees, just go ahead and do it.” I am really blessed with such a lovely family. I don’t think I can ask anything more from God!
G Sree Vidhya, CEO, BRIO Integrated Services