Shilpa Ajwani is the CEO of unomantra, a business consultancy that enables consumer-centric lifestyle businesses to grow faster. She is a seasoned social selling expert with a solid reputation for providing transformative leadership to MNCs like Tupperware, Oriflame and Vorwerk, which are leaders in the direct selling industry. With over two decades of experience in leading profitable business enterprises as well as taking brands from start-up to scale, Shilpa now dons several hats including that of Business Consultant, Leadership Coach, Sales Strategy Execution Expert, Keynote Speaker, Panellist and Board Member.
Following is an excerpt from our conversation with Shilpa Ajwani.
A LEADERSHIP JOURNEY OF 25 YEARS
Could you share some insights from your leadership journey, and any challenges you faced in your career by being a “woman in a man’s world?”
I feel very proud of my successful journey of 25 plus years and am honoured to have worked with so many wonderful people. During my career, I have had the privilege of experiencing and working with Indian companies as well as European and American Multinationals. I got exposed to virtually all functions within the organisation and had the fortune to lead wonderful Teams as a Managing Director too.
But it was after many years of working, when I was invited to an event as a “woman leader”, that I realised that “oh! I’m a woman!” Otherwise I was just going about my business and showing up in the way a professional should – with preparation, dedication and collaboration with the team. I just threw myself at every opportunity that came by to grow the Organisation.
But I won’t take all the credit for it – I had a very supportive eco-system in the form of my parents, in-laws, husband and my son. Their support, standing there rooting for me while having zero expectations, relieved me from the pressure of excelling at EVERYTHING and gave me a lot of strength. I feel very fortunate and blessed for having them in my life.
However, I did face challenges at every step too – since I was judged both as professional and as a woman. But I looked at them only as “professional” setbacks. I always introspected and asked myself whether it was something that was lacking in me or if I could have done something differently rather than blaming someone else for my setback.
In one instance when I didn’t get the promotion to the top Leadership position in an Organisation, I did go up to my boss and asked him the reason I wasn’t considered for the role. It took a lot of effort to ask but I did. I realised that the person had assumed I could be a great No. 2 but never a No. 1, without being able to articulate why.
This pushed me to realise that I have to take my career in my hands and not wait for others to give me the opportunity. When I became determined, I attracted opportunities from outside and I was headhunted for CEO roles. I did become a Managing Director spending almost 8 plus years as No. 1 doing what I loved!
The learning I pass on to all my clients and mentees is to never give up and write yourself off. Unless you ask, the answer will always be a no. Even when you ask and the answer is no, it doesn’t mean NEVER!
What motivated you to stay with the direct selling industry for so many years?
Having worked with the top direct selling companies in the world, I have had the special opportunity to understand the B2C model very closely. It is one of the toughest models to work with as you work directly with a “volunteer army” of salespeople and through them with the consumers. The beauty of it is the 2-way interaction since one gets to learn from so many talented individuals.
I also had an emotional reason for joining and staying with the industry. When I started working, respect for career women wasn’t a given especially in the sales leadership roles. During those days, women were not able to work outside their homes as they did not get the kind of jobs that could help them manage home and work seamlessly. That’s why even my own mother had to give up her career to look after me when I was born. So, the idea of creating micro- entrepreneurs in our country felt very unique and apt for our socio-economic situation at the time. It motivated me to enter and stay with the industry for several years thereafter.
What was the thought behind moving on and starting your own business consultancy firm “unomantra”?
Last year, on my 45th birthday, I had this reflection that after building a very successful career it was time to move on from “success to significance”. Hence Idecided to start a new chapter and set up my business consultancy firm unomantra. My intent was to work with different entrepreneurs, businesses, business leaders; and use my experience and expertise to advise, guide and mentor them to become their best version. I felt that in a highly competitive environment where youngsters are leading their businesses amidst complexity, the energy of our young entrepreneurs could benefit from my practical multi-cultural and multi-functional experience of building much admired Brands.
I dream of a new kind of corporate India and that is what I want to help create now – the big Brands of tomorrow built on PURPOSE!
CREATING SUCCESS STORIES FOR WOMEN MICRO-ENTREPRENEURS
As a part of Brands such as Oriflame and Tupperware, you’ve spent several years helping create micro-entrepreneurs out of homemakers and women from middle class backgrounds, many of them from families where traditionally women were not seen as income earners. In your experience, what are the key characteristics of women who succeed as (micro) entrepreneurs?
I’ve played different roles while working closely with women micro-entrepreneurs – not just as a CEO or a Sales Leader but also as a Trainer, Coach and Mentor. This gave me insights into the everyday lives of these women.
Today I can confidently say that there are definitely some common traits visible in the most successful women entrepreneurs:
1) Resilience – the ones who say, “I will come back again” after facing setbacks are often the ones who succeed.
2) Coachability – the ability to say, “I don’t know but can you teach me?”
3) Self-discipline – while the busy life of homemakers doesn’t allow them to have much discipline in terms of keeping time and meeting deadlines, the ones who are able to adopt a professional discipline any business needs are the ones who succeed.
4) Field-work – many women become adept at using technology and connecting with consumers over the phone or internet. The most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who use technology AND step out to meet prospects and consumers often.
5) Good relationship building skills– while women are normally great at networking with peers, those who nurture a deep connection with their teams and consumers succeed the most.
6) Adaptability – in this VUCA world where we are seeing dramatic changes and uncertainty, women earlier confined to the home now have the world coming to them through technology and innovation. The ones who adapt are the ones who succeed at scaling their business.
7) Ability to set goals and work on them – many women set their sights on personal goals with respect to earning income and building assets for their family. Those who set goals and work consistently to achieve them are able to achieve success and raise their personal and family status.
What are the areas where a homemaker requires the most mentoring to become an entrepreneur?
1) Self-confidence – women nearly always need to be convinced that they are “good enough”, because they usually come with a feeling of being inadequate or not having any special talent. We have to work on making them aware of how powerful they are!
2) Professional sales skills – a lot of women are natural at networking, sharing information and they enjoy meeting people. However they need training on how to prospect and pitch to potential customers as well as in the use of tools that can enhance productivity.
3) Time management skills – women who manage home and kids now also have to manage time to attend meetings, prospecting and attending trainings. So they need to be mentored on how to utilise time well. This is critical as many of them come from families that aren’t supportive to begin with. A big mind-set change is needed alongwith actual time management skills.
4) Leadership skills– we need to teach women entrepreneurs the skills to lead teams and take a bigger responsibility without fear so that they can fasten their business building efforts.
What is the change that financial independence brings to the mind-set of women and their families?
Both the woman and her family completely change for ever. I can say that from my experience of seeing thousands of such transformations!
There are two kinds of changes we see when the women start earning:-
- The tangible impact is the visible change in the lifestyle and standard of living of the entrepreneur’s family. That’s when they move to a bigger house and buy their own cars. With financial abundance, women shift the kids to better schools, enrol them in extracurricular activities and even sponsor their foreign education. They are able to save up for foreign holidays and feel proud that they can take the entire family on a vacation and build secure assets to safeguard the family’s future.
- The intangible impact is the growth in their confidence and outlook for their future. The women change their mind-set to believing their destiny is in their own hands. They develop a knack for multitasking, taking care of their finances, investing for future – very often having started from having no passport and 20 years ago not even a bank account. This transformation is empowerment in the real sense.
CREATING AN ENABLING ECOSYSTEM FOR WOMEN
From your experience, what are some common challenges faced by women entrepreneurs and women in corporate jobs?
Women are treated differently and compensated unfairly. There is a lack of opportunities for women to match their skill-sets. Biases about what they can and can’t do are still present within families and organisations. Most women still require social permission for taking any step in their life. The other challenge is that of small thinking – by society as it still operates from archaic stereotypes and also by the women themselves because they often don’t dream big enough due to the conditioning while growing up.
Unfortunately, we are in a world where equal pay for equal work and equal funding opportunities for male and female entrepreneurs are still a distant reality!
Specifically, I have found some real problems regarding funding and access to finance for women entrepreneurs. For instance, I discovered that there are several Government schemes for funding women entrepreneurs but most women are unable to avail the funds because they don’t have collaterals to pledge for these loans. Similarly, I’ve heard of women being turned down by Venture Capitalist firms because there was no man behind them!
Specifically, I have found some real problems regarding access to finance and mentorship for women entrepreneurs. For instance, I discovered that there are several Government schemes for funding women entrepreneurs but most women are unable to avail the funds because they don’t know about these schemes or they don’t have collaterals to pledge for these loans. Similarly, I’ve heard of women being turned down by Investors if there was no man supporting the venture!
Having experienced the corporate world for so many years, do you feel that there is a “business case” for taking special measures to increase the proportion of women in the workforce of every organisation?
Yes! I have seen that having women in the top leadership creates a culture of empathy, collaboration and mentoring, it increases the desire to build leadership from bottom up and create equal opportunities for everyone. Women in top leadership positions consciously make an effort to build diversity in the organisation.
Even if we don’t want to believe that gender balanced leadership is directly related to positive business results inspite of all the evidence available, what I can certainly say is that when results aren’t great there is EVEN more of a need to have a diverse team to cushion the impact – when the outside environment is bad, at least the inside should be warm and comforting.
In your opinion, how do we create a more enabling ecosystem to help Indian women advance?
The magnitude of the challenge is so big that one person attempting the change will not help bring the revolution that we need. There are still miles to go before we can sleep or even take an afternoon siesta!
But there needs to be a realisation that this change is good for everybody.
And we need collective action by all stakeholders –
- More women in parliament will benefit the country and countries doing well will benefit the world. The UN bringing out the SDGs has been a good step because it has given milestones to both corporates as well as countries at the global level
- I want to see a lot more happening for women from the Government. Constructive laws need to be made to benefit women and increase their active participation in society and the economy. Their safety and mobility needs to be facilitated. Women at the grassroots also need to feel empowered.
- On the business/corporate side, I feel we need a lot more Not- For-Profits to work together with corporates to create sensitivity around ensuring gender balanced organisations especially at the leadership levels. Many programs can be created for sensitising CXOs on diversity and inclusion by sharing the valid data points that establish a sound business case for doing so.
- I would also like to bring men into the conversation and include them in this movement as sponsors and mentors.
- And lastly the women themselves need to realise that they don’t need permission from anybody to do what helps them to think big, become their best version and live a better life.
How do we get more men and women to mentor, even while in their careers?
I think people need to be made aware of the benefits of mentoring and the fact that mentoring can be very enriching for the mentor too. Mentoring needs to be celebrated in organisations by honouring people who take out time to mentor. We need platforms that allow mentees and mentors to connect with each other via technology. Industry associations and networking organisations can also do a lot to encourage more women too.
One last question – what is your personal mantra in life?
Live and let live! That’s my only mantra. I believe that everyone has the right to be who they are and should be allowed to become their best version by living their purpose.
Shravani is the Founder of elleNomics, a digital platform aggregating resources for enabling women to advance and thrive. She is an Economist with more than 12 years’ experience in policy research with organisations like ICRIER and World Bank.
Shilpa Ajwani, CEO, unomantra