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 model. 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 organisations, primarily in the social selling space.
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 to the cause, collaboration with the teams. I just threw myself at every opportunity that came by.
But I won’t take all the credit for it – I had a very supportive ecosystem in the form of my parents, in-laws, husband and my son. Their support, standing there rooting for me but having zero expectations, relieved me from any pressure and gave me a lot of strength. And I feel very lucky, fortunate and blessed for having them in my life.
However, I did face challenges at every step – since I was judged both as professional and as a woman. But I looked at them only as professional setbacks – asking myself whether it was something that was lacking in me or if there was something I could have done it differently.
In one instance when I didn’t get the promotion to the post of the Managing Director- I did go up to my boss and ask him the reason I didn’t make it. It took a lot of effort to ask but I did. And 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.
But this pushed me to realise that I have to take my career in my hands and not be at the mercy of people who will make their own judgements. And I decided to look for opportunities outside, and I was headhunted for many CEO roles and I did become a MD – spending almost 8 plus years as No. 1!
So, the learning I pass on to all my clients is that do not to give up and judge yourself when people are judging you. And unless you ask, the answer will always be a no.
What motivated you to stay with the direct selling industry for so many years?
Having worked with the top-ten 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 because you work directly with an army of salesmen and through them with the consumers. But the beauty of it is the 2-way interaction since you also get to indirectly learn from all these amazing individuals.
I also had an emotional reason for joining and staying with the industry. When I started working, respect of career women had been negligible. During those days, women were not really working outside their home and they had neither the facilities nor the kinds of jobs that could help them manage home and work together. In fact, even my own mother had given up her career to look after me, when I was a child. So, this idea of creating women micro- entrepreneurs felt very special and 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 unomantra?
Last year, on my 45th birthday, I had this insight that my career had been pretty successful but it was time to move on from success to significance. So, I decided to start a new chapter to add more twist to this journey and set up my business consultancy firm unomantra. My intent was to work with lots of entrepreneurs, businesses, business leaders; and use my experience and expertise to advise, guide and mentor them to become their best versions. I felt that in this highly competitive environment where youngsters are having a tough time leading their businesses, the energy of youth could benefit from my practical experience of having rolled up my sleeves, walked around the globe and created successes as well as failures.
I dream of a new kind of corporate India and that is what I want to help create now!
CREATING SUCCESS STORIES FOR WOMEN MICROENTREPRENEURS
As part of brands like 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 these women microentrepreneurs in the direct selling business – not just as a CEO or a Sales Leader but also as Trainer and Coach. This gave me insights into the everyday of these women.
So, 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 “I don’t know but can you teach me”
3) Self-discipline – while the 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 adapt the professional discipline needed are the ones who succeed
4) Field work – many women become adept at using technology and connecting with consumers over the phone or internet. But the most successful sales women are the ones who step out into the field, be it heat or cold
5) Good relationship building skills– while women are naturals at networking, those who get personal with customers and team members and note the small details, succeed the most
6) Adaptability – in this VUCA age where we are seeing dramatic changes, women confined to kitchen now have the world coming to them. And the ones who adapt are the ones who succeed at building their business
7) Ability to work on goals – many women set their sights on personal goals with respect to income and assets they want, be it bicycles to computers to buying a house. Those who set goals and targets, and work hard to achieve them are able to succeed at growing their income and raising their overall personal and family status
What are the areas where homemakers require the most mentoring to becoming entrepreneurs?
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 and could be!
2) Professional sales skills – a lot of women are natural at networking and sharing information, and they enjoy meeting people. But they need some “polish” and training on how to prospect and pitch to potential customers and tools they can use to maximise output.
3) Time management skills – women, who manage home and kids, now also have to manage meetings and pitching to customers and attending trainings. So, they need to be mentored on how to manage their time. Especially, since many of them come from families that aren’t supportive to begin with, and it is our task to change their attitude from being victim to victor
4) Leadership skills– we need to teach the women the right skills to lead teams and be responsible for others, in addition to managing their own sales efforts.
What is the change that financial independence brings to the mindsets of women and their families?
Both the woman and her family completely change for ever, and I can say that from my experience of seeing thousands of such transformations!
There are two kinds of impact that are created when the women start earning–
- The tangible impact is the visible change in lifestyle and standard of living of the women and their families. 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.
- The intangible impact is the growth in their confidence and positivity about their future. The women change their mindsets 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 or no bank account. This 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 skillsets and biases about what they can and can’t do are still present within families and work ecosystems. Women require social permissions for everything. The other problem is that of small thinking – by society but also by the women themselves because they often don’t dream big enough.
Unfortunately, we are in a world where Equal Pay for Equal Work or equal funding 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!
Having experienced the corporate world for so many years, do you feel that there is a “business case” for taking special measure to increase the proportion of women in the workforce of every organisation?
Yes! I have seen that having women at in the top leadership creates a culture of empathy, collaboration and coaching, it increases the desire to build leadership from bottom up and ensures equal opportunities for everyone. Women on top consciously make an effort to build diversity in the organisation, and after a point there is no need to force targets on people.
While I can’t be sure that (gender diversity) is directly related to positive business results, but what I can most certainly say is that when results aren’t great there is EVEN more need to have a diverse team to cushion the impact – when the outside 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 evolution that we need to make. 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 a change that 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 planet. 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 parliament house and the government. The laws need to made to benefit women. Their safety and mobility need 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 with corporates to sensitise them in terms of the impact on better employee and consumer results. Many good programs can be created for sensitising CXOs on diversity and inclusion and furthering the cause of more women to join and get elevated in organisations
- 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 permissions from anybody and that it is their life so they can do everything to make it better.
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 of the fact that mentoring can do something back for them. Also, mentoring needs to be celebrated in organisations by honouring people who take out time to become mentor. We also need more platforms that allow mentees and mentors to connect with each other, via technology and digital apps as well as through the medium of industry associations and networking platforms.
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 be the best version of who they are without intruding upon anyone else’s right to become that.