Calcutta’s New Wave of Female Entrepreneurship
“The more you tell your stories, your dreams, your entrepreneurial hopes… the more you’ll see you’re not alone.”– Gloria Steinem
Contributors: Trishana Chatterjee and SB Veda
Edited by: SB Veda
Viewed from afar and for long, the city of Calcutta has been associated with many negatives: poverty, dirt, and perennial struggle. Indeed, some of the stalwarts of the local film industry have explored suffering more than any other theme, and the legacy of Mother Theresa looms large in the western imagination. Such images run counter to cities like Delhi, from which the Prime Minster addresses the public atop the Red Fort on Independence Day, Mumbai with its dual pillars of high finance and Bollywood, and Bangalore where huge tech campuses have spread tentacles across the landscape. But for over the past decade Calcutta has undergone dramatic change and women have played a large role in this.
While symbols of Shakti abound during Puja season, and the feminine features prominently in the local culture, the narrative of women entrepreneurs has yet to etch itself into the collective psyche. It should come as little surprise then that India landed in the lower 20th percentile of the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs in 2019. That said, this may not be indicative of what’s going on in Calcutta, the business climate of which is undergoing marked evolution.
Indeed, the five subjects profiled in this piece constitute evidence of a rise in female entrepreneurship that is young, fresh, and cast in the zeitgeist of the 2010s and 20s. Their stories exemplify confidence, ambition, and a willingness to improve the world around them. Mostly, they are powered by strong ideas that have translated into successful enterprises.
We profile them not only as their waves have yet to crest but also as the torrent that drives them forward is recognizable in the fury of the very Shakti that Bengal celebrates each year during festival season.
RASHI RAY – FOUNDER ZERO BUDGET AGENCY
“I have a one second rule,” says Rashi Ray, referring to how much time she has to grab the attention of a potential customer on a social network feed for a client.
Rashi Ray, Founder of Zero Budget Agency is also an agent of change
-All photos of Rashi Ray are courtesy of Ms. Ray
Catching audience attention is just one of the many challenges Rashi Ray faces as owner of a creative communication agency aimed at burnishing brands and augmenting market share.
Poised. articulate and possessing a razor sharp intellect, Ray comes from advertising royalty in Calcutta. Her late father was the legendary ad man, Ram Ray, the only non-American to head the US-based J.W. Thompson Agency and founder of Response India Pvt. Ltd., (one of India’s most acclaimed advertising houses). Still, when Rashi graduated from the prestigious La Martiniere for Girls, she had no intention to follow in her father’s footsteps. Leaving for Singapore, she set about to study design at LASALLE College of Arts, completing a degree in communications though ultimately appending a specialization in advertising.
She not only returned to her hometown after studies but also to her father’s home base in 2014, finding herself in the offices of Response India. The timing was opportune as it coincided with what has since been called the 4th Industrial Revolution (4-IR) in which the internet has enabled various technologies, modes of communication, and data profiles to coalesce and interact with one another. The resulting digital space for creative campaigns served as a natural canvas for the fresh LASALLE graduate, and she attracted work from Response clients in the new medium. Before long she was on her way to establishing a creative communications agency that, while having parallels to the traditional ad world of her father, evolved into a distinct business on its own.
Her approach has been minimalist and focused on molding brands, enhancing value, presence and market share with a view to being judicious with the spend. So, she coined the name of the new firm, Zero Budget Agency.
At times she has found herself at the fore of establishing new brands, in other veins her agency has been called to take established brands in new and novel directions. “Older brands sometimes need a push,” she says, referring to the utilizing the new tech ecosystem that has grown exponentially over the past five years.
Still, it wasn’t always so easy, explains Ray: “When we started, although digital marketing was emerging as a promising channel, companies were still more apt to pursue traditional modes of marketing. We had to convince them that the rewards of going digital were well worth the risks.”
Whether relaunching a 20 year-old production company (the largest in India) in a fresh way as an integrated entertainment vehicle as they did with Shree Venkatesh Films, reincarnating the brand as SVF – or helping a small group of bookstores break off from an established chain and begin to write their own story as the brand ‘Story’, the critical step in Ray’s process involves studying the client. She gets to know their aspirations, their product or service offerings, their market and competition; she becomes conversant with their commercial personality and character. Once this inception is complete, the steps. on the path forward are fitted in place. ZERO makes a plan and executes with style.
Keeping a lid on budgets was one of the ways, especially in the early days, that Ray managed to persuade clients of the viability of her vision. Assembling a team of talented creatives in-house instead of hiring outside talent, Ray was able to deliver professional caliber films, musical and narrative campaigns within her existing cost structure, the fees being attributed creating the content rather than hiring of models or actors and renting studio time. The business model worked, and before long, Zero Budget Agency or “ZERO” as its sobriquet has increasingly been popularized, was making a name for itself in the marketplace of ideas.
These days, ZERO’s competitive advantage lies in targeting. Utilizing a data analytics collaborator, Ray can reach the social network feeds of a very specific set of individuals. “Let’s say I want to target Bengalis born and brought up abroad between 30 and 50 who have a common interest and that turns up 500 people, I can reach those specific people with a campaign.” It’s the kind of laser guided pinpointing that marketers dream of because after reaching the optimum subset of potential customers the ad campaign itself is almost like preaching to the converted.
Unlike her counterparts on Madison Avenue, Ray’s business isn’t just composed of streetwise campaigns built on taking the temperature of trends and mining data. Elements of Calcutta’s character have shaped her direction over the years: in particular, the significance of emphasizing the power of ideas meant to move inquisitive minds grown from a rich cultural environment to shape how brands are formed, positioned and perceived. “I’ve had the good fortune of meeting interesting people from Calcutta…people here are really talented and well-read. Even those who aren’t very well educated in a conventional sense read and have interests and hobbies. When the environment is so culturally rich, it has a huge influence on your business,” Ray observes.
There is a human dimension to the city, which Ray maintains has permeated the walls of ZERO, and which she argues distinguishes the city from others. “People in Calcutta have the time and space in their lives to listen, and so they end up really caring about each other’s lives. More so than other places, Calcuttans want to bond with each person they meet. I feel that essence is present in our company,” says Ray.
Ray says she the city has drawn clients from other parts of India who’ve gone out of their way to engage creatively with people from Calcutta. These are clients who could easily have gone Bombay or Delhi but get something different out of the work that emanates from Calcutta for which they hold a certain regard and value. Interestingly, Ray still uses the old name for the city as we do, and it’s something to which those who consider themselves to be Calcuttans rather than ‘Kolkatans’ can well relate.
Though she has won multiple awards and accolades and achieved financial success, for Ray, it’s not about name or money. “Helping people and their enterprises reach their potential is fun, actually,” she insists. It’s clear that Ray’s approach to business and joie de vivre fit well with Calcutta’s famous moniker, ‘City of Joy’.
What has harvested her acclaim is how she has managed to create an amalgam in ZERO of a passion for ideas, artistic sensibility, marketing savvy and thrift – all of which is driven by innovation in areas such as digital space to distinguish herself from other agencies. One just has to look at the ebullience of ZERO’s website, Instagram and Twitter feeds to realize that for Ray work is play. And, THIS – more than any corporate jargon or mediaspeak – really accounts for her success. For anyone in doubt, her clients are her best calling card, some of whom have been responsible for widening her reach in the marketplace.
“The initial clients have been very supportive,” says Ray. “They’ve gotten us a lot of work.” She calls it luck but in the current business climate to be referred by clients is a reflection of their clear satisfaction with the work.
In the end, ZERO’s business ethos, at its core, is a reflection of its founder. She likes to help people, and in turn has garnered enormous goodwill. “Sometimes you help someone just because they’re a nice guy,” says Ray. In the cutthroat world of the media and marketing, it’s an attitude that is refreshingly good and optimistic. When a team with the positivity of ZERO led by someone with such fundamental decency succeeds in the marketplace, it leaves one content in the notion that the universe is unfolding as it should rather than what we’ve come to expect in the Trumpian post-truth era.
GARGI BANERJEE KOUL – ÉLANSTREET.COM
For most who’ve studied finance, landing a job in the treasury section of HDFC Bank in Mumbai is a dream come true. This was no different for Gargi Banerjee (now Gargi Banerjee Koul). After being born and raised in Calcutta – and completing her education, here – Banerjee progressed over more than ten years to a senior position in foreign exchange in India’s financial capital.
Banker-turned Fashionista, Gargi Banerjee Koul hopes her website will help transform how people make themselves over
-photo courtesy of Gargi Banerjee Koul
It was a very vibrant time in the Indian banking marketplace. During this period, Banerjee worked at establishing herself in the fast-paced habitat of high finance – and her trajectory was set to a very steep angle. She was well on her way up!
What gave her pause was not an idea or word but a number – 2008. The global financial crisis of 2008 that followed the collapse of mortgage-backed security instruments in the USA, had a ripple effect in many markets including India. The people devising esoteric financial products, especially in the area of derivatives, found themselves highly restricted as Indian banking regulators sought to preempt a similar crisis from occurring in an environment that was getting increasingly fast and loose.
Moving to Bangalore, where an entrepreneurial spirit around technology had come to influence the vocabulary of rising professionals, Banerjee Koul began to find the financial sector increasingly dull. The agile, vibrant and transformative nature of the technology industry ran counter to, albeit after a period of innovation, what was becoming an increasingly stoic and conservative financial services sector.
While at HDFC and living in Mumbai, she encountered many people who themselves identified that they needed to improve their style but didn’t necessarily have the time or wherewithal to make fundamental changes to the way they looked or were being perceived. For many in the corporate sector, enhancing professional look and improving comportment are seen as concurrent factors to competence that influence upward mobility. So, Banerjee Koul concluded that the demand for personal styling advice would be coming out of its nascency in the years to come.
She took a one-year leave of absence from HDFC, enabling her to hedge her risk and contemplated starting a business centered around her observations on styling. Being in Bangalore, Banerjee Koul sought to deliver such services through an internet portal. And, thus, élanstreet.com was born.
Élan is French for ‘momentum’; it follows that Banerjee Koul strives to bring momentum to her client’s lives using styling as a vehicle. She does so by offering personal styling advice, personal shopping services, wardrobe analysis, closet audits – in short the potential of truly shaking up and reinventing one’s look. And this too, she has enabled through an internet-based portal.
On the surface, one might wonder who would pay for such services but changing one’s image is something for which people in the public eye have paid a premium for decades. Like other aspects of public life, the image-conscious space of social media has made what was important for a celebrity to be just as germane to enjoying life for the average Joe.
The idea, explains Banerjee Koul didn’t come to her out of the blue: “Initially, I had conceived of a traditional e-commerce portal in fashion, enabling people to buy products but with the competition from Amazon, Myntra and others, I realized that a small company like mine would be highly challenged for market share. And, frankly it wasn’t possible for me to offer the same kind of discounts as bulk buyers and those who could establish preferred relationships with suppliers could realize like Flipkart and Amazon. So, I had to think of something else.”
Still in the mode of an e-commerce product platform, in tandem, Banerjee Koul began to offer services. And, the sheer number of buying options available online on other sites created a demand for advice on what kinds of clothes suit which customer. “Recommendations were difficult to come by, and as someone who had been in senior management as a woman, I found I had a lot to say on appearance and what is suitable for whom. This was my starting point,” says Banerjee Koul.
The internal conversation spurred at élanstreet.com by the perceived gap resulted in reinventing the website to from a traditional e-commerce portal to one that offered advice for a fee. But the road has been bumpy for the former banker, the main challenge lying in the stickiness of the Indian rupee. “We Indians are used to paying for tangible things but the notion that advice has a value and should attract a fee is not a natural leap of logic that most consumers would make. The default position is – why on Earth should I pay for advice? They expect it free. And, this has been really the central issue: how to convey the value of the advice to our customer to persuade them to pay for it.”
It’s a problem with which élanstreet.com is still grappling. “We continue to tinker with the pricing model and developing strategies to sell our value,” Banerjee Koul admits.
Banerjee Koul’s services are largely delivered by freelance stylists and image consultants keeping the élanstreet.com lean while maintaining capacity to deliver customized solutions. It’s a business model in which getting to know the customer is absolutely essential. Interacting with élanstreet.com is not unlike interacting with a counsellor or therapist and due to the input of human sylists, there is much room for personalized service. “The customers’ personal style is not only analysed but also the lifestyle requirements – what suits the individual based on demographics, community, and phase of life,” explains Banerjee Koul.
The main advantages to the customers are twofold in nature: customers can avail of professional advice for what would invariably be less than what would have to be paid to certified image consultants; and the customer saves time by not having to do all of this on their own. Indeed, the option of doing everything online significantly leverages time efficiency. Video calls take the place of meetings; shared pictures take the place of flipping through a wardrobe. For those who want to avail of personal shoppers, the expert visits the person’s home, goes through the client’s wardrobe and then takes them shopping. This is at the higher end of the service as it really mirrors the celebrity experience.
Interestingly, Banerjee Koul says more women avail of the online services while the personal services draw a higher proportion of men.
Banerjee Koul’s greatest challenge, now, is scaling up. In a price-sensitive market, volume is key, and it’s in this area that she is currently focusing her attention: what kind of price points result in the volume that would make her business more viable in the long run?
While she formulates the optimum mix, her company has a side business that is a more traditional tech services firm, which sets up websites and develops apps. The engine for this business, which is currently her bread and butter is called vitastaa.com. This keeps the brand élanstreet.com alive and continues internal conversation about how to reach more people.
While Banerjee Koul strives to perfect a platform to enable customers to find the best outward version of themselves, team élanstreet.com is working hard to create the best version of itself online, so as to reach the widest possible market. Banerjee Koul may well be working on the most novel idea in e-commerce platforms of late but innovation needs to be infectious. Taking things forward, élanstreet.com aims at nothing less than going viral.
POOJA BAID – PICADILLY SQUARE
Calcutta is rife with family businesses which while may benefit from professional management, like the HBO smash TV hit, Succession, they have business cultures that actively groom the next generation to take over. Such is the case with the Birlas, the Goenkas, the Pauls and others.
So, by the time Pooja Baid, whose father Nirmal Kumar Baid had co-founded Great Eastern Retail Pvt. Ltd., considered higher education, it was in business; she had commerce in her DNA, after all. Completing a BBA, she studied marketing at the University of Nottingham. Had she done her PG studies in India, it might well have altered her destiny.
When Baid returned from England in 2006, and started down the yellow-brick road of working in sales and marketing at Great Eastern Retail for her father, she was soon left wanting – not for money or comfort or stability – but for food. For in the UK, the avid foodie had sampled the gamut of vegetarian fare available from outside courtyards to restaurants to chippie carts. Upon her return to India, despite having a large vegetarian population, the choices available seemed to her, post-European study sojourn, to be surprisingly limited.
She found herself craving pancakes – and not finding a decent place that served them despite Calcutta having a plethora of dosa eateries, paratha stands and other forms of fried heaven. She wondered if maybe she could fill the gap – not only for pancakes but for all they varieties of European street food she enjoyed while studying abroad.
While still working for Great Eastern Retail (where she remains a director till date according to zaubacorp.com) she researched how to make ice cream and gelato, and this evolved into all kinds of European street food. “I was always interested in food,” says Baid. “As a child I used to tell my dad, I want to sell icecreams but he said nobody from our family does this. This stayed with me as I was starting out in professional life. So, I would be working with my dad from 11 to 9 and then at night I couldn’t help myself from going online and researching food.”
She parleyed her vision and enthusiasm into an introduction with a chef and they experimented with eggless European food. It was a challenge that the chef took to heart and the two experimented in the family kitchen. “We had to replace different egg properties with different substitutes – so there was no one substitute for the egg.” They inflicted their results on family and staff who got tired of being guinea pigs. Three months later, they were ready to do a public tasting. The feedback was very encouraging.
“People said the food was amazing!” Baid beams in recollection.
Next came thinking about what equipment would be needed and how to procure it. “I had a very basic list of things to consider…actually I was mainly looking for a good waffle iron,” says Baid. “And, this brought me to a food exhibition in Delhi called Ahar, which was my first ever food exhibition.”
Ahar proved to be the pivotal event that throttled her business forward. Still, it wasn’t easy. In her father’s field, presenting herself on behalf of Great Eastern Retail opened a lot of doors. But at a restaurant convention, representing herself as a person with some concepts and enthusiasm but no established food business left her at a disadvantage in getting participants to take Baid seriously. And yet, it was her experience in electronics that gave her the break she needed in food…
The story she tells is that at a booth where gelato was being made, she attended a demo. The chef leading the demo, Maestro Gianpaolo Valli, spoke to Baid afterwards after she insisted she wanted to make premium ice cream and gelato for her fellow Calcuttans. Valli told her if she would help him set up his smartphone, he would reveal all his secrets and help her set-up her business. “I thought, Wow, I’ve hit the jackpot!” says Baid. And, after she configured his phone, he held up his end of the bargain, drawing the process as a flowchart diagram.
Later, she met him by chance at Gelato university in Bologna, Italy and she recounted the story to him. He couldn’t quite recall the interaction and reacted with mock disbelief. “Seriously, I did something like that? I gave you all my secrets so cheap?” she recalls him saying. It reinforced to her that their meeting had been serendipitous.
Baid admits that she owes much of her success to family who gave her storefront space in The Great Eastern’s Techno City on Sarat Bose Road. More importantly, they all encouraged her.
She decided to call her eatery Picadilly Square as homage to her culinary inspiration in the UK and because most European street food is served in city squares. She has preserved the look using cobblestone styled flooring and paintings that evoke the places native to her menu.
In March 2008, she came back from Ahar having purchased equipment. By September, they were ready to open. “We started on a Monday, and I said, ‘look there are a lot of people passing by, so let’s ask them: have you heard of crepes? Have you heard of waffles? We served them samples and asked for their feedback.”
By Thursday, the patience of Baid’s business-minded father for giving away free stuff was wearing thin, and he suggested that, as it was Ganesh Chaturthi, they should do a hard open. The strategy worked: by the weekend, the mealtime rush timings were full.
Her marketing was almost completely word of mouth. “There was no Facebook, bulk SMS, or other kinds of new marketing,” says Baid. “It was just the focus group.”
By Saturday night, they’d sold out of Gelato. And so, all the family chipped in including Baid’s father who’d never set foot in a kitchen before, stirring cream for desert. “It’s still one of my fondest memories,’ recounts Baid.
The menu of Picadilly Square evolved over time. Baid held food festivals from various countries at her restaurant and took feedback from customers on what would sell and what wouldn’t: Yes to Pizza and Fallafel; No (sadly) to stuffed vine leavers and Spanakopita.
“We had a cheese festival,” says Baid, “People couldn’t even pronounce the names of the cheeses. People thought blue cheese was just regular cheese with fungus. Some commented, ‘I thought this is a food festival – where’s the food?’ But we learned and it influenced our menu.”
The spirit of experimentation while remaining true to European traditions continues at Picadilly Square. In December, Baid rolled out a new line of roasted coffee beans and various kinds of coffee called ‘Drumroll”. Not only does she offer premium beverages with freshly roasted beans but Drumroll is also probably the only menu in town where customers can be served an Americano in an edible cone!
Ten years after their opening, Baid celebrated by inviting their original guests. “They were so kind to us,” she recalls. “We couldn’t have made it without them, so we wanted to recognize them.” She credits the success of the menu to the food culture of Calcutta. “People are so inquisitive and well-read in Calcutta,” says Baid. “They really want to know about the food; they’re interested in the ‘gyana’ behind it; and this contributes to their appreciation. A restaurant like this is, therefore, a great fit for the foodies of the city.”
Drumroll has benefited from digital marketing but Baid still feels that when to comes to food, nothing is more mouth-watering than word of mouth. For this and its menu, Picadilly Square is an eclectic mouthful, which Baid hopes to wash down with the finest coffee from freshly roasted beans.
DEVANSHI SOMANY – FOODSTREE.COM
Foodie culture is at the heart of Devanshi Somany’s business. Leveraging the ecommerce boom in India and evolving customer behaviour, Somany launched foodstree.com, which is an ecommerce portal through which one can purchase gourmet and healthfoods currently scarcely found in stores and hypermarkets.
Devanshi Somany, founder of foodstree.com offers over 3000 delectible edibles for sale online
-photo courtesy of Devanshi Somany
Having studied at Modern High School For Girls in Calcutta and then doing a degree in economics & finance from Singapore Management University, like the Pooja Baid, Somany was being readied to play some role in her father Mukul Somany’s business, Hindustan National Glass. But, the dearth of choices in the Calcutta food market after coming back from Singapore left an indelible imprint on her.
Like other women who are now striving to be the change they wish to see in the world, to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, Somany began to think of ways in which she could bring the foods she craved to others like her.
“Foodstree was first and foremost a passion project, but finding an abundance fellow foodies and enthusiasts who were just as excited about the venture was the main reason and also the confidence-booster we needed to scale up into a larger platform,” says Somany.
Somany hired a firm to help develop the website and it took around 7-8 months to get it right. In the process she established relationships with suppliers all over India to bring and deliver to Calcutta foodies the snacks they increasingly told her they’d love to devour.
“The main challenge initially while creating our online presence was getting suppliers onboard. We were a nascent company with a different USP, so it took perseverance, pitch decks and quite a few phone calls to get our first few suppliers to list with us,” says Somany. Her perseverance has paid off, for now she over 230 vendors with more than 3,000 products available to be purchased.
Foodstree’s aims to deliver what Somany calls “culinary adventures,’ and emphasizes quality ingredients in the process.
Somany credits her passion coinciding with the current technological ecosystem as the critical success factors in her business. “Technology has helped reduce the barriers to entry for many segments,” says Somany. “It has made it easier to access resources, learning, information and provided a previously unavailable flexibility when it comes to the workplace. These factors have made it easier for everyone, but also especially women to dive into entrepreneurship.”
Somany has taken the plunge into the Calcutta market with heady results. She now seeks to scale up by offering the same in other markets.
Bootstrapped by family investment and support, Somany hopes the next phase of her business development will involve Venture Capital financing or other forms of external capital infusion. She will be doing this while looking for new products and aiming to bring new experiences to her clientele.
The website also features and informative blog and is probably the only such portal that enables the consumer to shop by benefit in addition to product type.
“Our healthy snack section is by far our most popular segment,” claims Somany. “We offer nutritious alternatives and options to regular snacks, such as baked crisps, quinoa puffs, wholegrain cookies, gluten-free crackers, keto chocolates and much more.
While a physical storefront has not been ruled out, Somany’s focus is still very much on the website, aiming to bring more products to a greater cross-section of the public.
On the lookout to improve, Somany is studying data analytics from Imperial College (by distance) in the hopes of applying this knowledge to reaching more people.
ESHA SETHI THIRANI – ESHA SETHI THIRANI CLOTHING LINE AND ADVITIYA BOUTIQUE
One of the first things out of the mouth of fashion designer and entrepreneur, Esha Sethi Thirani was something entirely unexpected: “I’m a Human Resources grad.” The button-down image of an HR exec certainly runs counter to the glamour that come with fashion design. But like her contemporaries, Thirani was drawn to the her chosen field outside the ambit of a planned career path.
Esha Sethi Thirani, founder of Esha Sethi Thirani clothing line and co-owner of Advitya boutique combines modern silhouettes with traditional craft
-photo courtesy of Esha Sethi Thirani
Co-owner of the store Advitya and founder of her own high fashion line, EST, Thirani was born and brought up in Calcutta, doing her BA at the prestigious St. Xavier’s College and then completing a Masters in HR at Lancaster University, UK but it wasn’t until she returned home that she found her place in life.
“I came back from Lancaster in 2008 and was looking for a job in Human Resources,” recalls Thirani. “My mom was running the store at the time and I just decided to join her until I found a job in Human Resources.” Instead, Thirani ended up falling in love with what her mother was doing and this fit well with the transition in management that her mother envisioned for the future.
But Thirani was not content by simply running the business. She found a calling in clothing, and set about to learn design on her own terms and launch her own label, which she did in 2013.
Having the boutique to stock the label constituted the kind of support for the brand that gave her the confidence to branch out, and before long, her line was making it into high end stores in Delhi and Bombay.
“The clothing is designed primarily by me and my Mom takes care of the sales side. Our store being multi-designer, I am but one designer that is featured here and my Mom has to make sure everyone sells. So, Advitya is hardly my flagship store but it is the birthplace of my label.”
While the trend is that Calcutta-born businesses dream of establishing themselves in centres like Bombay and Delhi, and fashion is the norm rather than exception, here, Thirani pulled out of stores in these cities, last year, to focus on higher margins in Calcutta. The move is surely an indication of her confidence in Calcutta markets, and evidence that high fashion is thriving in the city. And not to be ignored is that buying power in Calcutta, these days, is certainly not eclipsed by other cities, even if they appear to show it off in much a much more glitzy way.
“We still do exhibitions in Delhi and Bombay but feel that the retail element of our business is best focused on Calcutta,” says Thirani.
“I think Calcutta is very underestimated in fashion and other respects. We have some of the best designers over here. Anamika Khanna, etc. Some of the biggest names in fashion. We have the money power. We have the spending power. People for some reason have a very different vision of this place than what it is. And most of the big designers have opened stores here. So, there has to be a reason for that.”
Indeed, a common thread among our subjects is the idea that Calcutta as a start-up incubator is confounding expectations.
Technology wasn’t initially a key element of her business but it has come to the fore, recently. “I sell to the US via Instagram, and by the end of the month (February, 2020) we’ll have an e-commerce platform ready.”
Thirani offers ready-to-wear items through Instagram with potential for alteration, and this has worked very well. Thus far, Thirani has had no returns, and feedback has been positive regarding fits.
“I’ve come around to being more flexible to customer needs, which some designers don’t do. I think equally important to having a strong vision is to show respect to customers. One can’t be so inflexible as to think one’s designs are intrinsically perfect,” admits Thirani.
Thirani grew up in fashion, fabrics and clothing. So, the field came naturally to her. But it was only after completing a year-long fashion design course at the Bhowanipur Design Academy that she learned the technical aspects of the trade.
In an ad-saturated field, her line does not do traditional advertising. When a celebrity wears her clothing, this provides no better manner of promotion for her label in Thirani’s mind. And, the young designer’s outfits have been worn by the most glamourous of celebrities including Deepika Phadukone, Padma Lakshmi, Shraddha Kapur, and Sonakshi Sinha.
So, how does Thirani get her clothes worn by the gliteratti? It starts with the stylists engaging with PR firms and looking at what clothing lines have newly been launched. When they feel that certain silhouettes would flatter a celebrity, the stylist brings the whole line to the celebrity, and the individual or their representation ultimately reaches out. In an era when actresses and models are paid top dollar to don attire, thus far, Thirani has never paid a celebrity to wear her line. Every instance has been voluntary, and this is source of great satisfaction for her.
Thirani credits the local ecosystem as an element of her success: “There are various people dong very different things and fantastic work. There are so many fantastic designers operating in this city and everyone’s carved out a niche for themselves. And that’s the beauty of the place, there is space for so many to do so much.”
While much of her line is modern, Thirani has focused on saris for the US, which have received positive feedback. “I’m actually a big fan of saris and you’ll see them featured in our Spring/Summer collection around March 10th,” she says.
Although her foreign designs have been Western in nature, Thirani has made sure to include Indian touches such as Kalamkari. “The thread work in this city is second to none,” Thirani asserts. “And even when I design modern silhouettes, I include Indian embroidery.”
Among expanding her presence in India and abroad, Thirani aspires have her line be featured Lakme Fashion Week. “It’s the kind of thing that can be a game changer,” she says.
Thirani has learned over time to bend rules and give the client what they want without changing her design sensibility. Satisfying clients gives her great satisfaction. She also says she has learned from her mistakes.
Her advice to budding female entrepreneurs: “Don’t give up just because the money has dried up. Fewer barriers exist to establishing businesses than ever before and more options exist to stay afloat than in the past and a lot has to do with technology. The bottom line is: don’t lose hope.”
If these five young women are anything to go by, Spring 2020 will be ushered in by rays of hope beaming in on the Calcutta horizon. Like beams of light, these entrepreneurs appear to have infinite reach and the potential to brighten any dark space.