A place in Fortune’s Magazine’s list of Most Powerful Women in 2015, recipient of the Woman Entrepreneur of the year award in the same year…Nina Lekhi’s name may not ring a bell immediately, but her flagship handbags brand Baggit definitely makes her an identifiable name. 1990 was the year that an eighteen year old Nina kicked off her venture, armed with a dream and the will power to succeed. Like many self-made entrepreneurs, her journey began with challenges and struggles. By 2006-2007, Baggit had a turnover of 7 crore with a full time staff of 50 and 450 job workers. And with sheer determination, 25 years later, she has managed to make Baggit one of the leading accessory brands in India.
Married with a 14 year old daughter, Nina also runs a school known as the Rishi Gurukulam at Katarkhdak Hills near Pune with her husband. As she speaks to Ria Das about her roller coaster ride, future plans and her love for fitness and adventure, one realizes that hers is an inspiring story of ambition, ingenuity and conviction.
To start with Nina, what inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
Mine was a small family…consisting of my parents and elder brother. While I was studying the art course at Sophia Polytechnic, I failed in an examination. I was 17 then and couldn’t believe it happened as I was very good at studies. Thankfully, my parents were very supportive. I was out of college for a year, which indirectly was the commencing pillar of my entrepreneurial journey. I started with two part time courses; one in textile and another in interior decoration which have been instrumental in instilling in me the sensibilities of design which you see in our Baggit products today.
I started working as a salesgirl on the side; first at Shyam Ahuja, selling carpets, and later, at Mike Kriplani, selling salwar kameezes. I learnt a lot of important lessons and gained customer insights on the shop floor. One day in our screen printing classes, I found myself asking a question-why don’t we get bags with graphics?
I started designing bags which was the turning point for me. One thing led to another and the confidence that that gave me, led me to believe I could be an entrepreneur. No woman in our family had ever worked, but my mother was extremely encouraging. I have always catered to the lifestyle and fashion needs of the modern Indian women. Whether it was 25 years ago, when I first started with a few bags or today when we get sold at 400+ outlets. I think Baggit is the proof that if one has failed once, doesn’t mean she/he cannot be an achiever in future.
I started designing bags which was the turning point for me. No woman in my family had worked
What are the struggles you have gone through as an entrepreneur? And what have been your learning’s?
I picked up the tricks of the trade very quickly and started on a journey in 1985.’My challenges were more internal to me. My failures, however small led me to challenge the environment and be accepted seriously as an entrepreneur. I needed to prove that my designs mattered and catered to the latent need of the customers. So the enthusiasm at such an early age coupled with the determination drove me to create a successful ecosystem at Baggit.
The “Never Quitting” attitude along with the energy and exuberance saw me through those years. My belief is that if you work with a positive attitude people appreciate your work. The hard work and support from my teams made Baggit a successful brand.
I also learnt that direct interaction with the customer gives me innumerable insights about business processes and product design.
Could you tell us a little about the philosophy behind Baggit and the company’s future plan?
Three decades ago I realized that my friends and I did not have funky and contemporary bags to buy in India. My design background helped me start off with one bag then. I sold at exhibitions, and supplied exclusively in my initial years to a few retail stores in South Mumbai. My designs and my commitment to not using leather have been appreciated and bought by the Indian woman of all age groups and that gave me the impetus then, and even today to continuously grow in numbers for last 25 years.
her journey began with challenges and struggles but 2006-2007, Baggit had a turnover of 7 crore with a full time staff of 50 and 450 job workers.
Our strong belief in “Dressing to kill, and not killing to dress” all these years has bagged us the PETA award, yet again. Baggit bagged PETA Vegan Fashion Awards 2014 for the Best Brand in Women’s Wallet category. Currently Baggit has its presence in 61 cities across India with 40 exclusive Baggit outlets and presence in 300 multi brand retail stores.
We are in the process of opening 50 new stores by the coming year. As the purchasing power of Indian consumers is increasing, our major focus is to penetrate in different zones in tier II and III cities of India, through distribution network. Online retail is also showing positive signs of tremendous growth this year. Our long term target is to have a presence in each city of India. We are also putting our plans together for international expansion.
Which brands do you consider as your competitors in this field and how has Baggit managed to beat its competitors?
When it comes to putting together an ensemble, the Indian woman is very ingenious and a bag could even compete with a stole. In the world of fashion, the brand Baggit by virtue of being the largest selling bag and accessories brand competes with private in-store labels, global fashion brands and exclusive bag brands abroad. Baggit’s strength lies in delivering a product which is superior, in terms of functionality as well as design. The acceptance among all age groups and our large variety of skills helps us retain market-share.
What are the pros and cons of having one’s own retail outlet, versus retailing through other stores or malls, and online retailing?
In today’s environment all three methods of distribution co-exist. Your own brand stores allow you to create a unique brand experience albeit it is expensive. This also allows for a brand’s direct interaction with the end-user. Large format stores and online retailing gets a brand instant reach, although you relinquish control on the brand experience.
How do you balance your work and personal life?
I believe in work-life balance. I have a policy of working only for three days a week at my work place. This three day work rule ensures that I am intensely focused on my work objectives. I value my work days more and plan meticulously to leverage every day to the fullest. I take out three days for myself and visit the Gurukulam in Katarkhadak that my husband and I have adopted in the outskirts of Pune. I make sure to involve myself in reading, thinking and analyzing when I am here. I live like a monk, and my favorite time is when I am simply making tea by myself or strolling down the ashram lanes or watching the sun set over the mountains. That’s my ME time. Every time I come back fresher, happier and a better person. What I do for these three days can vary from week to week. It is really a stress buster to go back to the kids and my own daughter who is studying in the Gurukulam. Being a fitness freak, I go cycling, swimming, trekking, which are some of my favorite pastimes. When travelling, I always make it a point to stay connected with my team. During weekdays, one day a week is exclusively meant for store visits.
Women have the secret power of multitasking which men don’t.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement so far?
My greatest achievement is that my design and creativity has led to a large product portfolio and growing business. But this alone would not have been enough. I also have a loving and balanced family life. And I have managed this with a great work-life balance approach.
What are the innate strengths women have which make them successful entrepreneurs?
Women have the secret power of multitasking which men don’t. The need to multitask propels them to be more efficient. Women also have the inherent quality of nurturing. We can build a strong relationship with our teams. Women also tend to be more expressive and are more empathetic. All these qualities are useful for entrepreneurship.
When you started there weren’t many women who ventured into entrepreneurship, but India today has almost a million women entrepreneurs. What do you think about this change?
It’s great to see that today women are ahead of men in many socio-economic activities. I am very proud to see that so many women have the power to make decisions on their own, for themselves as well as the society. Women are smart, confident and intelligent and are capable of achieving great heights. Unlike before, the society in urban India is encouraging women empowerment and the men too are beginning to appreciate the double income. This is a fabulous time for all women to get out there and beat the men at their jobs.
I am very proud to see that so many women have the power to make decisions on their own, for themselves as well as the society
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
All I would like to advice is make it a top priority to cater to the needs of the modern consumer. One has to strive to create stuff they will appreciate and want to make an integral part of their life. Today’s consumer is extremely knowledgeable and is spoilt for choice, so the challenge is to create products and services that meets their latent demands and can create positive brand conversations.