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Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Latha, Rajini and Amudha: Three women who wrote their own script

River streams have their way. And just like they choose their own paths to flow, these three women carved their own destiny, not complacent with staying in the shadows of men who scripted greater success and fame.

Latha Rajan told her husband, K. Pandia Rajan, as they co-founded staffing solutions company Ma Foi in 1992, “If people in the office call me the MD’s wife one year down the line, I will quit.” She was a qualified chartered accountant and had established an independent practice. As Ma Foi rapidly took off by 1994, she took a more active role in the its growth, taking up added responsibilities. She feels people are her strong forte. “Managing HR in a HR company is not easy,” she laughs. She then went on to play a definitive role in social outreach programmes, some of which have grown to benefit a large section of the society.

From L to R: V P Rajini Reddy, Managing Trustee at Swarnabhoomi Academic Institutions; 
Amudha, Founder and Director at Canopo; and Latha Pandiarajan, Co-Founder and Director at Ma Foi Group

V.P. Rajini Reddy dreamt of being an architect. She chose to study civil engineering, an unconventional choice of engineering stream for girls, inspired by her uncle who was running a real estate business employing architects. She joined her uncle’s business just after finishing college. Before she could dip her feet, she got married to merchant banker G.R.K. Reddy. And it was after a short time in Delhi that Reddy wanted to shift to Madras to set up his own venture in merchant banking. Reddy then forayed into real estate, establishing MARG as a visionary brand standing out for mega projects. Rajini Reddy didn’t follow her husband into the business. Instead she founded a software training company, along with partners to start with, and then moved into the outsourcing business on her own. She now takes care of all the educational ventures of the group apart from running the outsourcing business.

Amudha, the eldest daughter of C.K. Ranganathan, whose CavinKare group is behind several retail brands that are household names today, studied visual communications, inspired by her cousin. She knew that she would end up in business and so she took to several projects and trained herself in retail sales, restaurant management, personal grooming and interior design, all within CavinKare group businesses. But she soon realised that she was not going to find her grounding in any of these businesses. Encouraged by her father at every stage of her experimentation, she finally decided that she would run a school for kids. The inspiration came to her from a school called Alphabet that she would longingly look at, on her way to college every day. Once she found her calling, she followed it without a second thought.

Shaping up

The trajectory these women have followed were shaped by circumstance and a desire to stand out. Rajini Reddy’s resolve was strengthened by a near-traumatic experience of G.R.K. Reddy getting kidnapped by a village mafia. Out of the blue, she received a phone call demanding a ransom for her husband’s release. While her husband returned safely after a five-day ordeal, Rajini decided to take more interest in the operations of MARG, in which she was a promoter-director.

Latha simply went through the grind of establishing Ma Foi. She was entrusted with the responsibility of internal operations of the company, while Pandiarajan took care of business development and customer acquisition. Ma Foi Foundation, the social responsibility arm of Ma Foi, engaged itself in several welfare projects, spearheaded by Latha. The underprivileged sections, especially in north Chennai, were the group’s primary focus. Empowering women was what Latha focussed upon keenly. That also propelled her to establish a micro-finance unit.

Amudha was advised by her father to train herself in different areas. She recalls, “When a new soft drink was launched by CavinKare, I was involved in the field sales.” She joined other selling agents of the company at 4 a.m. for a briefing and was set targets. When she was learning operations in the group’s restaurant Veg Nation (which has since been wound up), there was a flash strike by the kitchen staff at around 11 a.m. Guests were expected at 12 noon. Unexpected situations mean unconventional responses as well. Along with the restaurant manager, and a few helpful staff, she wore the apron and cooked a few dishes, having seen it prepared by cooks. “I learnt how to respond to unforeseen situations,” she says. Into their own calling

The sailing was not smooth for these women. It was grit and resolve that took Rajini to overcome adversity and emerge successful. Her first venture, Atlanta Software, failed, not because of the market but when the two co-founders decided to drop it to pursue something else. She took the burden of converting that company into an outsourcing business. RR Infotech was born in 1999 (later renamed Exemplarr in 2008) and was primarily engaged in medical billing and medical transcription services for US clients. Investment was significant, as were the operational expenditure, as it necessitated setting up a US office. She says, “It was a seasonal business and when there was work, it will pour.” Dry days were hard, as whatever was gained evened out during the low period. Though fortunes fluctuated, she stayed put. She expanded first into data entry and then into publishing outsourcing. This was also a seasonal business, but the going was better.

More importantly, bettering herself was Rajini’s priority. People at home always considered her businesses a hobby and thought she could shut it down when her demands increased in the family. She didn’t view life and her business as a hobby but as a path to writing her own story. She got enrolled in the Harvard Business School’s 10-week programme for business owners. Not content with the exposure, she also completed an executive MBA from Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. “People started taking notice of me and my stock went up in the family,” she says. To equip herself in handling finance, she took the ISB course for executives, a grind for 18 months, in which she visited business schools in the United States and Brazil. The exposure not only increased her confidence but also gave her a peer network through which she learnt greatly, especially how to manage finances.

Latha’s Ma Foi success took unexpected turns. Venture capitalists came in a bit later than the initial 273 investors. “My friends and Pandiarajan’s friends helped us with funds at the beginning,” Latha recalls. “People talk of crowd funding. We started our company through that,” she adds. Investment as low as Rs 5000 was taken and shares issued. When the Netherlands-based Vedior wanted to take a significant stake in Ma Foi in 2004, they wanted all the small investors to quit. Vedior gave a great comfort in operations as they were more of a confederate and did not interfere in the company’s affairs. But when Vedior was acquired by Randstad in 2008, everything changed. And the Rajans also exited the staffing business. But they made effort to retain the Ma Foi brand, and went into consulting, education and analytics in 2012. But Latha’s focus is firmly on the micro-finance business, Varam, through which 60,000 women have benefitted. She has invested heavily in the venture after exiting Ma Foi. “Loans worth Rs. 7.5 crore have been disbursed so far,” she says. The beneficiary women have taken to several micro-businesses and continue to earn their livelihood. For instance, flower vendors, petty businesses, and women rearing cows have achieved better livelihood, thanks to Varam.

North Chennai is the prime area of focus for Varam in Chennai Remote locations in Chattisgarh and Maharashtra have also been added now. Ma Foi Foundation also supports a rural healthcare initiative called Ekam Trust. Latha contributes to it significantly by providing financial and mentoring support. Finding that boys in north Chennai love boxing, Latha initiated steps to train the interested boys in boxing. A sports academy is up and running now to train these boys who have taken to winning prizes at prominent events, even at the national level.

Amudha spent her time researching about schools when she decided to set up a school for tiny tots. She travelled across the country to see for herself how children’s schools are run. She researched intensely on the subject as well. Canopo was set up in 2014. Through her learning, she designed a special curriculum that offered a unique experience to the kids as well as mothers. “Infants as young as 10 months are part of our programme,” she beams. Bonding with the mother is the aim of this training and slowly as the infants grow older, they are taught speaking and writing skills. Consciousness of the nature and the environment is given a special focus. By the time the kids are five-and-a-half, they would have undergone basic learning and would have imbibed a few special skills that enhance their thinking and movement.

Rajini is the founder-member of the organisation for empowering women in IT called e-WIT. “The networking opportunities for women are less. They can’t socialise as men do and if they did, that is looked down as not a respectable thing to do,” feels Rajini. The most important difference that e-WIT has made is empowering women professionals in the IT sector to taking up executive positions and senior management roles. Even within MARG, Rajni became a voice for women to play important and higher executive roles.

While underprivileged women and children’s uplift continues to be Latha’s muse, Rajini finds her moorings in women empowerment and in enhancing rural employability, for which she has set up a rural finishing school. The young, dreamy-eyed Amudha aims to expand the footprint of Canopo across India and eventually far and wide as well. And these ventures have no scent of super-achiever husbands of Latha and Rajini or, in the case of Amudha, her father, who wrote his own history in the FMCG business.

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