Ishita Swarup is a doting mother of two babies, three-year-old Tara and two-year-old 99 labels, the latter being an event-based online fashion portal. While Swarup’s mornings are devoted to Tara, being chief-executive officer of 99labels keeps her busy for the rest of the day. Swarup describes her organisation as freewheeling, where the environment is as happily chaotic as other startups. “I am as responsible for handling customer feedback as I am for checking on the tea,” she says with a laugh. She elaborates that the hallmark of a good leader at a startup is the ability to juggle macro and micro management. However, Swarup is quick to recognise that what works at a startup need not work when the organisation scales up. And that is the direction in which 99labels is heading with a recent investment by Info Edge to the tune of US$ 3.5 million. Swarup identifies three clear areas to put the money to use – deploying marketing funds, sourcing international labels to create a differentiation in merchandise and engaging customers through social media initiatives. Swarup is also looking to allocate a budget for training and development initiatives within the organisation.
“Shopping online for fashionable things, now, this was right up my alley,” claims Swarup
When asked about others competing in this space, Swarup is more than happy that over 10 entities are growing the category. “If we weren’t in this together, making as much noise as we can, you wouldn’t be talking to me,” she says. She’s not in it for the short haul and would rather build and sustain value in the long run. As for this fiscal, Swarup is confident that 99labels will see a 20 – 30 per cent growth in month-on-month revenues.
The business bug
Swarup, an Economics-Honours graduate with an MBA from Institute of Management Technology, Ghaziabad, spent her first three years as a professional in the sales and marketing department of Cadbury India. It was here that she knew she wanted to be her own boss. “Back then (nearly 20 years ago), those without a family business background never dared to be entrepreneurs, especially not women!” she says. But in the year 1995, at all of 27, Swarup and a close friend, Tina Sapra, established a business process outsourcing unit called Orion Dialog. After 11 years of growing Orion Dialog, Swarup felt the need to move on and several opportunities to sell came the management’s way. This was also the time Essar Group (Essar) was entering the BPO space through an inorganic route and it was a great fit – Orion Dialog was bought over by Essar and merged with Aegis in 2006. Swarup stayed with Essar as part of senior management, but soon grew tired of her role there. At the end of her contract with Essar, she decided to take a sabbatical and explore options that rejuvenated her.
Swarup spent a good part of the next year mentoring a social enterprise called Sakha Consulting Wings Pvt. Ltd. (Sakha) – a cab service run exclusively by women in urban India. The women drivers employed by Sakha are from the marginalised sections of society and their development is the responsibility of Azad Foundation, Sakha’s non-profit sister concern. Swarup is always on the lookout to lend a hand to other such ventures, but is very clear in her view about the sector itself, “The best way forward for social entrepreneurs is to create an organisation that is self-sustaining. This is where I try to bring in my experience as a mentor to help them keep mistakes to a minimum.” While this space always interested her, the businesswoman in Swarup was itching to try her hand at something new. Fate dealt its hand and Aanchal Jain (co-founder, 99labels) approached Swarup with a business offer that was too exciting to turn down. “Shopping online for fashionable things, now, this was right up my alley,” claims Swarup. Over the course of next two years, alongside an emerging brand, Swarup and Jain built a great relationship, one that includes its fair share of arguments. Each founder’s role is defined – Jain is in charge of scouting for labels, given her experience in fashion, while Swarup looks after the daily operations.
Just another day
“I am not a morning person,” declares Swarup, while adding that running after her toddler Tara consumes all of her time before she drops her off at school and heads to work. Exercise is reserved for the evenings and Swarup tells me that she tries to hit the gym at least thrice a week. For someone who claims not to be a morning person, Swarup reaches work earlier than most. “I like to have the first hour to myself and it’s mostly spent responding to emails,” she says. Not necessarily a gizmo freak, Swarup likes to keep abreast on technology and has no qualms in admitting that she learns as much as she can from the 20-somethings at office. I ask about her interests and the reply is rather unpredictable – “I want to learn how to fly,” she says. And just as we conclude our chat, she rues the fact that her busy lifestyle might not allow her to make this dream come true. A small-ish price to pay for all the rest, I think.
Favourite Pastime: Trekking, curling up with a good book
Favourite Movie: Wish I had the time!
Favourite Cuisine: Oriental – Chinese and Japanese
Favourite Destination: Anywhere in the hills