Tara Singh Vachani, the founder of Antara Senior Living, takes us through how she acquired an ‘on the job’ MBA by building a good relationship with her stakeholders and building a business from scratch
With a major in Politics and South Asian Studies from the National University of Singapore, when Tara Singh Vachani returned to Delhi to join her father Analjit Singh in the Max India Empire, she knew she was not cut out for that job. In her own words she had to do something that excited her and held her responsible at the same time. Eventually, that enthuse came to her in the form of entrepreneurship. In 2010, she laid the foundation for her first venture, Antara Senior Living, a community for people in their sixties and beyond, nestled in Dehradun.
Vachani went through a series of meetings with the board before she was given the green signal for the venture. In fact, as she talks about her journey, she recollects one of the toughest questions she was asked by the board; why should a publicly listed company trust and invest money in a 23-year old with no formal education in business or training in entrepreneurship? “That question taught me the most about being transparent and candid as a leader. It helped me dive deep into my own aspirations, the skills I possess and the skills I needed to develop,” says Vachani.
Today, five years after taking the first steps, Antara Senior Living has developed its first community at Dehradun, at the foothills of the Himalayas. Spread over 20-acres, the community, which will be operational from the first quarter of 2016, houses 218 apartments ranging from 1,900 square feet to penthouses of 9,000 square feet. Keeping in mind the safety and wellness of the senior citizens, apart from being located close to Max Healthcare’s super-speciality hospital, the community has also appointed caregivers and an on-call doctors and nurses to attend to the residents’ healthcare needs and has in-built, senior-friendly facilities such as emergency alarm call buttons and subtle night lighting inside apartments.
Additionally, to keep the residents active, the community hosts outdoor and indoor activity centres such as badminton and tennis courts, library, conservatory and herb garden, café and spa. Priced from Rs. 1.23 crore to Rs. 8 crore (apart from a monthly maintenance fee of Rs. 28,000 plus Rs. 16.75 per square feet), the service is targeted at the 60+ age group from high net worth communities. While the entire project cost Vachani Rs. 550 crore, Max India invested Rs. 115 crore and the rest was raised through debt.
In this interview, Vachani takes us through the key management lessons she has learnt from her so-called functional MBA that she acquired while setting up Antara Senior Living.
You ventured into entrepreneurship with minimal formal training in business. What scared you the most and what made you look forward to taking the first step?
From a philosophical point of view; the one thing that scared me was failure and the one thing I looked forward to was building something from scratch with my name on it. I was excited about the fact that I would be responsible for something and the success or failure of it would be attributed to me.
From a tactical view point, I feared the idea of grasping numbers and understanding financial jargon such as IRR, EBITDA and more. What I looked forward to was building the HR and marketing aspects of the business because it came naturally to me.
Every business wants to carve a niche to differentiate itself from competition. What was Antara’s? And how did you build it into the company?
Right at the founding stages, we identified and drew inspiration from four pillars, what we call as our guiding principles in every step we have taken thus far; togetherness, brilliance, responsible action and Seva Bhaav. Of these, Seva Bhaav was the one we (the team and its stakeholders) closely associated with because it reflects our simple ability to be resourceful in the way we serve our ecosystem. We see this as a trait that will define us and what our brand stands for.
Take me through your first hire. What are some of the (unusual) questions you ask candidates when you hire them?
Our first hire was an employee who was required to help us put together the office. In fact, one the interesting questions we asked him was, if your house were burning down, what are the three things you would take with you? A person’s response to such a question tells us a lot about their value systems and the things they are most attached to. Even today, we continue to ask this question when we recruit someone on the team.
What was the upside about being an entrepreneur at a young age? On the other hand, what was the downside of it?
The upside was the sense of responsibility I felt, when I was building something from scratch. I believe no other experience toughens you up the way entrepreneurship does. You are made to be responsible for people, values, money, community and society and the discipline it gives you to be respectful towards the society is incredible.
The downside is that everything ultimately comes down to you. You are looked up to as a founder and visionary and somewhere along the way, people allow themselves to absolve their responsibilities and decision-making and put it on you. This means, you have to be switched on 24/7 and work life balance goes askew. But every entrepreneur knows this and this challenge cuts across every venture.
Tell us about your working partnership with Mr. Analjit Singh and Rahul Ghosh. Were there any practices or lessons that trickled down from their experiences into Antara?
Oh, there were several! (laughs). Let me start with my father, Analjit Singh. He always believed in being extremely inclusive. At all times, he would involve as many people in creating processes, products or even systems, so that he could learn from their ideas and feedback. To me, adopting that practice was like securing a functional MBA. I learnt from several advisors, mentors and experts across industries and age groups about how to build a business and I constantly try to bring that diverse experience into my ecosystem. I ensure I take a holistic approach to every problem I’m faced with.
A second practice I acquired from him, which I believe is more in our DNA, is the need to be extremely planned. I think when you are in a situation where you are responsible for several things, you can’t afford to be adhoc. Leaving in place a certain amount of flexibility, you need to be planned.
Going to my lessons from Rahul Khosla, I believe he strikes a perfect balance between being a professional and an entrepreneur because of the diverse experience he holds. For example, if I suggest an idea to him, he will push me for data and make sure I understand in depth, what I am proposing. At the same time he will allow room for my gut instincts. A second lesson I learnt from him was the art of creating transparency in governance for stakeholders.
What is your management style? A leadership approach you believe in?
I certainly haven’t reached a stage where I can look at things standing atop a balcony. So, my way of functioning is to get into the nitty-gritty of things. I work hard, I am very involved in what I do and I do not differentiate between the tasks I have been assigned. No activity is too small for me to get involved in.
That being said, I would like to transform my management style and allow my team to grow and become leaders themselves. I also see myself as a people-centric person. I invest a lot of time in building a good relationship with my team.