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The league of women entrepreneurs
Vaishali Kirpekar
Monday, January 30, 2006
Seema Handu, Indu Navar Bingham and Himanshu Bhatia – like any other working mother are as comfortable with challenging projects as they are with helping their children with homework. Anu Shukla, who works in a skyscraper cabin overlooking the waterfront in San Mateo, is as bullish about her company as she is excited about her five-month-old twins.

More precisely, they are a bunch of Indian women CEOs, never dropping from the scene and shifting gears - from wearing salwar kameez to slipping into business suits, and from pushing baby strollers to moving their own companies forward.

Their journey of adapting to the U.S. started when they first came here to study. Bingham, 35-year-old CEO, Serus, and Handu, 41-year-old CEO PharmQuest came to the U.S. as international students.

“Even when I was doing my undergraduate degree in India, I always wanted to come to the U.S.,” says Handu. She had realized then that India is not the place for her. “I always wanted to be totally independent,” she says. Handu busied herself in a Ph.D. program in pharma sciences in Iowa University and Bingham did her masters in computer science in California State University.

While others like Shukla, 47 came as a tourist and Himanshu Bhatia, 42, who immigrated in 1987, realized later that education could prepare them for opportunities in the U.S. Shukla, a History honors student from India visited New York with her father and decided to stay back to do MBA. “I was 21 in 1981 when I came here with my father, chairman and CEO of Hind Cycles and stayed back in Youngstown, Ohio,” says Shukla.

Bhatia, an architect from the prestigious School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi got married and accidentally got into the MIS masters program in University of Missouri, St. Louis. “I was too late to apply for masters in architecture and went for the MIS program,” says Bhatia.

Like a toddler on an exploration trip, all climbed up the steep adaptation curve stumbling over a variety of things- American accent for example. Handu, more comfy with complex molecules, could not initially fathom what “Howdy” meant. “I used to give a blank look when my professors asked me that, because I didn’t know it meant how do you do till I actually asked him ‘please repeat what you said’.”

Bingham, who after a couple of years worked to get funding for her company from her dining room and got a quarter million dollars says without qualms, “Initially I didn’t know the process of doing bank deposits. I was like a baby taking first steps, learning making decisions,” she says.

Coping with a new culture almost meant learning and unlearning simultaneously. She shares her first day experiences after she was chosen as a teacher. “In India what we call the ground floor is the first floor here, which I did not know. So, when my professor and I were in the elevator, I kept pressing one to get to the first floor, instead of two. He tapped on my shoulder and said ‘two’ it was a weird situation- you don’t know what impression you give to people.” This was especially embarrassing back then to her because with all her scholarships that she got right on spot she thought she was smart enough to manage her way around in the new environment.

Everyone has stories to share. Bhatia cannot forget the Arizona business trip when she took a late night flight there and couldn’t find her way around. “I ended up in the pitch black desert, and I had no idea where I was. I wanted to put my head on the steering wheel and cry,” she narrates.

She goes on to share another frightening experience when she took the cab in Washington D.C. to go to a meeting. “The cab driver, who was new to the country, drove around for two hours. I was afraid I was being kidnapped.”

For Shukla, a full-time student engaged with campus activities, it was homesickness more than anything that initially bothered her, despite having the family blanket.

These novel experiences did not stop these women to do bigger things, and soon the newcomers became more familiar with the environment and thought of starting their companies. Bingham worked at NASA and Silicon Graphics, Handu worked in Penederm as a scientist, Shukla worked in several startups before becoming a VP and Bhatia worked at McDonnell Douglas as a systems analyst, and later in Edward Jones IT department.

Bingham who grew up in Bangalore where her parents had manufacturing companies and trucking services says that as a six-year-old, she knew the kind of cement that was used for construction. With the same élan, she says she knew what she wanted to concentrate - online shopping process. “It revealed to me that there was no connection between what people wanted and what was going on backend,” she says.

“People started saying that online shopping is the way to go and there is no warehouse. I would say how is that possible. Let me look at the all the inefficiencies that go behind the online shopping. That really got my interest,” says Bingham.

She found that communication and shipment were executed to the backend and there was no business model- the online retails were losing money. “I started to look at manufacturing processes. How they make the product, revenue and profit margin and it is dictated by how well they execute the business,” she says.

From then on started the journey of establishing Serus. She did not tap into venture capitalists. “How did SAP, Oracle Microsoft, start? It is all about being close to the customers. Listen to customers, no VCs to raise capital. Just get a sustainable business models.”

She believed that the customers fund them. “We wanted to get validation from the customer for software and vision. We know that we are building something that is not available today.”

Serus raised $ 500,000 in 2001. “Quantum Corporation was the first to pay us 125,000,” she says and does not forget to mention the tough times of 9/11. “During that time, we generated cumulatively $5 million in revenue,” she says. Recently they closed the series B financing of $5.5 million.

Bingham says she knew exactly what and how she wanted to do as an entrepreneur. “I knew what kind of company I wanted because I was passionate about solving today’s problems making use of next generation technology and reducing wastages.”

Similarly, Handu noted the lack of biotech companies in the Valley that focused on the drug development process, which she was interested in.

She wanted to work with the Food and Drug Administration. “Everything is driven by what FDA is looking for and everyone has to go by the standard set,” she says. Today Pharmquest has a partnership with FDA. “We create data standards. Our software tools are used by pharma companies and FDA to analyze the data. We lead the consortium.”

To get more exposure to the entrepreneurial world, she got involved in a non-profit organization that serves as a network for entrepreneurs- Talents, Ideas and Enterprise, TiE to make use of the mentorship it offered.

Soon she felt ready and equipped to streamline drug development process using software business plan for this company started in late 1999.

Similar to Bingham and Handu who analyzed what the market did not offer, Shukla found out that at that time there was no such thing as customer relationship marketing.

“Whereas in the same period I saw there was a growth in automation for sales force and other front office function which was customer service and customer support. There was sales force automation, customer service marketing software,” she says.

She found there was nothing available for her as the VP of marketing, Uniface. There was a need for some software that other people in her position wanted. This became the inspiration behind EMA.

“The Internet created new opportunities like direct marketing. I wanted to put those in my thinking, new way of building applications, so many positives in deploying Internet based EM software. It was the last bastion of the front office that was not automated,” she recalls.

She feels fortunate to be a part of wining teams of startups. “I worked for a private company owned by an entrepreneur. It later went public, did acquisition that led to creation of value,” she says stressing on the latter. “The whole idea of creating something from nothing is what I wanted to do when I was ready. The outcome is less important than the journey that I love,” she recalls.

Although Shukla didn’t aspire to be an executive in a big company, or run a fortune 500 division, she started Rubric in 1997 and sold it at the right time for $366 million, before the crash came in 2001 and made her 85 employees millionaires.

Like these determined women, Bhatia didn’t lose time in figuring out what she wanted to. “I saw an opportunity in IT consulting where the very large service providers had the breadth of services but not the cost-efficiencies for their clients. I saw the smaller service providers having low cost but not the partnering approach or the depth of service for their clients. In the middle was a niche that needed to be filled,” she recalls.

Her husband although supportive, first tried to talk her out of it, she says. “I started from the basement of my house cold-calling, recruiting, networking and attending all local workshops offered by the SBA to set up Rose International,” she says. The timing was good because of the Y2K boom. Within 6 months, Rose became a supplier to MasterCard, SouthWestern Bell Telephone, Maritz, State of Missouri and the Federal Government and she moved out of my basement into a respectable yet modest office space.

From database design to application development Rose International provided a wide range of IT services to clients. “We added new customers and capabilities while maintaining tight operations and investing our profits back into the business. We added branch offices year after year to gain a national footprint,” says the CEO.
The flight to perch upon CEOhood has not been without the pangs and joys of motherhood along with on the job stress. Career growth and family time has been their foothold since.

“Balance it out, figure out fast what is the priority,” says Bingham, who started the company when her son was born. She feels having a company is a like having a child. “If your child is sick, you go out of way, so if the company calls you to make arrangements, you have to go. You got to really understand priority, jumbling up creates problems,” she says.

Bingham went through a marital separation. “There was an impact. But I don’t relate to my life as an impact of stress- I would rather say you grow in certain way with these experiences,” she says. Bingham asserts that her experiences have made her tough. Bingham recalls the situation when she was about to close a customer and have an investor close the financing round. “9/11 happened that day. After that, I feel I am in a phase and situation where nothing scares me. I cannot say I cannot do it because I know I will come through.”

Similarly Handu asserts that going through the U.S. experience and ups and downs of startups, boom and bust has made her the woman CEO she is. “Layoffs were the most difficult thing to do,” she says. “That changed my perspective because I didn’t think I could do it to my people,” she reflects. “I thought I rather shut down the company than layoff people.”

She rationalized to find her peace. “All the intellectual capital has gone in the company, I said to myself. As the company grows, it builds wealth & value. But when you have to pick between the company and the people- laying off some people for the life of the company looked more acceptable,” she says.

“I have a supportive husband. ‘Let’s get help’ he always says- he does not want me to do house chores, cooking, laundry, or gardening,” she says.

Handu’s approach to a stress-free life is that women should realize they couldn’t do everything. “Get help wherever critical. If you want to be a good mother, and a good professional, you cannot be a good cook. Choose something that works in the family.
Spending time with kids relaxes her. “We sit down, play, read, go out a lot over the weekends, go to hikes, camping etc.”

She compartmentalizes her life. “When I go home, I push back stress causing things such as financing, business, employee issues back,” she says. Bhatia who has two teenaged children aged 12 and 14, concur like Handu that being a woman entrepreneur means being a good role model for children.

“My daughter cannot imagine- how aunty does not work. For a long time she could not comprehend that, because not normal-women go out to work. She is sensitive to man-woman issues,” Handu explains.

Talking about being a role model for her son, Handu narrates that when her son was 5, he told her about a friend who had said that mummies don’t know everything daddies know everything, so for anything go to daddy. “He said ‘no my mommy can do everything.”
The story of womanhood and motherhood is the story about campus life and work pressure too, be it for Indian women born in India or outside, like Sunaina Anand and Prita Uppal, who launched a media company in May 2004, with a unique product based on Bollywood- the Filmigame.

Both traveled to India and met filmmakers Prakash Mehra, Karan Johar, getting rights from them for hits like Kal ho na ho, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. “We wanted to look at different sort of cultural entertainment. There is nothing much, we found,” says Sunaina.
“I would not have given this up for the world,” she adds. Sunaina, 28 is born and brought up in the U.K. She currently resides in Boston. Interested in culture and traditions of South Asia, she feels that cultural entertainment tends to be marginalized. “Mainstream gets covered but people are left wanting about finer cultural aspects.”

Prita Uppal, a focused and dynamic woman did her MBA from Harvard University in 2004 because she wanted to be an entrepreneur. A hard core techie, she worked at Eaton corp. “I wanted technical competence so I went to Stanford and got M.S. in engineering,” says this 29-year-old who grew up in Minnesota loving the Namak Halal songs.

Despite her prestigious degrees from Harvard and competence she was nervous about her endeavor. “At first I was very nervous, but producers saw us as a way to bring more interest in Hindi movies,” says Prita.

Be it Harvard or any other university, wife or daughter, these women are marching to success. Atta girl(s)!
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