- Couple Entrepreneurs
A Marriage of Professionals: Husband-and-Wife Entrepreneurs in India Support Each Other Emotionally and Strategically Published: April 28, 2010
Divya Medar always loved being a chef, but the former Taj Group of Hotels employee also wanted to start her own business. The downside was that she also enjoyed working with her husband, Gopi, a fellow Taj chef. But in November 2007, Medar -- who completed the 10,000 Women program hosted by the Indian School of Business in association with Goldman Sachs, Wharton and other universities -- was able to realize her goals. "I was on medical leave and decided it would be a good time to start my own company," notes Divya, 26, who today, with 32-year-old Gopi, owns Krsna Bhog, a food consulting and manufacturing services firm in Hyderabad.
Divya started the firm soon after their marriage, and her husband followed her into the business a few months later. "We both put in long hours together at the Taj group so we knew we could work alongside each other without stepping on each other's toes," Divya says. "Working together has worked out well." The couple's 12-employee company offers ready-to-eat snacks, culinary consulting, catering and training services.
New Entrepreneurial Spirit in India
Traditional cultural pressures in India have long been a barrier to women operating as equal business partners, let alone co-owning an enterprise with their husbands, says Kavil Ramachandran, a chaired professor of family business and wealth management at the Indian School of Business and academic director of ISB's 10,000 Women program. "But social outlooks can change, particularly when the economy drives more women into the workforce," he notes. "Anecdotally, an increasing number of women appear to be working alongside their husbands. It's too early to call it a widespread movement, but India has long had an entrepreneurial spirit, and this may be the latest manifestation of it."
The couple did face some questions from family members, Divya recalls, but she says it wasn't particularly hostile. "We had just married a few months before launching the business," she says. "So some of the family was concerned about how it might affect our relationship. In India, the son traditionally supports the family, and some older members couldn't understand why we both wanted to work. We're happy working together, and we support each other emotionally and strategically. Running a business on your own can be tough, but we complement each other, so if one feels emotionally down, the other can pick you up."
A key to their success is that husband and wife have focused on individual areas of specialization. "We have different working styles, which could present a challenge if we constantly clashed," Divya states. "So it was important to segregate our responsibilities." Divya primarily handles marketing and interacts with the firm's sales force, while Gopi deals with operations. Of course they swap responsibilities as needed to keep the company running at peak efficiency. "In the beginning, we hadn't planned to go into business together, especially so soon after getting married," notes Gopi. "But with both of us in the industry, things just worked out." Gopi adds that 20 years ago they would have likely faced stiff resistance from society. "Today, however, more women are working and we never felt it was a serious problem."
For Divya, the ability to successfully work as a husband/wife operation helps to reinforce the couple's emotional bond. "When the business is going through a difficult period, that's when you know if your relationship will work," she says. "As entrepreneurs, you bring your office problems back home, but if you can support each other even through that, you'll know things will work out at the office and at home."
Safe Secrets and Total Trust
Husband-and-wife entrepreneurial teams must navigate a host of challenges in order to strike that kind of personal/professional balance. Vasantha Sukumar and her husband, Sukumar Sannthanam, weren't too worried about marital friction 10 years ago when they co-launched V Choice, a Bangalore-based textiles manufacturing shop. "We each drew on our experiences," says Vasantha, who handled administrative duties for an international consumer products firm before going out on her own. Today she handles customer relations and other activity at V Choice's two showrooms -- having burnished her negotiation and other skills at ISB's Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program -- while her husband, a former engineer, takes care of procurement and marketing. When it comes to business strategy, "We discuss a lot of things and reach a decision together," she notes. "But at the end of the day, we try to leave business challenges in the office instead of bringing them home with us."
The husband-wife business model offers some advantages, Vasantha adds. "We totally trust each other," she says. "We know that neither of us will ever talk about company secrets to outsiders. Also, our trust in each other lets us reach decisions quickly, and we don't look to blame one another if things don't work out as expected."
Sannthanam says he knew early on that his wife had a good business sense and would prosper as an entrepreneur. "I saw she had clear, honest ideas and we were both willing to work to succeed," he notes. "Our efforts quickly gained momentum, and now we are ready to move to the next growth step, possibly to begin exporting our product. The knowledge my wife has gained at ISB will be very helpful in these efforts."
Sannthanam mirrors his wife's approach to separating work from home life. "There have to be boundaries," he notes. "We don't bring home issues to work, and we don't bring work issues home."
Despite sharing their decision-making responsibilities in an equitable manner, Sannthanam acknowledges that in one significant way Vasantha does shoulder some additional work. "My wife is still the primary caregiver when it comes to our children," he says. "She's taking care of them and contributing to our business. So I'd have to say my wife does more work than me."
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