Women in Tech is a special series of stories of women who have pushed boundaries to make it big in the Indian tech space, which is still largely a male domain. In this series, we ask them what it’s like to be a woman in Indian tech, the challenges they face and lessons they can share from their journey with aspiring women technologists.
Lavanya Sunkari, founder of Hyderabad-based beauty subscription box GlamEgo, reminds me of Jules Ostin from the 2015 Hollywood film The Intern played by Anne Hathway.
Just like how Jules converted ‘About The Fit’, a startup founded in her kitchen, into a 220-employee business in just 18 months, Lavanya has singlehandedly grown her beauty subscription business from an idea conceived in 2016. GlamEgo is presently the largest player in the market with a 70% market share.
But there’s more to the comparison. Jules is a confident leader, excellent at multi-tasking - spending time with her child and running her business so successfully, that gets investors worried about the fast-paced growth of the company.
Lavanya is no different. She has grown her business from a mere 500 monthly orders in March last year to a profitable business that receives an average of 50,000 orders every month. And all this, with no external funding.
For a business growing so fast, Lavanya never looks stressed. In my multiple interactions with her, I have always found her wearing a smile, calmly going about her daily business.
But of course, it hasn’t been an easy journey.
Lavanya wants to grow the beauty subscription box market in India, a market that was very nascent in India but worth $21.4 million in the US, when she started.
But Lavanya says, that while being a woman in a male-dominated startup ecosystem was a big challenge in itself, starting a beauty-related company ensured no one took her seriously.
“When I was approaching brands, I saw that when it’s a woman, they wonder if I am going to take it seriously. I have faced instances where they think that I have a lot of money and I’m doing this as a time-pass. No one thinks or believes that I want to build a big business,” Lavanya says.
And adding to this, Lavanya says that there have been several instances when people don’t take her business seriously because its beauty-related. They assumed she was just trying to sell products like any other ecommerce company.
“Beauty subscription is a very different business. You are trying to get brands to put their expensive products in a box worth just Rs 399. They don’t understand that this is a billion-dollar opportunity in India. Everyone just assumes that because I’m a woman, I chose to sell some beauty products since that’s all I’d know. The reactions I get from clients, investors are not as encouraging and how they’d react if I said I’m working on IoT,” she adds.
Adding to this, Lavanya says that not coming from an IIT and IIM background only made things worse. She says that when she is approached by investors, they are often disappointed to know that the startup isn’t run by an IIT or IIM graduate.
“I find it very strange that despite the stage we are in - we are at the top, we turned profitable in just one year and I have 10 years of marketing experience. But despite all this, people actually don’t take the company seriously because it comes from a non-IIT, IIM background,” she adds.
Hence, the biggest challenge for Lavanya in the past two years has been convincing people that GlamEgo is here to disrupt and that Lavanya is serious about her work.
Overcoming the technical challenges
Lavanya comes from a pure marketing background and at the time of starting her business had no tech knowledge.
“When I started in June 2016, I paid Rs 60,000 for a static website. Now when I look back, it’s a pathetic thing one can do” she says laughing.
But today, while Lavanya may not have learnt coding, she knows what’s needed for a tech-based business to run successfully. While laughing off the fact that her technical knowledge may be poor, she knows what open-source platforms websites are run on, what each of their advantages and disadvantages are. She knows today what an important role technology plays in her business and has ensured her business is backed by a strong website and driven by data analytics.
“There is a saying that says hire a smart person when you aren’t smart enough. And that’s exactly what I did. I ensured that GlamEgo has a strong technology team headed by my co-founder who has years of core tech experience. I have learnt the importance of having an in-house tech team and having coding done in house. This also greatly helps with data analytics, which is the core of our business. Without insights of customers, we won’t know what products are selling and how we need to target our customers,” she says.
However, it all eventually comes down to marketing, understanding how much money to put where, she adds.
Overcoming personal challenges
Ask Lavanya, mother of a five-year-old son, how she manages to do it all, she says that she has been lucky to have found an extremely supportive husband and family.
But it is not always the case. Lavanya says that being an entrepreneur, 20 out of 24 hours in a day goes into thinking about their business. And when a man wants to become an entrepreneur, he is celebrated by the society, lauded for the effort being put in.
“But when it’s a woman, even if you have support, you are still expected to constantly think about your child and family and are criticized for the amount of effort you put into your work. There are too many strings trying to pull you down. Only when you're free from these strings can you concentrate on work and put in the same 20 hours towards the startup. Because without that kind of dedication, no one can take their business to a certain level,” she adds.
Lavanya believes that it is important for a woman to understand that it is also about themselves and not just your family. “There might be several challenges, but when you look back several years later, your children will be living their dream, but you should also have something you have achieved for yourself,” she adds.