From Living in a Chawl to Building a Global Business
Sharfunnisa Shaikh grew up in a ‘chawl’ and shared a common toilet with the other residents in the small suburb of Pimpri in Pune. She came from a lower middle class family, was shy and couldn’t speak English properly.
Money was always tight and life was not easy for her family. Today she is a successful entrepreneur with a thriving direct selling business, travels the world inspiring others, and is a role model for many women.
Excerpts from an interview:
Can you tell us a bit about your family background?
I come from a small place called Pimpri in Pune. We are a lower middle-class family. My parents were Central Government employees and I have a younger brother. I spent the first 13 years of my life in a chawl, where we all shared common public toilets. My parents’ only dream was to put their children in an English medium school. Fortunately, I did well in studies and went on to get a B.Sc in Mathematics. I wanted to do my PhD in Maths and I wanted to be a Professor. But I guess it wasn’t destined.
Which kind of jobs did you work in?
I worked for many years in financial services, from Banking to Insurance industry. I got an opportunity to serve companies like ABN Amro and MetLife. I eventually moved to Bombay for better job opportunities.
How did you go from that to becoming an entrepreneur?
When I was living in Bombay, I bumped into an old friend from my financial services days. He had recently given up his job and had started building a direct selling business promoting health and wellness products. I admit that I didn’t fully understand what he did in that first meeting. I just knew that he was very excited about this business and he was keen to share it with me. When we met again later, he explained the direct selling business model used by QNet, the company he was associated with and pitched the idea of me starting off with him. Even though I still didn’t fully understand it, I trusted my friend and I was curious about this business. So, I started by buying some wellness products from QNet to try them out. I liked the products but I still wasn’t sure about getting involved in the business since my real estate job at that time was very hectic.
About 9 months later, this friend who had introduced me to QNet told me he was going for a global convention of the company in Malaysia and he was very excited about it. That got me thinking. I wondered why someone would want to pay from their own pocket to go attend a convention in a different country unless there was something truly amazing about the company and its business. I couldn’t understand the motivation. When he came back from the convention, this time I sought him out to properly understand the direct selling business model and what I could do to build a similar business. That was in June 2009 and I haven’t looked back since.
How has being an entrepreneur changed you at a personal level?
Because of my small town upbringing I had a major inferiority complex. I was shy, was not very fluent in English, fearful of talking to people. All of these traits are a major roadblock when you are trying to run your own business. The beauty of direct selling is that it’s not just about financial empowerment, there is a very important personal development aspect to it. The company provides all its independent representatives with training. There is a culture of mentoring and coaching and a team mentality, which means you are never on your own. There is a solid support system. That helped me arrive at a defining moment in my life where I truly believed that “I Can”. My attitude and mindset changed completely. I developed self-confidence which is an important aspect of success. I became goals driven and motivated to achieve the next level.
Since then there has been no turning back and today I lead a large team of similarly aspiring young entrepreneurs from different countries. I didn’t start off in this business wanting to lead people or mentor them. The process one goes through as an entrepreneur in direct selling can be quite transformative.
Was money the main factor in turning to direct selling?
Money was obviously important especially since I never had enough of it. However, as I started learning and understanding more about direct selling and saw the people around me in my team and how it had changed them at a personal level, I wanted to be part of this to regain my self-respect, and have a sense of dignity in my life. I had gone through so much at that point in my life I was fed up with how I was being treated. I wanted people to think twice before they talked down to me. I knew I was capable of working hard and that if I put in the work, money would follow. But money has never been or will be my main motivating factor. I wanted to earn respect, equality and dignity and QNet gave me the right platform.
The Model Direct Selling Guidelines are in place. All the direct selling companies are taking action to comply with them. What do you think of it and what are you as a successful player in this business at the field doing about compliance.
The guidelines are a great step in regulating our industry and helping curb fraudulent companies. I know that QNet has already complied with the guidelines and has also started communicating with all the distributors on the ground about complying with it. A few of us who have big teams have come together and developed seminars and training programs on these guidelines to help the new people joining us understand that there are strict rules and regulations to conducting this business.
What are the challenges you have faced in your journey as an entrepreneur?
Change is the biggest challenge. We are all conditioned to behave in a certain way or react in a certain way through our formative years. Trying to change that is very challenging.
I come from a Muslim family and in Islam there is a reference to Jihaad. The ‘Jihaad’ which is not a fight against evil outside, but a a fight against the thoughts that don’t let you grow. I know that I am perpetually on the Jihaad—fighting my battle every time. I fight my battles to change and I fight my battles to get better.
Your advice to the people who are interested in joining direct selling?
The attitude required for this business is no different than any other big business. They have to take it seriously, and put in hard work. And it needs to be done in a responsible manner. I see that many new people in this business today don’t seem to understand what they are getting into. When you are a part of direct selling, you are part of a massive system and you are creating value for a lot of people. So it needs to be treated with love and care. The most important thing needed to succeed in direct selling is to have a dream and be goals driven to achieve it.