From white-collared professionals to power couple of direct selling
Shipra and Neeraj Raghunand’s love story of ‘two states’ is the stuff Bollywood blockbusters are made of. A South Indian Brahmin boy bumps into a North Indian baniya girl on a train and it was love at first sight! Their relationship blossomed and led to marriage with the couple moving to Bangalore to start their life together.
But it wasn’t going to be a straightforward happily-ever-after saga. Shipra and Neeraj’s marital journey was fraught with financial challenges and the many constraints that came with the economic recession in the country at the time. But the trying times only made them stronger. From white collar professionals living in fear of losing their jobs due to the recession, to the entrepreneurial power couple they are today with one of Asias’s largest direct selling companies, that is the journey that redefines their love story.
Shipra’s determination to make a success of her business not only inspired her husband and brother to follow suit but also motivated thousands of others to continue to strive for success and never give up.
In this interview, this successful couple shares the story of their extraordinary journey together.
Tell us about your family background, and where you come from?
Shipra: I come from a middle class baniya family in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh. My parents are educationally well qualified and they wanted my brother and me to also get a good education, so that we can do well in life. Our parents made a lot of sacrifices to ensure that we went to best schools and colleges. My elder brother became a doctor. I wanted to study MBA after my graduation, but while I was in college I met Neeraj and got married soon after.
Neeraj: I belong to a traditional Tamil Brahmin family and grew up in Bangalore. My father is a retired engineer and mother was a banker. I studied business management and also hold a post-graduate diploma in business administration and human resources (HR). I spent 9 years of my career in sales with top multi-national companies, but I never really enjoyed it. For some reason I was always inclined towards people relations and people management and wanted to work in this area. I was able to realize this dream at Infosys where I was responsible for managing employee relations alignment for the company’s overseas centres. While I was there, I also did an HR program from IIM Bangalore. I worked there for eight-and-odd years before I set up my own direct selling business with QNet.
You two seem to have an interesting love story straight out of Bollywood. Tell us the story of how you met.
Shipra: When I met Neeraj, I was still pursuing my graduation. I was travelling on a train to Delhi as I wanted to get admission to a Lucknow-based training institute for MBA entrance exam, which had its head-office in the Capital. Neeraj was on the same train. He was then working in UP as a sales manager for an American pharmaceutical MNC. We exchanged numbers, and after interacting for a few months, we realized we liked each other and wanted to get married. Neeraj came to Jaunpur to meet my parents, and they liked him immensely though he was from a different caste, a different state, and was six-and-half years older to me. We got married soon after I graduated, and I moved to Bangalore with him, which turned out to be quite a culture shock for me.
Everything was different from food, to clothes, to lifestyle. Fortunately, I was young and easily adaptable. Neeraj also helped me a lot with the adjustment. Also, both our families were very supportive of the marriage, so that’s one thing we never had to worry about.
You both had good jobs with big MNCs. So, why did you decide to switch to entrepreneurship.
Shipra: After moving to Bangalore, I joined the BPO unit of a large IT company. Neeraj still had his sales job. But soon, Neeraj’s work required us to move to Hyderabad and I had to quit my job. As I was trying to figure out what to do next, I was overcome with this strong feeling that I didn’t want to go back to yet another job. Neeraj encouraged me to explore opportunities to start something on my own. That’s when I started a high fashion boutique called Darpan. This was an exciting new opportunity and I discovered that I had a flair for entrepreneurship and business.
Darpan was a huge success and proved to be an excellent training ground for my real-life MBA. For seven years profits soared, and then the economic downturn started slowing business down. I eventually sold the boutique to one of my clients based in the US. I was forced to go back to a regular job since it guaranteed a pay cheque at the end of the month.
Neeraj: I had had a stellar career in large MNCs for around 12-13 years when the economic recession hit the country. There were huge job cuts in the IT sector. From a high-flying professional, secure in my comfortable job I suddenly went into living in constant fear of losing it all. My family was dependent on my income and I could not afford to be unemployed. That fear led to exploring opportunities to do something on my own.
So, when a friend came to us with a business opportunity in the direct selling industry with a prominent Asian company called QNet, I simply saw it as an avenue for some extra income. Honestly, this wasn’t a plan B for me, but only a way to de-risk and reduce my stress levels. I was interested, yes, but I wasn’t convinced enough.
But Shipra who had already tasted entrepreneurship was keen to give it a shot. She did the research, attended the trainings, and drew from her own experiences as an entrepreneur to build her direct selling business. She was determined to make a success of it and worked very hard on it. I must admit that she is the one who ultimately inspired me.
I saw the kind of professionalism that was involved in building a sustainable business with QNet. The kind of people who were already involved in this industry ranged from doctors and lawyers to bankers and other high-end professionals. I was able to feel the strong value system of the organisation. Looking at all this changed my perspective. Soon, I saw Shipra’s hard work paying off and she was already climbing up the success ladder. That’s when I decided to join hands with her.
What was the driving force behind your decision to pursue direct selling for long term entrepreneurship?
Shipra: I always had this desire to do more with my life. I wanted to be financially independent and also do something I am passionate about. This wasn’t just because I came from a family which didn’t see many luxuries but more because I had this confidence in myself that I have the potential to do better. When I was working at a job, I always felt that this wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I had seen lots of ups and downs in my married life with Neeraj. We dealt with many financial constraints. Once we had to sell my jewellery and our car to pay off a loan we had taken to buy a property. Perhaps all those hardships played a role at a subconscious level to make me determined to succeed. When I discovered the direct selling business opportunity with QNet, and started looking into its potential, I just knew that this was the kind of opportunity I had been waiting for. My decision proved right and fortunately, I have experienced immense success in this business.
Neeraj: Even though I liked the work I was doing at my job, once I learnt more about direct selling and its potential, I could see that here was an opportunity that was immensely promising. Deep down I knew that I could be doing more, and I would never get that opportunity with my job. But given our precarious financial situation at that time and all the uncertainty we were experiencing; the risk factor was higher for me if I quit to pursue this full time. And to be honest, I did have some doubts about the business. So, Shipra and I discussed it and decided that she will quit her job and pursue this opportunity full time while I still brought home the steady paycheque.
I took another 14 months to make up my mind. When I saw Shipra growing in leaps and bound, in March 2013 I finally decided & made direct selling my full-time profession.
How did you overcome the challenges that are associated with the whole concept of direct selling, firstly with the perception of people and secondly the entire negativity around the business?
Neeraj: I wasn’t too worried about what people said. In fact, I didn’t even fear the rejection. I know many people have certain preconceived notions about direct selling based either on misinformation or a lack of understanding. I never took the negativity or rejection personally. I knew that they were not saying no to me, but the no was coming from a place of misconception. I just had to work on educating people about the business and the industry.
I dealt with the negativity around this business by having my faith and my trust intact. This positivity kept me sailing through all challenges.
What about you Shipra, what are the teething problems you faced?
Shipra: The toughest time in my business was in the first year I started. The two people closest to me – my husband and elder my bother – both weren’t confident about it. They didn’t take it seriously. They were both were more educated and more experienced than me, so it was tough convincing them. I don’t know why I had so much belief in QNet when I didn’t even know much about the business then. But I knew and I believed that this opportunity had come for a reason. I had a very strong intuition that this business would help me change the situation we were in. This made me even more determined to show them what they were missing out on. I continued to work hard on it and that brought results. Our financial situation improved dramatically.
When my husband and brother saw how well I was doing, and not just financially; they saw the personal growth I had undergone as a result of all the training and the confidence I had gained in myself as a businesswoman, they started taking it seriously. But this didn’t happen overnight. I worked long and hard to prove myself. And that motivated them to have faith in me and join hands with me to build this business together.
As a woman entrepreneur, what are the challenges that you faced?
Shipra: I don’t understand why people put women and challenges together. I don’t think women face challenges unless they themselves consider a situation as a challenge. Challenges aren’t gender-specific, but they are entirely based on our mindset. Both men and women face challenges equally, be it in the direct selling business or any other business.
The foremost challenge that new entrepreneurs face in a direct selling business is that of rejections from prospective clients, but both men and women have to deal with this. Secondly, they often face negativity when people talk bad about the business, but this again happens to both genders. I think women are far better equipped and stronger than men to deal with any situation. I also strongly feel that we are born with the talent of muti-tasking. We know how to talk with confidence and we are brave enough to go ahead and do things on our own – just that we need to realise this latent potential in us. It also depends on one’s upbringing and family background. I was blessed to have a very strong mother. She had a huge influence on me.
What advice would you like to give to other women aspiring to become successful in the direct selling industry?
Shipra: I believe the biggest challenge for a woman entrepreneur perhaps is the fact that they tend to underestimate themselves. There are no external challenges for her that she can’t overcome. It’s only her internal battles that she has to fight and win over. After owning and building my own direct selling business for so many years, I realised this fact about women who come into the industry. That’s why I started a training camp called ‘Mardaani’ for women in my organization. Through these camps, I aim to instil self-confidence in these women and encourage them to be the best that they can be. I tell them that being a woman is not a challenge or an excuse for them to not do their best at anything.
And for you Neeraj, what is the secret of succeeding as an entrepreneur?
Neeraj: You must have the willingness to change. Every entrepreneur must embrace the journey of change. Leave behind what you have done in the past and be open to the possibilities of the future. That means being open-minded and not allowing pre-set ideas or notions to dictate your actions. Another important thing, at least in direct selling is to learn to understand people. Ultimately, this is a people business and is built on relationships. People buy products from us because of the relationships we have with them which are built on faith and trust. Having a better understanding of people has definitely helped me to become successful.