The lady Elon Musk of India

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In India, women in tech conjure an image of software engineers and project managers but not a woman willing to get her hands dirty and do some core engineering. Hemalatha Annamalai broke such myths when she founded Ampere Electric in 2007. Ampere manufactures a wide range of reliable, cost-effective and quality Electric Vehicles with a vision to empower the lives of people through affordable mobility solutions, worldwide. Last week, I had the opportunity to interact with her when she addressed our company (Applied Materials) as part of the Engineering Week celebrations at Bangalore.

She started her journey as an entrepreneur at the age of 27 and started several other successful ventures over the years. When quizzed about what the secret behind her success as a serial entrepreneur, Hema told her life revolved around these four pillars that gave her strength and vigour:
1. Family
2. Yoga and meditation
3. Health
4. Business

Family

The idea to build an electric scooter was planted in her head by her husband Pachyappa Bala, who after seeing an electric scooter in Japan thought this technology could revolutionise the world’s transportation problem. He urged her to consider starting up a company and be part of the change. Recollecting a conversation Hema had with her kids before selling their $1.8 million apartment in Singapore and relocating to Coimbatore, a small city in Tamil Nadu, India she said

I don’t want to be a successful entrepreneur, but a failed mother.

Yoga and meditation

The idea of inculcating spiritual practices in her daily life was influenced by her mentors many years back. As an entrepreneur, it is important to rely on your gut to take some decisions. Yoga and meditation have enabled her to be centered and make good judgments, both in personal life and business.

Health

A healthy body makes a healthy mind. Hema begins her day early with a game of shuttle and yoga to keep her fit and active for the rest of the day.

Business

If you start a business with the sole aim of making money, then you are most probably going to fail.

Money, success, fame are all merely by-products of solving a greater problem for the society. When a person in the audience asked her, “When I have taken a loan to start my business my focus should be on the money, shouldn’t it?” She replied in the affirmative that money is indeed essential to sustain any business, but that should not mislead a person from the path they set out to.

Lead by example

When starting a new business, the entrepreneur should bootstrap the venture and begin with a small pilot. This would bring accountability as opposed to burning away investor money. Also, it is very important to start small, make mistakes, iterate and then refine the product rather than going all in and ending up with a perfectly product that nobody wants to buy.

Another aspect she is proud of is not greasing palms to get things done. While setting up her company in Coimbatore, she ran into some officials who expected bribes to issue the license. But she stood her own and submitted all the documents drafted perfectly to the tee and surged ahead. She refutes the fact that one cannot do business in India without bending the rules. It is definitely tough to maintain a moral ground but not impossible. Also, it is our responsibility as well to stop bribing people just to get our applications on top.

Obstacles and solutions are equally aplenty

In 2013, Tamil Nadu was undergoing a severe power crisis and Coimbatore, where Ampere is situated had electricity for only 6–7 hours a day! A lot of textile mills went out of business and shut down. It was a trying time especially for manufacturing industries. I asked Hema how she navigated this crisis. She said initially she hired the people who were working in textile mills and re-trained them. Talk of making the best use of a situation. But when the going got very tough, she was forced to let go of some people. Even then, she made it a point to retain the senior talent on her team. She feels it was a wise move in hindsight. Ups and downs are a part of the business, but it is difficult to find experienced staff.

Finding talent

How does a startup compete with well-established brands to attract and retain talent is an age old question? Hema has found an innovative way to tackle this problem. One issue she faces while interviewing college students is that lot of them is from small towns and quite shy to speak up. So she gives them a tiny assignment and asks them to complete it. The ones who crack it get appointed and it also serves as an icebreaker. In fact, some of the projects undertaken by the interns have become a full-fledged project at Ampere.

The right fit matters a lot

Hema interviews everyone right from the engineer to the janitor. She says a person should believe in the values of a company they are working for or else problems are bound to arise. Once when she wanted to hire more female workers to work on the production line, the manager then complained that women would not be ideal for this work and kept coming up with various excuses. So she first fired him and hired more women!

Empowering women

Right now, about 25% of her workforce is women. She dreams of the day when the entire production line is staffed by women. As a woman, Hema did not wait for others to empower her but rather took the initiative on her own. Now that she has broken through the glass ceiling, she wants to empower more women. She believes by hiring women, she not only provides a means of livelihood to them but also their family gets uplifted through the kids’ education.

Meeting the Man of Steel

Meeting Mr. Ratan Tata was one of the high moments in Hema’s life. With a strong intent to democratize automotive industry, she wrote to Ratan Tata several times to secure face time with him and talk to him about bringing the electric vehicle revolution to Indian villages. Finally, she got an opportunity to meet him for 10 minutes when he was in Coimbatore. That meeting turned into a 45-minute session and later lead to Mr. Tata investing in Ampere buoyed by Hema’s vision!

Clad in a light blue shirt and a dark blue trouser, the uniform worn by her employees, Hema captivated her audience with candour and authenticity. When women address a technology conference, questions tend to be on their personal lives such as how they manage their work-life balance or are they a good mother as opposed to their talent which put them in the limelight. Thankfully, none of the audience treated her as a ‘woman’ but rather as a ‘successful entrepreneur’ who had lots of wisdom to share. It is time we stopped judging women based on their gender but rather on their talent.

I wish Ms.Hemalatha loads of luck in her journey and may she inspire more women to get their hands dirty.

Yes, I am an Apple fanboy

Last week I read an article about on Medium about a Windows convert who has found asylum in Apple Camp and it got me thinking about my own experience.

Long, long ago

My first computer was a Windows 95 desktop that my dad owned. I must have probably been 12. It was the day of dial-up internet and 8-bit video games. Those were such simpler times! The novelty of ‘creating art’ with MS Paint and countless hours spent playing Dangerous Dave and Prince of Persia sum up my childhood bonding with computers. As a kid, I did not know what was an operating system and assumed a computer meant‘Windows machine’.

Image credit: Wikipedia

It was only when I was in high school I understood what an OS was and got a taste of Linux. Around 2006, the Linux distros became popular spearheaded by the popularity of Ubuntu as a layman’s Linux. While in college, I got my first laptop. The price was cheap and the specs were decent enough for a college kid.

If my laptop could speak, it might have some nasty 1’s and 0’s to say about me!

Unleash the Penguins

Bored of being a Windows user for years, I started experimenting with different Linux distros. Almost a new one each month. I would install Linux alongside Windows and play around with it. Sometimes the installation would fault in between, the boot loader might get corrupted or worse I end up losing all the data on the hard disk. Then I would start all over again by re-installing Windows.

After a week, my hands would itch and I would pop in another Linux boot disc.

Given the fact I had lot of time to kill in college and a curiosity to explore new stuff I kept tinkering with my laptop and learnt some useful invaluable lessons like always back up your data periodically or keep the computer plugged into a charging port while installing an OS. Sometimes the results were nasty but mostly they were fun.

Things changed after I graduated college. No longer did I have to install different IDEs to practice different programming languages. With the time left after toiling away at the office all I wanted to do was to kick back and watch a movie on my laptop when I got back home. I ceased to be a tinker monkey and decided to ‘settle down’.

The beginning of an era

My dad bought a Macbook Pro for himself and it was my first tryst with the forbidden apple. The laptop was a beautiful piece of art, the screen so vivid I wanted to lick the icons, the chiclet keyboard redefined typing on a laptop.

Running my fingers across the polished aluminum chassis gave me mini orgasms.

Beauty comes with a heavy price tag

While the rational side of me struggled to justify spending a fortune on a show pony, the Gollum in me murmured, “My precious”.

After saving up for a year, I spent it all in an Apple Store and got myself a shiny Macbook Pro. Once I got over the initial hiccups of adapting myself to work on Mac, things have been pretty smooth. Personally I found OS X much more intuitive than Linux.

I have been using the Mac for over two years and I do not have much to complain. My activities mostly involve browsing, watching movies, iTunes, and some casual photo editing. Till date, my laptop has crashed twice and I could not recover the data — once during OS upgrade and once for some weird reason no one knows.

Recovering a Mac is a pain in the ass

In a Windows laptop, I would have popped in a Linux recovery disk, recovered the data and then formatted the hard disk before doing a fresh install of Windows. Service Cost — ZERO. Very rarely did I have to take my Windows laptop to a service center but when it comes to Mac I try not to fiddle around much. As such the service charges are high, I don’t want to further complicate the situation. Not renewing the AppleCare after a year was definitely not a wise choice.

So is Apple better than Microsoft?

The answer to this question is highly subjective. A Macbook totally serves my purpose. It works almost always and I do not have to worry about virus and malware. Plus Apple has started offering OS upgrade free of charge to existing customers. And my other iDevices (Phone/Pod/Pad) all sync perfectly well the Mac making my life easier. So pick one that best suits your purpose.

My next laptop would definitely be a Mac. Even if I have to sell a kidney to buy it!