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:
2. Yoga and meditation
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.