Entrepreneurship

Rahul Narvekar — Dejected boy from a Mumbai chawl to creating a company valued at 85 million USD

He got on stage at the IAMAI conference, began narrating his story and two minutes after he started, I knew I wanted to tell you his story.

In 20 minutes, this man managed to mesmerise every single person in the audience. There was no powerpoint, no bullet points, no speech prepared. Just a story — A story right out of his latest travel diary. He talked of fear, of passion, of adventure. He didn’t speak much about his stints with startups, yet, he managed to infect everyone with the essence of entrepreneurship.

Meet Rahul Narvekar. He is a well-known name in the entrepreneurial ecosystem for his work with Fashionandyou and Indian Roots.

After IAMAI conference concluded, we caught up with Rahul and settled down at a coffee shop of the venue.

“Yes, what do you want to know?”, he asks. His tone tells me he is well-acquainted at giving interviews. Why not.

“Umm…people know everything about you as an entrepreneur. You are quite famous. Tell us about you.

“Hmm..that’s a tough one.”

He pauses for a few seconds and The Vadapav club is the first thing he chooses to speak about.

“It began 15 years ago. Delhi mein na, Mumbai wale bohot crib karte hai for the quality of Pav. Woh maza hi nahi ata yaha wale bread mein.” (Mumbaikars, living in Delhi, crib a lot about the quality of Pav(type of bread). The Pav available here is just not the same as in Mumbai)

A Bombay boy living in Delhi Narvekar decided to form a community of Bambaiyas to connect over Vadapav.

“We sourced Pav from Mumbai and invited other Mumbaikars in Delhi — we just eat vadapav, keemapav, bhajipav, have beer and bitch about Delhi. It’s like a reason for us to get together..you know — paav aya hai asli wala.”

Typical Mumbaikar in Delhi.

“Initially, it was all friends from media coming over, then the word spread out and CEOs and CXOs started joining in, now it is a lot of startups. It is a good mix. We make nice chutneys and vadas. This time we are planning a big vadapav bash — pool-side, dance bar setting wala”

We share a hearty laugh before he instantly begins to speak about his childhood.

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”Read: http://goo.gl/W9YCjD”]Mein paida hi fighter hua tha[/inlinetweet]. My mother had a miscarriage once before I was born, so my chances of being born were slim. When that happened, I was born premature. There was little hope for me to survive but I did. The doctor, Mr. Bhatia, nicknamed me Pehelwan. Growing up, I suffered from double pneumonia, had to lose a year at academics. Fight hi raha hai.”

He takes a brief pause, fidgeting with his phone.

“The reason I am telling you this, is that this is one important trait I think I’ve carried from my childhood. I have fallen several times, but I have always bounced back.”

Rahul was born in a small room in a chawl in Mumbai.

“My father worked in a rubber factory, which closed down during the Great Bombay textile strike. With the leadership qualities that he had, we were a very well respect family in the chawl but with the mills shutting down, it all fell apart. For the next 3 years, I clearly remember, we were the poorest family of the chawl. I was the eldest of my siblings, which meant that I was not only aware about what was happening but at the same time responsible for it too.”

Rahul’s parents would do odd jobs to run the family.

“My father would take up chuttak kaam(freelance work) and my mother would make some money from sewing. Despite the financial condition, they ensured that we got a decent education. Earlier, I was enrolled at Xavier’s, however, I was moved to a little un-fancy school — Sardarni Pratap Singh Janta Vidyalaya.”

The spirit that Rahul had, however remained constant. Rahul was a topper throughout irrespective of what school or what class it was. He was one of those students, who prepares notes anone year in advance while you’re busy figuring out what weird sport to join these summer holidays.

“I was a fast learner”

Rahul shares the story of how his love for reading and lack of money made him a quick reader.

“I loved reading, but paisa nahi hota tha magazine ya books kharidne ka (But I didn’t have enough money to purchase books or magazines). I would want to read TIME and Fortune so I would go to this raddiwala’s (Scrap dealer’s) place and would scurry caches of these magazine from it. These papers with words on it were my inspiration. The articles gave me hope to reach where people they wrote about were. I never stopped dreaming.”

This constant consumption of well composed information turned Rahul into the odd one out, he found it difficult to gel with friends that his school or neighbourhood had to offer. He was good at studies and tight at money. A really weird spot to be in.

“People living in the Chawl used to watch movies together by collecting money to rent a VCR, and I chose not to attend. I was very clear, we were not in a condition to pay and if we weren’t paying, I wouldn’t watch.”

Adversity came as an opportunity for Rahul. While everyone would watch movies, with nothing to do at home, Rahul picked up any book that he could get his hands on at the time.

“The Raddiwala(the one who recycles books and papers) gave 2 hours to read anything on the spot, for 4 aana(25 paise or 1/4th of a rupee). So I’d read things as fast as I could to avoid paying extra and this is what gave me a phenomenal reading and assimilating speed.”

There were times, he says, when he used to ride the local train longer just because the book was interesting.

“What was your favourite subject at school?”, I ask.

Top toh har subject mein karta tha mein(I used to top in every subject), except maths.”

“Why?”

“With other subjects, I could teach myself. But with maths, I had to understand it at school, which I couldn’t, because my eyesight had gotten weak. I couldn’t see what the teacher would write on board.”

At this point, Parth, who had also joined us for the interview, remembers he has to be at some other place. He gets up to leave and waves a cordial good-bye to Rahul. In an all-together different zone, Rahul mumbles,

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“Dost, baad mein aram se baat karte hai hum. Abhi mein thoda bachpan mein hun.”

Rahul continues telling us about his childhood. A faint smile crosses his face as he recalls an incident.

“Our school transitioned from half pants to full pants — green trousers and light cream shirt. We were all dark kids and it looked horrible on us. So when my mom asked me to buy the fabric so she could sew it, I bought the cheapest one available. She made a nice pant out of it but on first wash, the bloody thing shrunk to a shockingly smaller size. And I had no other option but wear it to the school everyday till it was worn out”, he describes tragicomically.

In the chain of comical instances he describes an incident at school, I couldn’t let slide.

“I was such an idiot at that time, this one girl wrote me a love letter. I went to her and pointed out all the grammatical errors in the letter. It didn’t stop there, I even showed it to my English teacher, dekho ye Sangeeta ne likha hai(look what Sangeeta wrote to me).”

I ask him about his college years. He recalls yet another incident.

“One day there was this girl in our class, Rashmi. She asked me out by sending me a ticket for the movie via her friend. Woh time pe ese hi hota tha(In those times, this is how it happened), people in the chawl gathered around because I was refusing to go out on a date with a girl like Rashmi, as I did not have shoes or good clothes. These guys arranged Reebok shoes, brand new shirt for me and collected some money so that I don’t go empty handed.”

Rahul pursued a B.A. in economics from KJ Somaiya. He shares one of the incidents, which he believes formed a cornerstone of his professional career.

“I had never attended lectures by this one professor who taught political science. Since I used to read a lot, I was always updated with the latest information. In the exam, there was some question that I had answered, which was factually correct but opposed to regurgitating the textbook.”

The professor called him up and to what Rahul presumed would be to scold him, he advised him to participate in debates.

He then moved to KC college, since he didn’t have enough money to pay for the fees. This is where he wrote a policy paper on technology that would be used in politics in the future. Pramod Mahajan got hold of this paper and that got Rahul a call from BJP (Bhartiya Janta Party) for a project. But somehow at that time he couldn’t get associated with them.

Rahul took up a sales job during his college years to survive.

“Working, studying, and trying to survive, were the three things I juggled with, simultaneously. During my stint as sales person, I learnt how to compartmentalise to manage time. Hustle karna sikha diya uss waqt ne.” (That time of my life taught me how to hustle)

Rahul took up several small jobs, like that of a delivery boy, working as a ward boy in the night shift, selling crackers.

“I’ve also sold watermelons”, he adds.

Rahul took a break from his college to pursue a full-time entrepreneurship course from Burhani Institute of Business Entrepreneurship.

At this point of time he was also working at TSN(Tele-shopping Network) with Ronnie Screwvala, attending customer calls from 6:30 PM to 2.30 AM. Even though teleshopping is considered a fad these days, Ronnie Screwvala, brought in what was a revolution in the media industry by introducing the Network channel into the unichannel environment. One of the most famous products included the Roti Chef.

With his experience at sales, he constantly questioned his faculties at how theoretical cases of a different country were being taught here without any context whatsoever. This led to his exit from the college.

“Eventually I was asked to leave as I would always question the curriculum and the pedagogy. They were teaching a10 year old curriculum and with marketing and entrepreneurship, the change is so rapid that it was not at all in line with the current practices! Since I was studying on a scholarship, the authorities thought I was being a rebel despite them paying for my studies.”

Around this time, Rahul experimented with his first venture — Yash Advertising, which dealt with selling advertisements on cable.

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The onset of this channel brought a new wave of placing ads though cable companies via independent certification.

“Though we managed to scale the operation, we couldn’t sustain. Plus, cable is a different industry, usually run by mafias. Getting through them was tough

His next plunge was at starting Channel Oxygen with 5 other friends. This was in 1999, India was introduced to its first online jukebox.

After another short stint as a trainee screenplay writer with Anurag and Abhinav Kashyap, Rahul moved to Delhi. He joined an agency there and was preparing to tie knots with Pallavi (a popular RJ).

“On the day of our wedding, I lost my job. We even had to give up our honeymoon plans”, he shares.

After a few more stints here and there, Rahul did an executive MBA program from IIM-Calcutta to gain more knowledge. Pallavi, who was one of the topmost RJs then, gave birth to their son.

“She was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis — a neuromuscular disease that caused her to lose her voice temporarily.”

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation later — Pallavi bounced back. However, Rahul had quit his job to be by her side. Talking of that phase, Rahul shares,

When both of us were doing well with our professional lives, we were “the” couple in all Page 3 parties of Delhi. But soon after her illness, we became nobodies. We didn’t have the so-called ‘right brands’ by our side. Thanks to yoga and pranayam, Pallavi made a miraculous recovery.”

Rahul joined DLF and then co-founded Fashionandyou.com in 2009. However, Pallavi’s illness relapsed and Rahul decided to quit again.

Around 2013, while Palllavi was on her way to recovery, Rahul happened to meet representatives from NDTV who were enthusiastic to launch an e-commerce portal to sell ethnic and designer wear all over the world. Rahul took up the opportunity and launched Indianroots in 2013. After raising 5 Million USD last year, Indianroots’ current valuation is 85 million USD.

Hmm, I know this story. It is everywhere. The story of this rising star is everywhere.

“Have you ever been put down by people?”

He takes a long pause.

“Going by the socially defined gestures of putting down, yes, I’ve been put down many times. So many times that I became immune to it. But I’ll tell you this one thing — it is always my choice. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=”http://goo.gl/W9YCjD”]Saamne wale ne mujhe kuch dia, mujhe lena hai ya nahi lena, is my choice. [/inlinetweet]Encouragement milega toh lunga, insult milega toh nahi lunga.”

Rahul comes back to the current day, tells me that he has recently taken an exit from Indianroots. So what next?

“I am figuring out. My agenda for this year is to have atleast 2 friends in every tier 2 and tier 3 city of India”, he says.

For a final wrap, I ask him to share some key learnings from life. He shares,

1. This comes from the time I worked with Ronnie Scewvala at TVC. It was a small office, he was the boss. But for everyone, he was Ronnie. He would often come and chat with the sales team, the one that I was a part of. He would regularly ask us what customers were saying and would use it as a feedback to structure the business better. I learnt from him the importance of listening to your customers something that has always helped me make a business work.

2. Life has made me a fighter. Like I said in the beginning, bohot baar giraya hai life ne. But I have learnt to gather myself back up and bounce back. My upbringing has taught me to never shy away from hard-work.

3. Agar success chahiye, toh besharam bano. Ask. Shamelessly.

I hope Rahul’s story inspires you, encourages you to stand up and fight back — fight back with all those adversities and limitation that are holding you back to be the best version of yourself. Like he did. And I hope Rahul’s story motivates you to encourage those around you to make their dent in the universe, no matter what.

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Shruti Chaturvedi

Telling inspiring, powerful, (extra) ordinary stories brewing around on Chaaipani. @adhicutting on Twitter.

About the Author

Shruti Chaturvedi

Telling inspiring, powerful, (extra) ordinary stories brewing around on Chaaipani. @adhicutting on Twitter.

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