Rita Sharma: England’s richest Asian woman entrepreneur

Rita Sharma: England’s richest Asian woman entrepreneur

20 Dec, 2007, 0139 hrs IST,Sudeshna Sen,

Sharma should be a public relations delight. She scripts like the perfect
heroine of any number of minority success stories. She’s just 47, the
richest woman Asian entrepreneur in Britain, a successful mother and CEO, the
college dropout who built up her business from the classic garage.

To a level that now puts her
worth, according to the Asian rich list, at an estimated GBP 100 mn – around Rs
820 cr last year. Besides, she can give any ramp model a run for her photo
shoots. But Britain’s richest Asian woman entrepreneur is elusive. Like
most successful women, she’d rather be taken seriously for her work than
as a poster girl for any cause.

Described as one of the
richest women in London in a rare interview with Telegraph, UK, Rita’s
stayed out of media buzz, and isn’t one of the usual suspects who march in
the pravasi success parade. “Frankly, I’ve been asked get involved
in many, often prestigious public roles. But it’s a trade-off between work
and time for family and kids. You have to give up on something, and in my case
I’ve sacrificed socialising and networking,” she says candidly.

That hasn’t stopped her
from making it to the top 20 in the Asian rich list, picking up the entrepreneur
of the year award, or gaining a foothold in the £26bn travel booking
industry. To put things in perspective, is worth twice as much as Meena Patak of

WorldWide Travels, her
travel agency which focuses on bespoke solutions, and its web arm,
Bestattravel.com will have sales of around GBP 100 mn this year, up from
£65 mn in 2006, with a profit of £7.5 mn, and about 90-odd employees.
She’s recently bought over a cruise company, and “it’s turning
around now”, she says.

Next year, she expects to grow
at 25%. In a country where average growth rates of business biggies are in the
low single digits, Ms Sharma’s determination and confidence makes her,
well, intriguing. Given how tired we are of the same old faces in the successful
overseas Indian women circuit, we coax her out of her usual reticence through a
web of informal references for months, and catch up with her in her sprawling
offices off Oxford Street.

Dressed informally in jeans
and a shirt, no obvious accoutrements of wealth, Rita opens up about where she
came from, how it’s like to balance work and family, the whole immigrant
experience, glass ceilings, and where she’s going.

First, where she’s going.
Home, soon. At 47, now that her kids, 19 and 16, are leaving the nest, she wants
to conquer new worlds. And India is ‘after all in my DNA’,
it’s the market that’s ‘most familiar’ after the UK,
it’s closer to her heart than say China.

“It’s just a seed
of an idea,” she says carefully, “I need to do a lot of homework
because I don’t want to fall flat on my face. But at this point, India is
an engine of growth. It would be a shame for any NRI with an idea not to at
least take a flutter in India.”

Ms Sharma believes that the
Indian outbound traveller is now discerning and sophisticated enough to want the
kind of services she offers, and there is opportunity to replicate her business
model. “Of course, I’m going to have to look for some kind of a
partner or financing for any India venture. I don’t have the resources
that would be required for the huge marketing effort,” she says.

planning a trip next month to scout around for market entry. How about
leveraging WorldWide? Well, no. she prefers to raise finance
‘organically’ for her India venture.

“What I have here is my
insurance policy. I don’t want have to start all over again at my
age.” The lady who, by her own admission has clawed her way out of a
‘ghetto-like’ existence, and been through boom and bust cycles,
wants to keep her nest egg safely in her own pocket and she’s dropped any
earlier idea of taking her company public.

And that’s where she
comes from. Despite the ‘comfort zone’ that she’s achieved, Ms
Sharma is deeply rooted in what she calls the ‘mindset of a first
generation child of immigrant parents.

We go down memory lane, and
she says that she learnt, growing up in a classic orthodox Punjabi immigrant
enclave, the lessons they never teach you at Harvard Business School,
‘schools without walls’. “People ask me if my kids have
inherited my entrepreneurial genes. I don’t know after all they’ve
grown up in a comfortable, plastic environment, I haven’t pushed them to
struggle, they’ve had a different life experience.”

Her parents came from Lahore
and Lyallpur after partition, and she came to UK as a 10-month old baby. And
traces most of her success to the grit and values her mother inculcated in her,
and her own determination to get a ‘meal ticket’ out of the life of
constant struggle to make ends meet.

“As a child I was a
dreamer. I used to watch black and white Hollywood movies, and I just knew I had
to get out of that existence. As a teenager, I was very serious, concerned about
grades, not having fun, I wanted to be a lawyer.”

She still remembers the day that
she, the eldest child, had to send her grant letter for law school at the
university of Sussex back, so as to stay home and pitch in with the small family
garment trading business after her father fell ill.

In the meantime, battling the
community pressure to do the right thing and get married and have babies.
“I was in my 20s, you know relatives come in and talk over your head, they
think you’re deaf. She’s good looking, she’s getting old, why
aren’t you getting her married? What’s wrong with her?”
Finally, she says, her mother requested an uncle to give her a job in his travel
agency, so she’d be at least be respectably employed, while her father
tried to convince her to get married.

That was the turning point,
highly inspired by Maggie Thatcher “those were the days when everyone was
talking about business sprouting in the backyard, British industry was coming
out of its dark ages with their 3-day work weeks,” Rita Sharma begged,
borrowed and saved £4000 to start up on her own, “in a windowless
room a little smaller than this,” she waves around her fairly Spartan
office, in 1986. Just a year or two later, the stock market crash of the late
80s turned her dreams to dust, just like that.

started all over again, in what she knows is an industry dominated by white
males. “Yes, I don’t drink, and I don’t play golf. That makes
it very difficult. But I’ve never ever gone in for the pin-striped look, I
haven’t tried to be like a man,” she says. “Of course,”
she jokes, some women say I’m overbearing, maybe because I’ve spent
so much time working around men.’

Over the next 20 years, as her
business grew, husband Rahul, a chartered accountant, dropped his career to join
her as the company’s CFO. Sharma makes no bones about how hard it’s
been to juggle both sides.

“The hardest thing has
been to be a wife and mother. There are very few men out there who can stomach a
successful partner, and it takes a very strong man to live with it day in and
out.” Today the husband and wife duo work together, have balanced their
roles equitably. He does the finances, she does the travel business.

And she’s not ready to
stop, even though she’s achieved her childhood dreams. “When I was
young, I thought anyone over 40 was old. Now I find I have so much to do.”
Right now, this lady is planning to clock up her frequent flier miles to go into


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