Ms. Gita Ramanan: Changing the face of Home Interiors through Thoughtful Designs

Gita Ramanan Most Inspirational Women Entrepreneurs 2018

Very few people have the courage to follow their dreams, much less make them a success and an inspiration to others. The story of Gita Ramanan is an exception to this rule.
Technology Widgets got a chance to have an interesting conversation with this Architect-turned-Entrepreneur.
Read on:
Technology Widgets (TW): What was your “eureka!” moment, the one that made you decide to start your company?
Gita Ramanan (GR): With my partner Ar. Shezan Bhojani, I ran a boutique architecture and interior design firm that focussed on the residential and hospitality genress. After executing more than 300 projects across India, we found a severe lacuna in the home interiors genre, where to create the interiors of one’s dream home, one needed to run pillar to post: firstly coordinate with over 15 different vendors ad next, travel across the city to ensure that one finds and is able to install every piece the way they have always dreamt of. Also, the quality of materials, the workmanship, and the standards that are prevalent across India are just not what a customer should expect when they pay top dollar for it.
The eureka moment came when we were reviewing this space and realized that with the proliferation of apartment buildings in urban India, room sizes were becoming standardized and this allowed us use technology to create modular designs for the components of all furniture and then customize the design for each and every homeowner based on the rules and designs we continuously create. Therefore, the customer gets a personalized home design, factory manufacturing and complete transparency and adherence to budgets and timelines.
Our mission is to Democratize Design and deliver personalised, world-class home interiors for everyone, in their budget and within a standard timeline.

TW: Were you born a builder or did you have to learn to be one?
GR: When I look back at my career, it amazes me that I am here today: the COO of the 2nd largest home interiors design and execution firm in Bangalore and soon expanding in other cities of India. I definitely did not chart out my path in this direction when I graduated as an architect. I had grand plans of travelling the world and practising Architecture and Urban planning; earning a couple of Master’s degrees and eventually gaining renown as a noted thinker and practitioner in this space.

Becoming an entrepreneur was not in the plans, though I do not have any regrets today. When my partner and I ended up starting a firm (Design Cafe in its earlier avatar), I realized I had the right temperament to create and run a firm. When we were getting ready to start Design Cafe, I won a scholarship for an Entrepreneurial Management course with ISB, Hyderabad to learn business practices and processes. Though the theory and practicum was meant to enable us to figure out and articulate our business idea I found my idea rejected as impractical.

The idea brewed in our minds for 4 years as we opened and ran our boutique architectural and interior design firm and designed & completed over 300 projects across India. In 2015, we raised angel investment and started Design Cafe version 2.0 and have never looked back.

My biggest learning is that no one can teach you how to be an entrepreneur: you either believe you are one or not. You can learn to be a manager and even train to be a leader, but not an entrepreneur. You need to believe in your ideas & your talents and combine it with world-beating discipline, hard work and passion.

TW: Who was the first woman you looked up to and why did you want to be like her?
GR: I am in awe of my grandmother who raised me alongside running a joint-family of 4 generations in one house. She is the embodiment of strength & courage and discipline & respect. She has always inspired me with her unflagging hard work and unfailing love. My personality has been honed under her watchful eyes and I hope to be half the woman she is.

TW: Can you tell me a bit more about your business? What is the USP of the organization?
GR: Design Cafe specializes in creating, manufacturing and delivering personalized interior designs that are harmonized to every client’s requirements, budgets, and aspirations of their dream homes. All these designs are manufactured as per our 51-point quality control measures and then installed at the site by our in-house team. All accessories, furniture, decor and furnishings, etc. are hand-picked by our designers and installed- providing a concept to completion service with all products.

TW: What are the various services you provide and how are they unique from others in the industry?
GR: In Urban India, most people still approach Contractors/ Carpenters for executing the Interiors of their home. Amongst the small percentage of homeowners who choose to goto organized design firms: the majority approach small design firms who then get the project executed by the hitherto mentioned Contractors/ Carpenters.
The problems in the first case are a lack of personalized design services & capabilities and zero assistance in decor & furniture purchases and in both the cases: poor execution of the project by the carpenters at the site by hand. There are no quality measures in place, use of low-quality materials that is either a product of ignorance or is more deliberate, and an absence of any post-handover service and warranties.

The new homeowner has no clarity in terms of budget or timelines and sees both of these escalating severely from the estimate originally promised. The deliverables are not as per the images shared earlier and there is an overall sense of disappointment or worse frustration towards the culmination of the project.

Contrast this with the Design Cafe process. The Customer is given a personalised design after understanding their requirements, budgets and aspirations. They can visualize this design by walking through it in virtual reality (VR) and touching & feeling every material and hardware in our Experience Centres. These designs are then manufactured using the best material and hardware with a stringent quality control process in our partner-factories. They are finally installed by our in-house team of trained carpenters to perfection. All accessories, furniture, decor and furnishings, etc. are hand-picked by our designers and installed- providing a concept to completion service with all products.

There are no untoward escalations in terms of budget or timelines: the client is kept updated through the entire project management process and is delivered a home with 10 years warranty and post-handover service.
TW: What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken?
GR: In 2015 we shut down our successful Architectural and Interior Design practice (Design Cafe version 1.0) and chose to put our complete energies to making Design Cafe- version 2.0 a success. It was a huge risk to take and our family and friends were sure we were making a very big mistake.

We were confident though and decided to dedicate all our effort, time and money. I believe that ‘Big results require big risks.’

TW: When have you broken down, personally or professionally? How did you break through?
GR: I have gone through circumstances that have challenged me both personally and professionally. Through them all though, I stay focussed on the big picture and remind myself that this through shall pass as long as I am determined to get through it.

A couple of years back I was diagnosed with multiple slip discs that left me unable to walk, sit or stand comfortably. After several months of meeting every doctor and specialist there was no solution to sight and my routine and work were getting affected. Finally I found a sports physiotherapist who counseled exercise as medicine: if I wanted to get better I needed to exercise daily, even when I was in intense pain. It’s been 2 years now and earlier this year I completed the 100km Oxfam Trailwalker in Bangalore.

Nothing keeps me down for long… whether it is resilience or sheer stubbornness, I am determined to always move forward.

TW: When was your bravest moment and how do you practice being brave?
GR: I believe being brave is standing up for what you believe in, even if no one else believes it or even understands it.

Professionally it was shutting down our successful design practice to start the current avatar of Design Cafe against the advice and counsel of all the naysayers. Personally it was going against the wishes of my family to marry my partner: a muslim.

Both these decisions needed me to be very brave and stay steadfast on the course I had consciously chose. Bravery here is believing in what I believed in. I have made conscious choices backed by the required actions that have led me to be where I am today even though the alternates have always been more easy and comfortable. Being brave and taking the biggest risks give you the biggest rewards.

TW: What role a family plays in an entrepreneur’s life? How has your family been supporting you to fulfill your dreams? Who inspired you?
GR: Creating and nurturing a support system that allows an entrepreneur to do what needs to be done in pursuit of one’s goals is paramount. It’s been almost 6 years since I married my partner and went against all the conventional wisdom of keeping my personal and professional life separate. We are each other’s best friends: our biggest champions and critics, and this has made the last 15 years the most enjoyable and satisfying ones- both personally and professionally.

I am most inspired though by the mothers in my life: my grandmother who raised me, my mother: a working woman who brought up her 2 children by herself as my father worked in the Gulf for 15 years and my mother-in-law: who brought up my husband to be the man he is today and has always treated me like a daughter.

My extended family does not always understand what we do each day and why we have worked and continue to work 15 hour days, 7 days a week; yet they offer their complete support today.

TW: What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
GR: I have never seen myself as a ‘female leader’/ ‘female entrepreneur’, just a leader/ entrepreneur. I am cognizant though, of how fortunate I am in the context of my generation to feel this way. There are countless women who still struggle to realize their ambitions for a career, or even the right to find meaningful employment. I do not diminish their struggles in any way.

But as someone who was afforded opportunities to get a professional degree and then pursue a career, my struggles were different. My parents and well-wishers were appalled that I was throwing away the career I had built to start something new that was very risky.

My advice to entrepreneurs: female or male, is to first completely validate your business idea and then back yourself 100% to achieve it. Backing yourself 100% involves putting your everything in a single-minded effort to achieve the goals you have set out. It involves making decisions that might not find favour with your family and friends and might even alienate them at times, but you need to stay true to your idea and efforts.

TW: Under your leadership, how has been the growth of the enterprise? How do you encourage your employees? What are your responsibilities as the business owner?
GR: The past 4 years has seen Design Cafe grow from a 2 member firm handling 15 projects a year to a firm with 3 offices in Bangalore and almost 200 people who handle 50 projects a month. Design Cafe is the second largest company in the home interiors (design and execution) business in Bangalore today and is poised to expand across the country in the next 5 years.

Our mission to Democratize design and give every homeowner the home of their dreams in their budget is coupled with a vision to create jobs for 6000 people in the next 5 years and therefore support 25000 families and give them an opportunity for a better life.

I am the COO at Design Cafe and my responsibilities include:
• Chief Design officer- creating and curating the best designs and materials with my R&D team, so we offer world class designs to our clients
• Chief People Officer- in-charge of enabling the best opportunities for my team
• Chief Marketing officer
• Head the branding efforts
• Head the Client happiness (Experience) Team

TW: Future plans?
GR: Our mission to Democratize design and give 10000 homeowners the home of their dreams in their budget each year as we expand across the country in the next 5 years.

This is coupled with a vision to create jobs for 6000 people in the next 5 years and therefore support 25000 families and give them an opportunity for a better life.

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