6 lessons from a woman's entrepreneurial journey from cook to caterer

Surveys show that only a small percentage of contractors working in the informal segment are willing to go back to formal employment. Why is this the case?

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Tables have long turned against employees seeking secure jobs in favour of the self-employed.
By Uma Shashikant

Economists worldwide have been ringing alarm bells about how more and more jobs are being handled by contractors and service providers, rather than employees. Many see this trend as one of exploitation, with low wages, long hours, non-existent benefits and unstable incomes. However, many contractors who have stepped in with their teams to do jobs earlier assigned to employees, have a different story to tell.

Surveys show only a small percentage of contractors who work in the informal segment, holding themselves responsible for the monetisation of their labour, are willing to go back to formal employment. Many enjoy the freedom, flexibility and growth their enterprises offer them. The high personal stake is the very incentive to push themselves further in their chosen line of work.

This week’s story is about Ganga and how she built a business from scratch. When the burden of supporting the family fell on her shoulders, she was a housewife in her midthirties. She was an economics graduate with no work experience. She was rejected even in simple job interviews.

Ganga decided to tap her skills as an accomplished cook and turn it into a business venture. That was 18 years ago. She began supplying home-cooked lunches at offices. The learning curve was tough and steep, but Ganga persisted. Today she is a recognised name in her business, managing a team of cooks and staff who not only cater food but also manage large weddings and events.

Ganga laughs at the suggestion of being employed. She says she would be languishing with a low pay, commuting tiring disances and keeping odd hours. College students would beat her in skills and pay. She instead has a vast network of people she works with, to whom she offers business and mandates and they in turn supply her goods and services. She would not trade this for a job, ever.

What lessons do Ganga’s journey hold? Why do people like her choose and persist with small scale informal enterprises?

First, Ganga focused on her job description scripted by herself, not a remote manager, and invested herself completely into it. She began with her cooking skills, but constantly kept learning the nuances of large scale cooking from the many cooks who came to work with her. She developed the capability to cook, cater and deliver for large orders. She extended her services to manage events. She did not allow the bothers of waking up at 2am and walking deserted streets to deter her. Whatever was needed to do a fine job, she was ready and willing to do. She does not believe a paid job can invoke such commitment.

Second, she became a consummate manager, leveraging on her people skills. Ganga is soft-spoken, known for her kindness, and keeps a cheerful demeanour despite severe odds. She brought together people she knew and people with problems like her—the neighborhood girl who had been orphaned at a young age became her assistant; the auto driver who hauled her supplies became her Man Friday; skilled maids in the apartment block she lived in became her contract workers; and soon enough she had built a network of people who did specific tasks for her, willing to be paid as the mandates came in. She shared and cared and they stuck with her.

Third, Ganga led from the front and was always worked where needed, unquestioningly. She chipped in to cut and prep when hands were short; she slipped in to cook when her cooks tired; she was willing to make the umpteen trips to the bazaar for materials. Many accused her of being a poor delegator of tasks, and she often heard family members accuse her of not “managing” but “working”. But in her profession, seamlessness mattered and Ganga intuitively knew that she could not develop too much dependency on resources who have to exert physically. She argued that her cook tiring or her team member falling ill were normal expected events in the business and she and her team needed to be multi-skilled to fill in as needed. As for her own strain, she always said nothing healed like a good night’s sleep.

Fourth, Ganga leveraged on her strengths. She was a great communicator and cared for people. Customer service came naturally to her. She was meticulous and detail-oriented in how she ran her home. Her business benefitted from her eye for detail and ability to plan. She was able to scale up and cater to weddings and expand her services, leaning on her planning and execution skills. She identified suppliers, managed costs tightly, outsourced where needed, and built a profitable business model. She argues that being an employee would have only offered a limited bouquet of repetitive, menial tasks.

Fifth, Ganga kept her ear to the ground. She knew what the competition was offering; she knew from her contract labourers how menus were changing; she understood from customer conversations how trends were emerging. She refused to define her services in terms of what she could do and instead focused on what needs to be done to stay ahead. The authority and respect she commands comes from the intelligence she has imbibed over the years, delivering for clients and earning tremendous good will. Most of her business comes from referrals and she likes it that way. She is not sure if a job would have enabled such authority and expertise.

When asked about the risks and uncertainties of not having a steady income, Ganga says without optimism, one cannot run a business. There have been enough instances in her business when she has had to rework, redo, rethink and she sees such risks as par for the course. She is confident of finding a way. Since she does whatever she is able and willing, she says she will remain busy. In her view, the economists have got it wrong as the tables have long turned against employees seeking secure jobs in favour of the self-employed like herself.

(The writer is Chairperson, Centre for Investment Education and Learning)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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