‘Humility is not a virtue for women entrepreneurs’

R. Srinivasan | Updated on March 10, 2018


Women tend to believe that if you just hunker down and do good work, it will be noticed. That’s not how it works. — ROHINI DEY, ECONOMIST-TURNED-RESTAURATEUR AND OWNER OF RESTAURANT CHAIN VERMILION

Mythology in many cultures holds that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, but when a woman tries to occupy the kitchen in the professional space, it’s a whole different kettle of fish, as US-based economist-turned-restaurateur Rohini Dey found out.

She has worn many hats in her professional career. A graduate of the Delhi School of Economics, with a doctorate from the University of Texas, Dey has been an academic, a teacher, an economist with the World Bank (where she wrote a book on privatising infrastructure) and then became a management consultant with McKinsey & Co.

She quit her job as a consultant to start her own enterprise, in an unusual field — that of specialty restaurants. ‘Vermilion’, her signature upscale Indian-Latin American fusion restaurants in Chicago and New York, were born, she says, out of a “conviction that Indian cuisine in the US was either confined to stereotypes or timid and washed-out.”

Vermilion has gone on to critical acclaim and commercial success. But getting diners to buy into the ‘Indian-Latin’ concept was far easier than breaking down barriers as a woman entrepreneur, she says.

Her own experiences have turned her into a vocal advocate for women in business.

Cut down on modesty

“Humility is not a virtue in the professional world,” she says bluntly. “Women tend to believe that if you just hunker down and do good work, it will be noticed. That’s not how it works.”

Her advice: “Blow your own trumpet.”

She has another piece of advice for would-be entrepreneurs of both sexes, but especially women — be financially literate.

“Ninety per cent of start-ups fail within the first five years due to financial troubles,” she points out. Women entrepreneurs, in particular, she says, often tend to “outsource” the money part of the business to an accountant or a partner, which she says is a mistake. “If you don’t understand money, you don’t understand business.”

For Dey another important issue facing women entrepreneurs is the lack of a peer group and proper mentoring. She lectures extensively on entrepreneurship, and, along with the James Beard Foundation in the US, has even funded a scholarship to train women in culinary leadership.

Why culinary leadership? Professional kitchens can be a supreme test of leadership and management skills, she says. “Restaurant kitchens are one of the hardest environments to work in outside of jail,” she insists. “It’s 14 hours on your feet, hot, steamy, grimy… and your team is seldom the cream of intellectual capital.”

One of the reasons women are so rare in the leadership space, she says, is the weight of stereotype and convention. Women, she says, are expected to be “nurturing, maternal, and modest.” “When you step out of that box, things get difficult.”

Even in the US, where the ratio of women in Vice-President or higher level jobs is 30 per cent, leadership roles are seldom given — they have to be taken. “Seventy per cent of women in senior management positions are in ‘support’ functions like IT, HR or marketing,” she points out.

But her most important piece of advice for aspiring women entrepreneurs is to first invest in themselves before investing in a business. “Go to B-school, work somewhere for a couple of years, learn to assert yourself more first.”

Published on May 02, 2013

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