Lahari – The story of an architect turned entrepreneur!

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“As God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” You know she is a force to be reckoned with when a girl says she loves Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the wind. Nothing describes Lahari Shetty better than that.

An architect by education, she always knew she was not cut out to be an employee. Coming from a family of businessmen, it was clear to her that she wanted to start her own practice as an architect. What started as freelancing has now become one of the most respected Architectural Design and execution firms in India. On how it all began, Ms. Shetty tells us that, “When I was freelancing, a colleague told me that as a woman I will never be able to take up Turnkey Execution of projects. He said when he, as a man, has difficulty managing Turnkey Execution; there was no chance that I could do it. I have always disliked being told I can’t do certain things because I’m a woman. My colleague’s remark stung and got me thinking why it was not possible. I started taking up small projects on a design and turnkey basis. I got some lucky breaks. Slowly we started doing more and more work and started getting referrals. Today LSA specializes in Retail and Commercial Interior Design AND Execution. We have a client base that appreciates the fact that we make their lives easier by taking care of all aspects of the project, end to end.”

LSA is now 9 years old, and though she has her hands full, she has now started a new venture, KultureKourt- an e-commerce portal for handcrafted Lifestyle goods that are made in India. As LSA handles total turnkey projects right from design to execution, Ms. Shetty deals with a lot of vendors and suppliers from across the board. Lately, she realized that whenever they would source accessories for their projects, the choices they came across were mostly imported mass manufactured items. Somewhere, the Indianness was lost in the crowd of imported goods. She also became aware of the fact that artists and artisans need a platform to bridge the gap between their talent and a potential customer. That’s when the idea of KultureKourt took root. KultureKourt was born out of her desire to see more Indian products in the Home Décor, Lifestyle segment.

Elaborating on the work that LSA does, Ms. Shetty tells us, “LSA Design is a Design and Turnkey Execution Company that specializes in Retail and Commercial Design. We take up a project in entirety, right from the design and styling to taking up the contract for executing the project. It is a highly demanding area of expertise. Our projects have fixed timelines for completions that need to be adhered to so that the client can start operations and business at the earliest. After a design is discussed, deliberated and finalized, co-ordination with various contractors, vendors to ensure timely delivery is key.”

Though it sounds like a lot to do, and it certainly is LSA has now carved a niche among their clientele. Today LSA Design is proud to be associated with brands like Titan, Tanishq, PMC Bank, Plante Moran. Some of their noteworthy projects are The Waghbakri Tea Lounges in Mumbai and Delhi AND WaghBakri group regional office in Mumbai.

Architecture, Interior design and Real estate – these are some of the industries which are known for their male dominance and a very obvious gender gap in their functioning. LSA has also seen its fair share of such issues. Opening about this, Ms. Shetty says, “Being a woman, the biggest challenge I face is the perception that I am doing this as a hobby. The perception that being a woman, I may not be serious about my line of work.  LSA has been around for almost a decade and has done substantial work and I still come across people who think I am a freelancer. Typical questions that acquaintances ask are, “So, where are you doing projects these days?”  I reply, “Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmadabad” Their next comment, “Really, how do you manage to do all that all by yourself?” It is a task to explain that I don’t need to be everywhere at the same time because I have people working under me to take instructions and do the needful. The fact that LSA is a proper company with a professional team of people working under me to handle projects is completely lost.”

Running a professional company is never a cake walk. It is demanding and hectic, especially for a woman as they have two lives to run. A typical day is Ms. Shetty’s life begins with checking her mail so that she I on top of the things before the everyday review. She explains, “Once in office, we do a quick review of every project that’s underway. I take an update from each member of my team to keep track of the project status. Doing it in the first half enables us to undertake fire-fighting measures in case of any glitches, mistakes, delay in delivery of materials during the day etc. The second half is usually reserved for site meetings or client meetings. Any follow-up for business leads also happens during this time. I am usually in office till about 7-8 pm.”

Traditionally, techies who turn entrepreneurs always regret losing touch of the creative end of the business. Lahari however is a jack of all trades. Being a night-owl, she reserves all designing work to night hours when there is complete silence around me and she can work without interruption. “That’s when my creative juices start flowing. It works best for me because I then sleep over it and am ready with my inputs to give to my design team to take forward first thing in the morning the following day. During the day, there are so many business related matters to attend to, that creativity goes for a toss. So I prefer to design at night”, proudly claims the ace designer.

The famed “work-life balance” question got us a very practical answer. “Once I am home, I try to touch base with my family. I take an update from my kids about their day. Although I have to admit, I am not able to do much of that during the week because I am constantly interrupted with work related calls and messages. My line of work is such that I cannot switch off even after I return home. Since work goes on sometimes even at night on site, I need to be accessible at least over phone in case of issues. It interferes with spending quality time with family because in the middle of a conversation, I may need to get away and take a call.”

So how does she handle it? “I have now made a policy to switch off from work completely on SundaGT 003ys. My team has specific instructions that no work-related calls are to be made unless it is a dire emergency. That way I ensure that at least on the weekend, I get to spend some time unwinding with family and friends. I am extremely fortunate to have a very supportive family. When I first mooted the idea of starting my practice, my parents decided to move in with us to take care of my children. My husband, a doctor by profession, is also very encouraging and proud of my work. He or my children have never complained about the fact that I am unable to give too much time to family or the fact that I keep late hours and have to travel a lot.”, she tells us. Well, we applaud the Shetty family for their understanding and open nature.

 

Developing on some of the institutional challenges LSA faces, “The other challenge is on time payments for projects executed. Often we are in a situation where we have invested our own money to finish a project and then have to wait for several months for our money to come through. At times it can get really frustrating and takes the joy of creating 11988578_116488565370498_6982324857303019545_nsomething away from the whole process.

Being a woman, I can’t get too friendly with associates and spend long hours wining and dining with them. E.g., I can’t take business clients out to a nightclub. I need to be back with my family after a certain hour. This may have affected business prospects. There are limitations to how friendly you can get without being perceived in a wrong way. Often, there are opportunities where a senior executive in a company may want a kickback for awarding the work. He is not comfortable talking to a woman about it so he may give the contract to a fellow competitor who is a man”, explains Ms. Shetty.

She also tells us that certain things she takes with a pinch of salt, and is happy with the projects she secures from clients who are happy with dealing the clean way without having to resort to giving kickbacks to get business. Throwing light on other side of the coin too, she tells us, “Companies like Titan, Waghbakri and PMC Bank have never differentiated or considered me less capable because I am a woman. I have had the opportunity to do some great work with them and have been associated with these companies for several years.

In fact, it was the design team at Titan that supported me when I expressed a desire to try execution of a project along with design. They helped me correct my mistakes, overcome my teething troubles. I will always remain indebted to them.”

On securing new clients, she feels that Good Referrals by existing clients are extremely important. One may do hard sell, impress with great presentations but a good word put in by a past client will always be more effective.

Speaking to budding entrepreneurs, she reveals, “It is important to keep a balance between being ruthless and being humane in business. I have realized that one can make the team achieve great results just being polite and friendly with staff without being overly critical all the time.  I don’t mean Mistakes should be tolerated and excused but it is important to give someone a second chance.

Also, it is equally important to keep a close watch on day to day affairs at work. I’ve learnt this the hard way. We get too busy going after new work and rely on our employees to take care of new clients. But that is never a good idea. The existing clients get a feeling that you don’t need their patronage anymore or that they are no longer important enough. PR plays a big role in our line of business.” Well, that is solid advice from the 9 year old veteran.

Like her, her business philosophy is also very practical. “Never shy from Hard Work.  Never compromise on your beliefs. Never compromise on self-respect for business. It is important to be passionate about the work you do. One should be able to look back and say, “We did it all and we did it well!” “

The Rudyard Kipling fan, quotes his lines as her favorite quote.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

– Excerpt from the Poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling.

She takes inspiration from eminent personalities like IndraNooyi, ChandaKochchar, KiranMajumdar Shaw, and people she meets every day alike. “I am inspired by my laundry person, Shiva, who sends all his savings back to his village to make sure his wife goes to college. I am inspired by my maid Mumtaz who used the money kept aside for her daughter’s wedding to make her an engineer. There are so many people who can teach you little lessons in life”, humbly divulges Lahari.

You can learn more about her at:

Website:  www.lsadesign.co.in
Twitter: https://twitter.com/lsshetty
Facebook Fanpage: www.facebook.com/lsadesignco.
You can also reach her at laharishailesh@gmail.com.

 

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