60 years old, and first time entrepreneurs: How Covid-19 changed the lives of these women

The Covid-19 crisis destroyed many jobs but also created opportunities. These five hospitality professionals, all women in their sixties, set up a housekeepers syndicate for the hospitality industry

Naandika Tripathi
Published: Mar 26, 2021 03:20:28 PM IST
Updated: Mar 26, 2021 03:50:08 PM IST

1 year after - soho 3

Just like everyone else, 64-year-old Garima Nagpal too thought the lockdown last March was just a matter of weeks and everyone would be back to office soon, not expecting that the lockdown would get extended. “March 15 was our last working day at office and post that we were asked to work from home. We were really happy to get two to three weeks of working from home. Little did we know it was going to carry on for such a long time,” recalls Nagpal, who was heading the quality department at Oyo Hotels. The hospitality industry was one of the hardest-hit sectors by the pandemic—there were layoffs, salary cuts and a lot of restaurants shut down.

“From April, the salary stopped coming. Being a part of the senior management, I was okay with it. But then from August onwards I was not involved in any work. I didn’t see that coming and was not expecting it. I was laid off,” recollects Nagpal, who was one of the few hospitality experts on board and had worked with Oyo for about three years. “It did come as a shock, I was very disappointed and it definitely took me a little while to get used to the fact that I won't have a job to go back to,” adds Nagpal who has over 40 years of experience in the hospitality industry. Before joining Oyo, she worked with Grand Hyatt, Taj Hotels, The Shangri-La, Park Royal and was also a part of the executive housekeepers programme at The Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development (OCLD) in Delhi.

Though it was a shock, Nagpal decided she wouldn’t give up, but instead put her expertise and experience to use. There were others she knew in the industry who were either nearing retirement age or had been laid off. After giving it some thought, Nagpal and four peers—Meenakshi Agarwal, Madhu Dubey, Swarnalata Mankikar and Suchitra Naidu—all in their sixties, decided to take their first leap into entrepreneurship. The five of them, all hospitality and housekeeping professionals, decided to set up a startup SOHO, a syndicate of housekeepers. From hotels, cafes, restaurants to hospitals, airports, gyms and sports clubs, these housekeeping professionals provide solutions to them all to improve brand reputation.

The Covid-19 crisis destroyed many jobs but it also created entrepreneurs. To adapt to the pandemic and the job losses it unleashed, these women decided to become their own bosses. “This entire platform is set up for people who have either been asked to retire or they are retiring and then who were laid off. There is no new opportunity opening up for people who were laid off because the market is very tight. So this is an opportunity for all those people. SOHO represents freedom for housekeepers,” says Meenakshi Agarwal who has over 20 years of experience in the tourism and hospitality industry. 

SOHO was born in September 2020, after long and frequent virtual meetings. The women saw a huge opportunity for their startup due to the Covid-19 pandemic even though the hospitality sector is still recovering. “The virus in a way has brought home something that we had been saying for a long time, that hygiene and good housekeeping practices are non-negotiable in a hotel or hospital space. Covid-19 has driven home the fact that good hygiene is something that is here to stay, and also something customers have started really being aware of,” says Nagpal.

Last year, India’s growth suffered its worst fall on record in the April-June quarter, with the gross domestic product contracting 23.9 percent. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the unemployment rate reached 27.1 percent in early May as 122 million Indians lost their jobs between March and April. This year, as per CMIE data, the unemployment rate declined to 6.5 percent in January from 9.1 percent in December 2020, while the employment rate rose to 37.9 percent as compared to 36.9 percent.

The SOHO team has 13 experienced housekeepers based in different parts of India. The company currently provides five services—pre-opening support of any new property, which includes preparing manuals, policies and procedures, corporate housekeeping consultancy and training, professional review of housekeeping operations, and quality checks and audits. “It took us four months to set up and we officially started functioning in January 2021 but we started getting projects even before that. All of us utilised our strong network and reached out to everyone saying we have launched this new startup. Word of mouth is so strong that we started receiving many queries. Apart from this we’re actively promoting SOHO on LinkedIn as well,” says Agarwal. SOHO, a bootstrapped company, has already completed one project of auditing and creating standard operating procedure (SOPs) for a chain of 60 restaurants in India and four other projects are in the pipeline.

“One year ago I never thought I’d be doing what I’m doing today. SOHO is a product of our creativity. It’s a beautiful turn in life. In our previous jobs we had to keep running around and we were occupied all the time. Now we have time to pause and think. There is room for newer ideas,” says 62-year-old Suchitra Naidu who is based in Hyderabad and is a pre-opening expert with more than 30 years of experience. Naidu was working with The Park before this.

During the initial phase they were full of questions and doubts, remembers Nagpal. “We had been working all our lives so this was something very new. We didn’t know how well we would do or how far we would be able to take it. It is like a new challenge. None of us felt that we could be put on the shelf. We all have the zest and passion to do it. Our combined experience plays a huge role. We cover every domain, there is no inch of space that we as housekeepers cannot manage for you,” she adds.

There have been other people stepping into entrepreneurship around their retirement. For instance, back in 2014, then 60-year-old Simon Zachariah launched his own startup after he retired from the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), Thiruvananthapuram. It took him two years to set up CETRONICS Technologies, a startup initiative by a group of engineers with four decades of experience. “My idea of starting a company after superannuation was to utilise the abundant, untapped technical expertise available with superannuated senior engineers in niche domains. My plan was to pool experienced engineers and utilise their expertise to develop state-of-the-art innovative products for the nation with the support of a young team. The major projects bagged by CETRONICS from defence are examples of its success stories.”

More people should join the clan taking advantage of their knowledge, experience and expertise which gives them an edge at a later age. “We want to grow our syndicate, we want to garner support for it, and we want to inspire women of all ages to take the leap and lean in. Some of us lost our jobs last year, brutally so. But we're so proud to have kept going,” says Nagpal.

Click here to see Forbes India's comprehensive coverage on the Covid-19 situation and its impact on life, business and the economy‚Äč

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