Ahana Gautam, Founder and CEO, Open Secret
Image: Mexy Xavier; Assisted by: Hemal Patel
Bharatpur, Rajasthan, 2005. It was a sultry Monday afternoon. And distraction was the last thing the young girl needed. Just a few weeks ahead of her IIT entrance exam, Ahana Gautam was immersed in intense preparation. A friendly neighbour, who also happened to be a professor at a college, made an unexpected entry. “Aapka IIT ka sapna toh aapke bete ne poora kar diya tha [your son fulfilled your IIT dream],” she dished out her unwelcome opinion. “Then why are you making your girl study for IIT?” she asked out of curiosity. “Jyada phadhaogey to ladka kaisey milega [how will you find a groom for her if she is so well-educated],” she sounded concerned. The young girl, though, was piqued.
Ahana’s mother appeared composed. She glanced at her daughter with an assuring smile. “Let her live her dream,” the single working mother retorted to her pesky neighbour. “For me, my daughter and son are equal,” she underlined, and ended the topic by crushing the ‘wrong question’. Ahana passionately continued with her studies and made it to IIT-Bombay in 2006. Her proud mother congratulated her and shared a priceless gift. “You are the hero of your story. Keep fighting, keep flying,” she told her daughter. Also read: Beating the odds: Why Melorra's Saroja Yeramilli believes being a solo woman founder is the toughest job
Over a decade later, another ‘wrong question’ popped up. “You are 30. Why don’t you get married? Startup can wait.” This time, the young woman, who had made it to Harvard Business School (HBS) and finished her MBA in 2016, and had had two meaty stints at P&G and General Mills, was riled by one of her relatives. “It’s her life,” Ahana’s mother swiftly interjected. “She will decide what she wants to do and what she doesn’t,” she threw her weight behind her daughter’s decision to start her maiden venture, and gave her ₹2 lakh as paid-up capital. “I want to be a director in your company,” the mother proudly proclaimed. In March 2019, Ahana started Open Secret, a platform for healthy foods, snacks and beverages, and rolled out operations after a year.
A few years later, during the peak of the second wave of the pandemic, Ahana lost her mother. “It was the lowest moment of my life,” says Ahana, who was the one who cremated her mother. Relatives and acquaintances were furious that the daughter had performed the last rites. The next day, Ahana went for a meeting to close a funding negotiation that was in the final stages. “I had two choices,” says the founder, explaining her move to go back to work. “Either I could have paused and grieved or gone back to work,” she says. All her life, Ahana underlines, her mother empowered her and let her make the right choices. “Going back to work was a tribute to her,” she explains. During the second wave of the pandemic, what was at stake for Ahana, along with countless founders, was her venture and the jobs of the employees—mostly women. Closing a funding deal, she lets on, would have soothed their nerves. “It was tough to go the next day, but it was required,” she says.
In over three years of her entrepreneurial journey, Ahana has encountered countless tough moments. During one of her investment pitches, a venture capitalist was not comfortable with the swag of the founder who was confident about her business plans. “I think you are too confident. Zyada
confidence theek nahin hai
[too much of confidence is not good],” was his feedback. Ahana was not perturbed. “Mushkil se toh confidence seekha hai. Kya
problem hai sir
[I have learnt it the hard way. Is there a problem]?” she asked, and smiled.
From dealing with contract manufacturers, who invariably were men, to dealing with shopkeepers, retailers and bankers (again mostly men), Ahana has always boldly faced gender-laced questions. What has toughened her, she points out, is the way she was brought up. Born in a state that has one of the lowest female literacy rates in the country, growing up in an environment where there was widespread discrimination, and studying at a premier tech institution where girls are always in a minority, Ahana learnt survival skills and instincts. “I am an unapologetic version of myself, and am confident of who I am,” she says.
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Her backers are confident about their bet on Open Secret and the fearless founder. “We invest in founders, more than markets,” says Avnish Bajaj, founder and managing partner of Matrix. Backing Ahana, he lets on, was an easy bet. Her missionary zeal to un-junk food coupled with outstanding education—being an alum of IIT and HBS—and her relevant experience at General Mills, were sufficient triggers to invest in the venture. Health food is a very large category. “The growth of the brand is a testament to its success,” he adds.
Ahana, for her part, shares the not-so-secret recipe of success: Education and right messaging. “Have you ever thought why in all bedtime stories for kids there is a Prince Charming waiting to rescue the girl?” she asks. What we need to teach young girls, she asserts, are not fairy tales, the glamour of white skin, and waiting for their Prince Charming. “Just tell them to be confident and be whatever they want to be in life,” she signs off.
(This story appears in the 24 March, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)