Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Beating the odds: Why Melorra's Saroja Yeramilli believes being a solo woman founder is the toughest job

The founder and CEO of the D2C jewellery brand had to face several odds, lows and rejections. But the tenacious founder refused to give up

Rajiv Singh
Published: Mar 17, 2023 11:25:34 AM IST
Updated: Mar 17, 2023 05:25:07 PM IST

Beating the odds: Why Melorra's Saroja Yeramilli believes being a solo woman founder is the toughest jobSaroja Yeramilli, Founder and CEO, Melorra Image: Hemant Mishra for Forbes India

June 2015, Bengaluru. It was a reality check for Saroja Yeramilli. The rookie founder was convinced that her glittering track record would be worth its weight in gold in her bold new innings. Buoyed by her celebrated past, the 47-year old seasoned corporate honcho had reached out to one of her investment banker friends to find out if he would be keen to handle the mandate of raising funds as she was about to step into an entrepreneurial journey with her venture to manufacture playful, comfy and trendy jewellery.   

Yeramilli’s buddy, though, was astonished at the naivety of the first-time founder. “Aapke paas 4-5 slides ka business plan hai, koi revenue nahin hai, product nahin hai, proof of concept nahin hai…aur aap paise raise karna chahte ho…[You just have a business plan of 4-5 slides. There is no revenue, no product or proof of concept and you want to raise money],” he laughed at her face. “Chuck the idea. It’s impossible,” he suggested to his friend who kept mum for a few minutes. “He is a banker, so he might have a point,” wondered Yeramilli, who was rolling out Melorra, an online jewellery brand. The idea was to disrupt the traditional way of selling, buying, making and perception of jewellery.

Yeramilli was hit hard by the assessment. Is this what 25 years of stellar performance—she started her professional stint at Ogilvy in 1991 and went on to add Mudra, Titan Industries, Marico and Dell to her CV—came down to, she wondered. For somebody who was instrumental in transforming Tanishq into an aspirational jewellery brand, rolled out the stores in the US, and was a pioneer in launching work-wear jewellery in India, it was hard for Yeramilli to believe that she was still looked upon as a rough diamond.

Beating the odds: Why Melorra's Saroja Yeramilli believes being a solo woman founder is the toughest jobFive years later, Melorra hit a rough patch. Pounded by a savage pandemic, the country shut down in March 2020, and most of the businesses—especially discretionary ones like travel, hospitality and jewellery—came to a screeching halt. Melorra’s revenue slumped to zero in May, the business was fast running out of money, and Yeramilli started scouting for potential investors during the peak of Covid. “I had no choice. I had to pitch,” she recalls.

The task, though, was not easy for two reasons. First, the funders found the story surreal. “Are you crazy,” asked most of the VCs. “Log kapde nahin khareed rahe hain, gold kaun khareedega [people are not buying clothes, who will buy your gold],” they grilled Yeramilli on her ambitious forecast about the venture.

The founder, though, stayed adamant in her optimism and belief that gold will glitter again. “In two years, I will make Melorra a $100-million company,” she professed, a claim which didn’t find any taker. “It’s impossible. You have zero revenue now. You don’t even know if the business will survive and you have business projections,” they sneered.

Over the next few months, a stubborn Yeramilli pitched to over 150 investors across the globe. Though the duration of meetings varied, and the names and nationalities of the VCs kept changing, two things remained constant. First was the input. The meetings happened over Zoom, and Yeramilli made a compelling case to get funding for her crisis-hit venture. Second was the output. All the passionate pitches ended with the same result. The VCs zoomed out and declined funding.

If finding believers was hard, spotting ones who could understand the business was even harder. The reason was not hard to find. Yeramilli was pitching to a gender which was not the direct consumer. “Imagine, most men don’t understand women, and here I was pitching my jewellery brand to them,” she recounts. Her despairing attempts to scout for women VCs always ended in vain.

A spate of rejections dampened her spirits. “When you hear so many nos, you feel terrible,” says Yeramilli, who found a way to drown her sorrows. “I told my husband that for every rejection, I will have a glass of wine,” she recalls. Over the next few weeks and months, the founder kept on getting snubbed, and funding remained elusive. “Everybody told me it’s impossible,” she says. Interestingly, Yeramilli always got spurred by the word ‘impossible’. “It is my Red Bull moment, and fills me up with insane energy to prove them wrong,” she says.

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Beating the odds: Why Melorra's Saroja Yeramilli believes being a solo woman founder is the toughest jobBack in 2016, the newbie founder bumped into her ‘Red Bull’ moment. This time a new set of cynics was chanting the word impossible. “Can you make jewellery in one week,” she asked scores of gold and diamond vendors across the country. Her ask was simple. Yeramilli wanted made-to-order, stylish, casual and trendy jewellery in record time. Her aspiration was to become the ‘Zara of Jewellery’ by rolling out a new collection every week.

The task, though, seemed impossible. “Are you kidding? Do you know how much time it takes to make regular jewellery,” replied manufacturers who were astonished. For the Diwali collection, they pointed out, the brands place orders 90 days before the festival. This was not the first time Yeramilli was hearing the chorus of ‘not possible’. And this was not the first time that she was getting ready to prove her detractors wrong.   

Back in January 2016, just one week after launching the operations, Yeramilli dazzled all with her fiery intent. Melorra secured $5 million from Lightbox, making it the first startup in India to bag the largest seed round. “There was just a laptop, a PowerPoint presentation and Saroja. That’s it,” recalls Sid Talwar, partner at Lightbox Ventures. “There was no company. No product. Nothing. We just bet on her,” he says. It took Talwar a little over five months and countless rounds of meetings with Yeramilli to understand the sector.

What intrigued the funder was two things. First, jewellery was a massive market and there were no new-age companies looking to disrupt it. Second was the stellar background of the founder. “She had a terrific understanding of the market,” Talwar underlines. But what was most impressive was the way and Yeramilli explained the nuances of the segment in a simple manner. Yeramilli, he reckons, has immense clarity of vision and execution, and hasn’t missed a topline or bottomline number in her P&L (profit and loss) since April 2018. Though the startup posted a loss of ₹106.7 crore in FY22, Talwar reckons that Melorra is on track to scale sustainably.
“Keeping the brand relevant will be a challenge,” he says. Scaling without compromising brand identity or customer experience is another challenge. “There will always be challenges, but Saroja is well placed to handle all,” he says.

Talwar is not alone to be moved by an impressive founder and her vision. The first investment banker who didn’t lead the funding talks for Melorra was equally astonished. “My friend came back and handled my mandate to raise my next round of funding,” recounts Yeramilli. “That’s how he reacted,” she smiles. And what happened to the vendors who thought the idea of making jewellery in a week was absurd? Yeramilli prefers to talk about the ones—smaller and obscure manufacturers—who believed in her dream. “They are now laughing all the way to the bank,” she says. Melorra, she claims, now makes jewellery in five days. “I get a kick out of making my critics eat their words,” she laughs. “That’s my high.” 

Beating the odds: Why Melorra's Saroja Yeramilli believes being a solo woman founder is the toughest job
    
Fast forward to March 2023. Melorra has been indeed riding high. Look at some of the numbers. It has raised $71 million so far; delivers across 26,000 PIN codes; has 23 experience centres in 12 cities; has added a long list of backers, including Axis Growth Avenues, SRF Family Office, N+1, 9Unicorns, Symphony International Holdings, Value Quest, Venture Catalysts and Param Capital; and the Bengaluru-based startup grew its operating revenue 4.6x—from ₹ 78.6 crore in FY21 to ₹364.4 crore in FY22. Melorra, claims Yeramilli, is now clocking a revenue runrate of ₹800 crore. “There is really nothing called impossible,” she says, adding that while there are a lot of lows in building a company, what matters most is how one deals with them.

Also read: Transition of women founders and cofounders to CEOs important: Aishwarya Arunkumar, Shweta Bhatia

As a woman founder, how does she deal with bias, prejudices and fallacious perceptions, whether from VCs, vendors or other stakeholders? Yeramilli reckons she doesn’t have instances of direct prejudices. She, though, has stories which she used to hear from other women founders. ‘Shaadi hogyi, bachchey hain, kaise manage karogey [are you married? Do you have kids? How will you manage?]’ were some of the ‘nonsense questions’ that used to be thrown at women founders. “Aajkal mujhe lagta hai ki aise questions kum ho gaye hai [now such questions are no longer a regular thing],” she adds.

Beating the odds: Why Melorra's Saroja Yeramilli believes being a solo woman founder is the toughest jobThough conceding that women have to live with the expectation of performing a stellar job at home as well as business, Yeramilli believes that women have a natural edge over men. “We have an innate, god-given gift of multitasking,” she says. Apart from brilliantly utilising it, what women just need to do is discard the traditional way of mental conditioning. She shares an anecdote.

During an appraisal interview at one of her earlier corporate stints, Yeramilli’s boss shared his feedback. “You are aggressive,” he reckoned. The young appraisee was quick to correct her superior. “You mean to say I am assertive,” she replied, trying to stay true to the mental conditioning which always emphasised that aggression is a bad thing for women. Now if the same feedback, Yeramilli lets on, is given to a male, he would be elated as it’s a compliment for him.

Cut to 2023. Yeramilli reacts differently to the same comment. “Thanks. Indeed, I am aggressive,” she says, alluding to how she reacts today. “It’s not good enough to be assertive. Be aggressive,” she signs off.

(This story appears in the 24 March, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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