Rajiv is based out of Delhi-NCR and writes stories on startups, corporates, entrepreneurs of all kinds, and yes, marketing and advertising world. His ‘historic feats’ include graduation in history from Hansraj College, master's in medieval Indian history from Delhi University, and PG diploma in journalism from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Another forgettable achievement was spending over a decade at The Economic Times as his maiden job. For the first seven years, he learnt the craft on the desk, and the remaining years were spent unlearning and writing for Brand Equity and ET Magazine. What keeps him going, and alive, apart from stories is the heavenly music of immortal legend RD Burman.
Shruti, co-founder and CEO, ApnaKlub
Image: Selvaprakash Lakshmanan for Forbes India
People kept stoking her anger. And it started early in Shruti’s life. “Such a sad thing. The poor guy has three daughters,” the young girl—the second-born or the middle child—used to feel enraged whenever somebody commented on her IAS father’s ‘misfortune’. Little did she know that such jibes would persistently revisit in various avatars, and at various places, including school, during her growing up years.
During her senior secondary days, Shruti, who only goes by her first name, found enough fuel to jack up her anger. “Girls are not good at maths,” was how one of her teachers commented. “Take chemistry. It’s easy to mug up. And you won’t flunk,” the teacher dished out an unsolicited advice. When such remarks became alarmingly repetitive, they started affecting Shruti’s psyche and confidence. “At some point, you start believing in such nonsense,” recalls Shruti, who discussed the issue with her father, who completed his MTech from IIT-Delhi and had been encouraging her to take up engineering. “Do you know how much you scored in maths?” he asked. “Trust me, it’s better than what most would score in India,” the doting father assured his diffident daughter who realised it was not easy being a girl in science and maths.
Years passed, and the resident of Bihar cleared her engineering exam, and made it to IIT-Delhi. When Shruti joined the hostel, the subtle gender biases and innocuous taunts of the past graduated to become more blunt and direct. “In IIT,” this was one of the popular catchphrases in the hostel, “there are males, and then there are non-males.”
To her horror, more and more instances of implicit chauvinism started getting exposed. Representing her hostel to take part in extracurricular competitions became an unpalatable experience. “Yeh kyun aaye hain, aisey bhi zero pe hi jayenge… they will be last [Why have these girls come? They will score zero and will come last],” the boys sneered. Shruti and her friends worked hard, started winning trophies, and started scripting history.
After completing her education, it was time to get a job. And the professional world taught her an age-old lesson. In fact, two lessons. The first was that ‘the boss is always right’. And the second was that whenever you are in doubt, stick to the first lesson. “I realised that being opinionated and independent had its own perils,” says Shruti. “Telling your boss what works actually doesn’t work at all.” She was brimming with hyper zeal, enormous passion, loads of anger and negligible patience for stupidity. The result of having such potent traits were catastrophic. “It’s insane to do the same thing again and again, and expect a different result,” she impudently told her boss. “I know how the problem can be cracked in a different way.” Her boss grinned: “You sound arrogant.”
A few months later, it was Shruti’s turn to grin and bear it. Her colleagues, who had mastered the art of sycophancy, got promoted with a hefty increment. The young woman, who had done most of the heavy lifting in the organisation, felt devastated. “The weapon of appraisal was used to teach me a lesson,” she recalls, adding that she paid a price for being talented but blunt. “Arrogant people are great. They will always be self-driven to win,” she says. “Lekin unko sambhalna padta hai [but you should know how to handle them],” she adds. Seething with anger, she quit and joined a new organisation.
The new place, a non-profit organisation, brought a new perspective. And this had nothing to do with gender. Shruti found a fair boss who taught her the fundamentals of getting things done, looking at problems not only from an input perspective but also from the lens of results, and opening her mind to lots of new possibilities. “Go and get an MBA, work in a for-profit place, and earn lots of money,” the boss advised. “This will help you do anything you want do.”
She obeyed and made it to the Harvard Business School (HBS). The engineer found herself stripped of the perks that IIT had bestowed. “Being a brown immigrant woman put me at the bottom of the pecking order at HBS,” she recalls. The hustle continued, her performance improved, and she learnt why businesses must have an impact. She returned to India in 2019, and started her maiden venture ‘Sair’, a tour and travel startup. “It was an insanely humbling experience,” she recalls. Apart from constantly hounding her clients to clear her payments, getting her hands dirty in the operations which needed a hands-on approach, and exhorting a bunch of freshers to join her nondescript startup which didn’t have any funding, Shruti got to know how the entrepreneurial journey looked from a filter of gender.
The novice pitched to a renowned angel. The meeting went well, she answered all the queries and funding looked almost sealed. One of her friends, who was close to the angel, probed deep to find out why the funding didn’t eventually happen. The reason for the rejection was outrageously weird. The angel had earlier backed a woman who was from Stanford. Her venture bombed, and he lost his money. “He thought since you were from Harvard, you might meet a similar fate. So, he balked,” revealed Shruti’s friend. Shruti lost her cool. “Like really, this is amazing!” she yelled. If over 90 percent of the startups are founded by men, and if the generally-accepted failure rate is over 90 percent, do investors ask the same question to these male founders, she wondered.
Finally, Shruti found a backer and the venture continued to scale till the pandemic in 2020. The business stopped, her co-founder exited, revenues came to zero, and there was just ₹60 lakh left in the bank. Shruti decided to return the money to her investor and shut the venture. The backer, however, was impressed with her honesty and asked her to tide over the crisis. The founder made a contingency plan. She stopped taking salary for the next few months, didn’t slash headcount and asked her employees to take a 40 to 50 percent pay cut, as Sair tried to navigate the storm. The startup morphed into Sair Mall, and the founder started selling mangoes, vegetables, digital comics and insurance. Though the venture couldn’t continue, Shruti discovered something interesting. Men from small towns were buying FMCG products. That insight led to the starting of ApnaKlub in the latter half of 2020.
Co-founded by Shruti and Manish Kumar, ApnaKlub is a B2B wholesale platform for FMCG. It connects retailers and kirana stores in semi-urban and rural areas to a range of consumer goods and brands via its own full stack logistics services. ApnaKlub has raised $20 million so far, and counts Tiger Global, TrueScale Capital, ICMG Partners, Flourish Ventures, Sequoia India’s Surge, Blume Ventures and Whiteboard Capital among its backers.
The beginning, though, was not easy. The tough part, especially, was getting the right set of backers. Many funders were sceptical and kept on underlining the presence of well-funded rivals in the space such as ElasticRun, DealShare, ShopKirana and Udaan. There were others who thought they were asking the right questions, but unfortunately fell prey to their biased understanding. The young woman confronted a few, but thought it prudent to focus more on her work. “People are very uncomfortable with angry women. They like angry young men,” she smiles, sharing an interesting incident from her hostel life. After she won one of the prestigious debate championships, the opponent started behaving like a sore loser. He screamed in anger, violently banged his fists on the table, and hurled abuses. Shruti boldly walked up to her rival and gave her piece of mind. “Hey, you’re so hysterical. Maybe it’s your period,” she smiled, and walked away. Women, she underlines, always have to appear calm and composed. “If we scream, we get unwanted labels,” she adds.
Fast forward to March 2023. ApnaKlub’s heady progress has made people sit up and take notice for right reasons. Revenue from operations has jumped from ₹5.67 crore in FY21 to ₹47.37 crore in FY22; the startup claims to have processed over two lakh orders; and ApnaKlub has on-boarded and transacted with more than 38,000 partners.
The backers are pleased with the initial performance. “Shruti is mission-driven, strong-willed and deeply focussed on creating a long-term impact,” reckons Anshu Prasher, partner at Whiteboard Capital. The VC funded Shruti in her first venture, and then backed ApnaKlub as well. What the VC finds most impressive is the founder’s ability to create order in chaotic environments and guide the team towards strategic goals. These are leadership traits, Prasher adds, that make a significant difference in execution-heavy businesses where efficiency is most important. “Shruti has exhibited that quality in abundance till now,” he says, adding that the founder will have a fair share of headwinds to navigate. One of the key challenges, he underlines, is to ensure that the business goals and focus don’t shift with the significant change in team and operations as the business grows.
Shruti, for her part, contends that she is well-placed to navigate all odds. Her mercurial anger was a great escape velocity for her for a long period of time. “It helped me race ahead and prove others wrong,” she says, though she realises that anger as an emotion can take her only till a point. “Once you achieve a particular trajectory, try to channelise anger and make it productive,” she says, adding that she would prefer to be known as an entrepreneur and not a woman entrepreneur. “Angry woman still remains my favourite,” she signs off.