‘Failure is the stepping stone to success’ — an oft-used proverb is a true testament to the life of 55-year-old Nina Lekhi, founder of vegan accessories brand Baggit. If you had told Nina, in 1985, that she would go on to create a business that generates over a Rs100 crores in revenues, she would have probably had a good laugh at your expense.
Recalling those days Nina had just failed her first-year Foundation Course of Arts at Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai, and stumbled into the world of business as she did not know what to do next.
A failure that jolted Nina
Until grade 8, she says that she was a model student who did exceptionally well in all her classes, and then “priorities changed”. “From being a topper I moved to being a backbencher. I was a wild child during my growing up years. It was almost like I liked to rebel against everything that was asked of me,” says Nina.
Nina recollects spending all her time outside of college, watching movies, and having all the fun in the world. “My idea of college was just fun and freedom and I did not put in any work. This led me to fail the first year of my foundation course,” she says.
With the failure came tags like ‘duffer’ and ‘stupid’ that she started to attribute to herself. “That failure shook me up and pushed me to make something of my life,” she says, “I felt like I had to prove to myself and to the world that I wasn’t a duffer.”
Nina credits her parents of being very supportive, who never once discouraged or made her feel bad about her failure. Instead, they motivated her to look at ways of rebuilding her confidence and self-esteem, and said they stood by her in whatever decision she wanted to take.
Becoming a salesperson
Nina had always been fascinated by the retail industry, and with a year’s time before she could appear for the examination again, she decided to work two-part time jobs, in order to understand the business better.
She also took up a job at Mike Kriplani Fashions where she worked in the retail section. “At 17-years-of-age I was learning how retail works and getting first-hand experience at a sales job. My work would need me to take stock of all the products that they had, and for this I would be paid close to Rs 400 a month for half a day of work,” she says. This motivated her to take on another job at Shyam Ahuja where she sold carpets and earned Rs 600 a month. She recalls that it was not about the money, but more about learning and the sense of purpose that the jobs gave her. She became a more mature and responsible individual through those years of working.
Working these jobs also ignited the entrepreneurial spirit in Nina and it was around this time that she started thinking of starting her own venture. “Being surrounded by friends from business families and having been brought up in that environment, made entrepreneurship almost a natural move,” she says.
Armed with Rs 7000, Nina set out
In 1985 with Rs 7000 in hand, lent to her by her mother, Nina set out to make a mark. She started with wanting to prove that she was worth it, and working in the creative space was her way of doing that.
“Until then, the life I was leading was very protected and one that did not really require me to step out into the markets for anything, and suddenly I was visiting all these crowded markets looking for material, leather, accessories for the bags I wanted to make,” she says.
“I remember during the initial stages, it was word of mouth that got me my clientele. I started to do exhibitions, and also retailed at the same shops where I started working – Mike Kriplani Fashions. It soon escalated to other bigger retail outlets like Shopper’s Stop and Regal, who wanted to stock up our bags. Thankfully I never had to take a bag and go from shop to shop to sell my product,” she recalls.
After three years, in 1989, the business grew big enough for Nina to consider renting a space at Kemps Corner in Mumbai to start a store with her brother. “Doing up that store in itself was so much fun. I would be covered in paint and would immerse myself in finding new ways to make the store look and feel attractive,” she says. Along the way there were so many high points, and speaking about some of them, Nina says, “I remember how I would go to the stores where my products retailed every weekend and be given cash for all the sales that had happened, that was such an amazing moment for me. I would come back with the money, looking forward to the weekend.”
It’s been a 35-year-long journey and the company today makes a revenue of Rs 111 crore and retails across 450 stores in India.
“The business grew organically and each month I made it a point to reinvest the profits back into the company,” she says.
What sets Baggit apart from the rest of the brands in the market is its ability to adapt to change well. “Experimenting with colours, kinds of bags, and material is what I enjoyed,” she says. It has also been important to Nina to create a brand that is eco-conscious and sustainable.
When asked why her brand is vegan, she says, “One is able to get almost everything vegan today, from food to cosmetics, and I wanted to bring in that cruelty-free aspect into my products as well.” The bags and accessories at Baggit are all 100 per cent vegan.
Today, Baggit has 700 employees working with the company and one of the USP’s of the brand is how every product that the company retails is made in India.
From Beat it to Baggit
Speaking about how the name Baggit came into being, Nina says, “It is such an interesting story – I was with a friend [then business partner] and we were out to swim. In the changing room our discussions were about what name we could give our business, it was the time when Michael Jackson’s song Beat it was a rage – from beat it, beat it – we started chanting Bag it, Bag it and just like that I had a name for my brand.”
She laughs and says, “Back then there was no real understanding of building a brand and all I was doing was following my passion and working hard.”
It was a brand that was started at home and recalling those days, Nina says, “I remember bringing home some leather which left a horrible stench at home. Our downstairs neighbour was always wondering what I was hammering every evening at home, and I was constantly on the lookout for people who could help me stitch. That was how I started ‘Baggit’.”
She also shares how she has always used the power of visualisation to her advantage, “In my early days as an entrepreneur, I would display the products at various exhibitions and on the way to the venue, would always visualise my counter being filled with customers and it would happen just that way.” She mentions how even now, after almost 35 years, she uses this technique often.
Nina’s positive outlook to life and the business has always helped her tide through even the most critical problems that she faced. She changed around her life and is a walking inspiration to us all that when all the chips are down, the only way to go is up.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)