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Excerpt: Millionaire Housewives by Rinku Paul and Puja Singhal

Millionaire Housewives features twelve homemakers who built successful business empires. This excerpt presents beauty guru Ambika Pillai’s story in her own words

books Updated: Oct 06, 2017 18:37 IST
Ambika Pillai
Ambika Pillai
Hindustan Times
Ambika Pillai,Hemant Trivedi,Kaytra by Ambika Pillai
Beauty entrepreneur Ambika Pillai.(Yogen Shah)

‘The only thing that overcomes hard luck is hard work.’

—Harry Golden, writer, socialist

Clichéd as it may sound, I was born with the proverbial silver spoon in my mouth. My father was a successful cashew exporter and my childhood, spent in a sprawling mansion in the backwaters of Kerala, was nothing short of idyllic. As the second of four girls, I shared a very close bond with my parents and sisters. My early memories include travelling to the most exotic places in the world with them.

By the time I turned five, my sisters and I were sent to boarding school in Ooty and that is when trouble started brewing in my otherwise perfect world. That no one knew of dyslexia in those days meant that I was considered a dumb kid throughout my growing up years. If I took a verbal test, I would probably score 100 per cent, but when it came to reading or writing, I was a total disaster. Have you ever heard

of anyone repeating classes two and three? I did. By the time I got to class seven, my parents realized that something was amiss and thought I would do better under their wings. I was then brought home to Kollam. That, of course, did little to improve things on the academic front. Seeing me struggle up to class ten, my father asked me if I wanted to study further or if I wanted to get married. No marks for guessing what I chose. Going to college wasn’t an option at all in my head; I saw marriage as my ticket to freedom.

At the tender age of seventeen, my life took a decisive turn when a prospective groom came to see me. I didn’t even know his name. The one thing about him that

impressed me though was his impeccable English. He had an MBA degree, was a gold medallist no less, and I gave up my world without any reservations to follow him to his. The excitement didn’t last long though. Despite his seemingly bright prospects, the reality check arrived as soon as I moved in with him to a tiny single-room apartment in Calcutta, a far cry from my sprawling home in Kerala. I was expected to wear a saree, be up at 5 a.m., cook, clean — things that I had never done before. I didn’t protest, refusing to let any of this affect me since I wanted to make my marriage work.

I began to take many other things in my stride; being made to feel that I was not good enough on account of my lack of education was only one of them. I would have lived with all of this, but ours really wasn’t a marriage at all.

Not once in five years did we have a physical relationship. It was hard to explain this to my parents, who were convinced that my inability to bear a child meant

there was something medically wrong with me. Trips to doctors, medical tests and even surgeries were my lot as I found it very hard to tell my parents the real issue with my marriage. I had to literally beg my husband to have a child and, thankfully, my daughter, Kavitha, was born after five years of marriage. If I had thought that a child would improve matters, I was living in a fool’s paradise as

things started going from bad to worse.

Finally, with a two-year-old child in tow, I mustered up the courage to walk out of my seven-year-old marriage. I went back to my parents’ place. In retrospect, those seven years were one of the scariest times of my life. Kids should not get married as young as I did; at that age, you don’t even know your own mind, forget the other person’s.

From wanting to be a happy housewife to coming back to my parental home in the throes of depression, I had come a long way. I had spent the last seven years of my life in a loveless relationship and had absolutely nothing to fall back on. If there was one thing I was grateful for, it was Kavitha. In fact, till this day, if anyone asks me if I regret my marriage, my answer is a vehement no, only on account of my daughter.

I just had no idea what I would do next. In my seven years of marriage, I hadn’t acquired any skills that could stand me in good stead. While my parents were supportive, my dad’s suggestion of letting him ‘look after’ my child and me financially didn’t go down well with me. With my other sisters married by then, I remember asking my father if I could help him with his cashew business—wanting to become the son he had never had. His answer, however, was a resounding ‘no’ as he felt it wasn’t a woman’s job. He couldn’t picture his daughter socializing with his many customers—a part and parcel of his cashew export business.

Never in my life had I felt like such a total loser. I wanted to stand on my own feet, but in the absence of any skills, I saw all doors closing in on me. In my desperation, I even came up with naive options like selling T-shirts on

the beaches of Goa, where my lack of education would not be a deterrent. It was on one such day, when I was feeling totally dejected, that I saw an advertisement by Shahnaz Hussain in the local newspaper, inviting students for a hairstyling course in New Delhi. I made up my mind to join it. More than anything else, my decision was based on the fact that being a beautician didn’t require me to be a graduate. My father, of course, was devastated by the idea of me stepping out of the home turf. My mom tried to buy peace by explaining to my dad that at least I was choosing a ‘woman-oriented’ career and that I would be back home after finishing my course.

I landed in Delhi, a totally unknown city, with my daughter in my arms, utterly terrified of what the future held. I had never lived all by myself before or taken any

independent decisions. Yet, here I was, fending for myself, looking for accommodations to rent. The problem was further compounded by the fact that I didn’t speak any Hindi. Irrespective of the many problems staring me in my face, I knew that there was no turning back now. I had to do this — more for my daughter than anyone else.

While Delhi now feels like home, in those days I was a rank outsider. I remember people calling me ‘kali kaluti (dark complexioned)’. Of course, the saving grace was that since I didn’t know the language, I couldn’t quite understand what it meant. I somehow held on, and managed to finish two beauty courses.

Upon finishing my courses, although my parents were keen that I return home, I took up a job at a small twoseater parlour, which paid me Rs 2000 per month. I paid Rs 1000 as house rent and tried to stretch the balance to take care of my child. Money was something I never had to worry about in the past and these were trying times to say the least. While my father had paid for my courses, I was now determined to seek minimal financial help from him. I remember trying to save money from the measly Rs 1000 I had left after paying rent in order to buy a

moped bike that would make commuting easier. Today, if one of my staff members tells me that they want to leave because they have a better offer, I never hold them back for I have witnessed the struggle for money first-hand.

The one bright spot of my life throughout this period remained my daughter, who was three years old by then and had just about started school. I remember telling Kavi stories of my own childhood—how I visited Disneyland when I was thirteen years old and how I would ensure that she did the same, although I had no clue how I would fulfil this promise.

Despite knowing that I had the support of my family and that if nothing worked I could always go back to them, it was not an option for me. Life, I must admit, wasn’t easy. In one of my early jobs, a customer walked into the salon and I was designated to attend to her. Having been with me at the same boarding school, she soon recognized me as Gopinathan Pillai’s daughter and was absolutely taken aback to see me there. In her indignation, she even walked up to the salon’s owner to tell her that the father of the girl she had employed at such a puny salary could buy out several salons like hers. The owner obviously didn’t take this dressing down well, to the extent that I was fired from that job on some pretext in no time. Heartbroken and worried about my finances, I turned to a hair stylist, who had been my teacher in one of the courses. She helped me find a new job. One day, the owner of the salon, impressed by my English-speaking abilities, asked me to

man the billing counter. I was quite taken aback to see that a salon made as much as Rs 30,000 in a single day. This was 1990–91 and Rs 30,000 meant a lot of money then.

This is when I spoke to the hair stylist who had got me the job and I suggested that we strike out on our own. She agreed on the condition that while the salon be named after her, I would have to put in all the money. Keen to set the project rolling, I agreed and reached out to my dad to borrow Rs 7 lakh from him. By then my dad had realized that I wasn’t coming home in a hurry. Imagining his daughter

working for a small salary, driving a moped and trying to fend for herself in an alien city were images that didn’t sit well with him, so he willingly agreed to fund my venture.

The next seven years went by in a flurry of activity as the salon that we set up became quite popular. My personal life though continued to remain tumultuous. I

was heartbroken when my ex-husband (my divorce had come through around the time Kavi was three) decided to send Kavi to Bangalore to study, stating that I was not capable of providing her with a stable life.

It was somewhere during this time that I met Rakesh, aka Rocky, at a party, and he totally swept me off my feet.

He pursued me like nobody had ever done—sending me flowers, taking me to the fanciest of places. I, however, wanted to be absolutely sure that the person I now married would give my daughter and me the stability we deserved.

It was after four years of relentless pursuit that I gave in and agreed to marry him in the hope that my life would now change. However, the fun and laughter he brought into my life wasn’t meant to last. He was heavily into drinking and gambling. There were nights that he would never come home. It was as if the four years we had spent together were a complete lie. There was zero stability. It was over in no time.

If I thought that this time around I at least had a career to fall back on, even that was not to be. I learnt from a trusted source that money was being pilfered from the business that we had so painstakingly set up. I had given so much of myself to the business that I was absolutely heartbroken.

However, on starting to notice the discrepancies myself after this tip-off, I decided to call off the partnership. The fact that I wasn’t even returned my initial investment made things really tough for me. Kavi was back with me by then and this was a time when I didn’t even have enough money to buy bananas for her. My first entrepreneurial outing had backfired and how!

One day, when I was walking down a street, I happened to bump into Harmeet Bajaj, a fashion choreographer who knew me from my salon days. She asked me if I was available to style some models’ hair for a show. It didn’t take me a second to reply in the affirmative. Surprised, she asked me if I needed to consult my diary for the dates, not knowing the tough financial situation I was in. Anyway, I went on to do the show, for which my work was very well appreciated. There was no looking back from there.

The next big show I remember doing was with fashion designer Hemant Trivedi, for which I flew down to Mumbai. After styling the hair of the models, he asked

me if I could do their make-up too. I had no idea how to do make-up at the time, but gutsy as I was, I said yes.

I asked for some advance payment to buy a make-up kit, telling them that I was not carrying mine (when, in reality, I didn’t possess one). Having asked the models which make-up shades were doing the rounds then, I ran down to pick up the necessary stuff from a local shop. Needless to say that when it was time for Hemant to see the first model whose make-up I had done, I was awfully scared.

To my luck, Hemant found my work brilliant and I was on the road to success. One thing led to another, and I landed the role of doing Aishwarya Rai’s make-up for the movie Taal. I remember Karan Kapoor (Shashi Kapoor’s son) calling me up and ensuring that I was sitting down before he broke the news to me—I had won my first IIFA (International Indian Film Academy) Award for Make-up.

Till today, this award remains special for me.

Somewhere along the way, I set up my own salon— this time in the rented accommodation I lived in, with a friend as partner. Unlike the last time—where I had put in all the money and a whole lot of effort, but I was only a shadow of my partner—this time around, it was a source of immense pride for me to name the salon ‘Visions by Ambika’.

During the initial period though, the going was far from easy. I remember how I had to sell my jewellery to pay my staff their salaries for six months. However, at the end of six months, the salon started doing brisk business.

From doing the make-up for one bride in six months to doing dozens of brides a day, we were suddenly the talk of the town. People had to call for appointments; the waiting period was as long as three months.

However, I still hadn’t learnt my lesson. It was around the time Kavi wanted to go to Parsons School of Design in New York to study, when, for the first time, I asked to see the books of accounts. I realized that they were in a complete mess. So much so, that although I recalled doing the make-up for twenty-two brides out of the 180 that walked into the salon on my birthday, the books showed that only two brides had come in that day. I had clearly been cheated yet again.

Co-author Puja Singhal (Courtesy Penguin)

Devastated does not even begin to describe how I felt that day, especially because I believed I had let Kavi down.

Eventually, she had to apply for a student loan when all my life I had worked only to secure her future. The drama that unfolded when I confronted my partner was something else. I was threatened, got pushed out from my flagship salon and literally had to start all over again, this time with loans hanging over my head.

Nonetheless, I stood up once again, and worked day and night to set out on the path to recovery. With my determination and god’s will, I have twelve salons today, with a total staff strength of over 200. This, after having started out with a single salon that had a staff strength of six. Today, I also have salons in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram, and I am close to my roots again.

I take great pride in the fact that my daughter is now fully involved in the business; in fact, I am looking forward to taking the back seat now. My passion currently lies in making my own herbal products as I find the process therapeutic. I have often taken many of these herbal scrubs and face packs I make to the Fashion Weeks and

have given them to the models. If I could have my way, I eventually want to turn the entire salon into a chemicalfree zone. Actually, I have already taken the first step in this direction. My herbal range of products called ‘Kaytra by Ambika Pillai’ is slated to hit the market soon.

If you ask me what my biggest learning as an entrepreneur has been, it is that one cannot just sit back and look at the creative aspect of business alone without worrying about the financial aspect. I believe that handling money doesn’t

come very easily to creative people sometimes and we are happy handing over this responsibility to someone else.

Fact is, we need to be far more astute financially—this is the only way we can safeguard our own interests.

Given my life journey, I am often called to give speeches at women’s forums. Really, the only piece of advice I have for everyone is to stand up for themselves, irrespective of their situations in life. Your destiny clearly is in your own hands. I have had homemakers ask me how they can overcome their myriad fears and do something for themselves. To them, I always say that my story is proof that you can shape your own destiny. Life, I believe, is all about taking chances. I took mine. Walking down the tried and tested path just because everyone else is doing it isn’t a good enough reason. You need to explore and do what you feel passionate about. Having said this, it is a fact that the entrepreneurial journey is riddled with difficulties—more so when you do not have any prior experience with running a business. But you have to start somewhere. It is your own inner strength that will stand you in good stead and take you far. Even if someone tells you that they are there to support you, know that it is you who has to support yourself.

Co-author Rinku Paul (Courtesy Penguin)

Of course, I have derived my strength from my family— Kavi, my mum, my sisters. I knew that no matter what happens, they will always come running to help me, just the way I would do anything for them. My dad was a very important part of my life. The day I lost him, I thought my life had ended. In a way, every success I have been able to achieve was to prove to him that as a woman I could still make him proud. When I was leaving home, he was worried that I would bring a bad name to the family. Atthat time, I wanted to tell him that he was discounting me only because I am a girl. Had it been his son, he would have blessed him to go out and make a life for himself. I wished he had trusted me a little more at that point. I think his words have remained with me and I was conscious that I should not do anything that would have people talking badly about me, thus hurting him in the process. My career has seen many high points—my numerous awards, the fact that I have worked for Bollywood and for royal families, and have been the only hairdresser from India to be invited to the L’Oréal hairdressing convention in Paris, among others. However, my greatest achievement remains that I was able to fulfil the promise I made to my daughter to take her to Disneyland when she was thirteen years old. I gave her the childhood I was privileged to receive. The first time I bought a Mercedes car, I looked up to the heavens and hoped my dad was watching me, as that is the car he drove. Irrespective of my material success, however, if I look back, I think every single day that I have spent with my daughter is a huge blessing for me. Even those days when I had landed in a new city and was running my home with just Rs 1000 a month were special in their own way as they were filled with my love for my daughter and the hope of giving her a great future.

Read more: Why India needs more women entrepreneurs

Life Lessons

- One cannot just sit back and look at the creative aspect of businesses alone. It is important to deal with the financial aspect as well.

- Always stand up for yourself, no matter what.

- Your destiny is in your own hands.

- No matter how many people claim to support you, it is you who has to stand up for yourself.

- Life, I believe, is all about taking chances.

- You cannot only walk down the tried and tested path. You need to do what you are passionate about.

- The entrepreneurial journey is riddled with pitfalls, especially if you do not have any prior experience in running a business. But you have to start somewhere.

- Your inner strength can see you through the arduous journey.

- My story is proof that you can make your own life.

First Published: Oct 06, 2017 18:37 IST