Ex-fashion&you CEO Pearl Uppal on what it takes to succeed in a male-dominated field

Success Quotient is a weekly feature in Firstpost that appears every Friday,that looks at the pains and joys en route to success for a head honcho-whether a CEO, MD or an entrepreneur. The column looks at the idea that helped launch a company, its highs and lows.

Pearl Uppal is part of the male-dominated venture capital ecosystem in India. And the gender imbalance is not a rarity where Uppal is concerned. Right from her engineering days, she has been in areas where men outnumber the platform she has sought to be on. Running a venture capital fund - 5ideas Startup Superfuel with her husband, Gaurav Kachru, Uppal has changed various roles before she got here. From an entrepreneur to an investor to a venture capitalist and even as she is at it, to be an entrepreneur  in the fashion business. A fiercely competent student to businesswoman, Uppal surprises herself when she says the edges have been softened in the personal space, raising two boys who have unleashed her maternal instincts that she did not know she possessed.

Uppal talks to Firstpost on how she has cut off what she did not like and learnt from the setbacks to where she is today as a 39 year-old.

Excerpts from the conversation:

What did you want to do after you left college armed with a BE degree and an MBA?

I knew my life would be hectic in the world of finance where I was headed to. What I had in mind was to  do something I would be proud of and more importantly, my parents would be proud of. My first job was in corporate finance at General Electric. However, one year into the job I was clear that I wanted out. I did not enjoy it.

How did you give up your corporate life to plunge headlong into entrepreneurship?

Pearl Uppal

Pearl Uppal

At my stint at Yahoo!  And later at Rediff, I was in sales, channels and product portfolio and that got me in touch with over 500 brands. I was intrigued by consumer marketing and brands. How brands are built and customer markets are broken into is a passionate study. I wanted to get into the consumer space. I was 34. Out of 15 years in the corporate sector, 12 years were stable. When your basics are covered, you can afford to take risks. I saw fashion as an opportunity. Fashion was not explored in the internet space in India. I was sure that with fashion&you.com, we could bring in the revenues. From the size perspective, I thought it would be the biggest.  I thought, growth would be slow in India, and we would have plenty of time to make business decisions. I thought, no one will buy fashion online. That’s where I was caught off guard. However, the growth took me by surprise.

What made you quit something you had helped co-found, build into a brand?

I did not get the entrepreneurial freedom and that made it easier to quit. I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing and that’s not the way I want to do anything in my life. I must enjoy what I am doing.  I felt an urge to start all over again.  I landed here purely on interest.  When I decided to quit Fashion and You, I thought what should I do next after having built a company.  In my role as an entrepreneur, I had met a lot of VCs and raised a lot of money. I had watched the investment space closely. It was an area dominated by men and networking brings in more men. I landed here as I was keen to learn a new domain.  I get to see new ideas and budding entrepreneurs. I have been a VC now for  a year and a half. It has been a  learning curve. For every business you invest in, you meet 100 people and expand your knowledge which I would not get in an operational role.We have invested in four startups—mobile data, Big Data, e commerce enablement and affiliate business. Three have gone into Series A funding. The space we are in you usually see the turn from seedfunding to Series A on a 25:30 percent ratio. We have lead 75 percent startups move on to next stage.

What has been the highlight of your career?

I would rate fashion&you as the biggest achievement.  I did not plunge headlong into the VC field and partnered with my husband, Gaurav. I took a 3-4 months break, worked on what I should really do and then decided to go with my husband and  we started the Seed investment firm 5ideas Startup Superfuel. Last year, we made investments in Kartrocket ( kartrocket.com), Roposo ( roposo.com) and Dataweave ( dataweave.in). This Year we have made a second investment in Dataweave, Woome ( woome.mobi) and Talking Threads ( talkingthreads.in). We are aiming at three to four investments this year with a ticket size of Rs 1 crore to Rs 2 crore each.

Who takes the decisions at the workplace?

I do (Laughs). . I listen. People say I listen less. But I do what is right.  Our roles are cut out. The sourcing of startups is my job while he leads investment efforts. Business strategy and financial modeling is his forte. We are not in each other’s hair.  Both of us have one vote each. We have been outvoted, too. We try to be impartial. Obviously, we have our evenings to discuss matters. We met at GE which was his first job too.

Then you decided to partner with your mother

Yes, it is the entrepreneurship itch again! Now I am CEO of Talking Threads, a customized  luxury fashion portal  online with my mother Kulbir Uppal as Co-Founder and Managing Director. We did a  pilot for more than a year and did a formal launch in January.  It is women's clothing label.  We have 300 plus customers, out of which 60 percent are based overseas and we serve in 34 countries. It is affordable luxury.

What has been the biggest learning for you?

That I am a team player. I have fond memories of successes with teams that I have built at Yahoo! Rediff and at FashionandYou. Especially the individuals I trained and worked with at FashionandYou. In the funding space, I am happy to be working with founders and see their ventures flourish. To me human relationships are more important than individual success. I surprise myself when I say that!

You have young children. Are you able to achieve a work-life balance?

I have two boys—7 and 3 years old. They are my biggest distraction and stress busters. Both Gaurav and I are particular about our weekends together with  family. Babies and entrepreneurship happened to me at the same time. A year after my first born, I started fashion&you.com. A year after my second baby, my husband and I started 5ideas Startup Superfuel. I had zero maternal feelings when a friend gave birth five days before I did. But when I had mine, I surprised myself with the joy of having children and building a family with my husband.

So do you have a `Me Time’?

A few years back I would have said, music, friends and travelling. But where I am today, I would say the biggest high is to be able to leave everything and be with my babies. We take short breaks during the year to have `Me Time’ with the family!  I thought I would work hard in the initial years and then take six moths off. I have worked, built some and invested in a few too. I make my life hectic with my commitments and passion to work. But I enjoy myself with my babies. That’s a huge stress buster.


Updated Date: Mar 16, 2015 10:12 AM

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