O sad heart, from hardships do not get mad,
Your worries will soon end-don’t feel so sad
Hafez, the Persian poet.
Not one to be easily swayed by words, Dipali Sikand has found solace in these lines and has faced hardships with her optimism and cheerful laughter. Sikand has reinvented herself, not once or twice, but thrice, coming out stronger every time.
Today, Sikand is counted among successful women entrepreneurs in India. Long before startups and fundraising became fancy terms, she proved that a successful venture can be run without depending too much on external sources of funding. Valued at more than Rs500 crore, her company, Les Concierges, headquartered in Bengaluru, has pioneered the concept of corporate concierge in India, where companies pay for concierge services availed by their employees. Sikand also led international operations of her firm, setting up offices in Egypt, Nigeria and Morocco.
“Glorious 50” is how Sikand describes her age, although she feels “forever 21”. Unlike most people too embarrassed to talk about their weight, she unabashedly calls herself “pleasantly plump”. Perhaps, it is this buoyant nature that has helped her wade through the crises in life. Before the interview, she clarifies that she does not want to be painted as a ‘victim’. “I am not the drama queen types who would cry and curse their destiny with sentimental dialogues. It is more important to think about getting rid of that situation,” she says.
Sikand did her schooling at the prestigious La Martiniere for Girls Kolkata. A trained mountaineer, she climbed the base camp 2 of Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay as instructor in 1982. She then shifted base to Mumbai and graduated from St Xavier's College, where she had Bollywood choreographer Farah Khan and journalist Rajdeep Sardesai as batchmates. She dabbled in politics for a year or so in 1987 as a member of the Indian Youth Congress. The next year, she joined Essar Group's human resources department.
“I was directly reporting to Shashi Ruia [the chairman] and was frequently travelling to countries abroad wherever Essar had a presence. What more does one want? Especially in the 1990s when very few women would climb to such position. I was lucky in reaching there early on. It was literally a high-flying career,” says Sikand.
On the personal front, however, things were going downhill for Sikand. She moved to Mumbai along with her husband in 1994 after their wedding. Two years later, she says, she caught him with another woman. Sikand was pregnant and went into labour two months before the due date owing to stress. She gave birth to a son. “I can’t describe the feelings I went through after regaining consciousness post delivery,” she says. “On the one hand was this wonderful miracle I had given birth to, [and] on the other was my marriage that had been decimated just hours before. In spite of all the success in career, you feel as if you have failed at something. And that wound does not heal easily.”
Sikand walked out of the marriage, moving to her parent's place in Bengaluru with her son and a Newfoundland dog. Sikand and her husband had a joint bank account, which when she checked during her maternity leave had no money. She, therefore, had to resume work early, leaving her 20-day-old son with her mother. “My mother would bring him thrice to the office and I would nurse him in the washroom,” she says. “It was the worst I had seen till date. There was immense work pressure at office. At home, I had a baby to look after. And [there was] the constant dilemma whether I was doing the right thing, separating a baby from his father. But [I would think] if I accept it today, how would I teach my child to not accept anything wrong.”
While juggling work and home responsibilities Sikand would often wonder: “Why not have someone who can do odd jobs for you?” Finally during an office posting in Singapore, she decided to take the entrepreneurial plunge. In 1998, she left a plum annual salary of $80,000 per annum in those days to start Les Concierges the same year.
Through her lows, her father stood rock-solid by her. When she lost him in a freak medical negligence case—he was allegedly administered the blue dye meant for an angiography patient and died on the spot—it was a loss she found more difficult to come to terms with than her failed marriage.
Sikand, however, soldiered on. In 2002, stock market wizard Rakesh Jhunjhunwala became an investor in her company. The same year, she got married again, and had a daughter in 2004. But then came another jolt. Visa, the card company, was a big client of Les Concierges, and they had expanded to Singapore, Japan and South Africa. Owing to the 2008-2009 Lehman Brothers’ crash, Visa started consolidating its operations. As a result, Les Concierges had to wind up its business in those countries, leading to a multimillion dollar loss. “This was the first time I was seeing a rough patch in business,” says Sikand. “Our cash flows were dependent on this huge contract. Ours was a people-intensive business, so there were salaries to be paid and creditors who were calling us. I had a great team that helped me put the situation in control and now we have left it far behind.”
Les Concierges later came up with the idea of club concierges, meant for high net worth individuals and uber posh housing complexes. The requests keep pouring in, even eccentric ones like the one where a guy wanted his suit stitched from the same tailor as Ronald Reagan's. Then there was another one who wanted chocolate statues resembling him and his bride at his wedding. Yet another guy wanted the girl he was about to propose to be welcomed with flowers at every traffic signal.
Sikand's deep understanding of human behaviour has spawned several other services like Ms Moneypenny, a front office management service; AdminGenie, a skill-based routing for administrative tasks; and www.indiamums.com, a mothers only marketplace. “I don’t have the luxury of collapsing,” she says. “The fact that I was so involved in business gave me a reason to forget things.”