Thursday, February 16, 2012

Aparna Banerjee - Retailing Hope

This write up appeared in the Dec 25, 2011 issue of The Week.

She was 17 when her father quit his job. As money grew scarce at home, the entrepreneur in Aparna Banerjee came out. She started manufacturing transformers. In the first three months her turnover was Rs:18,000; in four years it went up to Rs:1.8 crore. At 21, she quit the business and decided to pursue higher studies. One thing was clear, she wanted to be her own boss.

“My father dreamt of me joining the administrative services,” said Aparna, 37. “But I never saw myself working under people, I wanted to be an entrepreneur.” In 2002, Aparna met a US-based friend who wanted her to do a management degree there, because the US nurtured entrepreneurs. Aparna demurred and said things were getting exciting in India. She joined XLRI, Jamshedpur, for a MBA in supply-chain management.

Simultaneously, she started work on a distribution model involving micro-management. The project aimed to connect urban customers with rural suppliers. Aparna also wanted to help women scale up their businesses by removing bottlenecks in the supply chain. She devised a model which provided services such as storage, inventory management and transportation. 

The real breakthrough came in 2006, when she took this idea to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,  who asked her to start with a pilot programme. “I also met  President Abdul Kalam, who asked me to bring in the rural perspective to the project,” she said. Thus, Project Sukanya was born.

Aparna sold some property she had and invested Rs:42 lakh in the project. She had to fight prejudices and the regular challenges to make the project commercially viable. Five years later, she is launching Project Sukanya in five states—Arunachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir and Tripura.

“I was heard only because I was adamant and had a good education,” she said. “Almost 95 per cent of the people would have otherwise dismissed me as too young and inexperienced.” Project Sukanya is now a public-private partnership, linking 1,341 NGOs to urban consumers. Aparna has around 96,000 people as suppliers and another 4,893 are enrolled in her grassroots entrepreneurs programme. She plans to sell  products through kiosks, franchisees and shops. “Our three-year projections are Rs:1,000 crore,” she said. The project is supported by banks, state governments and various Central ministries.

“I want to be one of the best entrepreneurs in the world and I want to be able to share my profits with society,” she said. It is just not about helping society for her, the thrill lies in making a difference without the charity tag.

Memorable moments? Many. But one stands out. A woman came to her office for help. “Her son had met with an accident and was on the verge of having a leg amputated,” said Aparna. “She and her husband could not afford the medical bills, so she came to me for help. She said she knew to make handicrafts.”
Aparna guided her to start her own venture. “I asked her to employ people and train them to make the handicrafts,” she said. “She became one of our regular suppliers. Eventually, her son recovered.” To give hope is the biggest thing, said Aparna. It for that bonus that she works 21-hour days, and to ensure that Project Sukanya has a fighting chance in the world of mega-retailers.

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