Passion and the Balancing Act

Ever wondered if  women entrepreneurs manage both business and family successfully? Of course, they do! Meet Anuradha Murali – first gen entrepreneur, co-founder of iCOMM Technologies, and awesome multi-tasker. What advice does she have for students and student entrepreneurs? Where does she get all her energy from? Let’s find out…

You majored in science; you also worked in the banking sector. Why did you decide to start up in the technology domain?

I would say that most of us are at a crossroads at some point of time, particularly women.  Marriage is one such crossroad, and motherhood is a second major one. I was very academically inclined and after my Master’s from IIT Madras I had been part of a research project. After marriage, I had to move to the Middle East where there was very little scope for research. But no complaints whatsoever. I found myself a plum job with a multinational bank.  I think the shift from hardcore research to business frame of mind happened somewhere there.

When we came back to India, the next crossroad was motherhood. Motherhood is a time when a lot of women have these guilt pangs- should I be in a 9 to 5 job or should I be taking time off to be with the kids? That happened to me as well. I took a conscious decision to do something on my own.

I started out founding a technical documentation company called Wordsworth and we worked on projects for the same multinational bank.That was the time when I met my business partner in a project we did together. As it happened, we ended up teaming up, and it has been a great synergy between the two of us. We pooled resources. We had people who were already familiar with web technologies and interface design and programming. iCOMM technologies was born in 2000 formally.

Wow…that’s quite a journey…10 years!

Oh yes… It’s been quite a journey, quite a lot of learning – All round learning. The good thing about being an entrepreneur is that you understand many dimensions of running a business.

But, how did the tag of being a woman entrepreneur affect things?

I was a woman entrepreneur as long as I was running Wordsworth on my own. Many people see women bringing a lot of sincerity to work and deliver good stuff time and again, they are impressed.

I didn’t face too many challenges at that point of time. In fact, being an early stage entrepreneur gives you flexible time. This helped because I could manage time at home.

As far as iCOMM is concerned, it’s not like I have been a woman entrepreneur – it is largely a team effort and my business partner leads it from the front. We’ve always been looked upon as a team. He handles strategy and sales and marketing. My primary role is in operations. And collectively, of course, we share common responsibilities like financials and road ahead.

We are an IT solutions company with a clear focus on HR. Over a period of many years now, we have a very robust Enterprise Human Resource Management  system called formulaHR –  it is delivered on a SaaS model (Software as a Service). This is the buzzword now. We’ve already honed it into an art, and it comes naturally to us. Every one of our implementations is a SaaS offering.

Did you have a lot of family support?

Oh yes, one of the biggest things that helps here in the Indian environment in terms of family and domestic help which are a huge support.

Sometimes women take motherhood a bit too seriously. As long as you are able to resolve these things internally, it’s fine. If you are able to spend quality time with the children and give sufficient mind space to the business, I think it can be pulled off. Both should be kept separate, and enjoying both should work for anybody.

I think men have also been playing multiple roles, but never earn brownie points for that!  So many men  these days take fatherhood so seriously and chip in with household work. I think the onus these days is spread equally between men and women. Not stepping on each others’ toes is also a kind of support. My husband lets me do what I want because he knows I am sincere in what I do.

For an entrepreneur, what do you think really matters? Is it more of brain power or will power?

What you primarily need is a passion to convert your business idea into a successful enterprise. As long as the passion drives you, it’s good. Brain power – you can always hire talent. You can learn from observing and talking to people. Of course, you need to be blessed with reasonable intelligence to do things prudently.

These days a lot of students are starting their own businesses. How do you think student entrepreneurs can leverage their unique position of more freedom, lesser responsibility as well as lesser capital?

There are 2 routes to entrepreneurship.

You are a student; you go on to become an employee with an organization. And then at some point of time, the bug bites you and then you say ‘Why don’t I do something on my own’ and then you start off. At that time, you have so many years of work experience where you‘d have understood organizational dynamics, and you’d have been exposed to best practices. And, you would also have some amount of financial security.

When you are a student and you directly get into entrepreneurship, you don’t have these advantages.  But these days, entrepreneurship is being glamorized to a large extent. There are many bodies like TiE and NEN that encourage students to become entrepreneurs. 

There are many ways to learn. People are there to support you, there is enough capital. 

They help you bring in that element of professionalism that you lack because you are very young. That was something that was not there, 10 years back. I think the spirit of entrepreneurship is at an all-time high now.

What are your views on internships?

Internships are being popularized more today. It is a good thing. It is a pilot effort for students to actually know what it is like to work in a company ambience and step out of the security of your college.

From the company’s point of view- many companies that I know don’t attach too much of importance to interns. Sometimes interns do feel de-motivated. They come there with possibly with high expectations and if nothing meaty is given to them in those few months, they might feel disappointed. I think that is the down side.

We know you don’t recruit freshers or interns. But, IF you had to hire freshers/interns, what qualities would you look for in them?

Potential and willingness to learn on the job and deliver.

What internet resources do you use? Any recommendations?

Sites like TechCrunch gives me a dashboard view of what is happening in technology companies around the world. I also read up a lot on the HR domain.

For generic reading – I subscribe to a magazine called ‘Dare’. I love their catchphrase- ‘Dare- because entrepreneurs do’.  That is a magazine that keeps re-inspiring me every now and then. I read a lot about achievers and it kind of perks me up and inspires me.

What other activities do you do?

For a long time I didn’t look beyond my business and family.  After 10 years of operation, I consciously took time out. Volunteering with an organization like Deepam happened that way. I found myself fitting in easily in a vibrant group like Deepam.

Somewhere along the way, running has caught my fancy, and I try to give it time as and when possible.  And, another thing that I’ve rekindled interest after many years is music.

Now that you have more than 10 years of experience, what is one thing you wish you had known when you’d been in college itself?

One thing that still holds a fascination for me is going back to studying at some stage in life, particularly to some American University and to get into some research project. There is a certain sense of freedom when you start learning something. There is a sense of excitement that goes with starting to learn something new, which appeals to me.

What would you advice ambitious students, women students in particular, who want to be entrepreneurs?

If the idea is born in your mind, it doesn’t matter whether you are male or female. It’s how much the idea occupies your mind space and how much you are driven by that.

It is nowadays glamorous to become an entrepreneur. That is something I would like to caution youngsters about. Unless you feel very strongly about it, don’t go for it.

Don’t think you have to do something because fashion designing or jewelry designing sounds cool. Unless you feel very strongly about the idea, and you also have the hunch that it can become a viable/profitable business, I think you should tread carefully.

Be guided by conventional wisdom, but dare to break convention when you feel strongly enough about something.

And, I would like to borrow a phrase from one of our clients – ‘Know your destination and enjoy the journey’, and this applies to any aspect of life.

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