How she continues to shine bright like a diamond.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
“Even though women comprise 50 percent of the world’s population, they occupy not more than a quarter of the senior positions in businesses and corporations,” Charu Naheta, long-time entrepreneur and owner of B2B jewellery business, Tanya Collections, says when I sit down to hear her unique insight into women in leadership. “A good education is the foundation of any successful career, and hence equal opportunities have to be given to all genders, to allow the girl child to dream big and chase those dreams.”
Charu has practiced what she preached by acquiring multiple post-graduate degrees and programmes in some of the best educational institutions in the world, including Harvard Business School and INSEAD, but she’s also candid about neither being a prodigy growing up, nor being given any expectations to study further than her undergraduate degree at the H.R. College of Commerce and Economics. “I wasn’t a topper in either school or college, just an above average student,” she recalls. “But getting an education was my choice and my dream, and I would work long hours to keep up with the naturally talented. For me it has always been about becoming better, not in comparison to anyone but just for my own self.”
Charu attributes this attitude towards education, in many ways progressive for her time, to her mother. “She had graduated in commerce in a prestigious college and was amongst the top rankers, but after marriage she never used that education to build a career. She felt that a housewife’s job is a thankless one, despite working so hard, so she always encouraged me to find a career path.” Charu reveals that real game changer, however, was attending her 2-year MBA programme at the renowned NMIMS. “That’s when I realised that I wanted to be a full-time working woman, and there was no looking back from that day,” she recalls. “Because I came from a business community, it wasn’t expected that I take up a career. But during my MBA, I encountered students for whom a career was very important. For many of the girls in my circle of friends, they didn’t take up careers, they just had hobbies, got married, and became housewives. But my thinking changed when I was with a different set of friends.”
However, Charu emphasises, encouraging more women to join the workforce and become entrepreneurs goes beyond just education. “Statistics in the USA show that women get more degrees than men and graduate with better grades, but even after this, somewhere their paths derail,” she says. “We need these women in the work place because they can bring benefits not just to their country, but to the world as a whole. It’s not just feminist talk, it’s from an economic aspect too.”
Charu herself started a jewellery manufacturing business with her husband, one where they were “equal partners in the business, and had clear roles defined.” Soon, she took over the business as its sole leader, after he decided to retire from active work. Having started with simply assisting her husband with his accounts, Charu looks back on how far she’s come, and acknowledges that none of it would be possible without her husband and family’s support in her moments of doubt and sacrifices.
She speaks to Masala further about her journey to where she is now, as well as advice on supporting more women in entrepreneurship, leadership, and taking an active role in fostering the next generation of leaders.
What interested you in the jewellery industry, and why did you choose to start your own business instead of pursuing a corporate job here or abroad?
Born and raised in Mumbai, life was comfortable. I married my college boyfriend, Sanjay, before he jumped on a career opportunity in Thailand halfway through my MBA. I joined him shortly after, in 1991, and at first when I came to Bangkok, I wanted to work in a big multinational corporation or a big international bank.
However back in those days, I would fall short in every interview as speaking Thai was a requirement. I was heartbroken as I never thought I wouldn’t get a job. Reluctantly, I joined my husband in assisting him in his diamond business. I knew nothing about diamonds then, and honestly, it can be very difficult for a husband and wife to work together especially if they have different ways of working. That’s why we eventually started our jewellery business, so he could continue with the diamonds, and I could do the jewellery. Hence, Tanya Collections was born, a B2B business that manufactures and exports jewellery to retail chain stores, brands and wholesalers worldwide. We have our own line, and manufacture the designs of our customers, who span America, the Middle East, and Europe.
Fortunately for me, jewellery picked up in a big way after we started the business. Since my husband has got many investments that he’s taking care of back in India, he told me, there really isn’t space for the two of us so I’m going to do other things. While he’s still involved in the business, he trusts my leadership and judgment completely. Because of this, my professional journey has been that of an entrepreneur from the start.
What has it been like as an entrepreneur, especially considering the jewellery industry among the Indian community in Thailand is primarily male-dominated?
Entrepreneurship is a very male-dominated area. While you may find women who take up senior positions in companies, very few are entrepreneurs. However, running a company in Thailand is made easier by the fact that here, there are more women in the workplace. When I have open positions, I specifically ask for women because my personal experience in Thailand is that working with women is better than men. In India, businesses are more male-dominated, so yes, you do feel more awkward as a woman leader there. While the jewellery trade in Thailand is more male-dominated as well, that’s not much of a problem for me because I’m dealing more with overseas clients.
Running my own business has its plus and minus but it has been a very enriching experience for me. Being an owner develops all round skills. It is challenging yet very interesting to solve problems for all aspects of the business, from finance, to marketing, production and HR. After working for my own company, the thought of overseeing just one department for an organisation would be very boring, and not being able to change what I wanted would be frustrating.
You called your MBA a game-changer. Can you tell us what inspired you to continue pursuing more management degrees afterwards?
My subsequent education came after working for a good 15 years. In 2007, I overheard my mother-in-law asking my husband if he would be interested in doing a programme in Harvard Business School. The name caught my attention, and I remember very clearly going into another room and researching the programme immediately, despite my husband not being interested in it.
It was called the Owner President Management (OPM) Program and was meant for owners (so majority stakeholders) of businesses of a certain size. It was built around the same case studies and many of the same faculty members as their two-year MBA program, but would be taught over three years, with us staying on campus full time for three weeks a year.
I thought this was too good to be true, not just to fulfil my long- time dream of studying overseas, but to do so at an Ivy League college! Despite worrying about how the business would run without me for weeks at a stretch, and leaving my 11-year- old daughter, Tanya, at home, I applied and got accepted, with my family’s support.
I must confess there was fear too before starting. I saw the final acceptance list and out of the total batch of 180, there were only 16 women. But I gathered the courage and went ahead. My MBA programme was more theory, but here you study cases in-depth, with many real-life cases. I studied with people from all over the world, with different industry and cultural backgrounds. Because we were working with people with so much experience under their belt in their respective industries, not only did we learn from the faculty, I think the faculty learned from us. It was a priceless experience.
That programme was my second game changer, as it was only afterwards that I told my husband that I was now confident enough to lead the business by myself, even though he had been mentioning for some time that he wanted to retire from active business.
After that I just did not want to stop learning more. I realised the benefits, and wanted more of the knowledge and the experience. So, I pursued programmes from other renowned universities. I did the three-week Strategy and Digital Marketing course at Stanford University, and the two-year Leadership Program at INSEAD, at both their Singapore campus and their campus in Fontainbleau near Paris. For all these experiences, I am very grateful and feel truly blessed.
Based on what you’ve learned and your experiences, is the face of entrepreneurship changing? Are there emerging trends that people should look out for if they’re looking to be entrepreneurs?
Technology. Even in the jewellery business, technology has allowed online businesses to take off in a big way. Following this trend, our business is starting a new division and brand for online sales. If you don’t upgrade yourself, from your hardware to your software, you’re not just refusing to move forward, you’ll be pushed out of the industry altogether. To do this, you’ll have to add in the younger generation as well. For any business to grow, its team should be a mix of experienced people and young people just entering the industry.
What are the changes that you’ve noticed specifically in the jewellery industry, including the younger generation’s ethical concerns when it comes to gemstones?
Jewellery is always going to be around. However, I’ve noticed changes in the size and form of the jewellery that people want, and where they’re being purchased. Moreover, while big weddings have always been part of e.g. the Indian and Middle Eastern cultures, lately we’ve found many women need more small and medium-sized pieces that can be worn more often than just big weddings.
Earlier, jewellery had an investment angle (for probable bad times), it involved more classic pieces passed down the generations, and family jewellers. Now, there is the fashion element, and the desire for unique designs has given rise to individual bespoke jewellers.
We also need to ensure that we’re addressing the ethical concerns of the younger generations. For example, they have concerns about the mining of diamonds using forced labour, often termed as blood diamonds. For concerns like this, many companies go through a yearly certification called RJC where the entire supply chain certifies that labour is not forced, minors aren’t employed, and workers are paid as per labour laws of the country. It also makes sure no drug or terrorism accounts are involved from the customer side, and covers environmental concerns by making sure all wastes are disposed of properly. So as a B2B business model we make sure we fulfil our requirements.
Based on your experience, what are some patterns you’ve noticed with women in business, and things they could be doing to better advance their careers?
Because women are fewer in number compared to their male counterparts in senior positions, I believe this makes them feel vulnerable, and thus they lack confidence in their abilities, or are uncomfortable about talking about their own accomplishments.
Organisations also subscribe to gender stereotypes, especially in senior roles. To break these stereotypes, we women will need to work harder and better than our male counterparts, and come over-prepared. We need to be visible by constantly participating, and to develop soft skills, like communicating confidently and effectively, that you’ll be known for, which are not easily replaceable.
Moreover, if you have a spouse, don’t be afraid to discuss with them the ways you can share your roles at home so you can give more time at work. Finally, be disciplined and work hard. Your dedication will come from love and passion, so find what you love and you will excel at it.
What are some ways that businesses can support women in business?
Women should be given substantial paid maternal leave. Family leave also helps when there is a family emergency. A woman is a homemaker so it is absolutely important that she does not find the need to drop work at these times.
Availability of good, accessible and affordable day care centres at work or near work would also be a great help. Women networking groups are also a great way to meet more like-minded people, and learn and get inspired from them.
Finally, what advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
To break the glass ceiling, you need to dream big and follow your passion. Working will give you economic freedom and that is powerful. Prioritise learning and education as it is the foundation of your future career. Choose a life partner that supports your dreams and shares responsibilities.
After the pandemic, many organisations have a work from home policy. This can help reduce stress in situations where working from home would be the best option. Get a good circle of friends as the company you associate with will always inspire you to be like them, and don’t forget the importance of networking. Your contacts from school, college, and your workplace are a great resource, so stay in touch with them. In the end, remember there is no perfect balance, and there are tradeoffs to be a mum, wife and an executive. Work hard, do the best you can, and have no regrets.