She’s young, she’s smart, she’s ambitious. Meet Sunaina Kwatra, Country Manager at Louis Vuitton India.
By Gurleen Khanijoun Chawla
Sunaina Kwatra had just completed her MBA degree when she did her first internship at Citibank in Hong Kong. This adventurous woman later realised that a desk job was simply not for her. She preferred taking action and seeing results, and so she found her calling in the fashion industry, where tangible goods entice even the least avid consumers. Seeking greater potential, she eventually made her way to New Delhi, working as the country manager for one of the most prestigious labels in the world — Louis Vuitton. And her days are never the same, as she is constantly on the move, juggling between work, travel and social engagements.
But no matter where she goes, with her signature dark hair and bold demeanor, she is a head turner in designer outfits and a familiar face in the fashion crowd. Get to know our cover star, Sunaina who reveals more about making it to the top at a young age.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I want to start by saying that the main reason I am doing this cover story is to surprise my mother and make her day.
My father wanted daughters, so he got three of us to rule the world with. I am the eldest of three powerful sisters and we get our strength from our family. My sister Rashmi is starting her own hedge fund in Singapore after becoming one of the youngest partners in the industry. My sister Rashima is in New York working for an important NGO. I am heading the country for the world’s largest luxury fashion brand. I dedicate this interview to women of all ages: to inspire them to push themselves in whatever manner they wish. We only live once, let’s make it count!
After completing your bachelor’s degree in Australia, you initially worked for six years as the managing director for your family business, Kwatra (Thailand) Co,. What was your experience like working for a family firm?
My father was, and still is, my first mentor. He retired from this business when I joined but the experience taught me so much. It built my fundamentals in managing a company. More importantly, it taught me that in order to succeed in any business, it is imperative to create a WE culture versus an I culture. My father knows what he likes and how he likes it. Unknowingly, he trained me to be an extremely detailed oriented and client centric person. These values are essential to succeed in the luxury goods industry.
Why did you decide to leave the firm and venture into a different career path on your own?
I decided to do my MBA at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), in order to join the corporate world in Asia Pacific. I wanted to be completely financially independent and prove my worth to myself. I have always had this burning desire to succeed, and it has been a challenging yet rewarding journey ever since.
After completing your MBA degree, why did you foray into the world of luxury fashion?
After my MBA, I pursued an internship in Securities and Funds at Citibank. Even though I thought I wanted to work in finance, I knew right there that I couldn’t have a desk job in intangible services. However, moving from an entrepreneurial business to a corporate role in luxury was a huge challenge.
You journey began with Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) in Hong Kong. What was that like?
LVMH is home to 70 distinguished houses rooted in six different sectors. Some of the fashion brands under their portfolio include Louis Vuitton, Dior, Fendi, Celine, Givenchy, Berluti, Loewe and Emilio Pucci. To be candid, I was first hired on a temporary contract, as the Managing Director of Emilio Pucci had just resigned and they wanted someone to study the brand and fill in the position until they found a suitable candidate. Four months later, after many interviews, I took over the job. In my 20s, I became the Brand Head of Emilio Pucci based in Hong Kong, overseeing all the direct retail and franchise stores in Asia Pacific.
Reporting to the President of the LVMH Fashion Group, I had a great mentor and worked extremely hard to learn everything about luxury retail. The journey began on the shop floor in Pacific Place, Hong Kong. I learnt about the brand, team, products and clients before embarking on the brand’s strategic plan across Asia Pacific. The word “average” doesn’t really exist in my vocabulary. I want my team and I to always excel and exceed objectives. If you let yourself be confined by boundaries people create for you, you will never really know where your limits lie. We can make calculated mistakes but we can also push forward with a revised strategy. My team at Emilio Pucci became my family, and together we achieved the highest growth ever in the region. We even managed to have some fun in the process!
How did your move from Emilio Pucci to Givenchy take place?
I was in Seoul for the opening of the Emilio Pucci flagship store at Shinsegae Gangnam. I was extremely excited because we negotiated the best location in the most luxurious mall. My boss, at the time, set up a breakfast meeting for me and the new global CEO of Givenchy. Minutes after the meeting, my boss called to ask what I had said because the CEO wanted to hire me immediately to help him reposition and grow the brand in Asia Pacific. I worked for Givenchy for three years and oversaw a network of over 60 stores.
What did you learn from your experience working in one of the major fashion capitals of the world?
I love Hong Kong, but I only lived there for a fraction of my time, as I constantly travelled to Europe and Asia. I learned a lot but most importantly I found myself in Hong Kong and understood what trajectory I wanted to make in my career.
Why did you choose to work in New Delhi next?
I got the offer to be the Country Manager at Louis Vuitton on Diwali in 2015 and moved in March 2016. I never envisioned myself working in Delhi. However, this was a unique opportunity and I truly believed in the potential of India. We are in an extremely exciting time, and I thought with my global working experience with LVMH, I could be the woman to take Louis Vuitton to the next level in India. Furthermore due to my Indian roots, I felt I could give something back to the country that has blessed me with such a rich cultural heritage.
How did you manage to land this position at such a young age?
I have immense drive, energy and passion. I am also blessed with great education and I have extraordinary mentors at home and at work. I wake up excited to go to work every day. I know that sounds crazy but it’s true. I have a good track record and I am eager to learn and grow. Age is no barrier.
What do your responsibilities entail as the Country Manager of Louis Vuitton?
I oversee all aspects of our business and operations in India. My team constitutes of key departments, including retail, finance, client development, supply chain and so on. I have interviewed over 200 people in India. India may have a population of over 1.3 billion people but casting the right team for me has been critical. We need people to be driven, client centric and exceptional.
What is it like to work with you?
I love retail and people. I strive to foster an environment where people love what they do and strive towards a united vision. I believe in working with respect and enjoy brainstorming with my team. If people take ownership of an idea or task, they will be accountable for the results, and I like results. As an individual, I am quick in my decision making but I am extremely analytical and logical.
What is your schedule like?
I am definitely not a routine girl. Constant excitement and change is pretty much the norm for me. I have a very hectic work and social life but I make sure to have fun in everything I do. I like to be on a plane at least once a week but it’s very normal for me to be on a plane multiple times a week. Catch me if you can!
What is your secret to coping with so many responsibilities?
I am a mega multitasker. I would get bored with just one responsibility. There is no secret. I just love what I do and I strive towards perfection.
Was it difficult to adjust to the Indian working culture and way of life?
India has taught me strategic agility. We always need a retro plan and have multiple back up plans to overcome any challenges positively. Building ownership and accountability within team members has been extremely important. My entire team is at work before 8.30am. That is unusual in India but I believe in efficiency and maximising the day across time zones. To be honest, I am still adjusting and growing along the way.
How did you overcome the challenges of settling in Delhi?
I have not overcome all of the challenges. Adjusting to a different culture always takes a bit of time but the exposure also brings so many learning experiences that help you evolve as a person. Ultimately surrounding myself with the right people combined with an amazing work opportunity trumps any potential “challenges” there might be. Oh, and I do have an awesome King Charles Spaniel Dog, Mr. Pickles, and my nanny from Bangkok, Phi Bon, with me. So I can’t complain!
What is your biggest professional achievement?
The biggest sense of achievement I feel is when I contribute to the growth of people. I love giving back by growing people’s skills and watching us succeed together, irrespective of whether or not we work together.
Within my team, I like seeing my colleagues grow and evolve. Brand growth and positive results come naturally when there is an alignment of a strong vision and a motivated, passionate team. My team are my clients. If my team is happy and driven, they will make our clients, our ultimate boss, happy.
What would you say has been the turning point in your career?
The turning point was when I went outside my comfort zone in Bangkok for a new journey. Nothing has come easy for me. I have worked really hard and will continue to give it my all.
What is your advice to young girls who would like to work in fashion?
In whatever you do, follow your passion and find a way to make your dreams a reality. There is no substitute for hard work. Always believe in yourself.
Tell us something people don’t know about luxury fashion?
It’s all in the confidence. Whatever you are wearing, be proud of it and smile!
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I genuinely believe the sky is the limit. I don’t believe in boundaries. I want to keep pushing myself and continue being a leader. I didn’t know I would be here 10 years ago and I don’t know where I will be 10 years from now. However, I do know that I want to keep learning, growing and giving back as much as I can. Maybe I will be the president of a global company or maybe a President of Parent Teacher Association (PTA), or maybe both. Let’s wait and see!
Any last words?
Despite leaving Bangkok many years ago, it will always be my home. It is important to never forget where you come from. Bangkok has shaped the person I am today. Thank you to everyone who has supported me on this journey so far. I hope every single one of you reading this has done something amazing. Don’t let age, location or anything stand in your way. Challenge yourself, stay hungry and you will be unstoppable.