EntreChat: Akshaya Ravindra Babu

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Honestly the joy of building your idea into a viable business overtakes the happiness you would get about being rich. Entrepreneurial journey is a mix of things you love and the things you hate the most in the right balance.
– Akshaya Ravindra Babu, Co-founder & CEO, Sihi Chocolaterie

Turning entrepreneur overnight, Akshaya Ravindra Babu, Co-founder and CEO, Sihi Chocolaterie had taken it in her stride. She admits, she does not “boss around”, but stays behind her team – to create greater things together. Sihi Chocolaterie, which was started in October 2018, with the help of one farmer and has today, made a difference to over 300 farmers. They make Chocolate and Cacao from happy trees, for Chefs both at home and in big kitchens, and their products are 100% natural and are crafted from ethically-sourced ingredients, which are aimed at securing the livelihood of marginal farming families both directly and indirectly. Focused on Indian farmers, they would like to serve the farming community even beyond our national borders.

Akshaya comes with a rich decade full of relevant experience in the chocolate industry and has served both in the chocolate-making side in Switzerland and Cacao growing side in Madagascar. Incidentally, she was recently in the limelight, as the fifth winner of Futurepreneurs Grand Challenge 2020 (organized by Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME), in collaboration with Facebook). 

In a chit-chat with Shree Lahiri, she elaborates on her early beginnings, the challenges faced, her product differentiator, competition, strengths a woman entrepreneur must possess and more….

Q. How did you think about becoming an entrepreneur?
To become an entrepreneur was a bunch of small little ideas and years of constant learning. But becoming one to me was an overnight thing that was just a conversation short. I had an idea, I had a farmer who needed help and I needed to figure out a customer. There are these videos that show before and after.

My entrepreneurial views also have a before and after. Before I had imagined that the very best product would get people to automatically buy everything I made, I would have a highly skilled team whom I can boss around, drive around in fancy cars and would be super rich. My after, the very best product in the entire world is not going to sell for itself, it needs a human to sell it. You have to promote it hard enough first that people get to know about it. And with the crowded options in the market, you have to constantly stay in touch with your customers even after that and stay innovative. When you do get the stage where you have a highly skilled team, while you are holding them together, it is a combination of both their hard work and sweat and yours that has gotten you to the position you’re in. So you don’t boss around, but help your team up to create greater things together. And when you do find yourself becoming rich, you are so engrossed in building an even bigger vision of your idea, that such things don’t matter anymore. Honestly the joy of building your idea into a viable business overtakes the happiness you would get about being rich. Entrepreneurial journey is a mix of things you love and the things you hate the most in the right balance.

Q. What are some strengths that a woman entrepreneur should possess?
Being a woman itself is one of our biggest strengths. We have the ability to emotionally connect and it works wonders if you’re in the B2B segment. Alongside strengthening your ability to speak about money (a business however small or big will not work without it) and to say no. We find it overwhelming to talk about money or to say no, cultivate it strongly today and remember no one will ever judge you for it. As a woman today in India, there are so many opportunities you could make maximum benefit out of. So, ensure to keep women entrepreneur friends who will uplift and stay connected with you through your entrepreneurial journey and learn from each other.

Q. Could you tell us about the challenges faced by you?
The biggest responsibility today for us remains to be that of the farmer. He/she is dependent on us for their livelihood today and will be even tomorrow. The process does not end at us getting them on board. Even post that it involves us being able to build that trust they instil in us with utmost confidence. Them delivering consistently to us and us delivering to our customers and that further helping us to deliver back to the farmers to maintain their livelihood has been the biggest challenge. This is a long process that sometimes even takes a year or above to get the farmer to have trust in us thoroughly.

Q. How do you find competition in your business area?

We got into the Niche Cooking Chocolate market at a rather early stage, when competition was very limited. So while we did have the first starter advantage for a very short period, competition came by quite quickly (especially with the potential this market held in india). To us competition has been a driving force to stay on top of our game every step of our way. Sometimes, it’s also a learning ground when you are trying something new and see how they did differently and pick up from their learnings. While we will remain competitors, a couple of us from the industry sit together and see how we can take this market to a greater reach. Instead of concentrating on poaching each other’s customers, our focus is on creating a larger and newer customer base everyday.

Q. How did you try to make your business different?
It’s quite simple to make a business different. But the challenging part is to be able to have revenues come in through different ideas. Our approach on this particular front has been traditional that is a mix of constant feedback from customers and creatively ideating. This has helped us land in a sweet spot of being different and still a viable running business.

Q. What are your future plans?
On a brand front, five years down the lane, I see Sihi Chocolaterie at a global market with presence in various other countries outside India. From an impact point of view, we want to be able to make a difference to at least 5000 or more farming families.

Q. Any tips for someone starting out today?
Entrepreneurship is about being a jack of all, but finding a master in every trade. You yourself cannot be a master in everything and it is how every entrepreneur is. So overlook only what’s important and allow others to do their best. Because in your journey, your role is to hold multiple stakeholders together to make your business run like a well oiled machinery. So find the right set of people (both customers and team members), work hard, stay creative and hungry. Most of all stay innovative in your approach because your situation will not change until you change it.

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