Thursday, September 9, 2010

From the hinterland to the hot seat

Her accent doesn't betray the fact that back in the '90s, when she arrived in the national capital from Jind, Haryana, to graduate in computer science at Delhi University, Harjinder Kaur, couldn't understand a word of English. As she greeted us in her skinny jeans and fashionable top at her office in Gurgaon, Kaur, now the CEO of Comvision, looked a far cry from her hinterland days.
In Jind, Haryana, where Kaur was born, brought up and went to school, even math and science were taught in Hindi. "So I would say laabh for profit and haani for loss," she laughs. But Kaur was stubborn and she worked doubly hard - both at English and her college subjects till she overcame her handicap.
Looking back now, Kaur says she has her father to thank for her verve and passion to excel. Coming from a family of landowners, where women are expected to "be goodlooking, marry and produce heirs", Kaur considers herself lucky that her father persuaded her to do something more with her life. "I would complain to him that I looked so bad. Compared to my beautiful sisters, I was short and I didn't have their beautiful complexion.
And my father would tell me it didn't matter because I was intelligent," Kaur says. That she was - she had always been a topper in school. "So getting admitted to the computer science course at DU was the easy part. And my grades really slipped the first two years, but I was back on track in the third year, scoring enough to make up for the two bad years," she says. After college, Kaur worked in the corporate sector but realised she would rather be an entrepreneur. She had already noted a corporate need for computer training among employees.
"Corporate training hadn't caught on but I could sniff an opportunity," she says. So Kaur quit her job and told her father she wanted to start a business. Her father never someone who'd been used to success.
She had easily got good grades without the help of personal tutors or coaching classes.
And she'd managed to overcome her language handicap too through 'sheer will power' - by reading her lessons over and over again and consulting dictionaries.
"I didn't go for spoken English classes - but I still remember how humiliating it was when someone asked me for a scale and I looked back blankly. That really pinched me then," she laughs.
The same dogged perseverance saw her going out in a big way to get clients such as Onida, Power Grid, Bhel, American Express and Mitsubishi for her computer training business. But her really big opportunity came in Hyderabad, where she arrived in the mid-90s, just when Chandrababu Naidu was planning to make use of technology to revolutionise the state.
said 'no' to her and with his goodwill it wasn't difficult to get a loan of Rs 3 lakh from Oriental Bank. "I could have taken the money from my father, but I needed to do everything on my own," Kaur explains. It was a monthly instalment of Rs 12,000 that Kaur had to pay and she was sure she would manage that. She was a tad overconfident.
"It wasn't easy and when I couldn't pay up, the bankers met my father... Imagine how mortified I was. But that was a lesson for me because my father admonished, 'At least now you know the importance of money'," she says.
Kaur never forgot her dad's lesson: the value of money and the importance of having a sound business model. "I had always seen my father doing so well that I thought running a business would be a cakewalk," says Kaur candidly. It certainly was the cocksureness of infection this monsoon "Marriage took me to Hyderabad.
I thought I would set up a Hyderabad branch of Comvision and run the Delhi set- up through remote control," says Kaur. But there wasn't much happening in the private sector in Hyderabad. Companies in Delhi too were beginning to set up their own IT training units." And even if the Andhra Pradesh government was buzzing with activity, its staff was well-trained and didn't need any of my help," Kaur says.
It was time to reinvent Comvision's business model. With Chandrababu Naidu having launched his e-governance programmes, Kaur started doing the rounds of government offices looking for projects. D R Garg, commissioner - cooperation and registrar of co-operative societies, recalls Kaur's willingness to work on very small projects, costing just over '10,000.
"She started with monitoring formats for casual leave, etc.
I was director of social welfare and residential schools when she came up with an attractive model for computer education in schools. It worked out to about '10 per student but she worked on it with commitment and also gave us several useful suggestions," Garg says.
Kaur's golden opportunity came with the government's e-Seva programme for which she did a pilot project called TWINS which covered the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad, Kaur says. After that sheĆ¢€™s never looked back.
With opportunities coming up in the national capital, Kaur was back in Delhi. Her husband decided to join her business too after moving out of the computer hardware business that he earlier ran. One of her biggest projects today is providing IT - enabled online solutions for NDMC's birth and death certificates, electricity and water billing, and various other civic facilities. A senior NDMC official says Kaur's success and experience with the e-Seva programmes had already won her a good reputation.
Off this month to South Africa to collect the International Women's Entrepreneurial Challenge Award, given jointly by the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce and Ficci, Kaur isn't resting on her laurels. She is now keenly eyeing roadways and other infrastructure sectors to provide growth to her company.
For Kaur, it just might be her high road to bigger opportunities in life.
Reproduced From Mail Today. Copyright 2010. MTNPL. All rights reserved.

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