Excerpts from the book ‘Money Wealth Abundance’ by Manoj J Lekhi.
Nina Lekhi, Baggit (wife of Manoj J. Lekhi)
Nina started making and selling canvas bags – just for fun while she was a student at Sophia Polytechnic, 30 years later, her company Baggit is a national retail brand with ` 60 crore in annual sales.
Narayan Udyog Bhavan is not a pretty place.
Unlike the fancy stores where its pretty products sell, office is a mangled mass of cutting, stitching, inspecting and packing, spread across many small galas.
Nina Lekhi walks into her office, wearing a simple blue and black plaid shirt, and a broad smile. ‘Give me ten minutes, will you?’ she says.
And sits down on the floor just behind her desk, to meditate. Ten minutes later, she is ready to take on the world.
The story of Baggit is actually quite similar. It may appear chaotic, but a certain quiet stillness – a central core of clarity and purpose – holds it all together.
Nina started the enterprise as a college student, just for fun. 30 years later, it is definitely a business to be proud of – in terms of size and scale. But, at the end of the day, it’s still about fun.
Of experimenting and creating a new reality.
Not just with cloth and synthetic leather, but the very fabric of your life. Because that is the greatest design experiment of all.
Nina Lekhi was born and brought up in Bombay, in a well-to-do family. “I had a beautiful childhood. We lived at Worli Seaface and I went to one of the best schools – Green lawns High School.”
Nina’s father was a businessman, manufacturing gears and machinery parts. And while her mother was a housewife, she wasn’t at home that much. As a devotee of Mata Brij Deviji, she travelled around the country to be with her guru.
“From the time I was 12. I remember pretty much looking after the House, my brother, my father – and padhai – on my own.”
But, somehow the house was ‘blessed.’
Nina was a good student in school, a top ranker, and head girl as well. But then, she entered college and the freedom went to her head.
“lt was like, now I’m into FYJC (first year junior college), what the hell! I want to watch every movie. Try out every new thing. Whether its drugs, alcohol, early boyfriends..”
Not surprisingly, she flunked her ‘Foundation’ course. A mandatory requirement for anyone wanting to study Commercial Art.
“It was the first time I ever failed – it hit me hard.” “Nina would walk from Sophia Polytechnic at Peddar Road to her home in Worli every day, rain or sun, often in tears. This went on for about 3-4 months.
“I wanted to do Commercial Art because I love drawing and painting.”
But that door was now shut. Nina now had the option of taking up either screen printing or interior designing at Sophia Polytechnic.
Screen printing sessions were from 9 am till noon, while the interior designing class was in the evening, for an hour and a half. That left the whole day free, and Nina was not one to waste it.
“What was the point of going home?” she says. “I decided to take up part-time job.”
Nina joined ‘Shyam Ahuja’, famous for its designer dhurries (rugs). The store was conveniently located opposite the Mahalaxmi temple. A short walk from Sophia college. “I worked as a sales girl. I learnt stock-keeping, billing and how to talk to customers.”
The salary was just ` 500 a month, and she didn’t really need the money.
“I spent most of it on taking cabs!” laughs Nina. “But it felt good, to be working at 18, like kids do in other countries.”
Earn a bit, learn a bit. Do it, just for the fun of it. Which is how Nina started this entire business of bags in the year 1984, at age 18!
“My best friend Mona and I, we got this idea. Like you have T-shirts with simple slogans, why not bags?”
Bags with attitude.
In the shower cubicle, after a swim, Nina and Mona quickly came up with the name – ‘Baggit.’
“Inspired by Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat it’,” she adds. The bags were made of simple canvas. Mostly, on Sundays. A liftman helped with the cutting, while a ‘zip repair’ guy doubled up as ‘darzi’ (tailor).
“Luckily I had done a tailoring class in my school holidays,” says Nina.
And that’s how Baggit started.
Nina scoured the by lanes of Bombay – places like Abdul Rehman Street – in search of canvas material. By that time she was working at another store – Mike Kirpalani – which sold trendy clothing.
Nina went up to the owner and said, ‘Please stock my bags. If it sells, you pay me my share!”
Around this time, Nina met Manjo – or Manoj J. Lekhi, as Nina prefers to call him. He was the brother of a close friend.
“Manjo was in the clothing business and they used to hold an exhibition-cum-sale. He liked my bags and put them up for sale.”
Soon after, a shop at the Oberoi shopping arcade offered some counter space. Sab kuch milakar (all put together) in that first year, Nina managed to sell about 30 bags a month. “The bags cost about ` 25 to make, and we sold them for 60 bucks. So it wasn’t big money or anything! We made around a thousand bucks a month.”
Meanwhile, Nina managed to pass the Foundation exam but didn’t have the ‘guts’ to do Commercial Art. Besides, by this time she was into making bags and textile design seemed like a good idea, “I enjoyed it and also did very well. In fact, I won a State Award in Textile Design.”
This, despite juggling college, practicals and a growing business. With shops like Amarsons stocking Baggit, production had to be increased.
“I used to be in college from 9 to 5. Then 7 o’clock the tailors would come – I had two of them now. And of course we continued to work on Sundays.”
The family watched on, with a touch of disbelief. No woman in the Punjabi household had done something like this before. Magar kisine roka toka nahin (But no one tried to stop her).
‘‘In fact, my mom encouraged me a lot. Others found it amusing.” But slowly it became more-than pocket money – this was cold hard cash.
“In college, I sold bags just for fun. Even today its just for fun…All these years, it’s never been so profit-oriented. It’s all been about how happy we are.”
Not only did Nina enjoy doing it in typical teenage fashion. she would pick up small things for the house like curtains ‘I started supporting the family, the house, because Dad’s business started dwindling…’
By this time her partner Mona had quit – she went off to USA. But that never bothered Nina. By 1987, three years into the business – Baggit was selling 300 bags a month. And not just canvas, but using new material like synthetic leather.
“Actually, I did try working with leather. I went and picked up a cowhide and coloured it in my verandah.”
The stink overpowered the entire house. Working with dead animal skin did not feel good. So, when Nina decided to work with synthetic leather, she treated the material, using many different methods. Finally, she achieved the right finish – the look of real leather.
“Another advantage of using synthetic leather is you can sell at lower MRP”
‘Use and throw’ fashion, trendy and inspired. That’s what Baggit quickly came to stand for.
Unlike most designers, Nina refused to simply copy styles from international catalogues. She had focused on small, original touches. Which made each bag more special to its user.
“For example, you go to the gym in track pants. lf you have little pockets inside the track pants, in the band, where you can put in couple of notes… it’s user-friendly right?”
That’s the kind of intuitive thinking Nina would put into every bag she designed. And customers loved it. By 1989, Baggit was a serious business, with an annual turnover of 30 lakh. And Nina was, technically, still a student.
‘Along with my textile design course I had completed 12th standard by correspondence. After Sophia, I enrolled for a B.Com at Elphinstone.”
Work hard by day, party hard by night continued to be Nina’s motto. And it did not go down well at home.
“My mom used to get damn pissed off because I used to go out in the nights.” Nina recalls.
Manjo was a part of the gang of friends. A guy Nina had known since her schooldays.
“One night we were at a pub and he just proposed to me.”
Nina was dumb founded. “Oh God, I don’t want to marry, I don’t want to hurry this…I’m just 23.” she was thinking to herself.
But the next time Nina stumbled home in the wee hours, she got yet another tongue-lashing. “I blurted out the first thing that came to mind, to ‘save my skin.’ I told Mom that Manjo had proposed to me!” By next morning. mothers on both sides had exchanged notes and fixed a wedding date.
“Before I knew it. I was engaged… a couple of months later we were married,” she grins.
And it was actually the best thing that could have happened, to Nina.
“Manjo’s sister Rita was my best friend, I was so used to their house and his family. it was absolutely, totally beautiful..” There were no rules, no expectations or demands. Even though it was a large, joint family.
“I mean, my mother-in-law was better than my mother also…” says Nina. “I was always kept very comfortably, like a queen!” Working, continuing the business, was not an issue at all. Manjo’s family was in the garment business, both manufacturing as well as retail.
“Manjo had a couple of small galas in a building in Parel. Initially I worked out of the loft area in one of these galas.” “I guess it’s the zeal, the love for what you are doing….for me time flies. I can be here all the time, it’s just like that?” Nina spent her weekdays – 10 am to 8 pm – at the ‘factory’ At this point, she had 20 people working with her, including a production manager.
‘Apart from production he also managed the accounts, advance to the karigars (workers) – everything.”
There was no ‘business plan’ as such. But Baggit was growing. And things kept flowing. Within a couple of years, the business outgrew its borrowed space. Nina took up a gala owned by her father in an industrial estate.
“Then each time l needed more space I would just rent out another gala in the same building!”
However, Nina wasn’t comfortable working out of rented premises. The normal lndian way of thinking is, might as well buy it. Investment bhi ho jayega aur paise ki bhi bachat ho jayegi. (It will be an investment also and you won’t be paying rent.) “Beg, borrow, steal… but buy your own place was my way of thinking,” says Nina.
In fact, Nina and her brother Mukesh had just done that, to buy shop at Kemp‘s Corner “We had just ` 2 Iakh between us. But we borrowed from family and friends and bought the shop for ` 18 lakh.”
This became Nina’s Baggit’s first ‘exclusive’ retail outlet – INXS. A store which showcased the entire range, and became a go-to place for young, trendy shoppers.
“It was owned and managed by my brother.”
What Nina is passionate about, is great design. That’s the reason she went into business. But to stay in business, you have to take care of the practical stuff. Like raising working capital.
“I started an account with Dena Bank ~ the closest bank. Manjo’s company also had an account there, which helped.”
All ideas need not be as radical. It could be just an extra compartment, or make-up and jewellery. Or a small eyelid so your earphone wire can sneak out.
“We hate doing things that are existing in the market – the fun of doing it is only in doing something new?” she admits.
If you’re having fun and so are your customers, you will see bigger, fatter sales figures. Baggit closed the year ending March 2014 with revenues of ` 60 crore.
“We now produce 500,000 pieces a year which includes hand bags, belts, wallets, mobile pouches… In fact, accessories are 50% of our turnover,” says Nina.
What is most amazing is that even as Baggit has scaled up, the time Nina spends at Baggit has scaled down.“I come to work only 3 days a week she says. A practice she started around 8 years ago, when daughter Vedoci was born.
Was it a conscious decision, to have a baby at the age of 36? “Well, initially I used the loop and later when we wanted a baby…It took its own time!”
And that brought with it, the unique challenge of motherhood “Having a baby kept me quite a bit away from work. So…
it was very stressful for many years. There are days you are dying to go to work but you are home bound, which I guess every working mom goes through.”
Luckier than most, Nina worked out her own means and methods of balancing out life and work. The close-knit, family-like atmosphere at Baggit allows the luxury of physical absence. Because, in spirit, you are always there.
“Everybody has their own way of working and handling people and mine was to give my people a feeling of belonging.” The proof of that sweet pudding is the fact that many who began working for Baggit in its early years – as far back as 1989 – are still there. Heading various departments, handling new and complex functions.
“It’s a passion – not work – and that’s what I also try to keep in the spirit of the whole team.”
“Meditation gives me time to introspect, to decide where I want to go, don’t want to go, how fast I want to go. Most people just keep running, running, running.
When Nina senses an employee is saturated, or bored, she changes their profile. ‘I see what kind of person they are – right-brained or left-brained. And I give people new challenges. Things they haven’t tried out.”
Last year, Baggit’s design head was shifted to the marketing department. And she’s done a fantastic job, says Nina Unorthodox methods, but they work!
Equally unorthodox was Nina’s decision to shift her residence to Katar Khadak, a tiny hamlet near Pune. Where husband Manjo has recently started an experimental school.
‘Earlier my husband was with the family business. Now he works, but not for money. He works with our Guru Rishi Prabhakarji, setting up various projects.”
One such project was Rishikul Vidyalala, a ‘holistic’ school set upon the MET campus, in the year 2002. The Katar Khadak school is the next step in that journey at discovery.
“We wanted our daughter – and other kids – to grow up in a more natural atmosphere. Mountains, fresh air, no TV, no google, no kachrapatti of Bombay. . .” 60 children from age 5 to 14 are currently enrolled in this school ‘in the middle of nowhere.’ And that’s also where Nina spends part of her week.
“I go to Katar Khadak on Saturday afternoons and drive back into work on Wednesday afternoon.” she says. Though work does continue. Mondays and Tuesdays Nina goes over reports, and gets time to think. Which is something one rarely has time for in office.
“I also observe a day of silence once in a week… that day is very important, very sacred to me.”A Journey of the spirit which began with a meditation program Nina attended with Manjo soon after marriage. Where both found their guru, and a higher calling.
“I guess in my own way I followed the path my mom chose
– of the inner search. The most important things in life for me are peace and joy – not the pursuit of money.”
A view of life husband Manjo fully supports and endorses. As he supports Baggit – at an emotional level. “Manjo’s main contribution is telling me to chill! Don’t get anxious, don’t get obsessed with KRA’s. Be in love, enjoy, laugh a lot – that’s what he’s taught me.” A good life is like a good meal – don’t put too much on your plate. Only as much as you can eat, and what you enjoy.
“Like, I’ve never obsessed about cooking,” says Nina. “I supervise it. I do it sometimes when there is nobody. But then I don’t feel I have to pack my daughter’s tiffin with my own hands.”
Similarly, Nina rarely shops for herself. If she has to buy anything even for her daughter, she sends an assistant to pick it up.
“Time is so precious!” she laughs “I only shop when I travel abroad. Because then I visit so many stores to see what are the trends, get some inspiration…” Including the idea of taking Baggit international, with its own franchise stores. And even moving the brand beyond bags and accessories.
“Recently I realised you don’t get good track pants in India. And immediately I thought – let’s start a sportswear line!” Many streams gurgle. Many paths beckon. The traveller shall rest a moment; consult her inner compass. Before deciding which one to walk on…
ADVICE TO WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS
Do what you love to do. I think that’s the most important thing – If you love doing something there is no feeling of ‘working.’ It’s not time-bound then, there is no stress.
For women, it’s a big balancing act especially when you are running the kids, home and 8 million other things that come along with it. So it’s true that many drop out, give up on their dreams.
But when you are passionate about something, you have that zeal ‘I want to do this’, then you won’t leave because you can’t just sit and not do anything. There’s a fire within you.