In an interaction with Bfsinxt, Hardika Shah, Founder & CEO at Kinara Capital shares her journey from India to USA and why she came back to India and decided to start-up. She also shares how she sees risks, how her risk taking ability has changed in the past few years and an advice for young entrepreneurs. Edited Excerpts:
Q. How do you view your career trajectory? How exciting has it been for you?
Kinara Capital is my baby and it has all been very exciting and nerve-racking to grow this organization from the ground up over the last decade. I am proud that we have made it all possible, with a women-majority management team no less, and we are still growing!
My career trajectory has been very interesting and a bit unusual. At age 17, I moved from Mumbai to the USA to pursue a degree in computer science at Knox College in Illinois. From there, I went on to build my career in management consulting with Accenture. My corporate career spanned over two decades and took me around the globe, steering multi-million-dollar technology projects for Fortune 100 companies. Along the way, I also pursued an MBA at Columbia Business School and UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
The career arc I was on changed completely when I visited India after years of living away, and realized that economic liberalization had not addressed the massive credit gap in India for MSMEs, and small business owners were struggling to get access to the capital they needed because of myriad systemic issues. I had already spent time as a pro-bono mentor for over a decade at top social entrepreneurship programs at Santa Clara University, Stanford University, Columbia University, Accenture Development Partnerships and the Acumen Fund. Seeing the need for an initiative to bridge the credit gap in the MSME sector, I used my time at business school to build a new risk-assessment methodology and ran a pilot on the ground in India. The success of the pilot turned it into a full-fledged mission to become a social entrepreneur and make a real difference in the lives and livelihoods of small business owners.
After 20+ years of living abroad, I quit my job in California, packed up my life and came back to India to embark on my journey as an entrepreneur with Kinara Capital. Bootstrapping in the early days with a handful of people in my apartment, we turned Kinara profitable within four years, moved into a larger headquarter in Bangalore, opened 110 branches and today, we have an employee force of 1200 people. To date, we have disbursed over INR 2800 crores across 70,000+ collateral-free business loans to last-mile MSME borrowers.
Q. Has it been going as you had planned or was it more like you tapped opportunities as they came along?
It has been a combination of the two. I am definitely a planner. So, I like to envision a few steps ahead when it comes to solving problems like a game of chess. I had decided to make a change and plan to become a social entrepreneur after two decades of management consulting work. While moving to India to launch Kinara was a part of my plan, one must also be ready to tap into or create opportunities along the way.
For example, when Covid stalled all our business operations, we took that opportunity to revamp and consumerize our technology. Our customer audience was changing and becoming more tech-savvy so we introduced a fully digital and vernacular-friendly app at their fingertips that can take an applicant from loan decisioning-to-disbursement within 24-hours. So, you have to be ready for opportunity when it knocks and learn to create opportunities through challenges.
Q. Not intending to stereotype, but as a woman, how has the journey been so far?
Entrepreneurship is always challenging. And, as a woman, starting a company in the financial services sector, I was up against stereotypes which were baffling and even amusing at times, given that we are in the 21st century. Many have asked if my husband was on board with my plan to launch Kinara, which was always amusing to both of us. Such a question is not asked of men at all, there is an assumption they are the sole decision makers. In some meetings, the person has only addressed my COO. I was advised against having a woman CFO, since I am already a woman CEO. This type of ‘advice’ is not given to leadership teams where everyone is male.
There were certain biases and preconceived notions that I have come across which has fueled my choice to not only hire the woman CFO, but to go ahead and build a majority women-management team. Today, Kinara Capital is a fast-growth fintech company in India. I feel my leadership journey has come full circle, and now I think of being a woman leader as empowering rather than challenging, because I have the tools to break through the stereotypes and open doors for more women.
Q. How do you view yourself? more of a risk-taker or risk-averse person?
I would say I am a risk-taker. That for me means not getting too comfortable and worrying about a safety net. Instead, you build your safety net by committing to the choice you make for something amazing to emerge from it. At age 17, I flew to the US for my undergrad, back when even phone calls were expensive, and everything was on the line for me to complete my studies well.
Once settled into a job in Chicago, I made the choice to gain international experience at a young age and moved to Singapore and then to Sydney to build my career in management consulting. In 2011, I uprooted a 20-year career and a very different lifestyle to move from California to India with the full intention to see through the launch and growth of Kinara Capital. Unless you take that first step, you will not know which way it’s going to go. Do the groundwork and have all the information you need before you make a decision but taking a risk is the only way to give yourself a chance at an amazing experience.
Q. Over the years, how has your risk taking capability changed?
My risk taking capability hasn’t changed. Even today, I can go to a new place and start over if needed with the same energy and intent from years ago. What has changed, especially in the context of Kinara is that there are more stakeholders, and a different kind of responsibility so there are more voices to consider than just your own and this is also an important part to risk-taking.
Q. Where do you seek inspiration/motivation from to get going in what you want to achieve?
I grew up in an environment where the importance of hard work and education were stressed from early on. At age 16, I boarded a flight alone to the US for my undergrad studies which my parents made possible by selling their home which was their only asset at that point. This was practically unheard of back in the late-1980s for a middle class family to make such a sacrifice for their daughter. As they wished me goodbye at the airport, they reminded me to not be afraid to be bold, to be true to oneself and open to taking risks, as that is the only way change is possible. Those words of inspiration have always stayed with me.
My inspiration to start Kinara Capital also came in part from the real-life struggles that I witnessed during my formative years in Bombay. I saw that many people with entrepreneurial leanings were stuck with no access to capital to either start or grow their business. Small businesses are the real economic drivers and they have the power to transform their communities with income generation and job creation. I was motivated to create a financially inclusive world where every entrepreneur has equal access to capital.
Q. Lastly, any advice/message to young women out there trying to rise in their career trajectory be it corporate life or entrepreneurship?
Over the years, I have learnt that the ability to keep at it and to put in the hard work day in and out makes all the difference. You will be constantly questioned and judged no matter who you are and what you do, so grow tougher skin, stay focused on your entrepreneurial venture and lead with your values. It is also important to learn to distinguish between constructive criticism and negative bias.
Take on board only the advice that helps you along, not the biased stereotypes that can hold you back. Focus on your goals and seek out people, men or women, who share your values. Lastly, remember that as an entrepreneur, you have power over your choices and an immense opportunity to lead by example.