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From Nothing To A ₹10 Crore Turnover: Hairstylist Ambika Pillai’s Success Story

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By Ambika Pillai:

I was heartbroken when my ex-husband (my divorce had come through around the time Kavi was three) decided to send Kavi to Bangalore to study, stating that I was not capable of providing her with a stable life.

It was somewhere during this time that I met Rakesh, aka Rocky, at a party, and he totally swept me off my feet. He pursued me like nobody had ever done—sending me flowers, taking me to the fanciest of places. I, however, wanted to be absolutely sure that the person I now married would give my daughter and me the stability we deserved. It was after four years of relentless pursuit that I gave in and agreed to marry him in the hope that my life would now change. However, the fun and laughter he brought into my life wasn’t meant to last. He was heavily into drinking and gambling. There were nights that he would never come home. It was as if the four years we had spent together were a complete lie. There was zero stability. It was over in no time.

If I thought that this time around I at least had a career to fall back on, even that was not to be. I learnt from a trusted source that money was being pilfered from the business that we had so painstakingly set up. I had given so much of myself to the business that I was absolutely heartbroken. However, on starting to notice the discrepancies myself after this tip-off, I decided to call off the partnership. The fact that I wasn’t even returned my initial investment made things really tough for me. Kavi was back with me by then and this was a time when I didn’t even have enough money to buy bananas for her. My first entrepreneurial outing had backfired and how!

One day, when I was walking down a street, I happened to bump into Harmeet Bajaj, a fashion choreographer who knew me from my salon days. She asked me if I was available to style some models’ hair for a show. It didn’t take me a second to reply in the affirmative. Surprised, she asked me if I needed to consult my diary for the dates, not knowing the tough financial situation I was in. Anyway, I went on to do the show, for which my work was very well appreciated. There was no looking back from there.

The next big show I remember doing was with fashion designer Hemant Trivedi, for which I flew down to Mumbai. After styling the hair of the models, he asked me if I could do their make-up too. I had no idea how to do make-up at the time, but gutsy as I was, I said yes. I asked for some advance payment to buy a make-up kit, telling them that I was not carrying mine (when, in reality, I didn’t possess one). Having asked the models which make-up shades were doing the rounds then, I ran down to pick up the necessary stuff from a local shop. Needless to say that when it was time for Hemant to see the first model whose make-up I had done, I was awfully scared. To my luck, Hemant found my work brilliant and I was on the road to success. One thing led to another, and I landed the role of doing Aishwarya Rai’s make-up for the movie Taal. I remember Karan Kapoor (Shashi Kapoor’s son) calling me up and ensuring that I was sitting down before he broke the news to me—I had won my first IIFA (International Indian Film Academy) Award for Make-up. Till today, this award remains special for me.

Somewhere along the way, I set up my own salon — this time in the rented accommodation I lived in, with a friend as partner. Unlike the last time—where I had put in all the money and a whole lot of effort, but I was only a shadow of my partner—this time around, it was a source of immense pride for me to name the salon ‘Visions by Ambika’.
During the initial period though, the going was far from easy. I remember how I had to sell my jewellery to pay my staff their salaries for six months. However, at the end of six months, the salon started doing brisk business. From doing the make-up for one bride in six months to doing dozens of brides a day, we were suddenly the talk of the town. People had to call for appointments; the waiting period was as long as three months.

However, I still hadn’t learnt my lesson. It was around the time Kavi wanted to go to Parsons School of Design in New York to study, when, for the first time, I asked to see the books of accounts. I realized that they were in a complete mess. So much so, that although I recalled doing the make-up for twenty-two brides out of the 180 that walked into the salon on my birthday, the books showed that only two brides had come in that day. I had clearly been cheated yet again.

Devastated does not even begin to describe how I felt that day, especially because I believed I had let Kavi down. Eventually, she had to apply for a student loan when all my life I had worked only to secure her future. The drama that unfolded when I confronted my partner was something else. I was threatened, got pushed out from my flagship salon and literally had to start all over again, this time with loans hanging over my head.

Nonetheless, I stood up once again, and worked day and night to set out on the path to recovery. With my determination and god’s will, I have twelve salons today, with a total staff strength of over 200. This, after having started out with a single salon that had a staff strength of six. Today, I also have salons in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram, and I am close to my roots again.

I take great pride in the fact that my daughter is now fully involved in the business; in fact, I am looking forward to taking the back seat now. My passion currently lies in making my own herbal products as I find the process therapeutic. I have often taken many of these herbal scrubs and face packs I make to the Fashion Weeks and have given them to the models. If I could have my way, I eventually want to turn the entire salon into a chemical-free zone. Actually, I have already taken the first step in this direction. My herbal range of products called ‘Kaytra by Ambika Pillai’ is slated to hit the market soon.

If you ask me what my biggest learning as an entrepreneur has been, it is that one cannot just sit back and look at the creative aspect of business alone without worrying about the financial aspect. I believe that handling money doesn’t come very easily to creative people sometimes and we are happy handing over this responsibility to someone else. Fact is, we need to be far more astute financially—this is the only way we can safeguard our own interests.

Excerpted from “Millionaire Housewives: From Homemakers to Wealth Creators” by Rinku Paul and Puja Singhal, published by Penguin India.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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