“It may seem unusual coming from a woman, but gender biases never bothered me, not even back in 1993, when I started the business of manufacturing bread. If people had doubts or reservations about my abilities, or of a woman to flourish Harvest Gold as a brand, the problem was theirs, not mine. I worked like a horse with its blinders on, oblivious to any gender stereotypes around me,” says Taab Siddiqui.
The owner of the leading bread brand, Harvest Gold, she embarked upon this journey with her husband, Adil Hassan, 25 years ago and created what pretty much every household in Delhi/NCR begins its day with.
As I talk to her, I’m taken aback, not just by her approach that vehemently personifies perseverance and resilience, but also by her outlook towards every obstacle that came her way, which she particularly talks about with an air of nonchalance, like they never itched her, ever, even if it meant going door-to-door to sell her goods and people responding by slamming the door in her face. Here’s a round-up of my discussion with the lady who has quite literally earned the breadwinner tag, and how!
Asma Zaidi: Being the founder of one of the best and highly renowned bread brands in India, what inspired you to take the leap in the first place? What triggered in you the determination to create a product which was not exactly unavailable in the market?
Taab Siddiqui: The story is simple, just full of a lot of passion. My husband and I chose to venture into the breads’ industry, as firstly we really wanted to start something of our own; and bread was a good option because it had become a de-licensed product, just when the Indian economy was opening up. Also, wrapped in wax-paper, Britannia and Modern were the only other options that people had. So, there certainly was potential in our decision to establish something similar, yet unique. We realised there must be more people like us who were looking for some good bread to begin their day with.
AZ: What were the challenges you faced in your journey? Did you at any point feel that some of the obstacles you had to encounter, were, in any way, because of the deep-rooted gender biases that exist in our society?
TS: Honestly, my goal was unidirectional, to be the best in the industry. Challenges were many, but the ones I paid heed to were those that had to do with manufacturing, delivery and other technical hiccups, none gender-related, I just chose to ignore those. I never really paused to think that anything could hinder my progress, particularly unwarranted societal biases.
What helped me also, was that I had a very supportive family, particularly very supportive in-laws. Having said that, my decision was never really left open for questioning. Even if there were objections, I honestly never paid attention to them. We had put in all our money into the business and we had to make it a success, we didn’t have a choice there.
Most of my clients were small retailers, kirana shop owners, basically 99% men, and mostly very conservative. I don’t know how they were perceiving my abilities or my work, but I was totally oblivious to their mindset. Gender equality is the very foundation of our organisation. We have the same pay scale for the same position, doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman. Of course, we take care of our women employees’ safety and we ensure they don’t have to be at any potentially unsafe place at odd hours, but their growth would never be hindered here. A woman is as good as a man, if not better.
AZ: You started off at a time when social media was unheard of. What was the marketing strategy for your product?
TS: We didn’t really have much money at the time we started, but we started building the brand much before it was required. It was the period between 1998 and 2000, the concept of multiplexes had just started then. People mostly looked at the back pages of Hindustan Times (HT City) and Delhi Times to check out movie show timings. That’s the space I targeted to advertise my bread, and the strategy worked because we came in the limelight, through the right route. That is when people started noticing us more, and that’s when we started the Bakwaas Advertising First Class Bread campaign that ran for 7 years.
AZ: Starting something new, a nation-wide known brand altogether, can be hard and often discouraging on account of the hurdles that can come your way. Could you tell us of any particular incident when you felt you were on the verge of giving up?
TS: Never (a vehement response). Can’t give up on something that is your sole goal. Just manufacturing bread by itself is a challenge because it has a very small shelf life. I have had doors slammed in my face, retailers have told me upfront to go away. I’ve even ridden on trucks to ensure my bread reaches everywhere I could take it. The mindset of an entrepreneur is how you knock out all the challenges and troubleshoot them.
But yes, what did become a major hurdle was what happened in 2016, when a baseless rumour, that there was Potassium Bromate in bread, started spreading like fire. ‘Bread mein zeher hai’ had become the talk of the town. The entire industry was affected adversely, we suffered major financial losses and lost so many of our key customers, without being given a chance to speak on the matter.
The media continued to sensationalise the rumour further, and we were only left helpless. Eventually the controversy died its own death. But we had to run from pillar to post, convincing people that if this bread is safe for our kids to eat, then it’s safe for yours too. The whole controversy was so unnecessary and the nuisance value of that was very high. To regain the same trust was a herculean task, but we managed well.
AZ: Did you at any point feel that you were compromising on your personal and family life to be where you’re at today? How did you maintain the balance?
TS: There definitely are times when compromises have to be made. I’ve had to spend very long hours at work, and yes I couldn’t spend all the time I wanted to with my two daughters. But this is a reality that they grew up with. I took time off for the first three months after my first daughter was born. But for the next four months after that, I had to leave her in Aligarh with my parents, and I managed to visit her only over the weekends.
Of course, it was a tough call, but there was no choice, because I knew I wasn’t in a position to be available for her 24/7. I didn’t have a choice but to put in long hours at work. So what needs to get done, needs to get done. It had been two years into the business when my elder daughter was born. Harvest Gold turns 25 this year. So it was pretty much my first baby and it was entirely up to me as to how I could maintain the balance, and I would like to believe that my kids feel that I could do justice in both these aspects of my life.
AZ: In the age of startups, what advice would you give to the young, aspiring entrepreneurs of today?
TS: I have only cliches to offer but all those cliches are so true, all that taught me so much and everything I swear by. You can’t get bogged down by adversities and you most definitely cannot give up on your dreams. There will be challenges, always, but when you start something, you only do that with complete faith in yourself, and you cannot let anything waiver that.
It’s important to fail at several steps. Failures are very important, as long as you learn from them. Of course, if you keep repeating the same mistakes then you’re just stupid. But every misstep is a step in the right direction and every day is a work in progress. Also, never let other people’s thought process become your problem because there will be many ready to pull you down.