Bhagirath Jalan had wanted to join Ascent Foundation in 2016. But then, the platform created by Marico founder Harsh Mariwala to help entrepreneurs learn from each other’s experience, only had chapters in Mumbai and Chennai.
“I couldn’t travel to Mumbai once a month, as was mandated,” says Jalan, who runs his family’s Dindayal Jalan Retails Private Limited from Varanasi. Members of Ascent Foundation are divided into various groups and meet every month to discuss, debate and share experience on varied issues concerning business.
The wish however remained. The Foundation, which had started in 2012, was highly recommended to Jalan by SC Mishra, a retail industry veteran who had worked closely with some of the sector stalwarts, including Kishore Biyani. In fact, Jalan had worked in the Future Group in Mumbai, after doing his MBA from Cardiff University. A year later he went back to Varanasi to join the family business that is among the biggest retailers in Uttar Pradesh.
“It is difficult to openly discuss about your business with others here in Varanasi,” said Jalan.
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The opportunity, ironically, came in April this year, even as Jalan, like the rest of the retailers across the country were trying their best to minimise the impact of COVID-19. Ascent Foundation had gone virtual, and was now inviting applications from across the country, not just in Mumbai and Chennai where it ran local chapters.
Jalan joined in April. His Trust Group – as each group is called – has eight entrepreneurs from across the country, and from varying sectors. “The good thing about Ascent is that you don’t ask or give advice. But we learn from each other’s experiences,” says Jalan. The members range from the age of 25 to 46 years.
Richa Kanoi, founder of fashion boutique store Bombaim in Kolkata, agrees. “Someone else’s experience may not directly connect with my experience. But you can adapt it to your own situation and that helps,” says the entrepreneur who joined Ascent in May.
Kanoi, who also manages fashion designer Rahul Mishra’s flagship stores, was earlier part of another leadership community that is well-known in India and overseas too. “But that only had members from a particular set of society. I like to meet entrepreneurs from varied backgrounds, because the experience is richer,” she says. Her Trust Group has members from industries such as pharmaceuticals, stock market, travel and logistics.
These experiences are good tidings for Ascent. Since it became virtual in April, the Foundation has added 113 members. “It is probably the fastest we have ever added,” says Archanna Das, who joined Ascent Foundation as Associate Director in 2015. “In total, this year we have already added 151 till November 2020, as compared to 100 in the whole of 2019, ” adds Das, who now is Head of Ascent.
The experience and the addition of members will please Mariwala, who has been trying to scale his initiative, but with mixed results. In 2018, Moneycontrol had written how the veteran entrepreneur had rebooted Ascent, and wanted to take it beyond Mumbai to Chennai, and then to other parts of the country.
“When we saw that members in Mumbai and Chennai were meeting virtually, we realised that this can happen nationally,” says Mariwala. Ascent changed gears, reviewing and re-designing its processes including those for interviewing and on-boarding new members. Also, instead of the once-a-month meeting that lasted for three hours, the members now meet every fortnight for 90 minutes.
Not just that it has helped get more members, even the present ones have also stuck around. For instance, Mohit Mehta is from Hubli, Karnataka, but has been part of the Mumbai chapter for two years, traveling to the city once a month to attend meetings. But now, despite the travel restrictions he continues to attend.
“The bonding is great. My colleagues in the group even offered to come down and help manage my business when I and my family were down with COVID-19,” says the third-generation entrepreneur who runs a steel trading business. Ascent, he says, has helped him scale – adding Rs 100 crore in the last two years for a topline of Rs 300 crore – and he has learnt to delegate responsibilities. “Now I have time to think about further expanding,” says Mehta.
For Ascent too, the learning has led to new inroads, and the timing has been important. “Businesses across India have been impacted in the last few months. Among our members too, depending on the business, they have faced challenges related to leadership, cash flow, legal and event mental health among employees,” says Mariwala.
While the trust group meetings helped members exchange notes, webinars were arranged with subject experts. “We underestimate the strength of online,” says the Marico chairman.
The impact will now be on Ascent Foundation’s annual event, the Conclave, which has also gone virtual this year. From being a single-day affair with eight sessions, this year the event – to be held later in November - will have 17 sessions over four days. “We have former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan addressing us from the US. This wouldn’t have been possible earlier,” says Mariwala.
Participants will join in from across cities, both in India and overseas, including from Agartala, Ludhiana, New York, Dhaka and Singapore.
Mariwala now wants to use the momentum to further ramp up Ascent. While he has talked about the 1,000-member target before too, this time it sounds more within reach.
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