Sima Ganwani Ved of Apparel Group: “Women are better communicators”

The probability for female founders succeeding is higher simply because of the various attributes that are the key differing factors between them and their male counterparts. Women are better communicators. They have stronger networking skills and understand the importance of the latter in building a new business. As a part of our series about “Why […]

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The probability for female founders succeeding is higher simply because of the various attributes that are the key differing factors between them and their male counterparts. Women are better communicators. They have stronger networking skills and understand the importance of the latter in building a new business.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sima Ganwani Ved.

Sima Ganwani Ved is the Founder and Chairwoman of the Apparel Group, one of the largest retailers in the Middle East. The multi-billion dollar company is home to 75+ brands with over 1750 stores in 14 countries with 16,000+ employees. Over the years, Sima has been the recipient of many awards professionally and personally, some of which are The Philanthropreneur of the year, Retailer of the Year, Great Place to Work, Great Women’s Award and Emirates Woman of the Year. Sima is a member of YPO, the global leadership community of extraordinary chief executives.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was born in Africa, and my parents moved to Dubai in the early 70s when all you could see was a lot of sand. I spent most of my childhood watching my father work extremely hard to support his family back home in India. Straight after university (which I fought to go to), I started working in my family business and began understanding the nuances of retail by spending time on the floor. After marriage, I began my own retail business, since my father felt that having my brother and I in the same company would create a contentious sibling relationship. At the time this felt unjust and sexist, however, today I am grateful that he put me through this journey which taught me how to survive and thrive. I sold the gold I received as wedding gifts, which amounted to 12,000 dollars, to start our first store. Thus, began the Apparel Group.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Over the course of my career, I have learned that the best business ideas are the ones that are solving a problem. In 1996, I was in Hong Kong, buying merchandise for a small children’s wear franchise that we owned in Dubai. Being pregnant, it became obvious I needed better shoes to cope with the hills of Hong Kong. I knew about Nine West and went there to buy nine pairs of shoes (no pun intended). My husband (also my business partner) was shocked and asked why I was bulk buying. Once we realized that there was no Nine West or such international brands within the UAE, and later the rest of the Gulf, we started talking to their head offices. The first thing we had to do was explain where Dubai was on the map.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Funnily enough, I found this the hardest question to answer. I was so focused on making ends meet, or ensuring I don’t make a fool of myself, that I never stopped to enjoy the journey as much as I could have. Having come from a family of self-made entrepreneurs, the pressure to prove I was equally able to have accomplishments was just way too consuming. This probably explains decades of having an over stressed body that was always in fight or flight mode. It took learning five levels of hypnotherapy, two levels of theta healing and a 10-day life coaching course to make me realize how brutally overwhelmed I was emotionally in the last 25 years since I started the company.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

If I were to write my autobiography, it would begin with, behind every successful woman are the men supporting and celebrating her. For me, those men are my father and my husband/business partner. I completely agree with the school of thought that women possibly marry men who are similar to their fathers. Both the men in my life share their willingness to take risks, be adventurous, think progressively and of course fully support me no matter how crazy my decision may seem. Despite having an MBA, I get bitten by the creative bug every decade or so. In 2010, I decided I wanted to be a chat show host interviewing various South Asian and Middle Eastern celebrities and royalty. My husband put up a 10m x 6m outdoor billboard in the center of the city with my face on it publicizing my tv show! I love how I am allowed to be me. Before you judge me for the word ‘allow’, I urge you to explore the nuances of being a married Indian woman and living in the Gulf.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I have to be honest and say I am not an avid reader. TED talks about disruption and futuristic tech are what interest me most these days. My most recent favorites are Natalie Fratto (Vice President of Goldman Sachs) and Amin Toufani (CEO of T Labs). Both of them speak to the relevance of AQ (Adaptability Quotient). I actually did a survey, and my AQ for empathy and courage came out as super high, which, to me, seemed quite accurate.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I have had one primary idol since the 1990s. Oprah Winfrey’s voice, her honesty and authenticity has given me so much inspiration to face some of the hard truths in my own life. So, when she says, “Don’t worry about becoming successful, but work towards being significant — and the success will naturally follow!”, I am inclined to embody that. From employee welfare to mentoring to making our company enormously environmentally friendly, I have subscribed and embraced the message behind this quote. For example, getting our fast fashion brands to abandon plastic and insisting on sustainable, ethically made, organic and preferably zero waste products is a daily challenge that I battle. There is of course a constant reminder of the effect on our bottom line that comes into play from my CEO and CFO, but my efforts continue relentlessly. I believe the changes one organization makes will have a domino effect on the whole industry and ecosystem. This is where I see myself making a difference and being significant to creating a shift in our mindset as to how ‘doing good is good for business.’

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

An extremely important cause close to my heart is education of underprivileged children. I made a decision over a decade ago to always pay for the education of all our helpers’ children. Some I suggested to move their children from free government schooling to proper English curriculum schools in India. Through these efforts, I hope to give their next generation better skill sets to acquire jobs in offices rather than working as helpers.

As the top female leader within my industry, I am constantly reminding people of the need to focus on employee welfare. All our efforts are always geared towards improving the level of education of every employee who works with us. This is done through various management programs that we have created and even using institutions for our senior leadership team to broaden their horizon. The crux of it is, we believe in the power of education to make the world a better place.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I think there needs to be a tremendous shift towards creating a balanced environment with regards to access to capital, educational and internship opportunities, human resource policies (especially around maternity leave), and even the way business ideas are evaluated. Various published data and research now support the feedback that women founders and their presentations are subject to challenges and pushback (article: Why Women-Owned Startups Are a Better Bet by Katie Abouzahr, Matt Krentz, John Harthorne, and Frances Brooks Taplett). For example, more women report being asked during their presentations to establish that they understand basic technical knowledge. Investors simply presume that the women founders don’t have that knowledge.

As quoted in the same article, male founders are more likely to make bold projections and assumptions in their pitches. Women, by contrast, are generally more conservative in their projections and may simply be asking for less than men.

Lastly, many investors are male and have little familiarity with the products and services that women-founded businesses market to other women. Of course, women aren’t being actively excluded but there is a subtle nurturing of male founders that happens unconsciously through these various methods and areas of opportunities.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

To me, leading by example is the most critical way to exemplify what we stand for. I am currently mentoring both my daughters and helping them launch their first businesses as entrepreneurs. Ensuring that my 23- and 15-year-old both have our support but at the same time expecting them to do all the work is important. Within my company, we encourage an entrepreneurial mindset. Being the top female leader within the company, I constantly share my journey with peers and let them use me as a sounding board for ideas they may have. For now, I am working on increasing the female diversity in our senior leadership team, which will hopefully instill confidence in them to start their own company. We actively create annual ongoing internships for the various schools in each of our countries, which provide learning opportunities for young women. Confidence, fearlessness, asking for help and support, networking and making learning a lifelong journey are the key ways to ensure empowerment for me.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

As a female, I feel we intuitively have a 360 approach to solving any kind of problem. There are enough studies done to show significant data that supports the link between how women and girls can help break the cycle of poverty. Providing opportunities for education enables women and girls to become a force for change not just within their own families but also within the community and nations (article: 5 Ways You Can Help Empower Women in Your Local Community by Entrepreneurs’ Organization).

The probability for female founders succeeding is higher simply because of the various attributes that are the key differing factors between them and their male counterparts. Women are better communicators. They have stronger networking skills and understand the importance of the latter in building a new business. Lastly, this article explains that companies founded by women are outperforming male-founded companies by 63%, as measured by returns for investors (article: 4 Rock-Solid Reasons Women Make Some of The Best Founders by Pia Silva).

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

First and foremost, we need to acknowledge that gender inequality is not a women’s issue but a human issue.

Access to funding is key to any idea getting off the ground. I mentioned earlier that when I was starting my business, I sold the gold I got at my wedding to get the seed capital for my business. However, in the 1990s, information and exposure were limited. In this day and age of social media, I do believe there are scores of avenues available to scout the market for the perfect investor or fund that will ensure you are well equipped financially. There is a current appetite to help new companies with the expectation that it may become a unicorn.

Be passionate about the business idea you are pitching. Enthusiasm and authenticity cannot be faked. It will be easier to convince potential investors if you believe in the idea whole heartedly. When my 15-year-old wanted to launch her sustainable athleisure brand, we needed her to convince us about how doing good will also be good business eventually. The addition of the “tees for fees” products, whose profits go towards the education of under privileged children, has helped raise our ESG grading.

Societal expectations are a constant dilemma that most female founders endure in their primary years of business development. A clear conscience that allows you to be present completely at work will ensure faster success, than if there are constant internal insecurities and doubts over whether I made the right choice. So come in with a clear firm mind with absolute clarity and vision of the ultimate goal.

In the beginning of my career, sexism was present in every meeting we had. It took our partners a few meetings to understand that I wasn’t just arm candy but the actual founding visionary behind the business. So do not be disheartened if you are not taken too seriously by partners at first as long as they all realize who the boss is eventually. Getting flustered and losing control in a meeting as a reaction to such indications will only undermine your authority.

Lastly, which to me is the critical factor that will make or break a founder’s journey, is finding the right kind of mentor. My father guided me every step of the way from bank contracts to labor laws, to leases in the various growing shopping mall sector of the Gulf. Having direct access to him day and night, as well as a relationship that was full of honesty really made it possible for us to scale. He nurtured our strengths and showed us how to partner with people to compensate for our weaknesses. This enabled me to get a team together which was solid and helped us succeed for the next two decades.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would wish it was mandatory, from day one, for every school in the world to incorporate alternative healing practices along with coding within their curriculum. The children of today will be running our world tomorrow. If we can encourage them to adopt mindfulness and alternative medicine which promotes curing the root cause not suppressing symptoms, we will be building a society of individuals that are free of anxiety, depression, aggression and self-esteem issues.

Hand in hand, the technological advances now demand for the generation to come to be fully equipped with knowledge of AI. Thus, asking schools to include coding as a mandatory second language in schools guarantees us a world where all individuals will have equal opportunity to survive and thrive

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I was always taught to ask for more than what was being offered. So, I would want to meet Greta Thunberg, the teenager who became Time Person of the Year 2019 for her incredible international movement to fight climate change. Alongside, I would cherish an opportunity to speak to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. The courage and passion exhibited by these young women should be channeled into collaborative efforts by leaders like me who can help in moving the needle. I would unite their causes to create a world in which the air that we breathe is fresh, and every girl is allowed to go to school.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

LinkedIn: Sima Ganwani Ved

Instagram: @thesimaved

Facebook: Sima Ganwani Ved

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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