It’s not every day that one finds a soulmate and a committed business partner in the same individual. However, as recent market trends indicate, there is a steady rise in husband-and-wife entrepreneurs, who are a part of India’s booming startup story.
This Valentine’s Day, we spoke to three married couples on how they have cracked the code to successfully staying married and working together through the rollercoaster ride that is entrepreneurship.
Over to them, for their individual stories…
Shireen Sultana, 41: Co-Founder, KinderPass
Abhishek Saxena, 43: Founder, White Cloud Brands
Twenty years ago, when Shireen Sultana and Abhishek Saxena were courting, they had several shared dreams, but entrepreneurship didn’t figure among them. The proverbial entrepreneurial bug bit the consummate marketers when they were both busy climbing the corporate ladder.
“When I was in the corporate world, I realised that perception management probably matters more than performance management,” quips Abhishek. “This led me to think I’d rather be on my own, and that’s exactly how it turned out.” A post-graduate from MICA (Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad), Abhishek was eager to help businesses build enduring brands. Thus, was born White Cloud Brands in 2011, an organisation that focuses on strategic brand consultancy and services.
Around the time, Shireen, an alumna of IIM (Indian Institute of Management), Indore, was thriving in her sales and marketing role in a leading corporate, when motherhood came calling. “When my son was born in 2012, I took a break from work and became a stay-at-home mom,” she recalls. However, it wasn’t too long before she started assisting her husband at White Cloud Brands. “Our shared synergies brought me on board and gradually, the progression to my startup happened.”
Shireen co-founded KinderPass, a digital child healthcare platform, in 2019. “For me, entrepreneurship was a very natural extension of what I was going through at that point in my life,” she adds.
Although Shireen had some misgivings about working with her spouse, they were soon dispelled by Abhishek’s commitment and vision for an equal partnership. “It was a breeze working with him and ego has never come into play in all the years we’ve worked together,” she says.
Their partnership works, the couple says, as they play to their respective strengths. “We both give each other enough freedom to operate and that’s worked very well for us,” she says. Abhishek reciprocates his wife’s sentiments. “Shireen has this remarkable ability to read the room during client interactions, a quality that I have tried to imbibe from her.”
The duo also believes that their dissimilar personalities add zing to their relationship at work and at home. “Abhishek is Mr. Calm, no matter what!” declares Shireen. “Conversely, I am very impulsive and it’s very easy for me to get worked up about a client deliverable.”
So far, the couple has managed to navigate potential entrepreneurial minefields, such as finances, with equal measures faith and respect.
So how have they managed to strike a work-life balance?
“This is probably the only downside to both of us being entrepreneurs,” admits Shireen. “This area is certainly something we both need to improve upon as sometimes, there is no demarcation between work and life.”
What is impressive, however, is their commitment to keep the lines of communication open and transparent. Recently, the couple decided to set aside two nights a week for “scheduled” conversations where they take turns to share work and life-related matters. “If we don’t have these regular conversations due to our busy, stressed-out lives, the only time we might have one is when something reaches boiling or breaking point,” says Abhishek. “Then it will turn out to be an argument and not a conversation.”
The couple believes dinner table conversations centered on entrepreneurship have probably influenced their nine-year-old son, who is bubbling with business ideas of his own!
Are there any learnings they would like to share from their journey?
“I would strongly urge other entrepreneurial couples to first work on the health of their relationship and also as individuals,” sums up Abhishek. “Also, like I always tell Shireen: ‘I would rather be hated by you for something that I am than be loved by you for something I am not.’” Now, what could be more romantic than that?
Mythreyi Kondapi, 34
Suresh Susurla, 40
Co-Founders, Startoon Labs
Some couples bond over movies and others over innovation. Mythreyi Kondapi and Suresh Susurla were master’s students at IIT (Indian Institute of Technology)-Madras in 2010 when they realised they shared a common passion for building products that would solve real world problems.
“As engineers, we wanted to build innovative products in certain areas of healthcare that were still untouched by technology,” says Suresh. “Our current entrepreneurial journey is a reflection of our early vision.”
Mythreyi acknowledges that although their thought processes were aligned, becoming startup founders was not their primary career choice. “Entrepreneurship was nowhere on the horizon and I was hardly aware of it then,” she says. “We were desirous of contributing to the HealthTech sector by building world-class products and solutions in India.”
The couple held corporate jobs for several years before they launched Startoon Labs, a medical devices company, in 2017.
Once they made a choice to be entrepreneurs, they knew the journey would be fraught with ups and downs. According to Mythreyi, the trick is to divide and share work, and to support each other at all times. Suresh agrees. “We work well together since we have a lot of synergy.”
The startup founders view professional disagreements as par for the course. Their ‘arguments’ are rooted in the belief that the startup’s interests override everything else. “There is no room for ego here since we both want to build a great company,” says Suresh.
Fortunately, there was also no scope for money conflict as both partners were prepared to take a financial hit when they signed up for entrepreneurship.
Right from the beginning, the couple’s business philosophy has been to leverage each other’s strengths to make the partnership work. They understood that both of them brought significant skills and value to the business. “Entrepreneurship needs wisdom and I rely on Mythreyi for making wise decisions from a practical standpoint,” says Suresh. “She is also analytical and can assess people and tough situations better than me.”
“I may be a better planner, but Suresh is great at multi-tasking,” says Mythreyi. “I look up to him for inspiration on how to work effectively, even under pressure.”
Like marriage, good communication is essential to nurture a business. Suresh and Mythreyi readily agree that healthy communication is one of the most appealing aspects of their partnership. Honesty is indeed the best policy when it comes to life or business, say the intrepid entrepreneurs.
Since their startup journey is extremely demanding on time, how do they balance work and relationship? The couple acknowledges their personal and professional lives are intertwined and they have not known it to be any other way. “Right from the time we were studying together and to date, there has been no concept of ‘me time’ or weekends in our lives; it’s all very seamless,” says Suresh.
Having said that, Suresh tries to accommodate some downtime on Sundays to play his piano, while Mythreyi catches up with TV programs.
The husband and wife share their commitment to innovate and manufacture medical devices in India and take them to the global markets. More importantly, they remain steadfast in their commitment to each other.
Mythreyi captures the journey she has shared with Suresh thus: “First love happened, then marriage and finally business.”
Michelle Perez Patel, 43
Kaiz Patel, 49
In hindsight, serendipity played cupid and brought Michelle Perez Patel and Kaiz Patel together in the winter of 2005. Kaiz, who was running his own company in Hyderabad, was in Singapore that December to attend an international conference organised by the Mystery Shopping industry. Michelle, an entrepreneur from Manila, Philippines, was at the same conference to network. During the event, the duo chose to join the same committee that was focused on education and certification. “Initially, there were four of us, but the other two members eventually left the group, until it was just Kaiz and me who were left communicating in the chat,” recalls Michelle.
Kaiz, a Hotel Management graduate from Ecole Les Roches, Switzerland, had rich experience in the hospitality consulting industry. He had also been a pioneer in India’s Mystery Shopping industry, and was ready for new challenges. Michelle, a seasoned qualitative researcher and brand marketer, had recently launched SatisFIND, a Customer Experience company that enables businesses in service to understand their customers better.
It wasn’t too long before they found common ground in their shared vision to merge their businesses to form a single entity and expand regionally. “We thought, why be individual entrepreneurs when we can do so much more through collaboration?” says Michelle. They were also inspired to contribute to the digitisation of the industry that was weighed down by legacy systems and processes.
The passion to work together to innovate on new products and solutions fuelled the romance that had started brewing between them. Soon, the co-founders became life partners when the couple tied the knot in 2008.
“As entrepreneurs, one can look at our circumstance as a matter of luck or fate,” reflects Michelle. “Not everyone becomes co-founders first, and then a couple. It’s usually the other way around!”
Although like-minded in their larger vision for the startup, the couple also revels in their differences. In the early days, Michelle admits to taking time to adjust to their different working styles and personalities. “Kaiz is a morning person, I’m not. He’s an auditory learner and I’m kinesthetic,” she says. However, the couple learnt to tap into their respective strengths and nurture a fulfilling partnership.
Interestingly, they maintain a chart of Post-it notes on their home office wall, recording who came up with which idea or feature for the platform. “Though the ideas are for the betterment of the company, it’s our personal mechanism—our own bragging rights—that help us recognise and celebrate each other’s talents!” says Michelle.
Both are quick to acknowledge that they weed out ego by having difficult conversations about finances and other prickly issues.
It’s evident the husband and wife rely on each other to be a strong team. For Michelle, Kaiz’s kindness makes him a stellar entrepreneur. “Kindness is a quality that is so underrated but very relevant, especially in leading a startup,” she says. “When you cannot be kind to every person in your team while you are small, what kind of a leader will you become when you are running a global billion-dollar company?”
“Michelle is a reverse-thinker as she doesn’t think along conventional lines. Her ideas are not even ‘out of the box’, as she doesn’t have a box to box her in!” Kaiz quips. He adds that Michelle’s perceptive abilities and problem-solving skills have won them several clients over the years.
The couple has a pragmatic acceptance of the role work-life balance plays in their lives. “As entrepreneurs, our life is not ours alone,” says Michelle. “Every day, we carry the dreams of every team member with us and it’s such a big responsibility. You cannot measure ‘work-life balance’ the moment you step into this kind of life.”
Kaiz agrees, “Our team chose to work with us and it’s our responsibility to provide our employees that kind of work-life balance. However, as entrepreneurs, we cannot draw that line between work and life,” he says.
While juggling a growing SaaS startup, serving customers across 48 countries, Kaiz and Michelle still manage to find time for each other. They have impromptu weekly dates and bond over food and travel.
“I think she said ‘yes’ to me after I said I will cook for her,” says Kaiz, in half-jest.
“I don’t cook,” Michelle readily admits. “He’s a trained chef from Switzerland, after all! While he cooks and I wash the dishes, we still get to talk about the day’s work.”
That’s the way the cookie crumbles in the land of entrepreneurial couples.