Lata Sharma and Suresh Padmanabhan, two very different individuals, working in two very different fields – but both proud winners of the prestigious IEC award. Poornima Koonath speaks to the two business leaders
The Indian Executive Club awards recognises and lauds the ‘movers and shakers’ amongst the Indian Aussie business community. On this platform businesses and business people are recognised for the work they do to enhance, improve, and facilitate business in the local Australian market and abroad. Businesses and business people from across the country send in their nominations for the various categories and this year the state of New South Wales had two proud and deserving winners in Lata Sharma and Suresh Padmanabhan.
While Lata took the top accolades in the Female Executive of the Year category, Suresh’s REACH for Training took the award for the Best in the Small Business category. The competition was tough and the selection process tougher – but they got through it with flying colours. I spoke to both these winners, who shared their journey, their ideologies and their business acumen which gave them that winning edge.
‘Women shoulder huge responsibilities’: Lata Sharma
Lata Sharma, is the ultimate master juggler who has been able to keep several balls afloat without dropping any. “I would describe myself as someone who is honest, strong willed, passionate about work, hardworking, highly motivated, helpful and most importantly being a loving mother to my children,” she said.
Lata attributes her success to her unwavering resolve to get the work done no matter how difficult it may be. Her focus was always long term, which undoubtedly is one of the success mantras of any business. Lata says that her family has always been her biggest strength. She grew up with parents who taught her that there were no short cuts to hard work and her in-laws supported and motivated her, taking pride in all her little successes, which ultimately led to bigger ones, one of them being the winning of the IEC award. But her biggest support and fan has been her partner – in life and in business – Rajeev Sharma, who she says, is not only her mentor but also her best friend. “Without his support and encouragement my journey in business world would not have been possible.”
Before ‘officially’ joining the family business in 2005, Lata worked in the ANZ bank for seven and half years. With no background in business, this was a massive move for her. While the company was competing with the existing, long term Australian giants in the home textiles/fashion industry, Lata found herself thrown in the deep end. “I learnt everything on the job,” she quipped. “I am never afraid of putting in hard work,” she continued.
Her colleagues have always motivated her to challenge herself and perform better at each stage. Business is all about identifying a gap and converting into an opportunity with a great business plan. And that is how Lata’s and Rajeev’s Golden Warp became a success. When a potential customer revealed to them he was looking for new suppliers due to his disappointment with his current one, they saw a business opportunity. “I felt inspired that we must change their opinion and offer them the best service, best product always and prove that Indians are hardworking, thorough professionals and mean serious business and will do everything possible to ensure they are never disappointed,” Lata said. That was the beginning of a business partnership that many years later is thriving even today.
Lata’s business spans across China and Pakistan too. “I was amazed to see the work ethics, the enthusiasm to do business, and their warmth. During my conversations with many, and hearing their stories, I saw that women shoulder huge responsibilities,” she said about the Chinese. Lata was quite sceptical during her initial visits to Pakistan. But she found the people there warm, friendly and very polite. She fondly recalls the time she was invited to join in the Ramadan festivities; “I have realized that people all over the world are nice. We must keep our hearts open, minds clear and the friendships we form during our journey are priceless.”
Lata does not consider the world of business to be a ‘man’s world’ any more. Though there may be family and cultural pressures, according to her more and more women can been seen emerging as leaders and role models. When asked about the magic chant to success, she said, “Perseverance and flexibility.”
While the single most important thing for her is to look after herself, her team members’, and her customers’ needs, she considers her biggest achievement to be her wonderful children, who she said “have been raised here in the true Australian spirit and in a secular manner”. “We are really blessed to live in this lucky country.”
Lata’s top tips to aspiring entrepreneurs is “Know what you do and Do what you know; Invest in the right people and build a team; Rely on your gut instincts and inner voice; Success follows failures and Have fun and be excited about what you do.”
And finally, on the wining of the IEC award she said, “It’s very encouraging to see my contribution to the business is rewarded and recognised.”
Photo caption: Suresh Padmanabhan (left); Featured photo caption (top): Lata Sharma
‘Translate challenges to opportunities’: Suresh Padmanabhan
Suresh Padmanabhan is humbled and honoured to have won two awards this year, one of them being the prestigious IEC Small Business award. Suresh said, “By winning these two awards provides us the great comfort and pride in moving forward in supporting our key target group in educating the disadvantaged Australians and similarly in the overseas markets particularly in India.” Since its humble inception as a business entity in 2001 in New Castle, REACH has come a long way. Its significant and phenomenal growth in the last 15 years has seen REACH set up offices in NSW, ACT, QLD, and WA, averaging over 2000 students across 3 States in Australia and internationally.
The growth in student numbers has been matched by the provision of approved qualifications too. While in 2007, REACH provided only seven qualifications, today it now covers 29 key sectors including Aged Care, Child Care, Disability and Community Care, Hospitality, Beauty, Hairdressing, and Tourism. Most of these qualifications feature in the Australian ‘Skills Demand List’.
The route to this exponential growth posed several challenges and the lessons learned cleared pathways for continued growth. When asked about these challenges Suresh said, “As a small organisation with a big appetite for growth and expansion, REACH has had its fair share of challenges both operationally and financially. REACH takes a positive ‘can do’ approach in the face of adversity, thereby turning the Challenges to Opportunities.”
The Global Financial Crisis affected REACH too as its target market from socially disadvantaged groups (long term unemployed / mature job seekers / new migrants)and regional communities were heavily dependent on government support for course fees, etc. “These people are unfortunate victims of a viscous cycle,” Suresh said. “Lack of formal education as well as low levels of language, literacy and numeracy skills have meant that they are not able to gain formal qualifications and therefore enter into gainful employment.”
To overcome this barrier REACH designed the Language, Literacy, and Numeracy Assessment (LLN) to assesses the suitability of the people to participate in the offered qualifications. Suresh feels proud that “by taking a people centric approach to these issues, REACH has successfully positioned itself as one of the key providers of education and training to these socially disadvantaged sectors of the community”.
REACH is a private business with a community focus. And so unlike other businesses, REACH continued to maintain its focus on the disadvantaged groups helping them get back to full employment and be financially independent. According to Suresh, “We can look back and declare that it was truly one of the most successful marketing and sales strategy.”
Word of mouth, REACH reached out, thus saving a significant portion of their operational expense. REACH also benefited when Community Groups or Job Agencies collaborated with them for running vocational training programs. The organisation has created a positive name for itself amongst both local government as well as community organisations by travelling distances and proactively working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
“At REACH, all our staff fully understands the primary role of our existence – to train and upskill people to enable them to find better employment opportunities which in turn will help them to attain economic freedom and ultimately enjoy upward economic mobility,” Suresh said.
He continued, “By providing ‘in demand’ skill training to these needy community groups and then leveraging our close associations with various employer groups such as, community services organisations, job-active providers, state/territory regional centres, industry skills councils, university, associations, Australian Apprenticeship Support Network (AASN), work placement employers and corporate business, REACH is able to link these ‘skilled’ students with employers and thereby help getting them an entry into the much elusive community called ‘workforce’.”
In the process, REACH helps reduce the rate of employment, one of the key objectives of any Government. At REACH, they call this the “REACH difference”.
REACH has always helped change a challenge into an opportunity and carved itself a niche market. Today it prides itself in being a Registered Training Organisation (RTO), who has been providing nationally accredited training and assessment services across Australia for last 15 years. It is also registered by the Commonwealth Government’s National Vocational Education and Training (VET) Regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) with RTO No: 91280. And even though it is a small organisation, REACH prides itself in acting like a ‘large company’ when it comes to its corporate social responsibility, participating in and driving key community events such as Harmony Day, National Skills Week, and Try Trade Day etc.
The key REACH mantra is “Never back down when faced with adversity. Think outside the box to translate challenges to opportunities.”