I am basically a lover of a cup of hot tea any time. However, whenever I attend a wedding reception in a banquet hall and I see hot coffee being served by the caterers I make it a point to go near the coffee making machine to get a whiff of the fresh coffee aroma and have the pleasure of enjoying a cup of coffee…hot and sizzling! Same is the case when I go to my gym every evening for my workout. They have an automatic coffee making and dispensing machine for the members who wish to have a cup of hot coffee during a break. That the machine is mostly out of order, is another story by itself. In short, I always welcome a free cup of coffee in place of a cup of tea. BTW nothing is free. When I attend a wedding function I give the customary cash gift envelope to the hosts. My annual membership fee for the gym is quite high and complimentary free service of water and coffee is included in the fee.So?

You must be wondering why I am talking about coffee this time and who is Avni, by the way. Avni Davda happens to be the new CEO of Tata Starbucks. At first glance, Avani Davda looks like any other young person standing outside Starbucks waiting for a cup of coffee. Davda, is not a typical customer. In fact, she is head of the joint venture that brought the U.S. coffee chain to a country that traditionally wakes up to tea.

Surprisingly, she is just 34. Very impressive indeed! Success stories of women entrepreneurs and women who occupy top posts at a young age by sheer dint of their hard work and determination, have always fascinated me. Recently I happened to read a few media reports on Avni. Here are some nuggets culled from my readings:
1. She is very focused, down to earth and un-assuming person, with a deep sense of social responsibility- values she claims she has imbibed from watching Ratan Tata at close quarters.
2. She did her MBA from Mumbai’s Narsee Monjee Institute in 2002. She had gained admission to IIM Kozhikode, but she didn’t go since it was far from her home in Mumbai.
3. After she clinched a job offer from Tatas, she sought her mother’s advice on whether she should join the company. “Of course,” her mother reportedly told her. “The Tatas are honest and you are a girl, you will be working with a safe company.” Very true indeed.
4. She began as a trainee in 2002 and within a period of five years she became a General Manager. Splendid.
5. In 2008 she was elevated to the post of Executive Assistant to Krishna Kumar (KK as he is fondly called) Ratan Tata’s right hand man. Avni had not expected it at all. Her son Param had been born in 2007. She knew she could not put in the long work hours that this position demanded but a brief chat of just 45 minutes with the astute KK about life as a mother and about her understanding of the Tata Trust, helped her to decide to accept the coveted post.
6. From there she never looked back. She worked with some of the biggest Tata global ventures and finally was crowned the CEO of Tata Starbucks sometime in 2012.

Now, a little about Tata Starbucks. It is a 50:50 joint venture of the Tatas with the global coffee house giant Starbucks of USA. It has opened around 35 stores in India so far. One such outlet is quite near to my residence here in New Delhi. Initially, I had made some confidential enquiries about the minimum price of a cup of coffee there from some of my MBA students who had tasted the coffee to get a first hand experience, hinted that it was in the range of Rs.150/- to 200/- ! So I will wait till some one invites me to have my first experience there with him/her. I told my wife bout the cost of a cup of coffee in the outlet when we passed by it once not long ago, she said: ” I can serve you a cup of excellent coffee at home for probably Rs.10/- or even less!” That’s managerial economics for you.
In fact, I read an interview a media person had with Avni, sometime back on this issue and the question raised was:” Some people told us that Starbucks coffee is expensive and is not always affordable on a student’s budget. Would you consider price changes? ” Here is her answer: ” If you deliver the experience and the ambiance and the student values it, then he/she pays a value for it. If the consumer feels cheated — that the serving size is not right or that it’s not the serving size that was wanted, he/she will not come back to you, right?. I am not alienating the student population — it is an aspirational brand for them, and I think at some stage they may want to make it part of their daily habit, but at this stage maybe they think it’s not affordable because they are looking at other competitors.”
When I go to Tata Starbucks myself next time or rather first time, I will talk about this issue based on my personal experience. I recall Avni saying somewhere: ”I want to make it a meaningful brand. It’s my baby and I am nurturing it”.

I just cannot miss mentioning about a heart warming narrative about Avni’s son. Her son Param, now seven, she says, puts her in her place just as her mother used to do when she was young. Param was five and a half when the first Starbucks store opened in Mumbai. He wanted to go behind the counter at the launch but was not allowed to. Avni told him that people are allowed to go there only after a lot of training. His repartee was swift. How was she better equipped to go there than him, he asked, as she too did not cook at home? “He is my reality check. He puts me in my place,” she says. She further says her hands are full taking care of two babies -Tata Starbucks and her son.

A fiercely private person in real life, Avni knows how to get her work-life balance right. She switches off her phone after work hours, she plans her holidays and finds time to attend that first dance recital of her friend’s daughter or her child’s play dates on Saturdays. She also cherishes family vacation time. “I cherish being a mom as much as I cherish being a wife. Those two relationships are more important than work as these are what motivate me,” she adds. Very true indeed!
BTW, her husband Vishal, who is reportedly a workaholic entrepreneur, understands her need to be equally committed to her own job. “He is very calm and has strong values,” she says. What a supportive guy, no?
All this has been possible because of a caring company that gives her the space she needs as a woman, and family support (her in-laws and husband run separate businesses). Besides, her mother, who is a qualified doctor but chose to play the role of a homemaker, has always encouraged her to do what she wants to do. “I have the courage to quit the day I feel any guilt about not being able to take care of my son. Fortunately, that seems to be a remote possibility,” Davda says with a smile.

When asked the obvious question as to what does she have to say about achieving so much at such a young age? She brushes aside the question saying that Tata Group has many such examples! “Age is not an issue in the group in which leadership nuances are changing. What youngsters like us love is that we are given responsibilities with a fair degree of freedom,” she clarifies. True!

Apart from work and home, what interests her is theatre, a passion she shares with her husband. Theatre has taught her many things – teamwork, how to overcome stage fright and so on, things that have been an immense help in her professional career. Her all-time favourite character is Mark Antony from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – someone she would have loved to play. “The fantastic balance of mind and heart and the great planning and execution fascinate me. He was so loyal to Caesar, yet he did what is right for the country,” she says enthusiastically.

Once she was asked a tricky question:” Do superwomen really exist?” Her reply was indeed thought provoking: ” I believe you can achieve anything you want. But it takes courage. I have seen a lot of women give up their careers and say they just couldn’t take it. And I’ve seen homemakers who are so miserable at home, even if they give it their all, so what’s lacking is perhaps what’s within you. You can always balance your life the way you want it.”

The next obvious question shot at her was: “ Who are your role models?” Listen to her reply: “My mum is one of them, because I think she, in my view, was a superwoman. She was a simple homemaker, but she drove certain values into both me and my sister, which helped us tremendously. My mother always used to tell me whatever you are at school – the head girl, president of the school society, etc – you have to leave all that out when you come back. At home, you are just our daughter. That’s why I don’t think I have to behave in a certain way just because I have become a CEO. Work can’t overtake your personality or identity. One more person for whom I have worked for many years is a man instrumental in the Tata Group: RK Krishna Kumar. He’s a wonderful leader, not just because he’s led corporations to success but because he is as much about leadership as about giving back to the nation. And finally, one other person who has impacted my life early on in my career was Deepa Harris, the head of sales and marketing at the Taj.”

On being asked as to what would her advice be to the women out there who are mid-career or even just starting out and what does it take, she gave in interesting answer:” I think it takes commitment and passion. And I think you have to be very transparent with your family as you move on in life. They need to understand what you want out of your career and what you want out of your personal life.”

The most common question she is asked is:” What’s your mantra for success?” Her answer is indeed something for inspiring other women: “One thing I live by is that whatever industry you work in, you need to find people who have the same values as you. At the end of the day, if you feel like you are disconnected from your organisation and that you don’t believe in the same thing, then it won’t work. You can continue to struggle and put in the hours, but it’s not going to make you happy. I’ve watched various senior leaders at the Tata Group, and I think what keeps them going is not a pay cheque or their photos on the front page. There’s a certain magic between the group and them. That’s what keeps them motivated.” Wow!

Now you will tend to ask me: Why do I find her inspiring? It is very simple to answer it: (a) For becoming the CEO of a globally renowned brand at the young age of 33. (b) For juggling the demanding duties of a high profile job with the responsibilities of motherhood as a mom to a toddler.(c) For daring to break the glass ceiling and for being a role model to other young and ambitious Indian women.There!

More power to Avni and more success to her frothy and delicious cup of coffee.(As some delighted student of mine told me last week when she treated her friends on her birthday, at the coffee outlet.)
My salutes to this young and dynamic CEO!



3 responses »

  1. Eva Bell says:

    Congratulations. A well done interview! Avni is a wonderful inspiration to those women juggling a job, a home and a family. But as her son said, she doesn’t have to cook at home.

  2. Nuggehalli Pankaja says:

    Truly inspiring!

  3. Shernaz says:

    An inspiring and very well written article. Thanks for making it so interesting in your remarkable style, Broca.

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