Weaving The 'Suta' Of Many Lives: Taniya Biswas and Sujata Biswas
Success comes from curiosity, concentration and self-criticism.
- Albert Einstein
Being consistent and diligent towards one's passion and goal indeed promises a bright future. A pair of ambitious sisters have come across all odds to build a name for themselves in fashion, hailing from engineering and management backgrounds. Taniya Biswas, NIT Rourkela 2009 graduate from Department of Ceramic Engineering, who went to pursue a management degree from the prestigious IIM Lucknow, became a pioneer in the arena of Saree fashion with her sister, Sujata Biswas (a CET Bhubaneswar and IIFT Delhi alumna) with their start-up 'Suta Bombay', an Indian traditional handmade clothing brand.
Team Monday Morning had the opportunity to talk to the two inspiring and charismatic entrepreneurs to know their journey to the acme, and what lies ahead.
Stay tuned to our podcast ‘Candidly NITR’ available on Spotify, Google and Apple podcasts for interesting insights from the interview!
Following is the excerpt.
Reminiscing the Early Days
Monday Morning (MM): Walk us through your childhood days.
Ms Sujata Biswas: Our childhood has been quite adventurous. We have lived in many states of the country, and that is something that helped us become who we are today. Most of our childhood has been in Odisha, but we have travelled to and stayed in West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Vizag. Our summer vacations used to be at our grandparents', in West Bengal, and that is where we were introduced to the magic of Sarees.
Ms Taniya Biswas: Because of the fact that we were changing a lot of schools, we were very close to each other, and that formed the base of our understanding and bond as co-founders. We have spent a lot of time knowing each other.
MM: Please shed some light on your path to NIT Rourkela. Why did you choose to pursue B.Tech in Ceramic Engineering?
Ms Taniya: More than me choosing NIT Rourkela, it is the institute that chose me. Apart from my rank, my parents were quite scared to let me go too far from Bhubaneswar, where we lived, and Rourkela is in Odisha, so that worked. My journey in NIT Rourkela was quite beautiful. I wasn’t really inclined towards any of the branches and thus didn’t attempt to change it. In my fourth year, I got placed in Satyam Ceramics and Tata Refractories Ltd. I chose the latter, and the work too was quite interesting. But the city was too small, and there was nothing to do beyond work. So I quit.
Ms Sujata: Even though I cracked AIEEE, I didn’t even go for the counselling rounds for NITs and IITs, but when Taniya’s turn came, I made sure she goes beyond Bhubaneshwar.
MM: What role did NIT Rourkela play in shaping you into the person that you are today?
Ms Taniya: NIT Rourkela did play a major role in my life, as the four years were the growing up years. I got to know myself better in those four years. I am a big introvert. I didn’t know I could come out of my shell before staying on the campus. My friends were my life. I am still in touch with them. I learnt a lot from my professors and peers. Extracurricular activities, being a part of Leo club, going out to teach children, just changed me entirely.
Ms Sujata: Taniya literally blossomed into a butterfly from the caterpillar that she was! (laughs)
MM: After pursuing B.Tech from NIT Rourkela, what led you to take the decision to go for an MBA?
Ms Taniya: As kids, we both were very studious. I, usually, have taken the path that Sujata took, and Sujata pursuing MBA became a big reason behind me choosing this path too.
Ms Sujata: In our family, there isn’t anyone who could constantly guide us. Although our parents were quite supportive, and always had our back, but then nobody had done so much of study or done something huge in the path we trod. After engineering, I saw a lot of my friends choosing MBA. Business always excited us, and thus I took the path, and it naturally became a path for Taniya to follow.
Ms Taniya: To be honest, even when we used to sit in the Nescafe, under the Banyan Tree, we used to think that there weren’t good restaurants in Rourkela, and so just open a good café and settle there. Such business ideas were always coming on and off, but gradually, I realized that one couldn’t do a lot in life without studying much.
Being in the Department of Ceramic engineering, my goal was Saint Gobain, but that didn’t happen and I landed in TRL, and there I realized that this wasn’t something I would want to do my entire life, so the next step was B- School. So I appeared for CAT and landed up in whichever college chose me.
The Inception of a Revolution
MM: What gave you the inspiration to start this firm? We are also curious to know the story behind the name SUTA.
Ms Sujata: The biggest inspiration was the zest to influence lives through our work. Doing jobs was not giving us to way to serve society. There were not too many inspirations as business was not in the blood.
Ms Taniya: Pointing finger to exactly what you need doesn’t happen in reality. Somewhere, in our thoughts, we were clear that our work should impact lives. We started off with things nowhere similar to SUTA, and it was not until 2016 that this company was created.
Ms Sujata: The name has a beautiful story to be told. SUTA, in Hindi, means ‘thread’. We recently got to know that it also means ‘daughter’. The name also matches the first two letters of our names combined. By all means, it got fit with our business idea, our vision and the services of the company.
MM: In search of different fabrics and skilled weavers, you travelled to different places in India. How was that as an experience?
Ms Sujata: Though it sounds very flamboyant but was quite daunting in reality. The most difficult part of the journey was to convince the weavers to work on ideas that we were to provide them. We also went through a phase of constant disapproval, usually because people did not put faith in us.
Ms Taniya: We faced the biased face of the society, which was not ready to work with two ladies because they thought two girls wouldn’t make much difference. Nevertheless, we finally succeeded, and once a few weavers of the community joined us, the whole village seemed to cooperate and began to work with us.
MM: What were the hardships that SUTA faced in its initial days?
Ms Sujata: We both have an MBA degree, but things, in reality, are not as organized as written in the textbooks. We were not from a textile background and hence lacked familiarity with most of the terms and skills of weaving. Moreover, running a company was very different from corporate jobs. Being a cofounder requires managing various sectors together, unlike the corporate jobs where somebody is present to do the thing. We lacked experiences regarding approaching the people and trusting them to ensure smooth conduct of the services. Luckily, we were visited by the SUTA customers (SUTA Queens as they call them) themselves. Once the manufacturing was on track, we began focusing on digital marketing.
Ms Taniya: Unfortunately, we lacked trailblazers to help us through the hard times. Learning from that, we openly help the students and budding entrepreneurs when they approach us with queries.
The Surreal Journey
MM: You must have worked with various people until now, including some celebrities. Please share some of the cherished experiences of yours.
Ms Sujata: We cherished spotting the celebrities at places but the biggest “WOW! Moment” was when we received a cheque from Dharma Productions. Following up, we also received orders from Anil Kapoor Productions. Many actors buy directly from us, and it is a very satisfying experience seeing them wear our sarees and commenting on it. This somehow feels real today, but two years back, it seemed just unreal (laughter).
MM: How is a typical day in your life? Is it difficult to spare some personal time from work?
Ms Sujata: Since we have a pretty big team of 100 members, the workload is quite evenly distributed, giving us some time aside from work. Truly speaking, our personal and professional life is quite intermingled. Usually, the first half of our day is spent in the office. The second one is mainly used for creating creative content. We have dinner table discussions where we discuss various strategies and focus on building our community. We care a lot about the SUTA queens, our customers. It is hard to keep our personal and work life separated since we love what we do; they both go hand in hand.
What Lies Ahead
MM: Your transformational journey from engineering to establishing Suta is quite admirable. What are your future plans for SUTA?
Ms Taniya: Reaching different corners of India, reaching weavers from different states and working with them is our underlying aim, and it would always be there.
Ms Sujata: Apart from this, we want to launch a lot of different categories and enter different areas ranging from kids wear to home decor to jewellery to men's wear. So, there're a lot of ideas. As we speak, we have around 200 projects running parallelly. It takes a lot of time when you work with the weavers because every project is so time-consuming. If we plan it now, the collection might come out after two years. That's how long the process is. We have a lot of plans, but everything takes its own sweet time.
Ms Taniya: We wanted to create a delighted place for people to work where they are happy and content with their work as well as personal lives, and they love what they do. We keep looking for that kind of person. We started with three people and then gradually we grew. When I say that we have a hundred employees and 2500+ weavers today, I feel so proud. We want this number to keep increasing.
MM: For every great idea that has succeeded, there are hundreds of seemingly great ideas that flopped. According to you, what are the most important factors behind the success of a brand or a start-up?
Ms Sujata: There is quite a bit and to be honest, it's not just about the start-up, it's about somebody's journey in life. In life, you're bound to see success, and you're bound to see sad days and failure as well. It's similar to how a start-up is. Every day there could be different highs and lows. There could be big highs and big lows. Accepting this is very important. This is one learning we must have. We should accept things and move on. Don't set a high as the biggest high or a low as the biggest low, you have to keep moving, and this is one of the things we have always believed in. A lot of times, our ideas have failed, but we never stop. Of course, we do analysis, but we don't analyse things way too much. We just let things be and take a step ahead.
Ms Taniya: We don't think over a mistake for thousand times because that would not lead you to grow much. If you ask about the success mantra, first is hiring right and the second one is following your passion. It's very easy to get diverted, or it's very easy to think that you’re going wrong somewhere like in production, operation or finance. Just be passionate and just keep in mind the cause why you started the business in the first place. These are the two things you have to follow through and through. Don't forget your mission and ambition in life.
MM: When you're building a successful business, there are two important concepts that come into the picture - marketing and branding. Which one do you think is more imperative for the success of a start-up in its initial stages?
Ms Taniya: It's like you cannot do without your ears, and you cannot do without your nose too, so you have to take care of both the things parallelly all the time.
Ms Sujata: Initially, money is something that makes a lot of difference – where and how much amount you want to spend. Marketing is the key because you sell so much, and you get so much. Marketing is like a no brainer; you have to do it. For example, if I want to go from here to some other place, I would need a scooter or even a broken auto rickshaw. It would be fine even if for some time, I do not cover it and make it appear the way I want to. As you do more work, your brand grows automatically. You need not spend a lot of money on branding because a brand can be built even without spending a lot.
Ms Taniya: Keep your focus on both these things. Both of these are critical, but marketing is a must, and the brand automatically builds up.
Ms Sujata: You need money to run your business, and you need marketing for sales to happen. Brand automatically happens, but you have to keep thinking about how to make it more beautiful every time. It doesn't necessarily mean that you would have Vidya Balan doing advertisements for you. It could be a small thing like making your page pink. Something like that could be a branding idea.
MM: Getting degrees from two of the finest institutes of the country, successfully establishing a brand and making it grow to such a level are commendable achievements. How satisfied are you with where you have reached in life today? Do you have some even bigger ambitions for the future?
Ms Taniya: About completing the degrees, I wouldn't really say that I am the happiest person ever. It's not just the degrees that have made me the happiest person. The entire journey and building this brand that is there today, impacting so many lives and bringing even a small change in the world in some way - all this has made me the happiest person. About two of the greatest colleges, I'd tell you a story from my childhood. There was an uncle of ours who would keep poking us by saying that we didn’t know the spelling of this or we didn’t know that. So, it was to prove a point that we could be successful. When we got into good colleges, we were beyond happy, but later we realised that it's not just for showing people.
Ms Sujata: Yeah, it's not the ultimate thing, but if you ask us whether we are satisfied and content, yes, we are.
Ms Taniya: Initially, I used to go wow over these degrees thinking that I would frame these and display in my house, but when you grow up, you gradually realise that these are not the only thing that matter. The journey that you have lived and the people who have made your journey beautiful and commendable matters a lot.
MM: When we are on such a dynamic journey, we might have moments where we doubt ourselves. Has there been any such moment in your lives of self-doubting or ruminating over things, just being lost and then a door opens and you kept going?
Ms Sujata: Yes, it did happen to us. It's a part of life, and this is how you grow. Those doubts are bound to come. The doubts were less for us because the burden on our shoulders was really heavy. The lives of so many weavers depended on us. It is really daunting at times. Sometimes, you feel low motivation, for example, during the Covid-19 situation, it felt like we had no light at the end of the tunnel, we were scared, and everyone was so depressed. Imagine running a company and making sure everyone gets their salary on time, giving constant work to the weavers - all of this was very difficult. There was a lot of self-doubts, and the only thing that kept us pushing was the burden, the challenge we had taken.
Ms Taniya: No matter how perfect or how successful you are, self-doubt is inevitable. A tiny part of you is always doubtful and scared. When I was quitting my corporate job, I was scared because we had been trying this business idea for two years parallelly with our jobs. However, we were showing everyone that we were quite confident about what we were doing; otherwise, people wouldn't trust us with our business.
Ms Sujata: There was one incident when our stall caught fire. We had put 80% of our inventory in it, and the entire stall was under fire, and we could only salvage 20% of the goods. That was a very low moment, and we were really doubtful that what if such an incident happened again because there was no insurance and we couldn't get out money back.
Ms Taniya: There would always be something putting you down - things, people, circumstances. In the journey of 5 years, we feel like we have completed 500 years. I feel that self-doubt is a part of life. It's always like the feeling when you enter the exam hall and suddenly ask yourself if you remember that particular formula right.
MM: You have a business partner who is also your sister. Walk us through the dynamics of keeping sisterhood alive and at the same time keeping the business running. If there's a point where your opinions do not match, what option do you choose?
Ms Sujata: This is a question that we get very often. I think this is true for every kind of partnership. To work, there has to be a balance. As sisters, since we grew together, we know each other extremely well. Another very important point that we feel very strongly is that if we had a fight, we can't take it to the bed. We finish it off the very day, hit each other if you want to. We should all follow this so that we can sleep peacefully without any burden on our heads and can wake up with a smile the next day.
Ms Taniya: This is true for every relationship – with your friend, partner, husband, brother. Following this makes your life a lot easier, and the next morning you can start fresh without any burden. It has worked really well for us.
Ms Sujata: We're lucky that we are sisters and we live together. Our support system is healthy. Fortunately, our personal lives are very sorted, and we thank our husbands, parents and in-laws for that. They just let us be and let us do our work.
Ms Taniya: Choosing your support system wisely is the key. Having your family support you at every step is quite important. Make them understand why you're doing what you do. It doesn't work all the time, but it's important.
Ms Sujata: A lot of entrepreneurs, especially women just think that they have to do everything. We are the super persons who have to take care of a number of things. In this process, we go through a lot of self-doubts. Making sure that your support system is right and telling yourself to calm down and believing that you have given beyond 100%, is very important. We tell this to each other all the time. Also, having the right partner makes a lot of difference in the business.
MM: When was the last time you visited the campus and do you still follow developments related to NIT Rourkela?
Ms Taniya: This is a very touchy question. (laughs). I have been trying for a long time to visit the campus and meet the professors, just to be around, but I haven't been able to do that. The last time when I was there was at the time of my convocation, ages back. However, I keep seeing the pictures of the college, and I religiously follow the pages that are there. I have seen a lot of changes happening. I still remember my cycling days from college because the distance from my hostel to my Department was long. I have had such a memorable part of my life in NIT Rourkela, and I miss the college a lot. I hope that I visit the college soon with Sujata. I have been in touch with professors and a lot of other students as well.
Final Words of Sagacity
MM: What advice or tips would you like to give to the aspiring entrepreneurs from NIT Rourkela?
Ms Taniya: Sometimes you think that you are so important in the world and if you make a mistake or you fail somewhere, that would be the end of everything. You keep feeling that because you think that you have reached such a stage in life but this is just the beginning. I used to self-doubt a lot back then. I lost faith in myself. It is something that every young person should keep in mind that this is not the end.
Even if I commit a mistake today, I tell myself that this is not the end. I have a lot more to do, and there's a lot more in me that I can offer. So, taking life lightly is important.
Ms Sujata: Do not compare yourself with anybody. Since you're so young, you might feel that if I do something like somebody, I will become like that person. For example, taking the pressure that if I do makeup in a certain way or cut my hair in a certain style, I'd start looking different.
Just let your life flow and just enjoy life because it is so important. If you take life and yourself so seriously and keep thinking about the next step and when would I reach there, you might miss out on this life, which is so beautiful. If I had taken life a little lighter, I would have enjoyed my life better.
Ms Taniya: If you ask us about entrepreneurship advice, we would say that following your passion is really important. Don't let anybody tell you what is right or what is wrong. We wear sarees. People used to tell us things like “what is this business you have chosen; nobody wears sarees these days”. Now, we have proven ourselves.
Don't let anybody question you. Work hard and follow your passion. Yet five years down the line, if it still hasn't worked, let it go. You don't have to hold onto your passion and keep crying with it. Work hard. If you succeed, it's good. Letting go is also very important.
Trusting people is very important. Trust people with your work because when you're an entrepreneur, you cannot do everything on your own. You might think that you're the best, and you know your business the best, but giving out your bits and pieces to others will make you grow in entrepreneurship.
We wish the two brilliant ladies the very best for their future. Team MM was glad to host them.