'I don't believe in patriarchy': Falguni Nayar, India's richest self-made woman

Nykaa

Falguni Nayar, an investment banker turned entrepreneur, has become India’s newest billionaire after floating her beauty and fashion company on the Mumbai stock exchange.

FSN, the parent company of her Nykaa brand, hit a valuation of US$13.5 billion (S$18.3 billion) in the first five minutes of trade on Wednesday, taking Nayar’s net worth to almost US$7 billion.

Not only did that catapult the 58-year-old onto the list of the country’s 20 wealthiest people, it also made her India’s richest self-made female, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Born into a family that ran a ball bearings company, Nayar has entrepreneurship in her blood. She recalled in a television interview once how conversations at home revolved around investments, stock options and trading.

After finishing her MBA, Nayar spent 18 years at one of India’s leading investment companies, Kotak Mahindra Capital, where she was managing director and head of its institutional equities business. She left the company in 2012 to launch Nykaa (Hindi for “actress”), which now ranks among India’s 52 unicorns, or companies with a market valuation of US$1 billion.

The e-commerce platform started by selling beauty and personal care products via its mobile app and website. It has since grown to become India’s leading beauty and fashion retailer, selling over 4,000 items – from exfoliation creams to lipsticks and nail polish – from 80 stores across 40 Indian cities.

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Partnerships with Bollywood actors such as Katrina Kaif and Alia Bhatt and social media influencers such as Dolly Singh (1.4 million followers on Instagram) and Debasree Banerjee (305k), have helped the company gain traction among tech-savvy Indian women.

Since 2015, Nykaa has diversified into selling garments and household products as well as manufacturing its in-house brand of beauty products. This has helped it tap a rapidly expanding market that will be worth US$152 billion by 2025 (up from US$70 billion in 2020), according to projections by Bangalore-based RedSeer Management Consulting.

“I hope the Nykaa journey – an Indian-born, Indian-owned and Indian-managed dream come true – can inspire each of you,” Nayar said at the listing ceremony, which was attended by her banker husband Sanjay and twin Ivy-league educated children, Adwaita (girl) and Anchit (boy), both of whom are on Nykaa’s management team.

Self-driven and ambitious, Nayar told The Economic Times that she did not believe in patriarchy or glass ceilings.

“I don’t think men are waiting to not allow women to do what they want. I think women have to want it for themselves. And if they want it for themselves, they will have it,” she said.

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Observers say Nayar and other businesspeople have also benefited from India’s vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem, a pandemic-fuelled shift to online shopping, record stock market listings and regulatory crackdowns on Chinese tech companies , which have led global investors to pump a record US$20 billion into Indian start-ups across 576 deals this year.

As a consequence, India’s billionaire club is expanding.

According to the IIFL Wealth Hurun Rich List 2021, India currently has 237 billionaires, up 58 from last year. Of these, 10 are women. Savitri Jindal, 71, is India’s wealthiest woman, with a net worth of US$12.9 billion. She helms the OP Jindal Group, a steel and power conglomerate founded by her late husband.

Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, the founder and managing director of pharmaceutical giant Biocon, clocks a net worth of US$4.8 billion; while Smita V Crishna, heir to the consumer goods conglomerate Godrej, is worth US$4.7 billion.

Then there is Manju Desh Bandhu Gupta, the wife of Desh Bandhu Gupta (the founder of the multinational pharmaceutical company Lupin Limited), who is worth US$3.3 billion.

Leena Gandhi Tewari, chairperson of pharmaceuticals company USV Private Limited, is worth US$2.1 billion; Radha Vembu of Zoho Corporation is worth US$1.7 billion; and Anu Aga, a majority shareholder of energy and environment engineering business Thermax, is worth US$1.1 billion.

Partnerships with Bollywood actors such as Katrina Kaif (pictured) helped Nykaa gain traction. Photo: Instagram

However, the staggering success of these entrepreneurs comes in a country where the odds are stacked heavily against women.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021 ranked India at 140 out of 153 countries. Among its findings was that women contributed just 18 per cent of India’s GDP, as opposed to a global average of 37 per cent. According to the World Bank, the participation rate of women in India’s labour forced plummeted from 26 per cent in 2005 to 20.3 per cent in 2019.

“An increase in household responsibilities and limited mobility, especially during the pandemic year, and an entrenched patriarchal culture has further confined women to housekeeping and caregiving roles making it tough for them to claim their financial independence,” said Mumbai-based sociologist and activist Dina Shroff.

Ironically, though, it is women who may hold the key to India achieving its target of growing its US$3 trillion economy into a US$5 trillion one.

According to a 2018 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, the world’s fifth largest economy could add up to US$770 billion to its GDP by 2025, simply by giving equal opportunities to women.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.