It was a prestigious project for the company. The challenge was to manufacture such huge tanks and then fly them to Maldives, which was a logistical nightmare. Priya and her design team spent days and burnt the midnight oil to design a solution where the entire tank was manufactured in parts which were flown to Maldives and then assembled on site to make the huge tanks.
“We did a similar project for OceanPick Pvt. Ltd., a sustainable ocean fish farming company based in Sri Lanka. They wanted huge quantity water tanks for fresh water fishery. We provided them with the solution.”
The company boasts of some big names in the private and public sector as their regular customers – Unilever, for all their global requirements, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), many other government institutes and globally renowned companies.
The venture that brings out all the qualities of Priya Dakle, the innovator, entrepreneur and a true-blue professional is the educational institute that was started by her husband’s grandfather.
Shri Sardarmal Dakle, Priya’s grandfather-in-law started a Gujarati-medium school, named the Shri Sardarmal Gulabchand Dakle High School in Sanjan. Later, in 2013, Shri Maganlal Dakle instituted an English medium school named Smt. Madibai Sardarmal Dakle School.
The way in which Priya got into managing the schools has an interesting background, and, as one would see, has destiny’s hands at work.
“From 2008 till early 2016, I was an active stock trader and used to spend a good amount of time trading, when I was not working on a project at Dakle Industrial Plastics.”
“My father-in-law always asked me to visit the school to see how it was doing. While he was still managing the school, it was getting difficult for him, owing to his age. He really wished that I would start taking interest in the school.”
However, because of Priya’s trading activities, her work at her company and the fact that her son was growing and needed her attention, she always found a reason to not visit the school. Frankly, she wasn’t much interested in the school.
From December 2015, the school wasn’t performing well and there were concerns that it was becoming an untenable venture. One day, at the lunch table, Priya’s father-in-law announced that he had decided to shut down the school at the end of the semester.
This came as expected news to everyone and all family members were in agreement with the decision.
“However, even though I was okay with the decision, I could not stop thinking about why we, a successful and financially well-off family, are shutting down an institution that was started by our father? It was his dream of providing quality education to the students of the area and with this decision, we were simply giving up on his dreams.”
These thoughts wouldn’t let Priya sleep peacefully that night. Seeing her discomfort, her husband, Mr. Anand asked her why she was getting fidgety.
“I sat on the bed and told Anand that I wanted to run the school for one year! He was dumbstruck and just looked at me for a while before asking what had gotten in to me,” Priya laughs. “My son was a chess player and he was preparing for his first national level competition. The Sri Lanka project was also underway and Anand asked me how am I going to manage all of that?”
But Mr. Anand Dakle knew better than to take the conversation further. He knew that if Priya had decided, there would be no stopping her.
“Frankly, I had no plan as to how I was going to revive the school. But I had to try. I was not giving up on my father-in-law’s dreams so easily.”
On the breakfast table, she told everyone about her decision and asked her father-in-law not to announce the shutting down of the school. He was pleasantly surprised, but extremely happy. Maybe he was expecting this miracle to happen!
Priya visited the school to find that the facilities provided were excellent. And yet, they were not attracting enough students. She soon found out that Sanjan was a conservative, price-sensitive area and English education was not looked at as an aspiration.
“Most parents believed that an English-medium school was costly. Even if it is subsidised, there would be some future costs. They’d prefer to admit their wards into a Gujarati medium school against their wishes. It was a sad situation. It was more a mentality issue, one that I had to address positively and help resolve.”
Priya got to work. She got records of all eligible children from the local Gram Panchayat and sent her teachers with flyers and pamphlets to their homes, in a bid to attract admissions. She slashed fees to just Rs. 250 a month and also provided heavily subsidised school kits.
Even after a month, there were no admissions. She then decided to send newspaper flyers, but she soon found out that there were only a handful of households that regularly subscribed to the daily newspaper. How does one break into such a market?
Autorickshaw announcements followed. Because she could not get the right people from Sanjan, she got them from neighbouring Vapi. Three days of incessant announcements later, she did not receive the kind of results she was expecting.
Heartbroken and furious at the same time, she remembered her mother’s advice – do your good deeds and leave the results to God. She felt better and got down to work.
“This was a very humbling experience for me. I gradually realised that no amount of advertising is going to work and the only thing that can is word of mouth. So, I just needed to do what we did best – give a great learning experience – and students will come.”
Priya’s patience paid off. Slowly, she got 15 admissions first and by Diwali, her school had 25 kids.
Her activities like holding a free 3-day Diwali camp with extracurricular activities like dance and drawing, drew a poor response and she had to call it off.
“I had invited teachers from Vapi and had made all their arrangements from my own pocket. All I wanted was for the kids in Sanjan to enjoy some extracurricular activities. But the mindset was very regressive and I had to be patient.”
But things began to change for the school as well as for Priya personally. She was discovering a whole new facet to her personality.
“I have never denied admission to any child on account of any reason. In fact, there is a physically-challenged child whose parents came to us after all other preschools had denied him admission. I took it upon myself to not only admit the child and give him excellent education, but made arrangements to keep him comfortable. I hired a full-time caretaker who would take care of his needs. Today, the child participates in all our activities. He is excellent in academics and grasps everything better and faster than others. His parents are surprised by his abilities and progress. And looking at how he has blossomed in my school, I cannot but feel extremely proud of my team for bringing out his true potential rather than worry about his limitations.”
The teachers of the school spend extra time after hours tending to the problems of the students. If they have missed any classes, they are given extra coaching to cover it. All lost time is taken care of. This also helps parents save extra money on tuition classes and the teachers are well compensated for their efforts.”
Realising that it would be difficult for many parents to provide the means for online education, she asked her teachers to create videos that she would then send on WhatsApp to the parents’ mobile for students to watch and learn from. She also arranged offline, in-campus classes with proper social distancing for those kids who did not have access to mobile phones.
Theirs is the only school in the area that has waived off 100% of all student’s fees for the entire academic year and yet have paid the entire salary of all the staff members for the year.
“My father-in-law was extremely proud with the turnaround. And his happiness gives me the greatest joy because deep down I realised that the shutting down of the school would have made him extremely dejected. Today, I have played my part in keeping my grandfather-in-law and father-in-law’s dreams intact, while adding to the institute’s activities and scope.”
So how was the entire experience of running a venture which had purely social undertones?
“Difficult. Anand and I had been very commercial in our thinking but having to bring the school back from being shut taught me many things. For all these years we simply provided the school with financial support whenever required as we felt that is our only responsibility. But we never thought of giving our time and efforts into it.”
Priya believes that this experience was life-altering for her.
“I have gained more thoughtfulness, more empathy. I have become very aware of my social responsibilities. I feel that if I have been blessed with money and power, it is my responsibility to use part of that to make lives of as many people better, as is possible.”
“My son has gained quite a bit from this experience. Seeing his mother pour her blood and sweat in this venture, he realises that the educational institute will eventually be his responsibility and he has to take care of it, no matter what.”
The quintessential question. How does Priya balance her social responsibilities and family expectations with her professional life? How does she seek to achieve the work-life balance? What are the challenges in doing so?
“As a woman professional, it is difficult to find the perfect work-life balance. But with a supportive family and by setting your priorities according to situations, you can come close.”
Priya has a passion for cooking, and baking, in particular. Whenever time permits, she loves cooking delicacies for her family, a time everyone waits for patiently.
“There are times when we have many guests at our home. During such times, I effortlessly slip into the role of a daughter-in-law. My work hours shrink considerably but I am usually available on phone. I cook for the guests and look after their every need. I believe it is the duty of every working woman to prioritise family over work, when the time comes.”
“People ask me why, being such a forward-thinking professional, am I this conservative in my thoughts. But I wish to tell them that as Indians, ours is a culture that centres around the family. “Atithi Devo Bhava” (A guest is akin to God) is not a mere saying, it is the essence of our culture of hospitality. If you are an independently earning professional who is successful in your chosen field, you should not have a feeling of entitlement cloud your duties as a wife, daughter or daughter-in-law. Because it is the woman who binds the entire family together. If she cannot do this, all her professional achievements are a waste.”
As a woman entrepreneur, what are the daily challenges?
“We live in a strongly patriarchal society, where a majority of men are not comfortable reporting to a female boss or even talk with one. This problem is even more severe in a small place like Sanjan, where most of my work is concentrated. From government officials to parents, men have a problem communicating with me. But I believe we, as women, have to be graceful in our dealings with such individuals. We can’t run for help to our men, be it your husband or father or father-in-law, at every situation. We have to learn to handle these situations on our own. Slowly, it becomes second nature.”
How does Priya the professional unwind? How does recharge herself to come back afresh to tackle new challenges?
“We frequently go on short vacations to unwind. We take 4-5 vacations a year. These could be short trips of 3-4 days but they are extremely important to us as we have no lazy weekends since we are working 7 days a week. So we take a break every 2-2½ months.”
Apart from these breaks, Priya’s family is a great motivator and also helps her unwind.
“When we are home, the atmosphere at home is always relaxed and helps us destress after a hard day’s work.”
“Apart from my family, I am extremely close to my brother and a friend who is a medical practitioner. They are among my strongest supporters and my biggest stress-busters. When something is bothering me, all I have to do is give them a call and they’ll help me tide over any issues I am experiencing.”
As a woman professional, what do you feel are your responsibilities towards aspiring women entrepreneurs and professionals?
“If you are a woman in a position of power, you should create opportunities for other women, be it at your workplace or through any of your other activities. My factory is a stressful workplace and we cannot have women working on the shopfloor. So unfortunately, I cannot provide employment access to women in my company. However, the majority of my school staff – more than 90% – is women.”
“Also, as a woman myself, I am acutely aware of their problems – their family and social responsibilities – and I take care to help them manage it effortlessly.”
And finally, what is your message to aspiring female professionals?
“I think that being a woman, we have the inherent capability to achieve anything we set our sights on. There will be many obstacles along the way, but we can surpass them all with grace and dignity. You shouldn’t be taken aback by hindrances. You need to climb all the steps on the ladder to success slowly, steadily and carefully.”
“More importantly, earn your respect and your right to be treated as an equal. There is no point in being a rebel or having the feeling of entitlement because you wish to chart your professional career.”
“Many young girls come to me to take my advice right before their marriages. They want to learn from me what kind of questions I asked my husband before my marriage, or how I convinced my in-laws that I wanted to work. But I tell them that neither had I any demands from my family nor did I ask any questions to my husband prior to my marriage. I earned my place in my family, against all odds and with the support from my family.”
“As a daughter-in-law of a typical Marwadi family, I used to wear a sari with a pallu (head veil) for the first few years. Even when I had to drive a car or when I was asked by my father-in-law to visit the factory. I did all that with grace. Later on I shifted to wearing dresses and comfortable clothing.”
“You need to first prove that you are capable of managing your multiple roles inside and outside your home, earn the confidence and respect of your family and only then can you take the leap as a professional.”
And with that insightful message, we thank Priya for sparing time from her busy schedule. And we wish her all the success she richly deserves. We are sure that her story inspires many young aspiring women professionals to chart their journeys by managing family and work.