Today, she has overcome the hurdles and owns a chain of restaurants.
An entrepreneur by accident
I was always interested in cooking and passionate about trying out new dishes. But, the thought of becoming a business woman never came to my mind at all as I do not come from a business family. Both my parents were government servants.
But my marriage changed everything. Both the families opposed the marriage vehemently as my husband belonged to the Brahmin community; unfortunately my marriage did not work out as my husband was addicted to alcohol, drugs, etc. I could not bring him out of the addiction. As a young woman, I did not know how to cope with this and I was getting beaten up everyday.
Though my father, a very conservative Christian never forgave me, he gave me refuge when I had nowhere to go. I was thrown out with two very small children. It was a question of survival for me. I knew I should either succumb to the burden or fight; I decided to fight my lonely battle.
I did not want to be a burden on my parents. So, to be economically independent, I could only do what I knew and what I liked. I started making pickles, squashes and jams at home. I just took a couple of hundred rupees from my mother. I sold everything I made in one day and that gave me confidence.
I earned a good income. I invested whatever I earned to make more pickles, squashes and jams. It was quite lucrative in the sense, even ten rupees was a blessing for me.
The first step as an entrepreneur
My father's friend, who was running a school for handicapped children, was handing out mobile carts or kiosks to people who would employ at least two handicapped people. They needed somebody who could run it and I was offered one such cart free. I had to train the handicapped children to make coffee and serve them to customers.
As I lived near the Marina beach, I decided to put the mobile cart at the Anna Square on the Marina beach. I had seen people thronging the beach in the evenings. But I had to make umpteen trips to the Public Works Department and wait for one year to get the permission.
Finally, I started working on June 21, 1982, a day I will never forget. The previous night itself, with the help of the local rickshaw drivers, I had rolled the mobile cart to the beach. It was a small move but thrilling as it was my own and I was going to be a business woman the next day.
While such carts sold only tea and cigarettes, I decided to sell cutlets, samosas, bajjis, fresh juice and coffee and tea. On the first day, I sold only one cup of coffee and that was for fifty paise!
I was very disappointed and came home crying. I told my mother, that I would not like to continue. But my mother consoled me saying, at least you sold one cup of coffee. That's a good sign. You will do well tomorrow. And, she was adamant that I go the next day also.
The next day, I made sold snacks for Rs 600-700 which was big money for me then! As I started making money, I added ice creams, sandwiches, French fries and juices too. I used to keep thinking of adding more items.
I ran it from 1982 to 2003, and the maximum I made from that mobile cart was Rs 25,000 a day. That was during the bandh days! We used to be open from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day, and later, I started opening from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. for the walkers.
I used to personally stand there and sell all the stuff I made. I never felt scared to stand there late at night. My only thought was to prove myself and move ahead.
There was a fire in me that made me believe that I could be successful without anyone's help. I did not want to be a failure. If you have that fire, nothing in the world can stop you from succeeding.
Offer to run a canteen
On seeing my work at the beach, within a year, the Slum Clearance Board gave me an offer to run the canteen at their office with a proper kitchen. The chairman met me during her morning walk. That is how I got the offer. The canteen was a huge success.
On Wednesdays, it was the public grievance day, so about 3000 people used to come there and I had a roaring business.
I used to get up at 5 a.m. in the morning, make idlis and go to the beach. From 9 a.m. I would be at the canteen. From 3.30 p.m. I would again be at the beach cart and would be there till 11p.m. By then, I had employed people to cook, and clean, and all the cooking was done at the canteen kitchen. My monthly income in those days was around Rs 20,000.
Later, I got an offer to run the Bank of Madurai canteen, I stopped running the canteen at the Slum Clearance Board canteen. At the Bank canteen, I served food to around 300 people daily.
The turning point
One day, after a fight with my husband who used to come to trouble me often, I boarded a bus and travelled till the last stop. I got down and saw the National Port Management training school run by the Central government.
On the spur of the moment, I told the security guard that I wanted to meet the administrative officer. I met him and told him that I was a caterer and that I heard they were looking for a one.
He said, to my surprise that they were indeed looking for one as they had problems with the current contractor. I still believe it was God who took me there.
I got the offer. I had to serve three meals to about 700 students. They gave us quarters to stay. It was a new life for me. I got into the groove in a day. It was successful from day one, and I took care of the canteen till 1998.
My first weekly payment was Rs 80,000. I felt so elated having seen only hundreds and thousands till then. During those times, I was earning almost a lakh a week.
In those days, I wanted to do everything personally as I felt only then, things would run smoothly. Now I know if I train people well, they will do the work the way you want.
My connection with restaurants started in 1998 when I met people from the Sangeetha Restaurant group. They offered me a partnership in one of the units. But my son, Praveen Rajkumar wanted me to start my own restaurant and build a brand of ours.
But destiny played truant with me again. I lost my daughter, Pratibha Sandra and son-in-law road accident, a month after their marriage in 2004. It shattered me, and I withdrew from all that I was doing.
Then my son took over and started the first restaurant 'Sandeepha' in my daughter's memory. It took some time for me to come out of the shock and start helping my son in the business. Now, I am fully involved in the business. The fire to succeed has come back to me now.
Ambulance to help the accident victims
I still cannot get over my daughter's death as I did all this for my children; to bring them up and give them a good life.
What shocked me was the way the accident victims were treated by the ambulance operators. When they found that all the four in the car were dead, they said they would not carry dead bodies. Finally, somebody carried all the dead bodies in the boot of a car. When I saw the bodies being taken out of the boot, I broke down.
No mother can bear such a scene. That is when I decided to keep an ambulance on that very spot to help people whether the victims are alive or dead. It is in memory of my daughter.
Ficci entrepreneur of the year award
I started my business with just two people. Now, there are 200 people working for me in my restaurants. My lifestyle has changed too. From travelling in a cycle rickshaw, I moved to auto rickshaws and now I have my own car. From 50 paise a day, my revenue has gone up to Rs 2 lakh a day.
The 'Ficci entrepreneur of the year' award is the culmination of all the hard work I have put in over the last 30 years. It came as a surprise as this is the first time I have received an award.
Till now, I had no time to think of what I was doing. But the award made me look back and relive the days that passed by. Now, my ambition is to build my Sandeepha brand.
Advice to young entrepreneurs
Do not ever compromise on quality. Never lose your self-confidence. Believe in yourself and the product you are making. Third, always stick to what you know. When you employ people, you should know what you ask them to do.