Friday, July 22, 2011

For an entrepreneur, sky is the limit: Ambica Shrestha

Like every entrepreneur, Mrs. Ambica Shrestha gets thrilled when she sees young aspiring entrepreneurs trying to make an impact on our society despite the depressing scenario of the country. She finds them as a light at the end of the tunnel, the gleaming hopes of New Nepal.

Shrestha believes if we could change the conventional mindsets of our youngsters from being job seekers to job creators, we would not find so many young people going abroad which is why she asks young people to come out of universities not as employees but as entrepreneurs. Perseverance, imagination and positive attitude which are the essential qualities of a successful entrepreneurs have to be instilled in them. “Employee mindset tends to make your vision limited whereas sky is the limit for entrepreneurs”, shared Mrs. Shrestha in the latest episode of Last Thursdays Entrepreneurs Speak. “Besides it’s very hard to find a job these days. So instead create a job of your own, be it small but be innovative and imaginative”, she adds.

To enforce her point she provides with the examples of Min Bahadur Gurung, who opened a one-room road-front shop selling cheese, curd and bottled drinks in Bhatbhateni in 1987. Fast forward two decades and you find a giant multi-storied supermarket with a large parking lot employing hundreds of people with a brand name that has pervaded most of the households as the smartest department store in the city.

According to Mrs. Shrestha one lesson aspiring entrepreneurs have to learn from the successful ones is that hard work & determination are essential to success. Want of instant gratification not only ruins their chances of succeeding but also their life. Riches don’t come overnight neither does success. One needs to love their work invariably if she really wants to succeed.

Hospitality, IT, Travel and Tourism are some of the areas she finds rewarding and worthwhile for investing time and resources. The blessings Nepal has received from nature in the form of exquisite landscapes, the variety of species and artistic and cultural riches bequeathed by our ancestors make Nepal a heaven for tourism in her opinion. “All of that and in just within the range of ninety kilometres, Nepal is like a sandwich,” opines Shrestha.

Spain which was quite poor until a few decades ago founds its riches by promoting the things they had i.e. beaches, islands and their rich culture. Low labour costs spearheaded the transformation of Spain from a poor country into a highly industrialized economy. “Nepal can also benefit from its cheap labour and its natural resources,” says Mrs. Shrestha.

dwarika1.jpgIn a time when it’s hard to find someone who does what s/he preaches, these wise words come from a person whose actions speak more profoundly than her words. Mrs. Ambica Shrestha is the figure behind Dwarika’s Hotel, which is perhaps the world’s only hotel to be constructed for the express purpose of preserving the unique architecture and art of its culturally rich environs.

Mrs. Shrestha, educated in Kalimpong, Darjeeling, caused quite a stir with her modern ideas after she was married into the orthodox family of Dwarika Das Shrestha in 1955.Having been studied with nuns, she was too restless to fit inside mundane daily chores and stay home. She came out of her home started teaching for a monthly salary of Rs. 80, worked with USIS in 1959 and then as Managing Director of Kathmandu Travel & Tours, one of the first travel agencies in Nepal, which was started by her husband.

The travel agency proved to be a successful venture but even better venture was to come out of Dwarika Das Shrestha’s entrepreneurial mind. It all started with a jog. During his run one day back in 1952, the late Dwarika Das Shrestha passed carpenters cutting up intricately carved and engraved wooden pillars, which only hours before had been part of an old building, demolished to make way for a contemporary structure. What’s more, bits of centuries’ old carved woodwork, destined for firewood, lay amidst the rubble. To Shrestha, this was not only the destruction of something fine and beautiful, but of his and all Nepal’s ancient culture, as well. On impulse, he convinced the workmen to exchange the damaged pillars for money plus new lumber. Thus began a quest to protect his nation’s wooden heritage.

He not only bought the carvings but also hired some carvers to restore these carvings and found some young boys to work for them as apprentices. Very soon the couple found it hard to find money to pay the carvers continuously.

The duo had an American lady friend who was doing her M.A. who asked them if they could provide her with a room to sit down and write her thesis. So, Mrs. Shrestha made a room for her friend at the top of her cowshed. Her friend loved the room and was highly impressed by the old carved window that was used in the room. She invited her friends to view the carvings and soon the word of mouth spread the news. Soon, many people were visiting the room to watch the carvings. Someone suggested the duo why not build more of such rooms and hence preserve the carvings and make money as well. Mrs. Shrestha took the suggestions and let her cows go and built 5 rooms in the cowshed and her garage. Things took off and more people started coming which made the duo leave their home and rent a place for them and convert their home which had 5 rooms into a lodge. They found a Swiss lady to work as a manager.

By 1981, four years since they started the lodge, the business was successful enough for them to add another block of ten rooms. In 1991, another ten rooms were added to their lodge.

dwarikas.jpgThe hotel was doing extremely well when a tragedy struck Mrs. Shrestha’s life. Her beloved husband passed away in 1991. Undeterred Mrs. Shrestha plodded on to fulfil her husband’s dream, to use all the artefacts and build a huge hotel. Kudos to her efforts, today Dwarika’s hotel portrays itself as a mansion of artefacts, carved windows and our traditional arts allowing guests to live among the architectural and artistic beauty of the past. She preserved all the carved woods and worked hard towards the fulfilment of her dreams. When people saw her keeping the rotten woods and working too hard, they remarked telling her that she was mad to be doing so. Undeterred she worked even harder, struggled even more and travelled all over the world marketing her hotel. Her daughter was her companion during the hardship.

“We established Dwarika’s in that way. And we are very happy with what we have done. It’s now so fruitful to us. It’s not that Dwarika’s is not known all over but what satisfies is we started dachiappa”, says Mrs. Shrestha. “Dachiappa” is our traditional way of making carved bricks. Mrs. Shrestha also found innovative ways to prevent any damages to the traditional structures from earthquake. “I feel proud when I see people using dachi appas. We are rediscovering our traditions. People are now using such bricks to build their houses,” says Mrs Shrestha proudly.

Mrs. Shrestha remembers her struggling days to have been very difficult especially because of the male-dominated Nepalese society and encourages young girls of today to work very hard and break the glass ceiling society imposes on them. She believes young ladies really can succeed if they work really hard. She shares her experiences of being an outcast for revolting against an orthodox family. Mrs. Shrestha was shunned by her family for going out of home and working. But after years of working, their attitudes had softened towards her. Her mother-in-law, who had vehemently despised her for leaving home and working, later forgave her daughter in law.

Besides her hotel, Mrs. Shrestha currently works towards helping women. She has founded an international organization which helps women of over 83 countries of the world in various ways. In third world countries it works towards women development. Women are empowered through Literacy, skills enhancement and loans for starting their own ventures. She praises Mr. Mohammed Yunus who started the system of micro-credit which has sprawled numerous success stories for his act of transforming the life of millions of poor women.

As a message to the young entrepreneurs, Mrs. Shrestha repeats “For an entrepreneur, sky is the limit. Work hard, you’ll surely succeed!” in an encouraging tone.

When asked her opinion about the present culture of frequent strikes and bandas and their impact upon survival of hospitality industry, Mrs. Shrestha opines it’s the young people and all the stakeholders who should unite and protest against such strikes. She believes it’s the inaction of the good people that’s letting the strikes go on. She is surprised at how a handful of people easily hamper the daily life of the others by blocking the roads and traffic. “Don’t expect and wait for the government to set things straight. It’s your life and your country. Stop them from ruining your life,” she appeals to all of us. Shrestha states that hospitality business doesn’t just profit the top level entrepreneurs only. The profit and benefits trickle down to all the participants of the business regardless of their level. A vegetable grower or a transport service provider benefits equally like hoteliers if hospitality business grows.

Mrs. Shrestha believes young people should also work towards creating positive news about our country as today’s media seems to be obsessed with pessimistic views and news about Nepal.

When inquired, after creating one of the finest hotels of Nepal, if she has any plans of expanding it to encompass other locations and cultures other than Newari, Mrs. Shrestha jubilantly expresses her excitement about expansion. She is enamoured by the Tharu and Gurung culture and wants to create a hotel that represents their culture and arts. “But only if the situation of our country stabilizes”, she adds with a sigh.

Her concern is genuine given the fact that instability in the country has hit the young people pretty hard. Most of the young population is abroad studying or working and very few of them wish to return to the country. “But there is hope”, says Mrs. Shrestha, “If tourism develops, our country will develop and there will many employment and earning opportunities. When it happens our young people will surely return. What’s happening in India can also happen in Nepal.”

She believes tourism development isn’t possible without encouraging domestic tourism. Locals are the best resources for tourism. She proves her point with the example of Manakamana Cable Car which has been highly successful and profitable catering to the local religious devotees. There are many wonderful places for tourists outside Kathmandu, which is too dirty and terrible these days, she opines.

Mrs. Shrestha suggests clean food; clean place with originality in nature is the model that works for hospitality business. Various business models have already been tried by many and Nepal has seen many of its prominent hotels close down after the slack in number of tourist arrival. “Regardless of anything, a tourist always wants clean food and clean place to stay. “, shares Mrs. Shrestha.




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