This husband and wife each founded a unicorn. Here are their secrets for success.
When married couple Ruchi Kalra and Asish Mohapatra decided to launch their own business together in 2015, they considered their contrasting personalities an advantage. She was the calm, methodical one who could pitch bankers and wealthy investors in plush offices; he was a go-getter salesman who’d mastered the regional dialects spoken by Indians running the country’s small- and medium-sized businesses. “We were a good package together. It seemed like yin and yang,” says Mohapatra, 41.
Now both sides of that equation have achieved a feat that only a few dozen other Indians can claim: leading a startup to unicorn status. The pair is the first Indian husband-and-wife team in which each spouse runs a business worth at least $1 billion.
Mohapatra is CEO of B2B raw material supplier OfBusiness, which became a unicorn last April when a $160 million funding round led by Softbank Group gave it a valuation of $1.5 billion. Now it’s worth $5 billion. Oxyzo, a financial services firm spun out of OfBusiness that Kalra, 38, heads as CEO, reached a $1 billion valuation last month after raising $200 million in a funding round led by Alpha Wave and co-led by Tiger Global, Norwest Venture Partners, Matrix Partners, and Creation Investments.
Kalra credits the startups’ teams for helping each company hit the unicorn milestone. “We are very excited about our next phase of growth,” she says.
That a husband and wife are both CEOs of separate unicorns reflects the rapid growth of India’s startup scene. So far this year, the country has minted 14 new unicorns, fueled by investors’ shift away from China in favor of India’s still untapped digital market. India’s rate of unicorn creation this year puts the country on pace to eclipse the record 44 new unicorns it minted in 2021. India boasts 95 unicorns in total.
“The quality of entrepreneurship in India in the last 18 to 24 months has just shot through the roof,” says Mohapatra. The couple are also angel investors and have provided seed capital to 20 startups so far. “The interest level among those who want to be startups; people who want to work for startups has really spiked,” he says.
Kalra and Mohapatra both attended Indian Institute of Technology, one of India’s most prestigious universities, and the Indian School of Business, but they didn’t meet until 2007 when they were assigned to the same real estate project when they both worked at global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. in New Delhi.
Mohapatra says it was “obvious…in a day” that he and Kalra had chemistry, but their demanding travel schedules made it difficult to date. He liked her calm and composed manner, affable personality, and knack for getting to the heart of complex business matters. She was drawn to his professional honesty, sincerity, and work ethic. After two years of mostly weekend meet-ups, they got engaged and were married in 2009.
At the time, both were focused on their flourishing corporate careers. But by 2015 they were “bored” with their jobs, Mohapatra says. He had left McKinsey to lead the consumer business and pharmaceuticals team at venture capital firm Matrix Partners, and Kalra had made partner at McKinsey. They were intrigued by the string of former corporate executives who had founded their own business-to-business firms in India, like Deepak Garg and Gazal Kalra, who launched logistics firm Rivigo, and Harshvardhan Lunia, who started digital lending platform Lending Kart.
The couple had professional contacts whose companies required raw materials, and those associates were frustrated by the industry’s tiers of middlemen, inadequate financing, and take-it-or-leave-it ultimatums. So Mohapatra and Kalra both quit their jobs and launched OfBusiness, a digital platform that disrupted the sector’s analogue way of doing business. OfBusiness leverages technology to make it easier for small- and medium-sized firms to buy industrial supplies—from metals to chemicals to food grains—and to secure financing for such purchases.
Kalra and Mohapatra started the business with three friends, Bhuvan Gupta, Vasant Sridhar, and Nitin Jain, who bolstered the founding team’s e-commerce, consumer business, and financing experience, respectively. The “clear market need” convinced all five co-founders to “jump in,” Kalra says.
Mohapatra’s former employer, Matrix Partners, provided OfBusiness initial seed capital of $5 million.
The founders drummed up their first customers the old-fashioned way, by working their network, asking for references, and cold-calling. Once they landed some initial orders for steel, Mohapatra and Gupta camped out for two days in the offices of the Steel Authority of India Limited and Tata Steel to persuade the steelmakers to supply the metal at a discount.
“In India, you won’t win business unless you are cheaper. That is why we always provide products at a lower price of similar or better quality than other players,” says Mohapatra. OfBusiness aggregates raw material orders, giving it the volume needed to coax discounts from manufacturers.
OfBusiness also helped arrange financing for clients through third-parties like Aditya Birla Finance. “But we often lost out on orders because [banks and private financing firms] would take around 20 days to approve loans. We needed to get it done in three days,” says Mohapatra.
Six months after launching OfBusiness, the pair started Oxyzo to provide loans to small- and medium-sized businesses buying raw materials. Kalra led the new finance arm, while Mohapatra was in charge of OfBusiness; they split a staff of 50 evenly.
The turning point for the companies came in late 2017 when they launched BidAssist, a tool that helped small- and medium-sized businesses navigate thousands of government and private supply tenders for goods.
“This is when customers really started coming and taking notice of the platforms,” says Kalra.
OfBusiness, now with 600 employees, turned a profit within 15 months. Oxyzo, which employs around 450 people, was profitable within 30 days. In the fiscal year ended March 2021, OfBusiness reported revenue of $1.18 billion and a profit of $19.7 million. Oxyzo reported $42 million in revenue and $13.15 million in profit in the same period. The two companies operate out of two separate offices on the same building in Gurgaon, near New Delhi.
“When we build something, it has to generate returns immediately,” says Mohapatra. “If it does not, we shut it down. That is the ethos with which we operate. We don’t do things just to increase volumes.”
Richa Agarwal, senior research analyst at equity research firm Equitymaster, says it’s “refreshing to see some profitable businesses in the unicorn club,” but it will “be interesting to see if they [can] maintain their disciplined approach while trying to expand.”
“This is a smart, young couple,” says Lloyd Mathias, independent business strategist and former marketing head of HP in Asia Pacific. “They saw an opportunity and jumped at it. It was a good move to ensure that [buyers] got the best deal for raw materials—whether it is chemicals or polymers. They were first off the block when they saw the benefit of extending financial credit to customers.” Mathias says Oxyzo may face scrutiny in coming months if the Reserve Bank of India increases its regulation of fintech, a growing sector that the central bank so far has largely left alone.
Ultimately, Mohapatra wants to turn OfBusiness into India’s top e-commerce platform that sells goods beyond raw materials, and Kalra expects Oxyzo to become a comprehensive financial services firm that offers a suite of products, from loans to wealth management. Mohapatra says OfBusiness will launch an initial public offering within a year.
Mohapatra and Kalra admit that their personal and professional lives are “very, very blurred.” They take turns caring for their 6-year-old daughter, depending on their work schedules, and say they lean heavily on supportive colleagues when familial obligations take precedent.
Kalra says fellow entrepreneurs should never be shy about accepting help from people. And couples who work together should embrace the attributes that each partner brings to the table.
“[Have] respect for the complementarity [and] love for the similarity,” Kalra says.
Both Kalra and Mohapatra have tried to staff their firms with employees who operate like entrepreneurs in their own right.
“There is a hierarchy, but everybody is hands on. It is not like I give a command and everybody has to run,” says Kalra. “They think of it as their own business.”
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