The Chopra family come across as a playful and sporting lot. The couple and their two daughters are elated to be shot at their rooftop garden. They happily respond to every request of our lensman. When the family is asked to toast for a shot, the women of the house pull out a wine bottle from their father’s collection and get going. The ex-Army man is slightly stunned but soon displays his chivalrous side, and plays along.
For Sabina Chopra, his wife and co-founder of Yatra, the last decade has been a hectic one starting and scaling up a company. It all started in 2006, when she was in a 9 to 5 job and their two daughters were 13 and 9 years old. Having set up his own business after leaving the Army, Aadesh encouraged his wife to pursue her dreams. “I couldn’t have thought of starting up, if he was still in the Army,” says Sabina.
Managing a start-up is always challenging and it wasn’t any different for Sabina. They couldn’t afford an office for three months and worked out of coffee shops. Three months after getting their first round of funding, Yatra moved into their first office. Sabina still recalls their first booking, which came on the first of August 2006. “We had hired 50-60 people and were sitting jobless. When we booked our first customer, we were literally screaming with joy.”
But her personal life wasn’t exactly a cause for celebration. For a year, the kids were cared for by her mother and husband. “I would come home late at night. Once I got a call from my daughter asking me when I was going to return from my overseas trip? It was only then that I realised I had not seen them for 10 days,” says Sabina.
Even some important family milestones such as birthdays were negotiable during the first few years of starting up Yatra. For instance when their younger daughter turned 10, the Chopras didn’t throw a party at home, as was the custom. We didn’t have too much time to have one at home so we decided to have it in a restaurant,” explains Sabina. “For the first 2-3 years, I didn’t have a family life. No matter what you do, you can’t blend the two lives in such a situation. I really didn’t have time for anything.”
It was only after a few years that things started to normalise for Sabina and Yatra. “It was almost 3 or 4 years before we started giving ourselves the Saturday off. We realised we needed to spend time at home,” recalls Sabina. The family finally went on a much needed break to Thailand for 10 days, almost three years after starting Yatra.
Sabina ensured that even when she was working she built a strong support system. “Till the time, he (Aadesh) didn’t get posted to Delhi (i.e. 2001), my mother lived with us and took care of the girls. Once Sabina had to travel to Canada for a month and her mother had her own travel plans. So the girls stayed with Aadesh on the field station in Kashmir. “The Army has a great support system. So the girls were looked after well for 15 days. Then I took off for a month and came to Delhi since their schools were reopening. We had lot of fun. I think I did a good job looking after the girls,” says Aadesh.
The girls were also sent to a boarding school which made them more confident and independent. To ensure that the girls find their way on their own, Aadesh did one more thing. “I ensured that the moment they turned 18, I sent them to a driving school and gave them a car which made them really independent.” Sabina feels that a skill as simple as driving, too, can be a great teacher. “Driving is a lot like life where you are constantly learning to become better at it. Initially you may hit a few bumps but then you sail through. They hated it initially. But I told them nobody is going to drive you around.”
The couple believes that this different upbringing with exposure to the Army way of life, has transformed the girls into independent adults. When Megha was looking for a job, the couple ensured that she found it on her own. “That’s when she learnt that life is not so easy. We didn’t ride on anyone’s success. We are self-made That’s what we want them to be,” smiles Sabina. From someone who built her own company from scratch, no one knows it better than Sabina that there is nothing better than the sweet taste of success.
What is your most memorable milestone about your child’s development?
Sabina: I was against sending them to a boarding school. But Arsha, who was 10 then, was hell-bent on experiencing the hostel life and Aadesh also felt it was best for them. She was very confident that she will handle things. But I remember in the very first letter she wrote — she said, “Mom, you were right, boarding school life is tough! I trusted dad. You should never trust a man!” It was so funny I can never forget it.
How did you choose their school and college?
Sabina: I studied in the Convent of Jesus and Mary, so I sent them there, but then I realised the school hadn’t evolved that much. So that’s why we decided to send them to Sanawar. As for college, they are very practical in these matters. They value money — so they analyse things like how much was being spent on the course and how long it would take them to recover the costs. My eldest daughter said that if I land up in the top 10 B-schools in the US I will go but she couldn’t.
What was the harshest punishment you have given them so far?
Sabina: During the little one’s 12th Boards, she would always be on the phone. So Aadesh took her phone away for two days. Feeling bad, he went to give her the phone back. When he walked in, he found her talking on the phone! She had another phone with a new SIM card. I can’t forget that incident. Aadesh was like I am not being able to sleep out of my guilt and she has already got another phone! If they were not back home from a party by 11pm, they didn’t get to party for the next one month. Not that we didn’t want them to enjoy but there are safety issues in Delhi.
How did you deal with their teenage years? Anything specific that stands out
Aadesh: The younger one especially, was very influenced by some friends who she felt had a lot of freedom at home. So I encouraged her to meet their families and observe them carefully. She quickly understood she had it much better than her friends. You seldom understand and appreciate your own family, the grass is always greener on the other side.
Sabina: I was in office and got a call from a friend saying I saw your daughter in a car with friends, outside the DLF Emporio Mall. It was at 12 in the afternoon and she was bunking school. I was in office and got furious. How do you deal with such things — but we did not do much about it, because it was all a part of growing up.
An instance that made you realise you did do well as a parent after all...
Sabina: My daughter had gone for a reunion party. The kids there were experimenting with hash brownies. Not realising what it was, many girls ate them. Megha called us right away! This incident made me believe that our children implicitly trusted us.
If given a chance to start over, is there anything you would change?
Sabina: Maybe we could have focused a little more on their extra-curricular activities.
Aadesh: I disagree. I think, within the resources and time we had, we did well.